I preached in chapel at Iliff this morning, and share this sermon with you. The texts are Isaiah 58: 6-12, and Romans 12. Blessings to you.
Today, of course, is Valentine’s day, the day we celebrate love in all its red-tinged, lace-edged, warm-fuzzy glory, the day we are encouraged to tell the ones we love that we love them, with flowers and hearts and chocolates and diamonds, 50% off at the very special Valentine’s Day sale. And while there is a place for this, for celebrating the love of partners, family, and friends – believe me, I’m a romantic, I love to tell my beloved how much I love her, and those of you who know me at all well, know I NEVER turn down chocolate – there is a place for this celebration... and yet we need so much more.
Let your love be genuine...Bless those who persecute you...do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly...do not repay anyone evil for evil...if your enemies are hungry, feed them...do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
That doesn’t really sound much like the world we live in, does it? Everywhere we turn, there’s so much anger, so much hatred. On TV, radio, the editorial page, in government offices...even in our churches...even, sometimes, here at Iliff. In general, in our world, we don’t debate, we fight. We drop bombs, literal and metaphorical, on those we disagree with. We would rather tear down in the service of our own rightness than build up. Suggesting that we love our enemies will get you laughed right out of the room.
Paul’s world was a little like that...and worse. After all, this was an imperial culture which worshiped domination, which cared little for the vulnerable, which punished dissent with torture and execution. More than once in this letter – and others – Paul criticizes Roman culture as idolatrous, violent, perverse, ruthless. Paul himself bore the scars of a violent empire on his own body.
His world and ours are not so different. Both are profoundly mired in the violence of word and deed, and both are in desperate need of love, a love that is a deep care and compassion for the frailty of the human heart; a love that recognizes the pain inflicted by systemic injustice, a pain which leaves all humanity broken; a love which builds up rather than tears down, which heals rather than harms; a love which gives room for lament and grief, and for hope and joy, all at the same time.
Let me tell you a story about that kind of love. Canadian James Loney is a Christian Peacemaker Teams member who was kidnaped with 3 other CPTers in Iraq on November 26, 2005. This is part of his story.
[On December 29] the captor we called "Junior" declared he was going on a suicide mission. He mimed driving a car full of explosives up to an American Humvee, and BOOM! Pointing first to himself and then skyward, eyes rolling piously, he said, "Jenna [heaven]. With my mother, my father, my fiancé." They, along with his best friend and one of his sisters, were killed when the U.S. bombed his house in Fallujah. Then, pointing to the earth and spitting, he said, "America."His intention to use his young body as a weapon disturbed me profoundly. I racked my brain for some way to break through his bomb-proof, God-blessed, necrophiliac logic. I wanted him to know, right in his body, how good, how beautiful he was, how much God loved him.
On New Year’s Eve, while Junior supervised our morning exercise and bathroom routine, I brought him a chair, pointed to it, then pointed to his shoulders and mimed massaging them. He often complained of neck and shoulder pain. He took the chair, eyes wide with surprise.
My thumbs and fingers searched through the network of knotted muscle and spasms that had colonized his back. I could feel him melting into the chair. Something told me he had never been touched this way.
[March 22, 2006]: We were unhandcuffed and rotating through the bathroom in preparation for bed, Harmeet, Norman, and me. Tom had been separated from us on Feb. 12 – 39 days before. Though we feared the worst, we lived with and accepted our suspicions just as we did our handcuffs, our chains, the ongoing theft of our lives.
Junior held out his right forearm and pleaded, "Come on, Jim. Massage. Massage." I was sitting on top of our communal bed and Junior sat cross-legged in front of me. Despite my reluctance, I complied. It’s hard to say no to a captor. As I kneaded his forearm, he released a torrent of woes: no mother, no father, no house, no marriage, no children, no job, no money to fix the clutch on his car. He explained in body language that the pain in his arms was from his day job, using a high-powered rifle to shoot American soldiers. He seemed on the brink of despair.
