*Thanks to conversation partners Howard Kim & Trecia Reavis and scholarship by Cate Anthony, www.ecfvp.org/vestry-papers/article/1034/call-out-cultures-shadow-side, Reverend Laura Everett, www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2023/04/21/beyond-boston-strong-equity-laura-everett, and Www.enfleshed.com
I was at a local spot this week writing/rewriting/sitting with this topic of “Loving Our Enemies,” the current sermon series we are in. And I was trying to call forth some wisdom, “good news” that might offer us all some hope in territory that feels hard and often times absolutely impossible.
And as I was sitting there this young waiter came over, maybe 20 years old, and he asked me, “oh, are you just here working?” I mean maybe he was questioning what I was actually doing (because I had been there for five hours at that point) and I said
oh yeah, I’m trying to write something about ‘loving your enemies
And immediately he said,
oh I have an enemy
and he pointed at this person across the room.
And I was like,
“oh wow – look at that!?”
And he jumped in,
“yah, you know I dated the head barista here for a while…”
And I thought – do I put on my pastoral hat here – or just stay in customer mode…?
Turns out they are the same thing… because I said…
“Ooooh, tell me more…..”
“you know – I don’t know – I don’t know I dated this girl – she left for London over a year ago – and we kind of ended things… and I don’t know if this girl got jealous about our relationship? But it’s been a long time – and she is still making me an enemy – she’s just really mean, says harmful things about me… but I’ve got to make money to go back to college….. So I just give her space..”
So I’m going to talk about the importance of space today in “loving our enemies.”
The necessity of space – for us to feel, for God to move, the potential in space – for our enemies to change/grow/repent – space for love to be possible.
We have so much capacity as humans. This wild, wild capacity to love so fiercely and so deeply and also this wild, wild capacity to so fiercely hate and destroy.
We love, we hate. God calls us to love our enemies, and we love to hate our enemies. And yet there is a lot of space between those two ends of the spectrum – where a lot of complexity resides, complexity that we often snuff and cancel out.
And I went back to my past self at that cafe, I re-read past sermons I’ve written on this topic of “loving our enemies.” And I was like *dang* those were good sermons… and the stories, the wisdom, the practical invitations still are true….
Part of me was hoping those past sermons would hit just the same today. – that I could reprise one for today. But the tenor feels different than even a few years ago – the tenor and state of our nation, the tenor and state of my heart. The impatience, the eagerness, the rage, the waning energy to keep calling out the evils/the enemies in our day to change our world, to make it better…. All the fundamental components seem to be the same… but it feels different, *amped.*
That was part of the not-so-great feeling of reading my past sermons. I shared stories that were from years before…
- 1) where we had major friction with our neighbors – and realizing today it’s the same if not worse.
- 2) I shared a story about my brother refusing to marry Scott and I saying “God wouldn’t bless our marriage.” The sting is still there… and the impulse to throw it in his face and say, “Hey! Look at us now – 22 years!! I guess somebody BLESSED us!” that impulse is soooo strong and live it makes my heart pound even now.
And all those old sermons started with the intro, “and today we are more fractured than ever… more divided than ever…more polarized…”
And I wonder, “are we getting better?” Maybe – I should say, “am I getting any better at loving my enemies?”
Well you are in for a meandering sermon my friends, because I’m still actively living my way into those questions! But today we’ll take a stab at how to love our enemies…with the help of the prophet Jonah, some consideration of this term “cancel culture,” and the space we all need for, and to love.
Jesus thank you that you are unhinged, reckless, risky in showering us in your love – in finding the soft spot of our hearts… and flooding it with grace and mercy and beauty… when we don’t want to find it… when we can’t feel it. .. .
Cancel Culture/Call Out Culture
Part of the beauty of these days is that we can call out our enemies – their destructive behaviors and words all at our fingertips… from our couch, our cars, our desk – wherever we access social media.
*and I’m not about to go on a diatribe about how bad social media is – there are pros and cons – both of which I participate in.
And really we’ve been able to publicly “call out” injustices forever but today the ease by which we can practice this is more accessible, more immediate, and potentially more permanent…. and destructive.
In favorable ways the platforms of social media have allowed more marginalized members of society the ability to ‘call out’ – to seek accountability and change – particularly from people who hold a disproportionate amount of power, wealth, and privilege. Celebrities, politicians, public figures, etc..
I’ve been helped so much by my wise niece, Cate who is an Episcopal priest and has written publishable thoughts on calling out & cancel culture. She says,
“calling out” has the potential to reclaim and redistribute power in systems previously unbalanced.
In this way, call-out culture is a kind of “cultural boycott” which refuses to amplify enemy-voices of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism and more. This practice is central to the growth/creation of a more just, safe, equitable world – and it hangs on the belief, the hope, the prayer (perhaps) of the redeemability of what was previously not o.k.
