“The Courage to Embrace an Enemy”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 23, 2014
University Baptist Church
“Thou preparest a table in the presence of mine enemies,” says the 23rd. Psalm. We dust that scripture off at funerals and times of crisis, but then we forget about it. Kinda like we forget about Jesus’ admonition that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Even the apostle Paul, long after he changed his name for Saul would say: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” (Romans 12:20a)
The new world that the Christian community was trying to create was one where reconciliation reigned instead of terror. It was one in which people would want to live and thrive. How do we build that kind of community? The world doesn’t seem to want that kind of community.
This week Republicans have gone apoplectic as the President has signed an executive order protecting immigrant families from being deported. Even as thousands of immigrant families celebrate, we are hearing of churches become sanctuaries to protect their members from being deported, since their families were left out of the President’s executive order.
KSTP news vilified Minneapolis Mayor Betsey Hodges for pointing at an African America leader, saying she was flashing a gang sign.
This coming week, the news will come down in Ferguson, MO about whether the grand jury will pursue a case against the shooter of unarmed teen Michael Brown by a heavily armed police officer. The National Guard is already deployed. Isis continues to behead journalists and aid workers. Syria remains in constant state of terror. We need that table thou preparest.
At a big meal on Thursday we’ll consider this idea of eating with our enemies. Some families can feel like that. And it’s a miracle when we can hold it together until the pie is served. We do hold it together and it’s a start.
At the original Thanksgiving meal (at least the romanticized one) Native Americans shared a meal with European settlers. For at least one meal, the fighting stopped and they imagined a new future free of hostility and living in harmony with one another. It did not last. The European quest for new land and resources proved too powerful. And yet, the work of reconciliation and peacemaking demands that we return to those tables where we lay down our armor. Psalm 23 imagines that God “Prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies”.
The book of Acts recounts the stumbles on the way to grow an unwieldy movement that was attracting people that were sworn enemies of one another.
And it is with this context that we encounter Saul and Ananias, two leaders who were enemies. It’s the pivotal point of the book of Acts. Reza Aslan calls the Acts of the Apostles a love story for Paul.
But in order for Paul to begin his work, the former Saul needed to not only be converted by the power of the Holy Spirit. He also need to be befriended by Ananias. His conversion calls not just for Saul’s encounter with Jesus, but the community’s change of heart. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, let alone an easy sell to the church. That’s why Ananias was so vital to the early church.
In today’s scripture, Saul isn’t just a traveler on the road. He’s a persecutor of the Christians. He’s perhaps a bit paranoid and a bit Machiavellian. He’s looking for people who are Christians so he can prosecute and persecute them.
We know what happens. He has an encounter with Jesus, is blinded by the light and is directed to make a change in his life.
But that’s only half of the story. The other half is Ananias—one of the Christian target of Saul’s pogrom. Ananias also has an encounter with God who asks him to do something much more difficult than Jesus had Saul do. Saul had to change his ways and become a Christian. Saul was a leader and would simply change his leadership tactics. He could use his oratory skills to convert people to his way of thinking.
Ananias, on the other hand had to befriend Saul. He had to trust someone that had persecuted him and his family. He had to put into practice Jesus’ words to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus, can’t we just admire you from afar? It’s too hard to actually follow you. Now you want me to prepare a table for my enemy?
Imagine your deepest enemy, your persecutor. Imagine the person who wants your job; who wants to come after your family; who wants to fight against you. Imagine a bully who actually exacts the death penalty. This is who Saul was to the early believers in Jesus, the followers of the Way. God chose this Saul to lead the transformation of the disparate people of the Way into the transforming church of Jesus Christ.
But first, Saul gets accosted by Jesus. He is told to give up his persecuting ways. This is an identity crisis for Saul. Who was he if he was not a persecutor? He had such zeal for his faith that he pursued Christians. He might have even gotten a bit of pleasure from his persecuting. It can feel good to be better than another. To put them in their place. All felt right with the world. Until it didn’t.
