A Sermon delivered at the First Church in Sterling, MA
on February 23, 2019
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
A man who had reached his 100th birthday was being interviewed by a reporter.
“What are you most proud of?” the reporter asked.
“Well,” said the man, “I don’t have an enemy in the world.”
“Wow! What a beautiful thought! How inspirational!” said the reporter. “What’s your secret?”
“I outlived every last one of them.” Said the man.
I like his strategy. There’s one problem with it though: the only person I know for sure you and I can never outlive is ourselves.
Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Just like we can’t love our neighbors if we don’t love ourselves first, we can’t love our enemies if we don’t love ourselves first.
The first rule of preaching is to never talk about your process. But I’m going to break that rule because I like breaking rules. I struggled mightily with this sermon. I rewrote it probably 6 times. It was because I got stuck on one question I just couldn’t get past.
Like the lawyer who tries to trick Jesus with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” I got all caught up in this question:
“Who is my enemy?”
It’s not that I don’t have an answer to that question. It’s just that I have too many complex answers.
I’ve created more than a few enemies in my life. Sometimes I have produced enemies from hurtful mistakes I’ve made. But mostly I’ve made enemies by taking bold action, or telling hard truths.
Notice Jesus doesn’t advise us to be more likeable in his sermon on the level place.
He tells us instead to love those who hate us. My colleague Taryn said, “If everyone’s your friend…you’re doing life wrong, which is partially what Jesus meant. Get yourself an enemy! Then love them!” Or, as someone once said, “live your life in such a way that Westboro Baptist comes to picket your funeral.”
I did a funeral for one of the great pillars of this church who now joins the saints in light—Bob Smiley—on Thursday. He had every leadership position there was to have in this church, from Moderator to deacon. Apparently he used to advise lay leaders that it was good to be in trouble with someone at First Church. It meant that something positive was happening…that some good change was afoot. I took that advice immediately to heart, as I am always in trouble with someone around these parts.
So, I intended to preach some version of Taylor Swift’s immortal words: “haters gonna hate.” Love anyway. I was going to preach Howard Thurman’s wisdom: Don’t let other people’s hatred become your own. Don’t become the thing you disdain.
But still, I kept getting caught up in this question: “Who is my enemy?”
So, I did what preachers do—I looked to the scriptures for other instances of the word “enemy.” It’s in there a lot.
Because I did two funerals this week, I recited the 23rd psalm a bunch. The part of the 23rd psalm that is most compelling for me is the line that says: “God sets a table before me in the presence of my enemies. He anoints my head with oil, my cup over flows.”
Sometimes I imagine an extravagant table filled with bread and chocolate, fine linens and silver candlesticks, and my cup overflowing with wine. I picture God setting a place before me in the presence of my ex-mother-in-law, the mean girls from Rundlett Junior High School, the first man who broke my heart, domestic terrorists and Ann Coulter.
I imagine God serving up a big pot of steaming chicken soup with dumplings, beckoning me to sit down. My enemies are watching me carefully place my napkin in my lap and they are salivating.
I imagine Jesus teaching me to pray before we eat: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, forgive us as we forgive others. And then—maybe Jesus gives Ann Coulter the stink eye before saying— “And Deliver us from evil. Amen.”
But, in biblical terms, there are two kinds of enemies: the demonic kind and the human kind. In the 23rd Psalm, David is referring to demonic enemies.
David’s not referring to my ex mother-in-law at all, but to the ways in which Satan, the Accuser, attempts to steal our own worth. God is there in the midst of all that reminding us of the banquet he’s set before us in the PRESENCE of all that holds us back from Love’s glory.
“What about when enemies have a human face, Jesus?”
I decided to ask you all who your enemies were when I got home from a day long pastoral care training for lay folks yesterday. On Facebook. Late at night. I got hundreds of answers. The answers weren’t really wearing human faces like I thought they would be. They were more “what” than “who.”
Who is YOUR enemy? I asked.
You said things like ignorance, fear, autocorrect, expectations, ego, oppression, hatred, worry, alcohol, capitalism, fossil fuel companies, disco, the New York Yankees, secrets and systems that support them, apathy, exhaustion, judgement, people who ask for Saturday night sermon help…
Some of you named people who have harmed you, Nazis, your exes, or people who deny the humanity of others.
But here’s what surprised me: most of you said that you are, in fact, your own worst enemy.
More than half of you said some version of “the voice inside my head is my enemy. The part of me that second guesses every decision, that tells me I’m worthless; that I’m not good enough. That’s my enemy.”
You didn’t answer the way I expected you to: with your political opponents, the people in the internet comment section, the kids who always picked you last for teams in gym class, your critical grandmother who told you you we are fat and lazy, the people who have violated your bodies over the years with violence.
You told me that the accuser resides inside of you.
The enemy, it seems, is not just external to us, but inside of us. It’s like the horror movie when the actor suddenly realizes, “the call is coming from inside the house.”
But here’s what I KNOW to be true:
God is there, too, inside the house. God sets a table there in the midst of our fears and insecurities and our apathy and our anxiety and our tendency to beat ourselves up and says:
“Your worth is determined by my Love, not the accuser’s hate. Here, have some soup.”
Jesus says “love your enemy.” Just like we can’t love our neighbors if we don’t love ourselves, we can’t love the enemy if we don’t love ourselves.
The word used in this passage from Luke for love—agape in Greek—is not the Hallmark kind of love. It isn’t the doormat kind of love. It is the rebel kind of love. It is the brave, whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for the well-being of the other. Expecting nothing in return.
I want us to imagine together what it might look like to give brave, whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for our own well-being. Expecting nothing from ourselves in return. Not a thinner body, or a reprieve from foot-in-mouth syndrome, or remembering to send thank you notes.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and writer, thinks we should pray naked in front to the mirror.
Bear with me.
She recommends that from time to time we take off our clothes, look at ourselves in the mirror, and tell ourselves with as much tenderness as we can, "Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address."
Thankfully, Jesus left us a blue print for how to love. He told us how to see the divine in the faces of our enemies, even if we see the face of our enemy in the mirror.
So beloved, if your worst enemy is yourself, go home tonight and pray naked in front of the mirror. Look at yourselves with as much gentleness as you can muster. Look at every stretch mark and wrinkle and mole and hair or lack thereof…let your body tell the story of where you’ve been. Embrace yourself with the kindness that can only come from a wastefully, extravagantly loving God. Your life has been shaped in that body. It is your soul’s address. Let God carefully set a table before you in the presence of all the demonic forces in your life that have led you to believe you are not worthy of Love.
And then sit down at that table with God and have some delicious enemy pie.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org