Born in the 70s, part of the soundtrack to my childhood was the album Free to Be You and Me.
It taught us boys and girls can grow up to be anything they want, have any jobs they want. It told us boys can love dolls and everyone can use a good cry now and then.
It was mostly awesome!
But one of its songs captures a way I wasn’t as prepared for the real world as I might have been. It was the tune “Sisters and Brothers.”
Sisters and brothers, brothers and sisters
Ain’t we, everyone
Brothers and sisters, sisters and brothers,
Every father’s daughter, every mother’s son.
Yeah, groovy tune.
It was the early 70’s, it didn’t have today’s more fluid gender identity language or anything but the message was, we’re all in this together. One big human family. Let’s all love each other. Let’s all get along.
Great message, great song.
But how I heard it as a kid was:
if we can all share, if we can all be nice to each other, we will all get along, all the time.
I picked this up in a lot of other places, it wasn’t just the song. But all this didn’t prepare me for a world where a lot of the time, nobody’s very nice.
And what do we do when they aren’t?
In my early childhood, a guy who worked at one of my parent’s part time jobs lived in our basement for a while, and he had an aggressive dog that attacked me. Being nice to that dog, being nice to its owner didn’t help me feel safe.
A little later, I remember when a neighborhood bully, a mean and tough older kid took one of my brother’s jackets from him and pushed him down a hill. My family’s response to that didn’t seem adequate to me and it left my brother vulnerable. I didn’t think being nice was working there.
Later, in my teenage years, I got opened to just how dangerous the bigger world was. Learning about my grandparent’s war – World War II – was devastating. I vividly remember the first time I heard a survivor of the Holocaust speak. Sacred, important memory. Still true. This afternoon, I’ll represent our church and our faith as an ally at Boston’s annual remembrance of the Shoah, the destruction, which is what Jews mostly call the Nazi attempt to exterminate their people. I remember learning about the terrifying violence our species is capable of.
And then I remember learning about the US firebombing and atom bombing of Japan. It was taught to me like it was a necessary evil, but when I first heard a Japanese survivor speak, that logic didn’t sit right with me. I remember thinking:
my country is also capable of the most terrifying violence.
I remember learning that I lived in a town, a small outer suburb of Boston, that had zoning laws that were intentionally designed to keep poor people out of the community, and really also to keep it white. And this is totally legal. Still is. It’s something our GBIO Housing justice campaign is trying to address in 2023. My own town was the enemy of goodness this way. Evil so close to home.
And then, as an older teen, I had relationships and experiences where I realized I was capable of evil too. There are many enemies in the world, some far, some quite near, and some even within me and my capacity to hurt others.
“Sister and brother”, “we are the world” aspirations hadn’t prepared me for a world of evil. And niceness and sharing didn’t seem equipped to handle a world of enemies.
Sometimes niceness made it worse, for everyone – the person who got hurt, and even for the enemy too.
In a world of conflict, in a world of evil, in a world full of enemies – without and within – the good news of Jesus is unique and clear and absolutely difficult.
The call is to love our enemies. Hard to understand, harder to do, but absolutely central to our hope of salvation.
Our pastors decided it was time to go here together. We won’t say everything there is to say, but we’re teeing up five weeks of loving our enemies.
Here’s the teaching of Jesus that is most famous on this.
Matthew 5:43-48 (Common English Bible)
43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you
45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.
46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?
47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?
48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
Once Jesus said that all the scriptures could be summed up like this.
Love God with all your being. And love your neighbor as yourself.
A lawyer, who didn’t like the simplicity of all that, asked:
But Jesus, who is my neighbor?
And Jesus told him a story that made it clear. Your neighbor is everyone. Your neighbor is even your enemy.
And now Jesus says:
love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.
And so we, or at least the lawyers among us, might ask:
But Jesus, who is my enemy?
So this is today’s sermon.
Who are not our enemies?
Who are our enemies?
And what is one way that love looks like? Not the only way, not the last way, but maybe the first way.
So who are not our enemies?
This is the briefest part. The people who hold us accountable when we need to grow or change are not our enemies.
Let me tell you an embarrassing story I’ve never shared with you before.
I got a college education at a school that was majority Jewish. They were interesting, mostly positive years of my life. I met my future spouse Grace there, that has worked out astoundingly well, for me at least. (Mixed bag for her.) Really sexy meet-up story, we were assigned to lead a Bible study together in our tiny little Christian student group.
The sparks didn’t fly at first, but the friendship did, and sparks followed eventually.
Anyway, though, in that tiny little Christian student group on a majority Jewish campus, founded in 1948, just after the attempted extermination of the Jewish people at the hands of baptized Christians. In this context, one year our leadership team wanted to put pamphlets for our Christian student group in every single student’s mailbox, to flier the whole school. And we, or at least I, was so offended when the administration did not grant us that permission. Like how dare they crack down on us like this?