"What do they say in Canada about suicide? Is it okay or not?" Junior asked me. "It is haram [forbidden]," I answered, "by Esau [Jesus]."
"Good," he said, "just like Islam." He looked at me, pointing his finger solemnly at his own chest, and said, "I no [do] suicide. Suicide no good—haram. I [get] married. I [become] father."
Junior locked us up, turned off the light, and left the room. That was my last encounter with him. The next morning Britain’s Taskforce Black busted us out. Junior and a second captor fled before their arrival. Just as we were kidnaped, so were we freed, in the time it takes a general to snap his fingers.
I find this story profoundly moving. James Loney was willing to see Junior as more than just a captor; he was willing to see Junior as a young man in pain, pain that needed tending to. And in tending to that pain, James helped Junior transform, even just a little, from one who thirsted for the vengeance of the suicide bomb, to one who refused suicide and instead began taking small steps towards life.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil...If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. I know what you’re thinking...these are incredibly extreme circumstances, and James Loney must be some kind of hero. I could never do this. But the truth is, we are confronted with the same choice every day. Do we point a finger, or do we reach out a hand? Do we remain in our comfort zones, or do we associate with the lowly? Do we use words as weapons, or do we speak a word of kindness? Do we create more division, or do we try to build up? Do we curse those who tick us off, or do we bless them? Do we call everyone from the President of the United States to the guy who turns left on red a string of bad names, or do we try to live peaceably with all?
We know where our culture comes down on these questions. It’s every person for themselves, winner take all, I’m the decider, lead, follow, or get out of the way, my way or the highway.
And in Paul’s time, it was Caesar’s way, or a statue of Caligula erected in your synagogue, or a sword to the neck, or a crucifix. And yet, Paul says, "do not be conformed to this world." This little community in the seat of the Empire is called to be something different, called to choose a different way. Paul says that in the face of hate, we must choose the good; in the face of violence, we must choose the way of peace; when all around us the world very much wants us to do the opposite, we must choose love.
This is HARD. And Paul knows it, because he picks the toughest image to describe genuine love: Feeding the enemy. Imagine! Sometimes it’s hard enough just to pray for our enemies, but feeding them? Wether you think of it at the literal pull-up-a-chair level, or the imaginative I’ll-harbor-a-space-for-your-humanity-in-my-heart level, it’s tough. Because feeding our enemy means getting close enough to our enemy to know that they’re hungry. Feeding our enemy means getting close enough to our enemy to know what they’re hungry for. Feeding our enemy maybe even means getting close enough to set a place for them at the table. Feeding our enemy means loving them, harboring in our own heart the frailty of their heart, harboring in our own heart the possibility, the hope, of their transformation...and ours.
Because that’s really what it’s about, isn’t it? Our own transformation. Isaiah gives us a beautiful vision of the kind of community that God calls us to be. But that community requires our own transformation: When we begin to act in love, then healing springs up quickly, then light breaks forth. When we begin to act in love, then the ruins around us begin to be restored. When we begin to act in love, genuine love – to which the prophets attest, which Paul preaches, which Jesus lived – genuine love, we become like a watered garden, a spring of water whose waters never fail. This is the promise God makes when we use our God-given power to love.
Oh, we need this love. Love that is not just happy sentiment, but hard, deep love. We need this love that risks even touching, even feeding, the enemy, those we find hardest to love. Like James Loney did. Like we can do. Imagine it.
Who is it that we find hard to love? Who is it that we cannot imagine letting close enough to be at our table? Maybe its some figurehead in the government, or migrant workers, or "liberals," or Iraqis. Maybe it’s someone in your family. Maybe it’s a congregation member. Maybe it’s an Iliff student, or staff member, or professor. Maybe it’s the person sitting next to you. Maybe it’s me.
Imagine that person.
Will you love them?
Will you love me?
Will I love you?
Will we harbor a place for each other in our hearts?