To hear this sermon as preached, press play below.
February 24th 2019
United Church of Jaffrey
Luke 6:27-38 | A quote from the 14th Dalai Lama
“Every single being, even those who are hostile to us, is just as afraid of suffering as we are, and seeks happiness in the same way we do. Every person has the same right as we do to be happy and not to suffer. So let’s take care of others wholeheartedly, of both our friends and our enemies. This is the basis for true compassion.” — 14th Dalai Lama
Not long ago I told a story, from the pulpit, about a confused time of my life when I ended up spending a seasick month aboard a tugboat, plying the deep in the Merchant Marine.
After the service, Cynthia came up to me:
“Funny,” she said. “I don’t remember seeing that job on your resume.”
“Yes,” I said, laughing. “Somehow, I forgot to mention it.”
“Well” she said, smiling, “I suppose we might hear more about it.”
As it turns out, this story comes from around the same time.
As you recall, I was living in Jersey City at the time. My daughter Isabel was about three years old, and I only got to see her once a week.
And when you only get to see your kid once a week, you want it to be good!
That’s why, one summer day, we could be found walking on the promenade down by the Hudson river…
Father and daughter…
The breeze was warm coming in from the harbor.
The ferries came in
The ferries went out again.
Old men were fishing. Hot dogs were being sold. I felt good, and I think Isabel felt good too, because, before long, she did that thing that kids who feel good on a summer day do…
She snuck up on a flock of pigeons and stomped on the ground
“BOO!” she shouted.
Off they flew.
That was fun!
But Jersey City pigeons have seen it all. They don’t get fazed when some kid spooks them. They just flew a few feet, and settled back down as if nothing happened.
Not to be outdone by a bunch of scrawny pigeons, Isabel upped her game, and ran at them, waving her hands and kicking her feet.
This had better results.
The pigeons flew away.
But something else also flew.
It came off her foot, and, in one beautiful slow-motion arc, it flew over the railing of the promenade, and…
What goes up, must come down…
…into the Hudson river!
The passage that Alison just read for us, contains within it one of Christ’s most well-known and difficult teachings.
Love your enemies, he teaches. 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;
Jesus asks us to love our enemies.
Love your enemies…
From generation to generation… echoes have reverberated from age to age — people of all colors, shapes and sizes have complained…
Did he really mean that?
The two words: love and enemy are simply incompatible.
They are like magnets that have opposing force. Try as you might to get them together, their nature is to resist.
I have heard theologians and preachers jumping through hoops – redefining the love, or enemy, so that the idea can make a little sense.
But, for me at least, these gymnastics have proven unsatisfactory.
It’s not that our enemies are incapable of inspiring strong emotions.
Fear is a strong emotion.
So is hatred.
These emotions seem reasonable – even logical.
That feels utterly illogical.
Why would I love my enemy?
We humans are hard-wired to reflect back the emotions that are presented to us.
When someone nearby laughs, it’s hard not to laugh.
Try keeping a dry eye in the company of someone who is crying…
Similarly, if a person bears me ill will – my natural response, is to bear that person ill will in return.
Stands to reason.
Now where did we leave Isabel?
She had just, unwittingly, launched her shoe into the Hudson River.
Three years old, the lovely little girl’s afternoon flipped, in an instant, from being a fun careless day out with Dad, to a moment when the universe reached out and snatched something away.
Tears sprang to her eyes as she studied me, waiting for my response.
What are you going to do about it, Dad?
“Don’t worry” I said.
The shoe itself was floating on the water, not far from shore, but the water itself was some fifteen feet below the promenade.
I had the preposterous idea that maybe, if I got it close enough to shore, a fisherman could hook it – so I started throwing rocks into the water just beyond it, to nudge it closer.
All this, of course, to absolutely no avail.
The shoe simply floated farther and farther out, and Isabel stood beside me weeping.
Revealed in this tender, sad moment – need I say it – is all the pure yearning of human love.
The father’s gallant desire to offer good fun, turned now to the frustrated attempt to bend the will of the universe to his daughter’s whim.
The child, confused by loss, by fear, and by her father’s inability to bend the will of the universe to her whim…
The shoe gone, the child weeping…
Dad was going to have figure something out to save the day.
Rather than solve the “Love your enemy” problem, let’s spend a little time within the difficulty it raises.
The difficulty is that we are not used to “love” and “enemy” being related to each other.
So, I wonder…
What would it be like if we practiced by considering other things that don’t usually go together?
Consider the poem that I discovered last week by Ted Kooser, the former Poet Laureate of the United States…
If you’d like to follow along, this poem is printed in the bulletin under the “Poetry Corner”
A Rainy Morning
A young woman in a wheelchair,
wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lead again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.
When was the last time you admired the precise athleticism of a disabled person?
This is not something we are used to – admiring the physicality of a person in a wheelchair.
And yet, the poet shows us, through the delicacy of his perception, that there is nothing more surprisingly clear than the beauty of a young woman, pushing her wheelchair!
If you look at the front of the bulletin, you will find an illustration that bears an uncanny resemblance to my beloved Heloise.
Heloise is my cat.
And by that I mean that she is my cat.
She will now and then toy with Cary or Silas, but when she wants to cuddle, and go to sleep on someone’s lap – she chooses me.
Heloise is, without a doubt, the furry love of my life.
But when I say this, I am also aware, that this darling cat is, at one and the same time, a cold-blooded murderer.
I have seen her in the act of killing. It’s not pretty.
I am in love with a murderer.
Two ideas that don’t usually go together, but are true.
“You know what we are going to do?” I asked Isabel.
“What?” she asked.
“Take off your other shoe.”
“What?” she asked, confused.
“Go ahead.” I said, “take off your other shoe.”
Slowly, Isabel took off her other shoe. Now she was in her stocking-feet on the paved promenade.
I picked her up, and I carried her to the metal fence that separated that promenade from the river below.
“Go ahead.” I said.
A tiny smile crept into her face…
“Yes, go ahead and throw it!”
She wound up, and, with a wild yell, pitched her other shoe into the Hudson river.
“Wow,” I said, “look how far you threw it!”
“Wow!” she said.
She looked out over the water for awhile.
“You know what?” she said.
“Now my first shoe won’t be lonely.”
“That’s right!” I said. And then: “Are you ready?”
I put her up on my shoulders and we walked home.