On December 1, 1955, an African-American woman by the name of Rosa Parks got on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat to a white person, which ignited a year-long protest of the public bus system that threatened the transit system’s entire financial operation.
The following year, a federal judge ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.
In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, African-American boycotts, sit-ins and peaceful protests of segregated businesses ended up in an overflow in the city’s jails and thrust into the American spotlight the problem of segregation.
Soon after, the businesses took the White-Only signs down.
That same year, August 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led his most famous civil rights event, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where as many as 300,000 people gathered at the nation’s Capitol in which King’s message advocated racial harmony and economic rights for African-Americans.
In 1964, segregation had officially ended in the United States.
While February marks Black History Month here in the United States, and these examples of historic Black events certainly commemorate the monthlong observance, I especially want to point out the way history — not just Black history, but a significant part of this country’s history — was changed.
And it’s certainly appropriate to acknowledge in institutions throughout the country the heroic plight of our black brothers and sisters, but it’s just as appropriate to talk about the way all oppressed people are treated — not just in this country, but around the world — and especially, how we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are expected to respond to injustice.
Today, we close out our four-part series called #blessed, in which we’ve been working through the Sermon on the Mount to help understand what God’s true blessings are in our lives.
We’ve found, along the way, that blessings aren’t always just these wonderful shiny presents we receive, and they aren’t always even what we pray tirelessly for.
We’ve discovered through the Word that blessings come with a responsibility.
That we are given these blessings from God and we are required to multiply them.
To plant seeds.
To nourish others.
To help one another.
To stand in solidarity with the oppressed.
Today, as we just read in Matthew 5.28-38, we are also taught how we are to retaliate to our oppressors and the oppressors of our brothers and sisters.
And I can’t help rewinding in my mind all those grainy black-and-white video tapes of Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, Chicago, Washington D.C., New York City and so many others where it was a message of nonviolence that made the most dramatic changes.
And so here we are today, listening again to Jesus deliver his famous Sermon on the Mount while we are in the middle of such tumultuous times in the world, in our nation and maybe in our personal lives as well.
Love your enemies is the message Jesus tells us.
Love your enemies.
So who are your enemies?
Does anyone here have real enemies?
Maybe you do — I truly hope that you don’t, but I understand this world. Sometimes we have enemies.
What does Jesus mean when he says to love them?
Well, like I said a moment ago, this is the Sermon on the Mount. It’s early in Jesus’s ministry, and we’re about 100 miles north of Jerusalem, and Jesus’s disciples number just four — Peter, Andrew, James and John.
And there is a crowd gathered around Jesus as he teaches.
And this whole time, Jesus has been teaching in these juxtapositions — have you noticed that?
Feel free to go back to the beginning of Chapter 5 to see how Jesus talks about all these opposites — the thises and thats — and he flips the traditional thinking on its head.
It’s the meek who will inherit the earth — week one.
It’s the proud who won’t see the kingdom of heaven — week two.
And there’s no need to take oaths, your word is good enough — week three.
And so in today’s reading, Jesus tells us these:
Do not use violence to resist an evil doer;
Turn the other cheek;
If you’re asked for your coat, give your cloak, too;
Go the extra mile;
Don’t refuse any beggar.
Jesus takes it a step further:
Love your enemies; and
Pray for those who persecute you.
That seems difficult, doesn’t it?
Some of us, if not all, have been deeply hurt by others.
Some of us have been abused physically or mentally or in other ways.
Some of us have been bullied.
Some of us have been oppressed for a host of reasons.
Some of it continues.
Surely, those are the enemies, are they not?
How do we respond to them?
For Martin Luther King Jr., he relied on Christ’s teaching.
Was there violence? Yes, absolutely. But was it violence for violence? No.
The response to him and millions of African-Americans turning the other cheek was oftentimes violent.
But they did not raise their fists.
And it was through those outstretched arms that Martin Luther King Jr. and all — blacks and whites — who fought for equality and freedom from persecution changed the world.
In Jesus’s day, the persecution was coming from the Roman Empire, which had taken over all of Judea.
The Romans could do whatever they wanted to do with no punishment or recourse.
They were infiltrators, persecutors and clearly, the enemy.
And what does Jesus tell the Jews? Do not resist with violence.
Does that mean do not resist?
And that is the difference.
We tend to see Jesus as a pacifist. And in most regards, that would not be true.
Jesus does fight back.
Not with his hands, but with his words. With his mind. With his actions. And with his heart.
We see that image of Jesus being scourged and beaten before being nailed to a cross.
We see him chastise Peter, who defends Jesus with a sword when Judas turns him over to the guards. Jesus tells Peter to put down the sword.
But we also see Jesus flipping over tables and kicking the money changers out of the temple courts.
And we see Jesus utterly humiliating the Pharisees and Sadducees — even calling them names like “evildoers,” “brood of vipers,” “Snakes…”
Those are fighting words…
Still, in all cases, no violence is projected toward another person. No blood is shed. No bruises.
But is it effective?
In each case we’ve seen Jesus lash out against the elite and privileged, radical change occurs.
Without Jesus’s retaliation, the Church — capital C — wouldn’t have been built and as big as it is today.
Think about it: At least one-third of the world follows Christ’s teaching, and many more are and have been influenced greatly by Jesus Christ.