And yet, in all of its potential – we find that social media also risks a kind of dehumanization of those with whom we interact on such platforms. Rather than calling out in order to improve relationships and society, call-out culture transforms into cancel culture. Intention transforms, too: rather than boycott voices of oppression, cancel culture seeks to cut out real people whose opinions, ideologies or identities are not in line with our own. We turn in some ways – in the opposite direction of the thing we really want – and cancel human beings. Cast them out – as irredeemable. Unchangeable.
This has a kind of allure and in many cases has become an acceptable/default way that we regard and relate to one another in our actual lives. And this is where I want to really focus today. “Our initial desire to redeem what is broken – twists into excising what we deem as broken (flawed, different, wrong, bad) – from relationship and community.” –
Cate Anthony Out of sight, out of my mind, out of my heart.
The functionality of cancel culture uses shame, isolation, zero space as tools. And they are pretty effective punishments. But I’m not sure they bring about the accountability, change, repentance, the redemption we really are seeking.
I want to invite us to look at the story of Jonah – I hope a) it can help us feel ok about being human and b) it can help us feel thankful that God is God. And maybe help us navigate where we are at with our own enemies…and how to value space to run, or to sit – physically, emotionally, spiritually – might be more effective than canceling our enemies.
We are going to pick up the story here where Jonah is finally going to Nineveh as God had told him to do but it comes after this wild little journey Jonah takes. Where he is pretty clear from the get-go – that he does. Not. want. To. go. and God is pretty clear about well
‘you do have to go’
and there’s tossing of the seas, and a few nights in the belly of a fish – and then finally Jonah walking about this big city of Nineveh to call them out for their wickedness and deliver a message of God’s impending judgment.
And wicked the Ninevites were! Now Jonah and his people were part of ancient Israel and the city of Nineveh was known at the time as the “bloody city,” the capital of Israel’s greatest enemy, Assyria. Assyria was the imperial force of the day, and the Assyrians were horrible, brutal, and they kept their empire together by way of extreme terror, barbaric cruelty.
You would think that maybe Jonah would be up for delivering this message of God’s – declaring judgment and destruction – to his enemies… but Jonah is like,
“no – nope, there’s no way I’m doing that!”
I don’t know about you – but if I was directed by God, with God’s backing to go to my enemies and say, “Guess what? The time has come you wicked, bad, horrible people you are all going to pay!” I don’t know – I would be ALL OVER THAT! It’s kind of what my day-dreams are made of!
But Jonah initially runs in exactly the opposite direction away from Nineveh.
And only semi-reluctantly finally delivers this rousing eight-word message to Nineveh,
“forty days from now Nineveh you’ll be destroyed!”
And here’s how the rest unfolds:
SCRIPTURE | RUN & SIT
Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
When God saw that they, (the people of Nineveh) had put a stop to their evil ways, God had mercy on them and didn’t carry out the destruction he had threatened.
This change of plans upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. I knew how easily you could cancel your plans for destroying these people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive because nothing I predicted is going to happen.”
The Lord replied, “is it right for you to be angry about this?”
Then Jonah went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under as he waited to see if anything would happen to the city. And the Lord God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah’s head, shading him from the sun. This eased some of his discomfort, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant.
But God also prepared a worm! The next morning at dawn the worm ate through the stem of the plant, so that it soon died and withered away. And as the sun grew hot, God sent a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than this!” he exclaimed.
Then God said to Jonah, “is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”
“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”
Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. And a plant is only, at best, short lived. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?”
- And that is the end of the book of Jonah!
And we see here Jonah run and Jonah sit and I want to talk about those two things – because Jonah is angry.
OOOoooo Jonah is angry! Angry! Angry!
His primary anger is not at the actions of the Assyrians or Ninevites – his enemies – but it is at God.
And his primary reason for running – is not to avoid God – but try to make sense of a God who is merciful, gracious and loving to his enemies.
“I knew it! I knew you would be kind.” AAAAGGGHhh! I knew that you were a compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. But why, why, why show that to my enemies?
“GOD – we want “our” people to live – to be safe. NOT THESE PEOPLE – who have done so much harm, destruction. Come on DESTROY, PUNISH, CANCEL them – before they destroy anything else!”
I mean – “right on, Jonah!” He is in full on anger mode-
“I hate this. I hate you, God. I hate these people. You should have mercy on me – by killing them. All of them. And everything… except this plant. I like this plant.”
And God leans in, and is like,
“Cool. Cool. Cool, Jonah. You want to tell me more?…. Do you think it’s right that you’re angry about this?”
It’s an interesting question – kind of an infuriating question to me…
I remember when I was telling my therapist about “the absolute rage I had about this really hard season with my neighbors… and she said,
“you know Ivy, anger is a secondary emotion..”