And so Saul was blinded by the light. He was told to wait until someone else would help him regain his sight. So Saul needed to stay there, patiently for three days. That time frame is no accident. It took three days for Jesus to rise from the dead. Paul needed to be patient. I’m not sure that was a gift he had. Patience.
But he had no choice. He had to wait for someone to open his eyes. And who would open his eyes but good old Ananias. I can just imagine the protests. The Scriptures give us the highlights, but I imagine the tirades of Ananias. “I’ll call anyone brother. Anyone but Saul. I would not, I could not trust him in a box, with a fox, on a train, in the rain, I would not could not trust him here or there, I will not trust him anywhere.”
Ananias needed to leave behind his judgment of Saul.
Imagine an African American in Ferguson, trusting a white police officer.
Imagine an Israeli Jew trusting a Palestinian or vice versa.
Imagine an abuse victim trusting an abuser.
Imagine the most rabid tea partier and the bluest liberal democrat calling each other sister or brother.
It’s almost too hard to imagine.
Like the Centurion who said at Jesus’ crucifixion, “Truly this man was the son of God.”
Imagine if we spent as much time and energy on peace that we do on war.
Karen Armstrong is a prolific writer and theologian. Her latest book is entitled, “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.” Several of us are planning on reading and discussing this book in the New Year. She recently wrote a book called “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate life”. Here are some excerpts of her thinking about the 12th step, loving your enemies:
It was Gandhi who said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Karen Armstrong says, “We can stop the vicious cycle of attack and counterattack, strike and counter-strike that holds the world in thrall today only if we learn to appreciate the wisdom of restraint toward the enemy.”
Voices of compassion, like Gandhi, still ring today. He said, “Mine is not an exclusive love. I cannot love Moslems or Hindus and hate Englishmen. For if I love merely Hindus and Moslems because their ways are on the whole pleasing to me, I shall soon begin to hate them when their ways displease me, as they may well do at any moment. A love that is based on the goodness of those whom you love is a mercenary affair.”
Armstrong also cites Nelson Mandela, who “without any feelings of recrimination…walked out of the South African prison in which he had been confined for twenty-seven years, and when he came to power initiated a process of reconciliation rather than seeking revenge.”
The Dalai Lama is another contemporary who has risen above vengefulness. He has refused to condemn the Chinese although they destroyed his monasteries and massacred his monks.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. believed the highest point in Jesus’s life was the moment he forgave his executioners, when instead of attempting to defeat evil with evil, he was able to prevail over it with good: ‘Only goodness can drive out evil and only love can overcome hate.…’
“In our global village,” Armstrong says, “everybody is our neighbor, and it is essential to make allies of our enemies. We need to create a world democracy in which everybody’s voice is heard and everybody’s aspirations are taken seriously. In the last resort, this kind of ‘love’ and ‘concern for everybody’ will serve our best interest better than short-sighted and self-serving policies.”
The true conversion in this story is Ananias. God told him to use his best energy not hating his persecutor, but imagining his persecutor transformed—and to trust God that the transformation has already happened. We don’t get that opportunity much, but we do have a choice of where we spend our energy. Ananias had expended a lot of energy hating Saul and for good reason. But God gave him an opportunity to transform the use of his energy. Use all of that passion to imagine the possibility of peace. Ananias had his life hijacked and helped Saul the persecutor become Paul the apostle to the gentiles.
Ananias, perhaps reluctantly, took a hold of Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” I can just see the cringing of Ananias, wondering if it were true; wondering if he had been duped, praying that he had not put his family in danger. And the scales fell off Saul’s eyes. Actually they fell off both of their eyes. For they saw each other as brothers.
Hear this, in God’s plan, we are to have the courage to befriend an enemy. It was one thing to hear love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. It’s totally another to embrace your former enemies with kinship ties.
