Epiphany 7A – “Love Your Enemies”
February 20, 2011
“You have heard it said….but I say to you…”
This refrain is heard over and over again in this middle portion of the Sermon of the Mount in the gospel of Matthew.
This morning, we hear it another couple of times,
in perhaps the most difficult sayings of Jesus…
You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor…”
But I say to you, “Love your enemies…”
Love your enemies?
I could see maybe tolerate them…
Avoid harming them….
But love them?
It seems so extraordinary. Impossible.
By the grace of God, there are some people
who have been able to do just that.
In the face of harm; in the face of injustice;
in the face of unimaginable suffering…
they’ve been able to go beyond their hurt and sorrow
and turn them into love.
Today we’ll hear two stories – two true stories – of people who despite extreme
physical and emotional harm – despite living through evil — actually learned to love their enemies.
The first is Corrie ten Boom. Corrie and her family were Christians living in Holland at the time of the Holocaust. Her family built a secret room in Corrie’s bedroom to help hide Jewish families. In 1944 a Dutch informant led to the arrest of Corrie’s entire family – her mother, father, brother, and two sisters.
Corrie was sent to the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany.
After the war, Corrie traveled around the world, speaking about her family’s story. These words are from an essay called, “Love Your Enemy” (from Tramp For the Lord)
“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him – a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.
It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter bombed-out land… The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe.
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man.
The place was Ravensbruck and the man who was making his way forward had been a guard – one of the most cruel guards.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, Fraulein!”
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me of course – how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
And I stood there – I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven – and could not forgive. Betsie (my sister) had died in that place – could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there – hand held out – but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it – I knew that. And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion – I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart.”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then. But even so, I realized it was not my love. I had tried, and did not have the power. It was the power of the Holy Spirit…”
The other story is closer to home and within most of our memories.
On Monday morning, October 2, 2006, a gunman entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He opened fire on all of them, killing five girls and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building. His motivation? “I’m angry at God for taking my little daughter,” he told the children.
The story captured the attention of the media in the United States and around the world. By Tuesday morning some fifty television crews had clogged the small village of Nickel Mines, staying for five days until the killer and the killed were buried. Before the funerals had even started, Amish parents brought words of forgiveness to the family of the one who had slain their children.
The outside world was incredulous that such forgiveness could be offered so quickly for such a heinous crime. Of the hundreds of media queries that the authors received about the shooting, questions about forgiveness rose to the top. Forgiveness, in fact, eclipsed the tragic story, trumping the violence and arresting the world’s attention.
Within a week of the murders, Amish forgiveness was a central theme in more than 2,400 news stories around the world. The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, NBC Nightly News, CBS Morning News, Larry King Live, Fox News, Oprah, and dozens of other media outlets heralded the forgiving Amish.
Fresh from the funerals where they had buried their own children, grieving Amish families accounted for half of the seventy-five people who attended the killer’s burial. His widow was deeply moved by their presence as Amish families greeted her and her three children. The forgiveness went beyond talk and graveside presence: the Amish also supported a fund for the shooter’s family.
“All the religions teach [forgiveness],” mused an observer, “but no one does it like the Amish.”
Jesus says, You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor.” But I say to you “Love your enemies.” Amen