I thought that the school leadership was discriminating against us, the Christian minority, and that made them the enemy.
I thought it was my first experience of persecution for my faith. When actually it was my first experience of a persecution complex.
Yeah, inventing enemies when they weren’t there. This can happen with religious people unfortunately. When other people don’t go along with our bad behavior, we can think they’re our enemies when really they’re just being reasonable. Or maybe they are providing a boundary for our bad behavior or accountability or consequence for our need to grow.
So this is not what it means to have an enemy. This is the world inviting us to change.
But who are our enemies?
I want to acknowledge that the naivete I grew up with around enemies is not everyone’s story. Some of you know exactly who your enemies are.
I live with a woman of color as my partner.
She knows in her body (in a way I don’t) what it’s like for people to stand against her, to seek to diminish her and do her harm. Some of us have had lived experience where our enemies have made themselves quite clear.
It’s easy to wonder if you have enemies when your social location is privileged or protected, where you don’t experience people out to do you harm very often.
But even for those of us who have clarity about who in the world is not our for our good, we too may have been raised with the obligation to be nice to everyone, not to name someone as an enemy, which seems aggressive maybe. Or we may know who are enemies are but have no idea what to do about them.
In preparation for this series, I thought about some of my evolution over the past 35 years that I’ve been following Jesus. And I’ve also read the marvelous book by Melissa Floreer-Bixler, How to Have an Enemy.
Here are just a few things I learned about who our enemies are and why it’s helpful to name them as such.
Our enemies are the people and the systems who harm us.
I am a victim, a survivor, of childhood sexual abuse. I did a lot of work on this in my late teens, my 20’s, my 30’s, but it took until the #metoo movement (which to be clear, was not at all about me), but it took until that movement, which started in my 40’s, for me to really find or let out the anger in me to the one who did me harm.
An abuser is your enemy, worthy of your protective, righteous anger. And naming them as your enemy doesn’t shut down healing, it allows for the kind of clarity of what’s going on that can be part of enabling healing.
Let me go somewhere else with this that is for most of us very different and also kind of awkward but I think important.
Those of us who are parents, we mostly do the best we can. But we know if we’re honest that we have all kinds of limits.
Same with our parents. Our folks mostly did the best they could. But we can only pass on what we have. We can only give what we’ve been given. And so at one point in adulthood, I came to realize that sometimes my parents have been my enemy. Not willfully, intentionally, but in the places they have been a source of harm, there is at least an enemy dynamic in that relationship.
Now it’s awkward to call your parents your enemy. And maybe for most of us, that’s not a thing we ever need to say to our parents. Maybe that’s not what love looks like. But again, naming this enemy dynamic when we find it, even in our most intimate relationships, can be clarifying. It can just be truthful, and the truth Jesus says, will set us free.
Enemies aren’t just personal, though, and they aren’t just about us.
Our enemies are the people and the systems who harm who and what we love.
Cancel my favorite TV show or my favorite candy bar and watch out, you’re my enemy. I kid, but seriously, experiencing the enemy nature harming who and what we love is a growth in love and solidarity.
There’s been no war on straight white Christian men in my life, where I live. Maybe some people have alleged that, but I don’t see any harm where I live to the bodies or the rights of my social identities.
But I have over my adult life come to start to experience as enemies the people and the system who harm women, who harm people of color, who harm queer people. And it’s not because I suddenly got more altruistic or protective. It’s because of my love for the people in my life, in my inner circles, with these social identities that have often been under attack. It’s a growth in love and maturity to experience other people’s enemies as mine.
And this is not about demonizing or dehumanizing these people and systems, it’s again just about the clarity and freedom of telling the truth. Do harm to who and what I love, and you are my enemy.
Sometimes, we can even embrace Jesus’ call to love God enough that we can experience the people and systems who harm what God loves as our enemy.
The system Jesus most called an enemy was this force he called Mammon – the existential, spiritual impact of money, of wealth. Jesus was colonized, oppressed, crucified by the Roman empire. He knew what it meant to have enemies. But he spoke his harshest words really for the dehumanizing power of wealth, what he personified as Mammon. He says you can only have one god, you can only love one god. And then he says, so you can’t love God and wealth, or mammon.
Saying two things at once. Money, wealth, is a god. We fear it, we long for it, we think it protects us and makes us secure. It has a lot of power in the world. It’s a god. But it’s also an enemy. Chasing it, longing for it, hoarding it does harm to our souls and tends to make us neglect or do harm to others. So wealth is an enemy.
