A Sermon for the Occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of September 11th, 2001
[I preached this sermon at Brooklyn Baptist Church in Kinston, Alabama. It was certainly an adventure getting to the church (leaving at 4:45) and the delivery was equally adventurous. I hope you receive it as my honest reflection on the life and teachings of Jesus and their relevance for the modern era, even in situations as baffling and devastating as 9/11/01.]
Dearest Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight. As we today commemorate the anniversary of a tragedy, be with us. As we reflect on the depths of your love, please love us. And as we explore the life of Jesus, help us more and more to imitate your beloved Child. It is in that name we pray. Amen.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:43-48, NRSV)
In my preparation for this morning, I must admit that I was struck by an overwhelming sense of strangeness. And not just the normal strangeness; I’ve done Samford Sunday for over three years now, and I’m used to the fact that I am a stranger to you, you are strangers to me, and that the time we spend together on Sunday morning is often strange.
No, the strangeness that consumes me is the strangeness of this weekend. As my dear friend Bryan Kessler told me recently, “Decade anniversaries are filler invented by lazy journalists, not historians.” I resonated with that quote to no end. Today is the tenth anniversary of September 11th. Some have taken to calling this day Patriot’s Day, and every cable news outlet has been running stories related to the anniversary for weeks.
And yet to me, it all feels strange. Manufactured. I was only twelve when the attacks happened, so I’ve grown up in the “post-9/11 world.” Some journalists would classify me as a member of their so-called “9/11 generation.” This is supposed to be a big deal, but I must admit that today, I don’t feel like it’s a big deal. The sentimental and nostalgic part of my brain thinks I should be feeling something other than this awkward strangeness, but I have to admit to you that I don’t. I’m not entirely sure what that means for you or for me, but I thought that maybe you’d be feeling that way, too.
And so in the middle of this strangeness, for the time that we have together, I’d like for us to turn our attention to this passage, to this crucial “love command,” and consider how it may speak into the strangeness of our lives today.
Today’s passage comes near the middle of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. This passage marks the conclusion of a significant block of personal moral teaching that many people call the Antitheses. He’s about to transition to issues of public expression, concepts like almsgiving and prayer, but he lingers here, on these issues surrounding anger and violence.
Why does Jesus spend so much time on these topics? Three distinct sections of text (the teaching on anger, the teaching on retaliation, and this teaching on enemies) deal directly with the human emotion that we know as anger, and its cousin hatred. Why? Obviously, any answer I can give you is at best speculation, but I think Jesus spends so much time here because anger is such an easy emotion for us to get caught up in.
Think about it. Someone cuts you off in traffic, and you get angry. Someone takes your parking spot at the grocery store, and you get angry. Maybe somebody makes a political or theological statement that you disagree with, and you get angry. Somebody hurts you or your family, and you get angry. This is not to say that these are not always legitimate forms of anger, but Jesus is talking about something more than simple anger.
What we’re talking about here are enemies. Sometimes enemies are the result of anger, true, but sometimes enemies are products of our culture, our opinions, or even our religion. See sometimes, enemies develop naturally; someone angers us enough that we become convinced that they oppose our entire being and actively desire our destruction. But all too often, we come with a pre-defined set of enemies. As Americans, we are told that Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, basically anyone in the Middle East, is our enemy. As Christians, there are those who tell us that Muslims or Hindus or Jews are our enemies. Whichever side of the political and theological divide we find ourselves on, the opposite side becomes our enemies.
And we’re not alone in this. Jesus’ audience had enemies. If we could peek into their minds as Jesus discussed their enemies, we might see images that looked a bit familiar. They might think of the Romans, of a bloody and oppressive foreign power who seemed to love nothing more than violence. They might think of Samarians, of those bizarre foreigners who worshipped a little differently and had diluted the Jewish bloodline. Perhaps the tax collectors came to mind, those people who had abandoned their homeland and worked with their enemies all for personal gain. We all have enemies.
And for centuries, the common wisdom that Jesus quotes here had prevailed. “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” “Hate your enemy” is not found in scripture, but the fact that Jesus quotes it must indicate that it was a common thought. It’s so common, in fact, that it shows up in other cultures. Thrasymachus, a Greek whose thoughts are transmitted to us via the famous Plato, once claims that the very definition of justice is doing good to one’s friends and harm to one’s enemies. And while Thrasymachus’ thought is a bit more active, it’s the same principle. Loving our neighbors logically means hating our enemies.
But Jesus dismisses that out of hand. Unlike Plato, who argues with Thrasymachus for hundreds of pages, Jesus simply offers his alternative. “But I say to you,” he begins. I offer you a new way. I offer you the true way. And what is the true way? To love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
You’d be amazed at the amount of commentaries I’ve read that want to mediate this command. Some say that it’s only for Matthew’s community, or it only applies to the Romans and their political oppression of the Jewish people. Or they claim that the Sermon is hyperbolic, something designed to show us the depth of our fallen nature. But none of that sat right with me, and do you know why? I said, do you know why?
I’ll you why. Because when God himself experienced the terror of death, when the immortal took death into its own being, God did not retaliate. When Christ died upon a Roman cross, when his enemies ended his earthly life, when his disciples abandoned him, he prayed. When we were all God’s enemies, prodigal children wandering in the far country, he loved us and came to find us where we were.
