Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on Sunday, 20 February. Readings for this Sunday: Gen 45:3-11; Ps 36:1-12;41-42; 1 Cor 15.35-38,42-50; Lk 6:27-38
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
These words from today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, from the section often called “The Sermon on the Plain”, are among the most challenging in all of scripture. In this part of the sermon, Jesus tells us to set a seemingly impossible standard of radical forgiveness for how we treat those do wrong to us. I choose the word “radical” because this standard of behaviour is light years beyond the norms of human society, with our built-in antagonisms, bruised egoes, tit for tat grudges, and our desire for point scoring at other’s expense. Rather, Jesus urges us to be as merciful as God is, “for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Lk 6:35). Today I want to suggest that we urgently need to hear these words now, at this fraught time in our country’s life.
Most of you will agree with me that the last month has been an awful time for Canada in a particularly awful two years. As I write this, police in Ottawa are clearing out the protesters that have entrenched themselves near Parliament Hill. It’s been hard to make sense of the protests and the so-called Freedom Convoy, which seem to have been fuelled by rage, suspicion, paranoia, fear, and a whole lot of shadowy money. For a country famous for politeness, and supposedly committed to peace, order, and good government, it’s all been strange and embarrassing. This week a Spanish friend wrote to me and asked, “what’s going on with Canada? We always thought you were sane”.
These last few weeks have been like the eruption of a volcano, a sudden event triggered by forces that have been building for a long time. Those forces include two years of frustrations over Covid restrictions, populist suspicion of government and science, the ability of the internet to foster conspiracy theories and paranoia, fear of the future, fear of immigration and perceived threats to the white, Christian majority, western alienation combined with perceived threats to lifestyles built on carbon-based industries, and a growing influence of hyper-partisan US-style politics and culture wars. That is my amateur, semi-academic, abstract opinion.
The growing problem is that very few of us are capable of keeping all this at the abstract, academic level. Fear, anger, betrayal, and hatred are all visceral emotions that seize our guts and cloud our minds. For me, at least, it’s personal. But then Jesus says “love your enemies”.
That veteran I used to serve with, seen on camera with his medals and beret, waving a sign, that’s personal. It’s personal because we have different ideas of loyalty and service and honour, and my first instinct is to shake my head and say “Bro, I don’t know you any more”. But then Jesus says “love your enemies”.
That guy in the store wearing a hoodie that says something very rude about the Prime Minister, that’s personal. It’s personal because I find it vulgar and disrespectful to give the finger to democracy and to people like me who think and voted differently. But then Jesus says “love your enemies”.
Those protestors chanting freedom, that’s personal. It’s personal because for two years I’ve dutifully worn the mask and gotten the jabs and stayed home and done my bit because I was willing to sacrifice my freedom to protect others, and now the demonstrators are telling me that they’re the good Canadian patriots and I’m a fearful, deluded sheep instead of a citizen? But then Jesus says “love your enemies”.
In the spirit of the confessional, I’ll confess that writing those last three paragraphs made me a bit angry, and I wasn’t listening to Jesus as well as I should have been. I could feel my blood pressure rising, so I stepped away to make some tea. And as I made tea, I thought about how, if it’s personal for me, then I’m sure it’s personal for you too, whatever your politics may be.
Canada’s your country too. You’ve spent the last two years under lockdown. You had to decide whether to get the vaccine. You’ve experienced the same frustrations. And, having confessed my biases in this sermon, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you feel differently about all this than I do. But here’s the thing. Jesus is speaking to all of us.
This section of Luke is called “The Sermon on the Plain” because of how it begins: Jesus “stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people” (Lk 6:17). As biblical scholar Sarah Henrich notes, this puts all of us on “a level playing field”. Standing with Jesus, amid this “great multitude” that is Canada today, there are no exceptions for partisan positions. “Love your enemy”, says Jesus, and we sure need to hear those words.
How many times recently have we heard about families divided and friendships ended? I’ve heard people say “I thought I knew so and so, but I was wrong”, or “that person is now dead to me”. I think we’re all starting to realize Covid is going to leave us a more disunited society than at any time in our recent history. I don’t see any way out of this except that we start to “love our enemy”.
To love our enemies does not mean that we have to accept horrible statements or condone heinous positions. Hateful speech and horrible behaviour should be firmly and calmly opposed. In such cases, Jesus tells us, “don’t hate back”. But I don’t think that most people are hateful fascists or Nazis or racists. As I said above, a lot of our divisions are explained by fear. A lot of those divisions can be bridged by calm dialogue. It’s hard to hate people when they don’t hate you back.
Finally, the best cure to our own worst tendencies is to remember that we all stand under the gaze of God and under the forgiveness of the cross. “Forgive”, says Jesus, “and you will be forgiven” (Lk 6.37). It’s not just the other guy, the guy on the wrong side, who needs to be forgiven. It’s us, whenever we stray in angry self-righteousness and whenever we bask in the warmth of our condemnation of the wrong-headed.
All of us need to be forgiven. Jesus teaches us now, as we gather on the plain with him. When Jesus reminds us that God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Lk 6:35), he’s speaking to all of us. We’re all sinners, and we pray that God will forgive us all, as we stand before him, under his cross. Let us all remember, as we struggle with our anger and with our divisions, that God’s love is poured out on all of us. May God bless and have mercy on our country.