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Feb. 19, 2017: Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

February 19

Love: the cure for what hates you

You have heard it said, “Holding onto anger is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die”.  This anonymous quote has been attributed to many men and women, from the Buddha, to Anne Lamott, to various leaders of the 12-step program.  It seems to resonate universally with our shared experience.

How do we learn to let go of hate?  What causes us to hold onto it in the first place, even though something deep within us knows that it is, in fact, toxic to our life?  What makes us believe in hate, and the false idea of vengeful restitution? And how, how oh Lord, can we move beyond it, how can we cure hate? 

These questions have particularly troubled me — and many people of faith, like you — over these past weeks and months, as conversations about differences have turned into vitriol among even those who profess faith in Jesus the Christ.  It is mighty tempting, I’ll admit: there is even some Biblical precedent for it, as Jesus himself points out in today’s Gospel.

Jesus quotes from the early laws in Exodus, rules intent upon assigning equal value for restitution of injury.  These laws included such ideas as capital punishment for striking one’s parents (ok, I guess I can see that), and not charging interest (hmm, guess we forgot that one).  It also calls for releasing slaves to freedom in repayment for causing them to lose a tooth or an eye (it’s a start).

Matthew’s Gospel misquotes the Bible, though, when it comes to the bit about “hating your enemy”.  Those actual words — along with “God helps those who help themselves” — appear nowhere in Scripture.  The real quote can be found in today’s reading from the 19th Chapter of Leviticus, as God tells Moses to “love your neighbor as yourself”.  The book of Leviticus creates the very center – the “heart” – of the Torah, the Pentateuch, or Five Books most important for the Jewish people.  Much of these writings restate Moses’ “Ten Commandments” (in reverse order); today’s portion concerns itself primarily with living in right relationship with others.  God is telling us to live as a loving community.

Jesus takes this theology even further, applying it not only to those whom we call “neighbor”, but also to those whom we perceive as our “enemies”. Now, hold on a minute!  That’s another matter!  It’s one thing to be loving to those who may look, sound, act, even think like us, but it’s quite another matter to extend respect, dignity, and kindness to those who are different. 

It strikes me as interesting that, in the notion of “equal restitution”, there are some unexamined inequalities.  One obvious example was the practice of keeping slaves:  those human beings were certainly not considered equal, were they?   Other vulnerable groups, like those who are poor or without homes – both then and now – do we treat them as “equals”?  For that matter, do we think of ourselves as “equal” to those who are rich and powerful?  And all equally loved?

God’s divine speech in Leviticus contains this equation:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  How well do we love ourselves?  As Christians, perhaps especially as Episcopalians (some of us ex-Catholics), I’ve observed that sometimes we suffer from a mistaken idea of “humility”.  If you don’t believe me, try and give someone a compliment today, and see how uncomfortable things can get!  “No, no, not me!”, may be the response.  Or thank someone and hear, “Not at all, please don’t thank me.”  The Apostle Paul addresses this issue as well, reminding people that they are God’s temple, that they are so special, so beloved, that God dwells in them!  How much of our hate, our resentment, the grudges that we bear come from our own inability to deeply believe that we are precious, beloved children of God?

Jesus reminds us of this all the time.  Remember God’s words to Jesus when he rose from the waters of his own baptism: “You are my beloved child”.  Do you think that Jesus did not know that?  Or was God talking to us as well?  When we love our neighbors as ourselves, and when we go a step further, and extend kindness to those who speak ill of us, upon what foundation do we build?  Resting on the fact that we are – all of us, from the moment we are born, before we are even able to do a single thing – beloved.  I’d like to suggest, therefore, that the cure for the poison of hatred may be found in first loving God, and then loving ourselves, as creatures, offspring, perfect children of God, and once we become more secure and certain in that love, we become more able to love others.

Now, this cure is not magic; it takes daily work, and practice, occasional failure, and more practice.  Today, in our formation class, we talk(ed) about prayer practices that can help us live into the Love that God has created in us.  Practices like daily devotions, like confession and absolution; sacraments like Baptism and renewing our baptismal promises; and the nourishing sacrament of Eucharist.  Remember what the word Eucharist means?  Thanksgiving!  Giving thanks to God for all our blessings, including the miracle that all are loved and lovable.

Now this love does not require our becoming a holy doormat.  Jesus’ idea of “turning the other cheek” is not a form of self-flagellation, but rather of non-violent resistance.  Having the courage to stand up to evil, without becoming hateful ourselves.  Knowing that, through loving ourselves and extending dignity and respect to others as equal human beings, we open the door for transformation.

Civil rights leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while jailed for his non-violent resistance, wrote: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  . . . Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.  Dr. King wrote about President Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow.  He told the story about how Lincoln appointed one of his most outspoken enemies to his cabinet, and how “through the power of love Lincoln transformed an enemy into a friend.”

King talked about how Lincoln used this same principal to speak kindly about the South during the bitterness of the Civil War.  “Asked by a shocked bystander how he could do this, Lincoln said, ‘Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?’”.  Rev. King ended this book, entitled “Strength to Love”, with a hymn.  He often preached on hymns.

Our service today will end by singing the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” first proclaimed as a poem by 500 school children to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in the year 1900.  Because of its undaunted strength of optimism, the eventual hymn became a beloved anthem for human rights in our nation, and in our Episcopal Church.  It is hard to hate when you are singing.

My friends, let us become the cure for the hate that ails us; let us remember to love ourselves, our neighbors, and those whom we don’t yet understand.  In the name of the One who came to remind us of Love.  AMEN.

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