And I replied with such shocking maturity,
“you know Ivy.. me ehe ah eheh. You know what’s under this anger – more anger, another layer of anger, and anger and anger… I would run to the opposite end of the earth to convince you of how much anger I have….”
– and of course she was lovely and let me run all over the place and all over myself… and the space to do that opened up all these questions I had
- “What does this mean about me – can I love?”
- “Did I listen?
- Should I try again?
- Should I apologize?
- And if so, for what?
- Will they apologize?
- Will they mean it if they do – will it change anything?
I think Jonah allows us to see that “running” might just be the way to make some space to sift through yes – emotions – but also the spiritual, ethical and human questions loving our enemies likely brings up for us. And to see that jumping to quick destruction – or even to jump to quick ‘forgiveness/love/mercy” – might cancel the space we need.. And what we most need to hear within ourselves.
Jonah needs the space to think about all this a kind God, people who destroy… He has to work through what that means. And when we do that it is like walking into a storm – and it is likely we will be tossed around by the reckless waves of God’s love. Because Jonah’s realizing the complexity of what it is for God’s love to truly be for everyone – enemies and all. And that reality – if we are honest – is enough to make us sick to our stomach sometimes.
Sometimes it’s ok to run.
Sometimes it’s ok to not rush towards forgiveness.
Sometimes it’s ok to make space.
Sometimes we need the space of the belly of the whale – as sticky and messy and dark as it can be – to find out that it’s normal to have no empathy for those who destroy our communities, our people, our safety… To even wish them harm. And to wrestle with that reality in ourselves.
To realize that doesn’t mean we are hate-filled people – but we are heart-ful people.
This heart-space is not to be condemned but should be listened to.
It’s not to be covered up – it’s to be exposed.
It’s why I love God asking not once but twice – this very therapy question,
“tell me about your anger…”
Anger and pain need space, an ear, and a “route to re-connecting with life in the midst.” (enfleshed.com)
It’s where we can wrestle with all that it means about God and us and our enemies – if we love them. God destroying or loving Nineveh raises a lot of questions for Jonah…
“If God destroys Nineveh – then would it mean Israel would be safe forever more?
If the repentance of Nineveh is real – is it enough to turn the whole of Assyria around?
Are the lives of those repenting in Nineveh worth more to God than those who would suffer and be killed under the Assyrian empire?
Is their repentance real – will it last? Will change stick?” (Www.enfleshed.com).
These are the questions that can surface – and it’s important that we try to wrestle with them.
Here’s the thing about cancel culture… it allows zero space. There’s no room to run in opposite directions, there’s no shade, no shelter, no grace = there’s no checkpoint of someone asking, “Hmmm .. I wonder why you are angry about that?” No space for you to wrestle and question – and no space for the offending person to figure out if they are capable of more than the sum of their offense…. No room for growth/change, mercy, or forgiveness.
*Now for some of you – it’s not healthy or safe to make that space … and boundaries are essential… or if you are a marginalized person it likely is not your responsibility to make that space…*
.. but somehow, someone has to make that space…
In part social media removes space because it is an effective vessel for instantaneous – reactionary – the-stakes-are- all-or-nothing-scenarios. And very large, complicated social issues get condensed into truncated sentences, short TikTok videos or a photo – and reduces the complexity of human nature into quick categories – ones that fall as swiftly as the punishment – ‘you are all good’ – or ‘you are all bad.’ You are to be praised, you are canceled. You are on my team. You are my enemy. The stakes are high – and the space is minimal.
The waiter I had at the cafe the other day – said
“I make space for her.”
And what he meant was physical space – they actually have different routes that they follow in the restaurant – enough space to – acknowledge that each other has real fundamental needs to work and that to blow up the restaurant might not work in their favor – a subtle recognition that somehow they are connected – that their life is tied to one another and they both need the space.
Jonah wanted his enemies to stay his enemies.
I think I deeply believe that it is important to love your enemies. I think I deeply believe that it matters to live and work in such a way that humility and graciousness allow us to see the image of God in the other person. I think I believe that it matters to have face-to-face conversations even if they are hard.. I think I believe that “listening” to one another can transform.. I think I believe that to love your neighbor – even if they are your enemy should matter.
- But after living next to our neighbors for 17 years now. I’ve come into a season where all indicators point to,
“Nope. nope. That doesn’t seem to be how it’s playing out here.”
And let me tell you – this sounds dramatic – (maybe like Jonah) – but it feels like part of me is dying as I wrestle with what it is to no longer want to engage, and feel like it’s impossible to love my neighbor.
I just want to keep them my enemies.
I just want to cancel them.
