A homily preached by John Henderson
January 19, 2022
Clergy/Wardens bi-monthly meeting

The passage from Luke confounds me, and has confounded me since I first read it, mostly because it’s an almost unattainable standard, or a charge that seems impossible to meet. I often think about my faith life in many respects like holding on by your fingernails, and then this part of the lectionary comes and you say: well, there’s no way, I don’t even know how to begin on this.

At one point it seemed easier. I remember I first encountered this passage as a boy, where I grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, not far from where Dr. King, whose feast day we celebrate today, did much of his organizing work. I grew up in the shadow of that legacy, and like others I’m sure I repeated phrases about loving your enemy and turning the other cheek to anybody who would listen to me.

I remember asking my father one day if he was a pacifist, in large part because I was sure of what he would say, because we turn the other cheek, and we look for the good in people. He was a tall man who was given to talking a lot, especially over complex ideas or questions that begged for interrogation. He paused, and very much unlike himself, simply said: No. I still think about it today.

I never bothered to ask my mother, although she was the more overtly religious of the two. Loving your neighbor is fine, and you should do it, and you should pray for your enemies, unless they harm you or anyone I love, at which point all bets are off. I appreciated their candor.

Large parts of Christian doctrine has been, for the most part, okay to implement in practice, or at least to talk about implementing. At the absolute least it is comforting. The passage from Exodus speaks to that — it’s comforting to think about God acknowledging our suffering, and empowering us to do something about it. The conversation between Moses and God in Exodus on this point is illuminating. God says that he hears the cries of the Israelites in Egypt and directs Moses to act. Moses says: who am I? God responds — a person I have charged to change the world. That seems like an impossible standard, one that God in fact recognizes, so God says that he will do it with us.

Similarly, the earlier passages from Luke in the Sermon on the Plain are about comforting and rejoicing: “blessed are you who are poor,” “blessed are you who weep now,” and “blessed are you when people hate you.”

It comforts rather than charges you do to a thing which goes against all your instincts and desires.

Tuskegee, as you are of course aware, is the home of the Tuskegee experiments, where the government infected many black men in the town with syphilis without their knowledge, then withheld medical care, then waited to see what would happen. Less discussed, but equally true, is that Tuskegee is the home of a series of systematic boycotts by the largely white communities to the north and east to deprive the people of Tuskegee of their livelihoods. If you drive through the town now, the part outside of the university, it looks like sections of West Baltimore, around Pennsylvania Ave, where an entrenched system of racism has deprived people of their livelihoods, shuttered storefronts, and depressed economies. Thinking about Baltimore now, it is remarkable how we refuse to discuss those things in race-based terms, even though their creation and maintenance was explicitly race based. Try taking a bus from predominantly black Ten Hills, in West Baltimore, to the Amazon plant in Dundalk, just outside the city. It’s very hard to do — it takes about 2 hours.

What I’m saying is that it is far harder to forgive, and to pray for your enemies, as an adult, when you look at the magnitude of the harm, and when you have loved ones that you hold dear.

And yet, that’s the challenge. Christ directs us to stay in community with those people or systems that harm us, and to not discard them or dismiss them. Christ also directs us to transform the world into a more just place, and to incorporate others — especially those that we disagree with — into that change.

Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, 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; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Luke 6:27–36