Even parts of ourselves harm what God loves. We have parts of ourselves that are resentful, even hateful, that diminish our loves for others and so harm what God loves. We have parts of ourselves that crave convenience and are hasty and don’t do what our indigenous siblings exhort us to do, which is think of everything with the impact on seven generations to come, so we harm the earth and we harm our descendants, making us the enemy of what God loves.
We have parts of ourselves that are compulsive, that draw us toward addiction, that resist our own belovedness and belonging, and so we lessen our own joy and freedom, harming ourselves, whom God loves so much. So we are our own enemies too.
I think this clarity about the enemies that abound is important. And it’s important because it invites us to wonder: how do we engage? What do we do with all these enemies? What does love look like? (And what does it not look like?)
Well, we’ve got four more weeks, so let’s just start. Not the final word on how we love our enemies, but maybe the first word, a place to start.
Jesus says love your enemies and pray for those who harass you. Pray for them. And when we pray for our enemies, there are two ways we can pray. We can curse them, and we can bless them. I actually strongly recommend we do both. Yeah, really, cursing and blessing prayers.
The Bible’s prayer book, called the psalms, actually mostly curses our enemies.
Here’s a sample:
Psalm 104: 33-35 (Common English Bible)
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I’m still alive.
34 Let my praise be pleasing to him;
I’m rejoicing in the Lord!
35 Let sinners be wiped clean from the earth;
let the wicked be no more.
But let my whole being bless the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
Not subtle. Wipe them out, God. That their bodies and even the memory of them be no more.
There’s plenty more where this comes from. In the psalms of lament, here are some of the things we get to pray for our enemies:
for a rain of sulfur upon them (old school, Psalm 11),
for blindness and genital pain (vivid, Psalm 69),
for the amputation of their tongues and lips (super specific, Psalm 12),
their clothing be replaced by “shame and dishonor”,
whatever that fashion line looks like (Psalm 109).
So have it, friends. Ask God to do all kinds of nasty stuff to your enemies. I’m serious.
Why? Well, I can think of at least three good reasons.
This gives us a moral clarity about the evil in the people and systems we experience doing harm. We tell the truth to ourselves and to God that this is not OK, that this has got to change.
It’s empowering to us. We will often never get power over our enemies in this life. And even if we do, Jesus wants us to use that for their good, not their harm. We’ll get back to this. So to pray this way helps us express the terror, the danger, and the trauma our enemies evoke. It helps us not shove this down but give it voice. Sometimes, anger is better than sadness, because it goes somewhere other than staying inside and festering.
We’re giving this voice to God. We’re not cursing our enemies to their face. We’re not enacting vengeance. We are placing our real and understandable desire for vengeance in God’s hands, not ours. And by doing this, we are getting it out of ourselves and we are practicing faith in a holy and just God to handle things better than we could.
So the cursing prayers have a purpose.
But hopefully, they’re not where we step. Because Jesus also wants us to dare to pray prayers of blessing as well.
send good your enemies’ way.
It’s easy to love those who love us. It is holy, it is complete, it is God-like to love those who do not love us. And we can do this in our prayers.
We can say,
Loving God, please do good to my enemy. Help them be satisfied with you God, and what you have given them, that they may be healed.
So whether I’m praying for an enemy out there in the world – a person or a system doing harm do people I love, or whether I’m praying for an enemy close at hand (like a person in my life who claims to love me but has a side of them that does me harm) or whether I’m even praying for a part of myself that keeps doing me or someone else harm, I can pray curses.
I can say,
God, destroy this person or this part of this person. Let death-dealing weather or genital pain or dishonorable fashion mess up their game for a while.
And then I can also pray blessing. Like,
loving God, help this person know you as a kind and generous parent. Help them find satisfaction and healing in you. May they be grounded, secure, beloved, healed enough to stop doing harm any more.
And this is actually where our cursing and our blessing can become united in love.
The book I mentioned, How to Have an Enemy, retells a story from the talmud where a second century rabbi was facing criminals in his community’s neighborhood, wreaking all kinds of havoc. This famous rabbi was drawn to the cursing psalm we read today.
But instead of praying that “the wicked be no more”, he prayed that these criminals should repent, and there will be no more wicked people in the neighborhood.
He prayed for them and they repented. They stopped the thieving and violence, and so indeed wickedness was no more.
Jesus’ call to love our enemies is not a call to be nice. It is not a call to fantasy, to pretend that the world as it is lives in harmony, sisters and brothers, brothers and sisters.
Jesus’ call to love our enemies is a call first to notice them. They are real among us and within us. And it is a call to long for, to pray for, and to participate in making a world where our enemies are no more, where all people and all systems acknowledge and respect the beloved belonging of all humans and all creation.
Nothing less than this is the will of God for us all in Christ.