Besides, what comes immediately afterward? “So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Some people think that we’re given this command because loving our enemies is a great way to convert them or shame them or simply demonstrate the superiority of the Christian faith. It might potentially be those things, I suppose, but Christ commands us to love not out of any exterior motivation but because our identity is found in God and God is love. See, in the ancient world, the idea of son-ship is so much broader than just a familial relationship. Sons in those days were expected to be like their fathers in a deeper sense. They were supposed to take up his trade and share in his identity.
This is how we are supposed to be. This is the meaning of the end of this passage, which is often overlooked because of the seemingly impossible demands it makes. See, the word teleios, perfection, is a poor analog for the Hebrew word that Matthew probably intends, which is tamim. Tamim implies a sense of wholeness and fulfillment. When Christ tells us we must be perfect, he is saying that we must be whole, and that our wholeness is found, at least in part, in loving our enemies.
Let me offer you a story that can help bring this home. Today, we commemorate the anniversary of a devastating terrorist attack. Today we commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11. But just a month ago, the Jewish community observed Tish B’Av, the 1,940th anniversary of the destruction of the Second Temple. So imagine today that you are not an American Christian, but a Jewish one. Imagine that you are living in the 7th decade of the first century, that you have watched your homeland slowly invaded by the Roman enemy. Then, in 66, you watched in horror as some Greeks defiled the synagogue in the port city of Caesarea. You looked to the Romans for help, to the law-keepers and the legions and the orders of Empire, but they sat by and did nothing. Soon, there was war.
For four years, Judea burns. The future emperor Vespasian marauds across the Galilee with over 60,000 troops, sieging towns indiscriminately. Jewish defenders retreat to Jerusalem, and Vespasian dispatches his son Titus to deal with the capitol city. Titus digs a trench around the walls of the city, and raises his own walls outside the trench. Anyone that he captures, he crucifies and displays on his walls for the defenders to see. It takes nearly four years, but Titus breaks through the three walls of the city and sacks it.
The violence that erupts during the fall of Jerusalem is massive. Josephus records that Titus’ armies kill nearly 600,000 Jewish defenders, men and women alike, and take almost 100,000 captive as slaves. The Second Temple is burned to the ground, and some of the tumbled stones can still be seen today. Titus returns home a conquering hero and is rewarded with a triumphal march through the city. Titus is so confidant in his victory that he displays the temple goods, including the sacred menorah, the symbol of victory over the Seleucid Empire two centuries earlier, as he marches through the streets of Rome. At the end of his triumph, someone offers the young prince a laurel crown of victory. Titus refuses, claiming “There is no merit in vanquishing a people abandoned by their own God.” Wow.
And then, sometime that year, or maybe the next, or maybe even on the tenth anniversary of Tish B’Av, someone decides to write a Gospel. The individual that the Church will eventually name Matthew probably pens his Gospel sometime after the destruction of the Second Temple, and that brings this passage into a whole new light.
Because Mark doesn’t have this passage. Luke modifies it. John doesn’t have it. Matthew had the opportunity to edit it or to leave it out, but he didn’t. Matthew, who places an extreme emphasis on the continued presence of Christ, thinks that this passage is indicative of who Jesus is and what he’s about and what we’re also supposed to be about. The reality of Jesus that Matthew is attempting to his community, even post-destruction of the Temple, is founded upon the radical love of enemies found in Christ himself.
In the weeks and months following that initial tragedy, Stanley Hauerwas got incredibly upset with the Church. Granted, it doesn’t take much to anger the Rev. Hauerwas, who is both a staunch Texan and a committed proponent of post-liberal narrative theology. Essentially, Hauerwas was upset with the Church because in the wake of 9/11, everyone was focused on the question “Why did God allow this to happen?”
According to Hauerwas, the question is not “why?” but “what is God doing?” and, more importantly, “what has God already done?” I happen to agree. In times of tragedy, we get so caught up in questions of causality that we ignore the reality of what we’ve been talking about all morning. Not only has God given the rain and the sun, blessings this passage has already alluded to, but God has loved his enemies. In the cross of Christ, God himself loved his enemies so much that he considered no limit to the work of redemption. In the cross of Christ, God has pronounced his unlimited and divine ‘yes’ in the face of our ‘no.’ In the cross of Christ, God has broken and remade the world, and it is by that metric that we measure all things. And through the cross of Christ, God has confirmed that he is unequivocally for us and suffers with us, who were once his enemies, even and especially in the storms like the ones that we commemorate today.
But in the cross of Christ, God has also challenged us. On that bloody Friday and that glorious Sunday, he has shown us that the Divine Love is greater than we could ever imagine. It extends to our enemies, to the extremists who wants us dead, to Moammar Qaddafi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has shown us, in that unique moment, that there is no one so great, no enemy so vile, that he or she is outside of the love of God. It is a grace, yes, but it is also a challenge. To paraphrase Will Campbell, “Mr. Jesus loves the terrorists, too.”
So today, as we remember the struggles that we have faced in the past decade, I will leave you with the words of Christ. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Amen.