At the end of October, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) held a conference in Nashville entitled "The Gospel, Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage". I have been to several southern Baptist convention meetings in my work with Soulforce. This one was different in many respects. First, it was a small subcommittee. There were 1300 people in attendance and many more watching a live stream. The second thing that was different is that pro-LGBT communities and leaders were invited to be a part of the discussion. Third, it happened as the scales of justice have tipped in favor of marriage equality and the younger generation does not hold the same exclusivistic views about homosexuality. The SBC realizes that if they are to reach a younger generation, they need to eschew their more stringent rhetoric against the LGBT community.
Robin Lunn, who has preached here before, was there as were leaders of Soulforce. David Weasley, AWAB Board chair blogged about the conference.
“There were some rough moments in this conference. Some of the rhetoric from the stage was representative of the “gay-agenda” fear-mongering that I was really hoping the conservative church had outgrown. The latest iteration of the SBC’s anti-marriage-equality rhetoric includes some truly troubling understandings of marriage, and a deeper investment in “traditional” gender roles- it seems that in this time of cultural change, much of the leadership of the SBC has elected to cast their lot with patriarchy. Unsurprisingly, this played well to a room of 1300 people, 95% of whom were white men. I applaud the dedication to the Gospel espoused by many of the speakers in the front of that room, but I hold them in concern and prayer- it seems some of them are serving two masters.”
But there was also good news. They are saying that it was a meeting that moved toward seeing each other as allies instead of enemies. Well, maybe not allies yet, but at least not enemies. Al Mohler and Russel Moore took the time to say that Reparative therapy was damaging to people. They also said that people who dare to come out should not be shunned from families or the church. These are small steps to us, but big steps for them. It’s all because of the work we have done years ago planting the seeds of change.
Saul, Annanias and the church spent three years together before they let Saul go on his way to spread the message to the wider Christian churches.
Robin Lunn wrote that “perhaps the most powerful moment came when I got to hear Jim Daly and Glenn Stanton from Focus on the Family, tell the audience, that conservatives must develop relationships with the LGBTQ community for the sake of simply being in relationship. They both cited scripture after scripture admonishing the audience to get to know their LGBTQ and liberal neighbors for the sake of being in human relationship.” When you build relationships, former enemies are people not positions. It’s the only thing that makes a lasting difference.
I went to Amanda’s swim meet yesterday in Morris. I remember my own college swim meets from a generation ago. Over the course of the season, you got to know your opponents. You watched their times from other meets. And they knew who you were too. We got to talking over the course of the season. In the pool, we were enemies, but not so much of each other. We were all enemies of time. In Swimming, you measure yourself by the time standard you have achieved, not so much about whether you beat the person next to you. They push you, but they can’t affect your time. The sport is an individual one against the clock. That’s why you see people who win the Olympic Gold medal and are depressed because they did not do their best time.
Maybe Ananias needed to learn that the enemy was not Saul, but a system that devalues people so much that we seek to turn them into black and white categories of good guys and bad guys. People to trust and people to distrust. Friends and enemies. Fight that system, says God and you’ll be truly worthy to be a follower of the Way. In fact, you’ll be a leader of the Way. It will take courage, because most people won’t trust you because you hang out with an untrustworthy sort. It would be like Ananias getting pictured with Saul and sporting a Pharisee gang sign. Imagine the media feeding frenzy.
They might call it Saulgate.
But it’s a misdirection. The real work of the church is to say that this kind of us verses them mentality has destroyed our best communities and has left the earth scorched. There has to be a better way. And the church of Jesus Christ which tries to practice loving enemies is the better way. It takes courage and it is so worth it. Maybe it starts with preparing a table in the presence of your enemies.
Maybe it starts with not believing the one dimensional things the media says about your opponent.
Maybe it starts with sharing a Thanksgiving meal and giving thanks for the vision of peace. Giving thanks for the courage not just to embrace an enemy, but to see them as a broken and flawed human being, just like us. So give thanks for the vision, the courage and the grace to imagine a new reality where the reign of God protects and blesses the entire world, even our enemies. We call that the reign of God and it’s what we all work for.