And so I have done my share of running and sitting – what does this mean? That this core belief – of my faith – but also just as a human being does not seem to work?
Where since October I’m literally going in the opposite direction coming and going through my side door because to risk facing people that I feel have been mean to me and my family over a long stretch of time – makes me feel sick.
And to face the fact that I know God loves them – and their kids, and their grandchildren, and their pets – which of course objectively is good – but lived out, sucks the actual life right out of me.
Jonah goes to the east side of the city and sits. In part I think he waits to see if God would just send a sideways lightning bolt to the city just for him….come on, God!
And we see him sit with the reality that God is gracious.
We see him sit with the reality that Nineveh is a brutal enemy.
We see him sit because he’s tired…life drained right out of him.
It is so risky and so tiring to extend possibility, nurture, care, to our enemies. Ones that have inflicted harm and oppression and suffering for a moment , for years, decades, all of history. What, if anything, is left of our beating hearts is meant to keep us alive – and honestly canceling other things that come against that precious heart-space is very compelling.
Jonah is tired. So weary of violence coming at him and his people every day.
We are tired of the evil that prowls – tired of the fear of it – the fear of ringing the wrong doorbell – or pulling into the wrong driveway and getting shot.
Tired of hearing as my friend Reverend Laura Everett said,
“that we’ve gone through a “racial reckoning” and a “Me Too” movement – when there’s still so much to be resolved.. Tired of being through COVID, nationwide protests over systemic police brutality, collective psychosocial trauma of thousands dead, and an armed assault to overthrow our democracy.”
Our empathy can feel worn out.
Tzvi Abusch (Brandeis professor and scholar of ancient Near Eastern texts) says that,
“Jonah is just no longer in a state where he can empathize with humanity.”
And I think God knows this and embraces his time of sitting. Sends him a plant. A plant that is then killed by a worm. Life and destruction. And somehow Jonah can see it, and feel it through this plant – more than he can for the people of Nineveh.
Which allows God to teach this object lesson – that
“destruction can not be the only tool for change – because it will affect us all.”
This plant is destroyed – and you are so angry about it you want to die – it affects you – there is interconnection everywhere.
see – Jonah – “yes” there are 120,000 people that are in spiritual darkness – but there are living animals in this city, there are babies and toddlers walking the streets, there are people who disagree with the oppressive powers, there are people who are resisting building the empire… there are trails of connection everywhere.
We can’t just broad strokes wipe out and give up on humanity – –cancel culture shames the person into realizing their individual beliefs aren’t always acceptable, but it fails to make the space where the person can learn (if they choose), why those beliefs are problematic and hurtful. Which ultimately allows the hateful ideology behind cancellable offenses to exist unchecked -and amplifies an environment where contempt, disgust and the very ‘wickedness’ we are trying to call out – instead grows wickedly out -of-control. And maybe that affects all of us.
It’s why I think God withholds judgment at the slightest sign of repentance – God creates space.
*God’s call to Jonah and to us is to not destroy too quickly.
It’s why the only thing that God cancels … is God’s own plans to destroy.
God cancels plans for destruction. God doesn’t make a habit of canceling people. It’s a risky, risky move of God’s to give Nineveh this space because the story of Israel and Nineveh is not happily -ever-after. Their repentance was temporary – their wickedness grew. Israel would be destroyed.
If we step in to do the judging/canceling what we risk is succeeding at canceling the presence of not only “our enemy” but we cancel the presence of the divine the one that we too, very much rely on to survive.
God is interested in helping Jonah’s heart remain supple – one that doesn’t abandon the living God. God is as interested in that as he is interested in offering life to a whole city. God knows that ensuring that Jonah finds his own way back to a life worth living …
“is inevitably a life that values other life.” (enfleshed.com)
So God runs with Jonah, and offers grace in a whale – and God sits with Jonah, and offers grace in a plant. And the grace of God meets Jonah in those spaces…. So that we can extend space with grace to our enemies too.
The book of Jonah ends with God’s mercy. And Jonah’s silence.
Jonah’s silence to me isn’t a sign of defeat or frustration – or a hardened heart…. it is just more space.
- And it’s God’s invitation to us today – what space do you need – to love your enemies?
Do you need to run? Do you need to sit? Do you need to jump on a plane for a hot second?
It’s not an unproductive space – it’s where God greets us with grace and love, revives where we are weary – and asks us, “Tell me about your anger?”
- It’s where God asks us, “What will we do?”
- “How do we aid in preventing empires from unchecked destruction?”
- “How will we love our enemies?”
- “How do we keep making space to be nimble in heart – to continue to be bold and free – in a culture that keeps suggesting that our enemies should stay our enemies?”
If I could give each of you a plant today, I would my friends. (one without a worm).
Instead I’ll say,
“grace to you,” my friends… “grace to you..”