“Friends and Enemies” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune

Listen to the sermon from Sunday, September 20, 2015 titled “Friends and Enemies” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.

Our gospel this week has Jesus predicting his violent death again.  The disciples don’t want to hear it.  They don’t understand it.  And who can blame them?  We don’t want to hear it either.

Most scholars believe Mark was the first gospel to be written, and that it was written to explain the cross to a confused world.  Even the first believers had trouble with the concept.  I mean, you join a religion to make your life easier, don’t you?  Who wants to follow a Messiah promising you trouble if you do things his way?

Here is the sad truth and we have to get over our denial about it.  Good always meets resistance in this world.  Sometimes it takes the form of verbal violence, sometimes it’s ostracism and exclusion, and sometimes it reaches the level of physical violence, even murder.  This should not surprise us, but it does.

James asserts a stark dichotomy between Christians and the culture:  “Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4).  I don’t think he’s talking about women wearing pants or going to the movies on a Sunday, but losing your soul to rise to the top of the cultural dung heap of your time.

Some Christians have tried to separate themselves to keep pure from the world in idealistic utopian communities.  Turns out, you can’t create a perfect Christian community out of imperfect people.  Others have sought persuasively or forcibly to turn this world into God’s world, but that always compromises religious liberty.  History is red with human disaster when there is no separation between religion and state.

So what do we do?  Frankly, the Bible itself is divided between an apocalyptic view that calls God’s people to complete separation and a prophetic view that calls God’s people to progressive engagement.  Christ gave his followers a mission in the world to embody God’s love for all people, so some kind of engagement with the world is essential.  In John, Jesus says we are “in the world, but not of the world” (John 17:15-18), which means we engage this world with the values of God’s world.

The core values of our biblical faith are clear:  God’s love leaves nobody out.  God wants us to care for one another.  God especially wants us to care for the poor, the sick, the stranger, the excluded.  Jesus modeled and called his followers to lives of humble sacrificial service.

Most every Christian I know would agree those are our values.  But when it comes to living them, we jump into the Hunger Games of “Who Is the Greatest?” like the disciples in Mark’s story today, and suddenly we’re dividing into friends and enemies.  And since family disagreements are typically the most passionate and violent, our worst enemies would seem to be people of our own faith.

But don’t forget, if you start talking about letting these core values inform public policy, it’s not just some fellow Christians who will oppose you.  You’re threatening somebody’s profits.  You’re threatening somebody’s power.  You’re threatening somebody’s idols.  And you will get resistance for doing it. You will be persecuted.  I don’t just mean being “unfriended” in Facebook.

Now when you suffer because of poor choices you have made, don’t call it “persecution.”  Call it consequence.  When you suffer physical frailty, don’t call it “the cross you must bear.”  Call it mortality.  When you suffer because God hasn’t done what you thought God should do, don’t call it persecution.  Call it superstition, because you had the wrong idea of God in the first place.

When you suffer because you abuse other people in the name of God, don’t call it persecution.  Call it “taking God’s name in vain.”  And when you are called names and made fun of, or no longer invited to certain parties because of speaking your truth, don’t call it persecution.  That’s just annoyance, because we can hardly compare that to being thrown to the lions, for God’s sake.  But when you stand on a matter of conscience and meet persistent systemic resistance and abuse and violence of different kinds, call that persecution, and don’t be surprised.

The Bible talks in many places about enemies.  In our Hebrew scripture today Jeremiah takes his enemies to God in prayer: “Let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause” (Jer 11:20).  He echoes a whole section of the psalms called “imprecatory” because they call down God’s vengeance against their enemies.  Like Psalm 59:

“Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; protect me from those who rise up against me. For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter, consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more” (Psalm 59:1, 12-13).

Or Psalm 140:

“Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise!” (Psalm 140:10).

Or Psalm 137, written in exile:

“Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:7-9).

Strong stuff!  And hardly the milk of Christian kindness.  But ooh, it feels good to pray it, and the imprecatory psalms are great when you’re watching presidential debates or somebody cuts you off in traffic. We know God knows better, and we trust God to do the right thing instead, even when we’re praying in a fit of temper or bitter rage.

My point is the Bible recognizes God has enemies who focus their enmity on the people of God, but God has our back.  And these psalms recognize vengeance is ultimately God’s prerogative and not ours.

So God has enemies.

And then Jesus comes along and muddies things up.  In the first place he says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 544).  He says, “The Most High… is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).  He says, “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14).  And from the cross he forgives the very people who put him there, which is all humanity, of course (Luke 23:34). What are we supposed to do with that?  I mean, if you “love your enemy,” they can hardly be your enemy, am I right?

I suppose enemies have a place.  They keep us honest.  They make us accountable.  They show us sides of ourselves we would prefer not to see.  And how else shall we grow but by helping each other see the truth?  I don’t know, maybe we need enemies to learn how to love because if you can learn to transcend differences, forgive and try again, love your enemy for God’s sake, you can love just about anybody, am I right?

Likewise friends are a treasure beyond value.  Yet sometimes, our friends can be enemies to our best selves, when they don’t hold us accountable, when they don’t urge us to good choices, when they flatter and encourage, but refuse to speak the truth in love and in a loving way.

Which brings me back to our gospel story today.  Jesus’ closest friends are Jesus worst enemies in this story.  Sure, the religious authorities are about to ally with the political powers to have Jesus killed.  But the disciples refuse to see it, refuse to talk about it, even try to talk him out of it.  They tempt him to abandon his destiny, set aside his mission, and destroy his destiny.  “Go along to get along.”  Lighten up.  Let it go.  Avoid this.  Instead, they are caught up in trying to put themselves in order on the all time top ten list.  Well, at that moment, none of them makes the cut.

So the hard question rises in this text:  what does it mean to be a friend of Jesus?  What does it mean to be his enemy?  And which one are you?

We are not as great as we think.  Not as smart.  Not as mature.  Not as right.  We come to Christ like little children, with all our childish ways.  We trust his grace, try to follow his lead.  Perhaps if we passed through this world like a group of children who don’t expect to rule yet, but know they still have some growing up to do, the world would be a better place.

Author Robert Flynn was invited to pray a prayer of thanksgiving at his church in San Antonio a few weeks ago.  He posted it on Facebook, and this is the part that caught my attention:

We pray for our enemies
that they may see You in us
as we see You in them.
Forgive us for believing our enemies are your enemies.
That we may all be one in Your Presence.
In the name of the One who loves us all.

What does Christ see when he looks upon humanity?  Beloved and despised?  Blessed and cursed?  Friends and enemies?  I think he sees us all as beloved, blessed friends, don’t you?  Why don’t we look at it the same way?  Amen.  May we pray?

God of all of us,

Perhaps we cannot help but divide the world into friends and enemies. But give us the humility to learn from our enemies and resist temptation from our friends.  Lead us away from the temptation to equate our opinions with your righteous judgments that we not take your name in vain.  But make us ever mindful that you hold every soul in your heart. Then help us to love our enemies into being our friends as we remember the cross of Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.

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