Saturday, September 16, 2017

How To Destroy Your Enemies

NW MN Synod Women’s Organization Convention
September 15, 2017
Matthew 5:43-48
In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If this sermon had a title it would be:  How to Destroy Your Enemies.

This title is inspired, in part, by one of my favorite stories about Abraham Lincoln.

Once, a close friend of Lincoln offered him a piece of unsolicited advice.   The man chided Lincoln for his tendency to forgive and seek peace with those who criticized or offended him.   “Rather than befriending your enemies,” the man declared to Lincoln, “you should use your political power to destroy them!”…

….to which Lincoln responded:   “But isn’t that exactly what I’m doing?  
Do I not destroy my enemies, when I make them my friends?”

This was more than just a pithy quotation from Abe Lincoln, though.

It was a nugget of wisdom that that he actually lived out.  Lincoln’s irenic spirit carried through into his approach to political leadership. 

Lincoln had to climb over all sorts of political rivals in order to win the presidency in the election of 1860.

But after he was elected, rather than shunning or shutting out his rivals, President Lincoln embraced them, even inviting a number of them to join his cabinet.   Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote about this in her 2005 best-selling book:  Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

This was hardly a cynical ploy on Lincoln’s part.   It wasn’t just that he adhered to the old rule of thumb:   “keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.”

No, something far deeper was at work here.

For Lincoln--though he may not have been conventionally religious in terms of church membership or worship attendance—Lincoln was thoroughly steeped in the scriptures.

In fact, I believe he understood the life and teaching of Jesus in a profound way.

In 1865, when the tide of the Civil War seemed to be turning in favor of the Union, Lincoln did not support a campaign of retribution against his secessionist enemies, but rather (in the iconic words of his Second Inaugural Address) he declared:  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds…”

Don’t these words resonate with other, far older words, from the Sermon on the Mount, where our Lord Jesus says to us:  “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….”?  (Matthew 5:43-45)

Jesus pioneered a new way to destroy one’s enemies—undoing those who are hostile to us by suing for their friendship.    Jesus set forth this novel, alternative approach to thwarting, eliminating, destroying our enemies.

But Jesus went beyond—far beyond—simply teaching this way of destroying enemies by making them one’s friends.

Jesus lived this way, literally to the climax of his life on earth, bearing a cruel Roman cross on his own bleeding back, allowing himself to be nailed to that cross by his enemies, hoisted to the sky for all to revile him in his shame and misery, dying for them, even as, with his last gasp, he pleaded:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Years later, St Paul plumbed the depths of our Lord’s astounding, mercy-delivering work on the Cross, when he wrote in the fifth chapter of Romans:   “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies,--let me read that again:  if while we were enemies--we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:6-10)

To put this a little differently, drawing upon the theme for your convention:  at the Cross Jesus killed the enemy, the sinful one inside of all of us….Jesus laid us all low, killed us with kindness, infinite, unfathomable kindness….amazing grace!

And that is the way of life, the pattern of being in the world, that Jesus now imprints upon us, writing it on our very hearts. 

If you want to destroy your enemies, here’s the Jesus way—kill them with kindness, overwhelm them with forgiving, seeking, saving love.   Destroy your enemies by making them your friends.

That sounds easy enough—doesn’t it?

No—nothing could be farther from the truth!

The Jesus’ way of destroying enemies is anything but easy.  Honestly, it’s the hardest thing imaginable.

Killing our enemies with kindness—what does that actually involve?
It involves venturing into behaviors that go against our very grain.

Killing with kindness means laying aside our natural inclination to fight fire with fire.

Killing with kindness begins with admitting that other persons’ lives are as valuable as our own.

Killing with kindness starts when we suspend judgment, set aside rancor, resist the urge to spew the hurtful words that are right on the tips of our tongues.

Killing with kindness entails absorbing our wrath—“stuffing” our natural inclination toward revenge.

Killing with kindness undoes us—even as it opens up a way to be restored to our enemies.

If we head down this path toward “the Jesus way” of destroying enemies, we best know where that path will take us.

It will take us to our death:  the death of the proud, self-righteous Old Adam or Old Eve who lives inside each of us.

Would you like to kill your foes with kindness, destroy your enemies the Jesus-way?

OK, then--just as long as you realize that doing so will be the death of you!

Last month, I was fortunate to be among the 900 pastors and deacons of our church who gathered in Atlanta for four days of learning, serving, and being together as rostered ministers of the ELCA.

It was a little like an ELCA youth gathering, only for adults!

In the lineup of outstanding speakers, the one who stood out most memorably was surely Dr. James Forbes retired minister at New York’s historic Riverside Church.

Dr. Forbes, a Holy-Spirited, African American preacher, did something I’d never witnessed before:  he “died” right there on the stage.

As he preached about death and resurrection, Dr. Forbes actually, slowly, “died”….went from standing up ramrod straight….to slowly descending to the floor beneath him, until he was lying there, flat on his back, as if he were dead.

But this dead man was still preaching to us…describing for us a death we all must die…. “not the graveyard kind of death” Dr. Forbes hastened to say….but the unique, unprecedented death we die in our baptismal union with Jesus Christ….a death that instead of spelling the end for us, actually opens up for us what comes next:   the resurrection from death, described by Dr. Forbes as God’s “reconstruction of the infrastructure of [our very] being.”

That’s what I want to convey to you this morning.

My dear friends, sisters in the faith, our Lord Jesus Christ died for us and for all sinners—but it was more than “a graveyard kind of death,” a death marked only by doom and gloom!

Our Lord Jesus Christ died for us and all sinners, to open up for us a new way of dying that leads to living the life we were always meant to live.   

That is what God has in store for us:   a death that ushers us into a Life in which death shall be no more.

When we try on the Jesus-way for size, when we entertain the possibility of destroying our enemies by making them our friends (as the dying Jesus did!)…well then, God has something to work with!

God gets in the act and graciously, amazingly “reconstructs the infrastructure of our being.”

God raises us up to the life we were always intended to live, a life in which it starts to become second nature to us, to live kindly, graciously, forgivingly, mercifully…a brand new life that reveals who we really are:  spitting images of “our Father in heaven…[who] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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