A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of Christ Church Greenwich
Delivered on Sunday, February 20, 2022
I suspect that each of us has at least one person whom we struggle to forgive. The issue that caused us hurt might have occurred recently or long ago. We may feel paralyzed about how to act or react to this person who has hurt us.
In our gospel today, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…” Few Bible teachings are harder to follow. To some they seem impractical, unachievable, and perhaps even like reckless advice. Christianity is the only religion in the world that instructs its followers to love their enemies. There’s nothing within us that naturally leads us to love our enemies. Jesus doesn’t say like your enemies. He says, love them.
Sometimes, the people who have hurt us the most are members of our own family. Those who betray us are often those who are closest to us. In today’s Old Testament lesson, we recall that Joseph was his father Jacob’s twelfth child and favorite son. His father spoiled him and gave him a colorful coat. His half-brothers grew jealous. They detested Joseph’s obnoxious behavior. So, they plotted to kill him, but decided instead to sell him as a slave. They dipped his coat in blood and told their father that a lion had devoured Joseph. Their father was heartbroken.
But Joseph survived, rose to power and became Pharaoh’s second in command. Joseph revealed a dream he had had to Pharaoh in which Egypt would have seven of abundance followed by seven years of famine. He advised Pharaoh to stockpile food to help the Egyptians survive the blight. Pharaoh trusted Joseph and the stockpile of food saved the nation.
Then Joseph’s half-brothers came to Egypt begging for food. Joseph recognized them, but his identity remained hidden. He could easily have banished or arrested them. He had every reason to hate them, but instead Joseph provided them with food and forgave them. He chose the path of love and reconciliation to the very people who tried to kill him.
No doubt, Jesus knew this story. He was not impractical or naïve. Jesus knew what he was saying when he said, “Love your enemies.” He was not using Oriental hyperbole. Jesus knew firsthand how difficult it was to forgive those who curse, mock or betray you.
In life, there will always be some people who do not like you. They will dislike you because of your success, your name, the car that you drive, the clothes that you wear or where go to school. They will dislike you because your skin color, your religion, your age or gender, the tattoo on your arm or the addition on your house. We may be tempted to hate them in return.
Nearly 150,000 Russian soldiers are poised to invade the Ukraine in the most drastic invasion since the Cold War. How does the world react to such calculated aggression? A fifteen-year-old Russian skater tested positive for an illegal drug but was allowed to skate in the Olympics. An American athlete chose to compete for the Chinese team after her mother negotiated millions of dollars from the Chinese government. Can we, should we, love our enemies?
Perhaps the first step is to take a step back and take stock of our own shortcomings. When we are prideful and arrogant as individuals, religious groups, political parties or a nation, it is very hard to forgive others. Jesus warns us, “How is it that you can see the splinter in your brother’s eye and not see the beam in your own eye.” When we are grounded in humility, we are less likely to act superior, to judge or to hate someone else.
St. Augustine said, “Never fight evil as if it were something that arose totally outside yourself.” After all, it takes a sinner to recognize a sinner. Sin blinds us, but love restores our sight. Love sees what is essential to life and invisible to the eye. Love recognizes others as fellow sinners. But hatred destroys all objectivity. The person who hates becomes ugly, while the person who loves becomes beautiful. It takes a strong person to choose love over hate, but when we do we sever the chain of evil.
Second, each time that we begin to feel hate for another, we must stop and strive to see the good in that other person, group or nation. There is a mixture of good and evil in each of us. Goethe wrote, “There is enough stuff in me to make me both a gentleman and a rogue.” St. Paul confessed, “For what I do is not the good thing that I desire to do; but the evil thing that I desire not to do…” (Romans 7:19) Each of us is conflicted and fallible.
Third, recognize that the people who are most filled with hate are always the most insecure. They act out of their own insecurity. The road to peace requires being hard on issues and gentle on people. As Christians, we are called to out-love, out-pray, out-give, and out-forgive others.
In his book The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm notes that becoming fully human takes the same kind of practice that it takes to master music or dance or any profession. The church is a school for love, where we can learn and practice the skills required to love and forgive our enemies. Jesus commands us to love at a divine level, which does not come naturally to us. God’s sacrificial agape love is what love like Jesus.
But there are nuances. Jesus said, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other cheek,” he was not thinking of victims of child abuse or domestic violence. This is not what Jesus had in mind. Many years ago, I spent a week studying prophetic preaching with William Sloan Coffin and theologian Walter Wink in Washington, D.C. Wink told us that if a Roman soldier wanted to humiliate someone, he slap his left cheek with the backside of his right hand. But by turning the other cheek, the soldier’s slap would miss the person’s face. Thus, Jesus was teaching a non-violent way of refusing to be humiliated.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” It is only when we link our love of God with our love of neighbor that we discover the power to love our enemies.
When we forgive our enemies we experience the beauty of holiness, which transforms us and all those around us. Such a love is not human, but divine, and it is the very antidote so needed in our world today to overcome hate and division.
Hate begets hate. Force begets force. Evil begets evil. Hate is spiritually devastating. It causes us to shrivel. In his book Love, Miracles, and Medicine, Yale oncologist Bernie Siegel counsels cancer patients to pray, meditate, monitor their diet, exercise, socialize, eliminate stress, and forgive anyone who has hurt us. He knew that hatred corrodes the vessel that carries it.
Psychiatrists and physicians note that harboring hatred generates feelings of shame and guilt. We can become neurotic messes. But the world’s greatest physician and psychologist who wandered through Palestine said, “Love your enemies.” Don’t hate anybody. When you hate anybody, it destroys your inner peace and harmony. Hate destroys the hater. So forgive, let go and move forward in life.
How much can you forgive? Each of us must determine where to draw the line. There are times where we must stand firm and condemn wrong behavior. Who looking back on history would applaud those who silently watched while the Nazis took power, carried out atrocities and murdered six million Jews. We are called to love but also to confront evil. There are forces at work in our country and our world today, spreading falsehoods, disparaging people, and undermining trust and democracy. We must stand strong and condemn wrong behavior.
I close on this President’s Day Weekend reminding you that many men campaigned against Abraham Lincoln for the presidency. One of the candidates, Edwin Stanton, traveled across the country denigrating, mocking and maligning Lincoln everywhere he spoke. Stanton said, “You don’t want a tall, lanky, ignorant man like him as the president.”
Lincoln won the election, and when it came time for him to name his Cabinet he selected Stanton as his Secretary of War. People were shocked. Lincoln’s advisers asked, “Do you not know what he has been saying about you? Do you not know what he has tried to do to you?” Lincoln replied, “Oh yes, I know about it; I read about it; I’ve heard him myself. But after looking over the country, I find that he is the best man for the job.” Lincoln loved his enemy, and despite being condescending and difficult to work with, Stanton served our nation well.
He rushed to Lincoln’s side after he was shot. His composure was remarkable. But at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865 as the president was pronounced dead, tears streamed down the cheeks of the man who had once treated Lincoln like an enemy. Stanton stood up and said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Hate destroys, but love rebuilds. Hate divides, but love unites. Love has the power to transform each of us and those whom we are tempted to hate. I don’t have to tell you that our world is facing enormous challenges right now. Love can transform every problem that we face. Love is the only way to make men and women better, to cure them of what ails and distorts them. We hear it in the old hymn:
In Christ there is no East or West.
In Him no North or South,
But one great fellowship of Love
Throughout the whole wide world.