Religion that doesn’t teach love is a sham – February 24, 2019

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. To the one who tells us to “go to hell,” we are to say, “God’s goodness be upon you.”

Piece of cake, right? No worries, we can do that. Or maybe we’re thinking “yeah, when pigs fly.”  This passage contains some of the most difficult sayings of Jesus. His radical mandate about loving enemies veers toward the impossible.

We all love those wonderful Gospel stories of healing of the blind and deaf and about miracles like changing water to wine and feeding thousands of people with a few fish and loaves of bread. They are comforting and reassuring. Then there are Sundays like today when what Jesus has to say makes us want to cover our ears, or peruse the announcement wrap-around or think about what we want for lunch.

Preached by Jesus at the end of his famous Sermon on the Mount, it is both disturbing and yet relevant for the present day culture and contemporary life at a time when the world seems to be divided up into “tribes” of conflicting perceptions and aims. He offers a more far-reaching ethic than just keeping commandments, a realm of God ethos. Jesus is saying that the righteousness of this newly launched kingdom of God is more than following rules. It requires and empowers a life yielded to God and neighbor. Jesus wants us to really pay attention to what is in our heart for that is where it all begins.

Still, this is not easy stuff to digest and, let’s be honest, our human nature often goes against this instruction to love, do good to, and forgive enemies and those who do bad things to us and others.  So I’m in awe of someone like Antonia Brenner who died at the age of 86. Known as the “Prison Angel,” she left a comfortable life in Beverly Hills to minister in a notorious Mexican prison with a population of 8,000—eventually giving away most of her possessions, putting on a homemade nun’s habit and spending more than 30 years living in a cell to be closer to inmates.

La Mesa was a notorious hellhole where rich drug lords ruled the roost while hundreds of their poorer brethren lived in the cold and squalor amid rats and raw sewage, with no beds, food or even lavatory paper unless their relatives brought supplies. Abusive prison guards contributed to the misery, mistreating the mentally ill and administering cruel interrogations.

Mother Antonia had a neuromuscular disorder called myasthenia gravis and was a twice divorced mother of eight children when she began working with the poor in Mexico in the 1960s. She first began providing basic needs like aspirin and eyeglasses for the prison population. She sang in worship services, got a contract to sell soda to the prisoners, and used proceeds to bail out low-level offenders. She prepared those killed in gang fights for burial. Inmates reported how Mother Antonia once walked into the middle of a prison riot while bullets flew and tear gas filled the air. When the inmates saw her standing there fearless in her habit—the fighting stopped.

At first the Roman Catholic Church declined to give her its support; indeed for many years, as a divorcée she had been unable to take Holy Communion. Early on in her work at La Mesa, she had taken private vows and when the bishops of Tijuana and San Diego heard of her work, they officially accepted her efforts as part of the ministry of the church and at age 50 she was finally a real “sister.” That’s when she moved into the women’s section of the prison to a 10 by 10 foot cell. Her mission constantly expanded from inmates to guards to their families.

“It’s different to live among people than it is to visit them,” she told The Washington Post in 2002. “I have to be with them in the middle of the night in case someone is stabbed, in case someone has a ruptured appendix, in case someone dies.” This was, for her, the “good measure passed down.”

That’s a radical lifestyle and a radical example of what Jesus asks of his followers. I confess that I could not do that. I suspect not many of us could. But what about less extreme situations of our opportunities to comply with what Jesus asks of us? How easy is it to love our enemies and pray for those who hate and persecute us?

How easy it for African-Americans to love white nationalist supremacists? Or the parents of LGBT persons to pray for those who so bullied them that they took their own life? What about the families and friends of those killed by gun violence in Parkland ? Can they love the murderer?

How easy is it for the mother of a rape victim to love the molester? Or the wife of a drive by shooting victim to love his killer? Or can the children of parents brutally murdered in a home invasion love the perpetrators? Or someone you thought was a friend who betrays you and throws you under the bus? How easy, how feasible, how doable is that?

I suspect that Jesus knows how near impossible that is to do and how long, if ever, it takes to arrive at a place where we can begin to forgive and love those who harm us. Yet Jesus doesn’t expect us to ignore wrong doing. He isn’t saying we shouldn’t respond to hurt. He doesn’t propose that we should turn our back on oppression, injustice, and violence in the world. He is saying that we should not react the way the wisdom of the world would have us react with aggression and vengeance nor to assume that the only way to deal with a wrong is to get even.

We may be light years away from loving those who have done severe harm to us or to those dear to us, even to those we don’t know but hear about in the news and it might take a while for us just to pray for them even a little. I imagine that did not come any more easily for Mother Antonia. I imagine it may have even taken months or years for her to get from passing out blankets and toiletries to those prisoners at La  Mesa to loving them even to death. “When you know in your heart that something is right, she once said, “that it’s who you are, that God is calling you to do something, you make the sacrifices you have to make.”

“It’s different to live among people than it is to visit them,” Mother Antonia said. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did for us? Live among his people and teach them how to live a better life? Turning the other cheek, giving your cloak, going the extra measure, and giving generously are metaphors—something that casts new light on an otherwise abstract idea—metaphors for the extravagant love God has for us and asks us to share, even to our enemies.

On paper it all looks pretty good. Hearing it in the Sunday Gospel reading it sounds pretty good even if hard to imagine. Is there anyone here this morning who thinks that in practice it’s easy? Certainly not me. But because it’s not easy doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In fact, we can only get there by the grace of God.

Maybe we can begin by being more patient with those who try our patience or more understanding of why some people rub us the wrong way. Maybe Jesus wants us to begin by resisting evil, not by running away from our enemies and letting them think they have won. Maybe he wants us to love them by telling them how unjust they are being and giving them the opportunity to grow and learn from their behavior and attitude and to be open to God’s grace to change their aggressive and hurtful ways.

In the end, when I hear this difficult Gospel, I am challenged by the words of the English novelist, Anna Sewell, who wrote: “There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about religion, but if it does not teach them to be kind to man and beast, it is all a sham.”

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