His name was David. He was a rather serious young man, in his early thirties, and already well on his way to a very successful architect career. David was single and handsome and considered one of the church’s most eligible bachelors. He came up to me after church one Sunday morning to invite me to go to lunch with him that week, so that we could get to know each other a little bit better.
David picked me up at the church that day, came into my office, and before I could get up to put on my coat, he said, “Can we just sit and talk here for a while?” It was obvious that David had something in mind he wanted to talk about, so I sat back in my chair, leaned forward and waited. And then David told me his story.
He had grown up in an abusive home environment with a father who was alcoholic and had a violent temper. He gave me a succession of accounts of his father coming home drunk and beating his mother, and David and his two brothers. He recalled that, when they were young, they used to hide under the front porch waiting for their father to get home, to see what kind of mood – and what condition – he was in. There they would hunker down together as dad went up the front steps and into the house; and listen for whatever came next. Sometimes there would be dead silence for a long time, by which the boys determined that their father had probably just gone in and passed out in his easy chair. But, more often than not, soon after dad went into the house, the yelling and the screaming would begin; along with the horrible sounds of their mother being thrashed about inside. Hoping that their father’s rage would not ultimately be redirected and come looking for them; they would wait for things to calm down and become quiet again inside.
David told about the time his older brother got big enough to confront his father, leading to a knock-down-drag-out fight between father and son; after which his brother was unceremoniously kicked out of the house. Leaving just the two younger boys and their mother—and their father.
As soon as the remaining boys got old enough, they both left as well.
After the boys left home, things got worse for David’s mother who – for some unfathomable reason – refused to ever just leave this man. Finally, his father “went too far,” as David put it, and wound up killing his mother. He was now serving a life sentence in prison.
David quietly looked at me for a few moments—perhaps gauging how much more I could process at one sitting. He went on to tell me that his oldest brother had subsequently been in a series of unhealthy relationships, apparently having made the tragic transition from being a childhood victim now to an adult abuser. His other brother had become somewhat of a loner; plagued with his own drug and alcohol addiction, was also unable to form healthy relationships.
And then David said something that hit me like a ton of bricks: “For the past several years,” he continued, “I’ve been working on forgiving my father. But it’s been difficult. That’s what I really wanted to talk to you about.”
The thing is, as I sat there listening to David, I had felt my own sense of indignant anger – and even revulsion – welling up inside of me toward his father; this man whom I had never met. Although I managed to maintain my outward composure, I was horrified when David told me that his father had eventually killed his mother.
And then, when he informed me that his father had been convicted and sent to prison for life, I couldn’t help but feel just a twinge of vicarious gratification that at least some measure of justice had been meted out to this violent human being who had done such damage to so many lives.
And, when David shared his merciful intentions, I just remember thinking: `How is such forgiveness even possible?’
It’s easy to understand why David’s two older brothers had turned out so dysfunctional. How could they not? David, on the other hand, was striving to find forgiveness in his heart.
For ten years he had been in a support group for adult survivors of abuse; and been getting private counseling for his own residual anger: toward his father for his abuse, toward his mother for allowing herself and her children to be so victimized, toward his oldest brother for bailing out on them; toward God – and maybe even the entire world – for the circumstances he was born into. The prospect of overcoming such emotional odds was overwhelming to me.
Yet, David was striving to hold himself accountable for his own life; and, frankly, seemed remarkably well-adjusted. As we continued our conversation, I learned that David had been visiting his father on a weekly basis in prison. And because he was engaged in this gracious mission, neither one of his brothers would have anything further to do with him.
“No doubt, my father is a hard man to love,” David confessed. “But it’s important that I find a way to do so—somewhat for his sake, but mostly for mine.”
David told me that some years before, for the first time in his life, he had found a measure of personal peace in Jesus Christ. And now he was engaged in the difficult endeavor of striving to walk in his ways.
“Jesus was the answer to my prayers,” said David. “Now I pray every day for dad.”
The late Huston Cummings Smith – one of the most renowned scholars of world religion – made the observation that Christianity shares many affirmations with a number of the world’s great religions: Love your neighbor—yes; a thought found in many of the world’s faiths. Help the needy—of course; a common moral thread. Obey God—most certainly; each faith adheres to their own particular deity.
