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NOVEMBER 11, 2012

Christians Bless America

Psalm 34:1-8; Matthew 5:43-48

Give Jesus credit: he doesn’t sugarcoat the Sermon on the Mount. He knows that his words are hard to hear. He knows that you and I won’t have an easy time putting them into practice. He says it time and time again, as if to remind us that he knows: “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you.” Jesus knows that his words to us represent a different standard, a strange one at that, and a higher one. So I’m guessing that he understands that our first response is likely hesitation, even resistance. But he says them all the same.

                        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.

 G.K. Chesterton once said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies, probably because they are generally the same people.” I suppose he’s right about that, don’t you think? How could it be any other way, really? Of course we’re going to have enemies, real enemies. It’s not going to be simply faceless, nameless entities halfway across the world. I will always remember a conversation with a fellow student years ago, because she declared to me her conviction that there is no such thing as an enemy. In her good intention, she decided that we only imagine people to be our enemies. In my horror, I almost told her she was crazy. I managed to bite my tongue and simply ask her about this saying of Jesus: “Love your enemies.” It sort of presumes that we have enemies, doesn’t it? Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it. He doesn’t pretend that there is no conflict in the world, no danger, no animosity between us and our neighbors. You have to give him credit for that.

 Sam Cooper shared with the staff on Tuesday morning a pre-election day story from South Carolina. A friend of his told of a playground incident involving her child and other third-graders at their school. It happened after a mock presidential debate and election, and apparently the debate got pretty heated, as if these kids watched the actual second debate between Governor Romney and President Obama. After the school debate and vote, the kids took it to the playground, where a fight broke out. Now, while that is slightly amusing, it is really more embarrassing. And on behalf of all voting adults, I want to apologize to all you school-age children, who have had to listen to the adults in your life vent their spleens about the political candidates and party they do not like. It was the famous American humorist Will Rogers who said, “A fanatic is always the fellow that is on the opposite side.” We frequently set a bad example for our children on this account. For that, I apologize.

 But Jesus is not surprised, is he? He knows quite well that many will tell us, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” I will never forget hearing the spouse of a former candidate declare the appropriate strategy in responding to one’s political opponents. She said that if someone attacks you, you have to hit back, and hit back quickly, and hit back hard. And maybe that makes some kind of sense in running a political campaign; it certainly is the accepted wisdom. Since I am not paid to advise candidates for office, I won’t bother. But I am actually paid to preach the Gospel to the people of God, and our boss says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And since most of us won’t run for political office, we don’t have much freedom to ignore what our boss says. Actually, even if we do run for office, we don’t have that freedom…

Jesus knows we have enemies, and still, Jesus calls us to something better. He reminds us of a basic fact about us – beneath our political affiliations, beneath our citizenship, lies a more fundamental identity – children of God. If anyone knows enemies, it is the Lord Jesus. If anyone understands the risks of not hitting back, and hitting quickly, and hitting hard, it is Jesus. His point isn’t that you won’t succeed if you hit back; his point is that you can gain the whole world, but lose your soul.

The gift wrapped in this command is one that pulls us outside our bunkers and into the larger world of God’s gracious kingdom. Call it, if you will, an Outside-the-Beltway mentality. It is a mentality not trapped by age-old conflicts and philosophical differences, which get summarized in words like “liberal” and “conservative.” [By the way, I searched, and have yet to find one use in the entire Bible of those two words.] You have likely been encouraged, though not in the exact words, to “love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” You have perhaps been told to seek the interests of your friends and oppose the interests of your enemies. I guess that makes a certain sense; Jesus knows this. He simply commands something better. It’s as if he wants us to know that being good to your friends is only halfway good, and halfway good isn’t good enough for God.

One thing I noticed in studying this passage of scripture last week is that when Jesus turns to describe how God acts, he chooses an example from everyday life. He doesn’t even talk about God’s forgiveness of sins, or about his own journey to the cross. No, when Jesus commands us to love and pray for our enemies, the example he gives is God’s everyday goodness to every person.

He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. In theological terms, you would say this isn’t about salvation, it’s about providence. It’s about everyday blessings. God is indiscriminate in blessing people. God does not choose to bless his friends and curse his enemies. God provides the good things and necessities of life without regard to how people treat him.