But look: Instead of fighting with violence OR fleeing into passivity OR indifference, the true choice that gets results is in what Jesus is demonstrating.
Did you hear that? It’s not just our action of fighting with violence; it’s our inaction and passiveness that allows violence to proliferate.
Are we participating in systems that crucify others?
Mass incarceration? Housing discrimination? Economic racism?
This has been happening in our country, right under our noses, for decades.
Are we doing anything to change that? Or are we inactive about it? Are we passive?
Jesus doesn’t mince words in his teachings; we will be judged on our actions and our inaction.
Imagine this: All your life, you’ve practiced love and prayer and nonviolence. You’ve been kind and righteous. You have not been an enemy to anyone else, and you have no enemies against you.
Then, upon standing in front of Jesus at the end of your life, he asks you:
“…but why didn’t you do anything about the homeless people who needed food or a place to sleep?”
“Why didn’t you stand with your sisters, who clearly haven’t been treated equally?”
“Why did you stand by as policy was written to oppress some of my children because of their skin color or beliefs?”
I’m not going to lie to you — we will be held accountable for this — Matthew 5.20.
Again, Jesus calls us out to call out injustice.
Jesus repeatedly publicly shames those whose positions are privileged and those who oppress others actively and passively.
This is an example of how we are to live.
Jesus — God incarnate — tells them you will NEVER see the kingdom of heaven, no sir.
See, God wants us and them — all God’s children — to be happy.
Violent retaliation and retribution don’t get us to happiness.
They are temporary responses that only bring more pain.
And our inaction brings pain.
The future and now
In the second part of this reading, we also hear Jesus tell us to not only refrain from violence against our enemies, but to actually love our enemies.
Now, what do we tell our friend who as a child was sexually abused by a family member?
What do we tell the victims of the Holocaust, of the genocide in Rwanda or in Syria — happening right now as we sit here?
What do you tell the young Middle Eastern family who yet again can’t rent a house in the city because of the color of their skin — even though they are American citizens?
Love your enemy, your persecutor, your oppressor, your rapist?
See, this is the hard part, isn’t it?
This is where the rubber hits the road, or the theology is put into practice.
I have an enormously hard time with that, and I’m sure you probably do as well.
Why is that?
I don’t necessarily need to exact revenge.
I really don’t need an eye-for-an-eye…
Like with forgiveness, I want my oppressor to know the pain that I’ve suffered at their hands and through their actions.
But I know I have to let that go.
Not only because Jesus tells me to (although that’s good enough reason on its own);
But because I simply am not free until I let go of that chain that I’ve shackled myself to with my enemy on the other end.
Jesus tells us to let go.
How do we do that?
Does he say “here are three easy steps you can do?” Just turn, walk away, forget about it?
He invokes something bigger, better… Something supernatural.
Love and Pray.
Love and Pray.
Love and Pray.
These are in and of themselves supernatural.
What happens in Love?
Sure, you can give me formulas for chemical reactions and endorphins and science, sure.
But that’s simply how we observe it.
What happens in Love?
Love heals, doesn’t it? It secures. It transforms. It creates. It forgives.
I recently watched a video interview with the Rev. James Lawson.
He’s sitting on his front porch talking about the man who killed Martin Luther King, who was his close friend.
That man was James Earl Ray.
Lawson quickly began visiting the murderer to befriend him.
He said this: “I did not see it as something apart from the love of God, or the love of Jesus.”
They became friends. Lawson forgave Ray. Lawson became Ray’s pastor.
And when Ray was dying, he asked Lawson to perform his funeral service. And Lawson did.
Love is supernatural.
Love is from God.
Did you hear that in the Lawson quote?
“I did not see it as something apart from the love of God, or the love of Jesus.”
That’s supernatural love.
In other words, we cannot love like that without God.
And prayer is the second thing Jesus tells us.
“Pray for those who persecute you,” Verse 45.
We simply cannot pray without God, can we?
Who would we be praying to?
Prayer is our conversation with God — with the divine, the supernatural — who is there to hear our prayers always.
Truly, the only way we can change someone’s heart is through God.
We cannot do it ourselves. We need supernatural help.
And we have it, just for the asking.
That’s how we change the world.
If that does not resonate with you, you’re missing such a huge part of how much God loves you.
He tells us not to discriminate in our love or in our prayer.
Just as Verse 45 tells us: “…he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
There is no discrimination: Jesus wants us to model that.
What is it to love those who love you? That doesn’t change the world.
The Gospel does not command hatred toward anyone, even one’s enemies.
It’s not just love thy neighbor (Leviticus 19.18), but love everyone in imitation of God’s indiscriminate love and life-giving mercy to all, both good and bad.
This does not mean we condone abuse or violence. Don’t miss that.
We will not tolerate it, and we will speak out against it no matter the cost!
But we love and we pray.
Love and pray.
Love and pray.
Two things we cannot do without Jesus’s example.
Two things we cannot do without the supernatural.
And isn’t that right there the blessing?
What reward is there?
We are blessed with this ability to be blessed and bless others.
And flat-out change the world through Love and Prayer.
Two things we cannot do alone.
The blessing is that we can’t do this alone. These are both relational.
We get God to help us, to be in communion with us.
And to do what?
Verse 48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We can become perfect.
Jesus says so. God wants us to. The Holy Spirit will help us.
That is the blessing. The reward is that the world will change.