“But when it comes to Jesus’ command to `love your enemies,’ said Smith, “that’s an injunction found solely in the religion of Jesus.”
“But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse. Pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand you things back from those who take them.”
It’s no wonder that Jesus stands alone in the world in those exhortations. It seems ridiculous; counter intuitive; contrary to human nature.
I want you to take just a moment to think of the most loving thing you could do for the very worse person you know; I mean someone who’s a real scoundrel, a total jerk; someone who’s treated you badly—done something really rotten to you.
Now picture yourself extending a loving hand of friendship to that person.
See what I mean? Our tendency is to resist the image.
Of course, when Jesus says we should `love our enemies,’ some of you might be tempted to think, `Well, that doesn’t really apply to me. I’m so nice to other people that I don’t really have any enemies.’[i]
If so, consider what the 19th century English writer, poet, philosopher G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”
I’ve known people who have shot their neighbor’s dog because the dog barked too much. I knew a man once who poured poison in his neighbor’s tomato patch because their weeds were `encroaching’ upon his yard.
Not only that – and now this may surprise you – I’ve known church people who have viewed other members of the congregation with enmity. I know, I know. Shocking, right?
But sometimes when parishioners have differing viewpoints—divergent interpretations of scripture, different opinions concerning the church’s mission, or perhaps divergent opinions on politics—they can start seeing those sitting in the pew next to them (or perhaps on the other side of the sanctuary from them) as opponents, adversaries. Enemies. They begin to treat each other with disdain; objectify one another with insult and derision. Do you know such a person?
If so, I want you to take just a moment – right now – to picture yourself offering that person your loving hand. See what I mean? It’s not necessarily that easy. Right?
Now, some have suggested that these words of Jesus have been used to justify allowing one’s self to be victimized by others. And that may well be true. But I can tell you that that is not Jesus’ intention for us—not at all. Loving someone does not mean letting yourself to be victimized by them. Loving others never gives license for abuse. Nor are we Christian doormats.
And the reality is that sometimes the only way you can be a blessing to someone who abuses you is by simply putting distance between you and them. If someone strikes you, just turn the other cheek—and then walk away.
And then pray for them. Don’t simply write them off. Most abusers experienced abuse as children. Try to grow in Christian understanding.
If someone steals your coat, maybe it’s because they are impoverished, cold, and desperate. Have compassion for them. Maybe there is something you can do to lift them out of their despair. And if someone reviles you – either to your face or behind your back – pray for them, too. Pray that their hearts might be changed. And, in the process, pray for yourself as well; that God’s love for those who revile, persecute and abuse may be poured into your heart as well.
The thing is, this is not an easy religion—this Christian faith of ours.
But take heart: Jesus’ exhortation is not only – or even primarily – a impossibly high standard of living for us to try to live up to. Jesus’ exhortation is first and foremost a picture of what sort of God it is who extends a loving hand to us in Jesus.[ii] And who did so, even from a cross, when we were the declared enemies of God. And he did that all and solely for our benefit.
“It is not possible to achieve by vigilance in anger and revenge what the soul is longing for. The soul longs for peace.” (James Forbes, Jr.)
As we close out Black History month, I’d like to end the sermon today with the wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. In a sermon on Christmas Day, 1957, King proclaimed, “…when Jesus says “love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”
King went on to proclaim, “…hate scars the soul and distorts personality. Mindful that hate is an evil and dangerous force, we too often think of what it does to the person hated. This is understandable, for hate brings irreparable damage to its victims…But there is another side which we must never overlook. Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.”
King ended that Christmas sermon by saying that we should love our enemies because “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
William Willimon reports that one of the best prayers he ever heard was delivered by a Georgian farmer in his first little congregation. It was the custom in that congregation for the lay leader to pray after the preacher’s sermon. And after Willimon preached a rather tough sermon on a difficult text that Sunday, the lay leader stood up and prayed a simple, clear, and direct prayer: “Lord, today we’ve heard your word. And we don’t like it.”
Before we dismiss what Jesus has to say as too absurd or too difficult—concluding that his way is simply impossible to follow; let’s pause for just a moment and ask that Preacher reach out his loving hand and transform our hearts this day, that we might live in his way of love and peace.
[i] Gratitude to William Willimon for inspiration and some content.