 You may be aware of the practice that began in Major League Baseball parks after September 11, 2001. In place of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the commissioner suggested that teams provide a rendition of “God Bless America.” It was especially powerful in the stadiums of New York, where the Mets and Yankees play. The Yankees still offer it every game, while other teams do so on Sundays and special occasions. Irving Berlin’s song usually draws in a chorus of fans to sing along, what is essentially a prayer for this nation. It’s not a terribly specific prayer; it doesn’t name exactly what blessing it asks of God. But it does ask a blessing of all of America, not just part: from the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam. God bless America. God continue to give rain and sunshine to all, indiscriminately. Don’t bless just my friends; bless my enemies, too.

Jesus, in calling us to love and pray for our enemies, hints that God will bless America through Christians acting like children of God.

So it’s no accident that not long after this word, Jesus will turn to instruct us in prayer, using the Lord’s Prayer. It’s no accident because loving your enemies doesn’t come naturally. The only way this happens is through prayer. Prayer expands your world and expands your heart. I have relearned this time and time again; when I am puzzled about something or angry about a conflict, my first instinct is to think through it from every angle; to put into words my own position and my grievance with others. And typically, after I have wasted too much time, I get this little nudge to shut up and pray. And it never fails – when I pray, my world gets bigger and my heart gets larger, and my mind gets sharper. And I understand better. It’s no guarantee, mind you, that you will lose all your prejudices. Even when we have the best of intentions, we can still offer prayer for enemies yet maintain an utterly self-righteous attitude. But prayer has great possibilities. And it’s worth nothing that Jesus doesn’t expect us to suddenly agree with enemies or feel great affection for them; he simply commands us to love them, as God does. He commands us, no matter how we feel, to indiscriminately bless. When you think about it, that simplifies life enormously. Imagine all the emotional energy we can save, and all the time, instead of constantly keeping a record of who is friend and who is foe, whom we will bless and whom we will curse. To be honest, I think a good bit of the anger we express is misplaced – I think we carry around hurts and resentments from our own lives that we project onto other people and things, politics being one of them. And our anger and rancor blind us to the need for our feelings to be mended and our lives to be healed. Psalm 34 offers a helpful insight in getting to that better place: it is about prayer, not only for others, but ourselves. “I sought the Lord and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” You cannot love your enemies without a bedrock trust that God is your faithful Father in heaven. You might be naturally brave without that trust; you might be brave enough to engage in conflict with enemies without that trust; but you cannot be brave enough to love your enemies and pray for them without trusting that God is your faithful Father in heaven. Psalm 34 assures you of an angel of the Lord to surround you in security, to deliver you from danger. And that, really, is the heart of the matter, isn’t it? God is free to bless indiscriminately because what can anyone do to God? And you and I are free to bless because we trust that God will take care of us. It is in tasting and seeing that the Lord is good that we find our blessedness, that we realize our refuge, our sanctuary, our security in God.

In the spring of 1989 I was living in our nation’s capital and preparing to leave a job in civics education for seminary in Richmond. I went with friends to a festival on the Mall there – on the lawn between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. There were great bands and performers on stage all day, and an enormous crowd of humanity filled the place. As I walked with friends within a sea of people, I suddenly was overcome with the reality of those people, not as just a crowd, but as people with names. I saw so many faces of strangers, but was overcome with the awareness that God knew every single one of them by name, and loved every one. I had to kneel down for a moment to gather myself.

Surely the crowd was filled with all sorts of people, Christian and non-Christian alike, saint and sinner, kind and mean. And I am sure, not just because of my being overcome with it, but also because of what Jesus said, that God is indiscriminate in blessing. I knew my call was confirmed that day, and I have never doubted since that day that Christians are blessed by God in order to bless. I left my job that was dedicated to teaching civics, not because it wasn’t an honorable job, but because I had a particular calling to the church, to the Lord Jesus, to help build up a body of people who do for the world what no other group does. America has plenty of partisans. America has enough Inside-the-Beltway thinking among policy wonks, talking heads, and bloggers. It doesn’t need any more Inside-the-Beltway thinking. America needs Christians who are determined to bless, to love and to pray.

I hope that when we sing our closing hymn – O Beautiful, For Spacious Skies – we will do so in the spirit of prayer. I hope we do so in humility, singing with gratitude for the blessings we have, and zeal for us to become what we are not yet. I pray that the Christian church in this nation can hear our Lord’s call to a higher standard; a more difficult standard for sure, but a better one. Not just one more player in the politics of the day, not one more party jockeying for power; but a holy people, the children of God, blessing America.

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