GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH BEING UNCOMFORTABLE
A Sermon on Luke 6:27-36
Sometimes, you just have to tear up your sermon and start all over again. That's what Traci Blackmon, a black United Church of Christ pastor said to Mike Kinman, a white Episcopal priest, the day after Michael Brown was shot and died in Ferguson, Missouri - August 9, 2014.
Traci called Mike, then Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, just after dawn on that Sunday morning. She told Mike she needed him to come to a prayer vigil at the police station, that Sunday evening. He agreed. Then, Traci said something else to Mike, something that makes sense to any pastor trying to pay attention to what’s going on in their world. Sometimes, you just have to tear up your sermon and start all over again.
I wonder: did Jesus ever tear up his sermon? 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” (Luke 6:27). The Gospel passage we’ve just heard is part of a sermon Jesus preached. The Sermon on the Mount - or, the Sermon on the Plain, as the version handed down by St. Luke is called - is heard in the Episcopal Church on two occasions. We can hear about loving enemies on Independence Day, the Fourth of July. The other official time we hear Jesus talk about loving enemies is on those days when we observe either Dr. King’s birthday - or the day of his death.
In his sermons on this passage, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say that, when it came to loving his enemies, he always tried to gain new insights to add to the ones he had already embraced. He knew he needed to keep reflecting on this hard teaching of Jesus, because there was always more for him to learn. He knew it was hard to do good to those who hated him, hard to bless those who cursed him, hard to pray for those who abused him. He knew it was harder than hard to love his enemies.
In the Gospel of John, after hearing Jesus say things like "love your enemies," his disciples respond, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" (6:60) Whether an enemy is a family member or a stranger, whether a terrorist is foreign or domestic, whether the act of evil is perpetrated in an airport or in a theater, a church, or someone's home, who really wants to love their enemy? Who among us actually loves their enemies?
One preaching professor writes about it this way: "Nobody loves their enemies. That's what makes them enemies: we hate them! What’s the difference between friend and enemy if you love them both?" Then, almost as an afterthought, he writes, " Oh." As if to say, Oh, NOOO! If I love my enemies, they might become my friends! Then what?
"The challenge...Jesus...takes up time and time again,” the professor goes on to say, “is to help us see what it means to understand God as 'our Father in heaven.' Not the problems, although...real, of patriarchy, abuse, neglect, exploitation, and oppression, (problems easily associated with) the word 'father,' but the problem of (truly) accepting that...we are (all) God's children...God's heirs...God's family....We have more to live up to,” he says, “than we ever imagined” (Bill Brosend, Feasting on the Gospels, p. 112).
God's children. All of us. All of us are imago Dei, made in the image of God, regardless of our race. Or our gender. Or our sexual identity. Or our ethnicity. Or our nationality. Or our political persuasion. All of us are God's children: all different, all behaving imperfectly, yet perfectly made in that divine image. The question is: when it’s time to meet our Maker, how much will we have grown up into God's likeness? How much do we want to become, with God's help, God's relatively healthy, wise, loving grown-ups?
Dr. King preached often about loving one's enemies. One of the things he used to say is that there’s something of a civil war going on inside each of us. He knew that, within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. But how do we learn to love the enemy within us? If we want to find a way to take a first step toward loving an enemy, including the enemy within us, how and where might we start?
In June of 2016, along with 200 other Memphians, I attended an all-day summit on juvenile justice at Hickory Hill Mall, called "A Just Village: Our Children, Our Responsibility." The keynote speaker, who has helped more than 150 counties in our country look at the need for juvenile justice, was insightful and wise. But for me, the most moving wisdom came from the mouths of four African-American incarcerated young men. Clearly each of them was choosing to be rehabilitated. None of them felt like the enemy.
One of those young men said something that day I pray I never forget. “We’ve tried the possible,” he said, speaking of ways those youth tried and failed. “It doesn’t work. It’s time for the impossible.” Suddenly, I knew it was time to pay more attention to the enemy within me. I knew I had more to live up to - as a priest, a Christian, a person - than I had ever imagined.
And yet...there was a time - there will always be another time, another moment - for me, a recovering racist, when simply seeing a person of color can feel threatening. More and more, though, I am feeling less and less threatened, when I simply spend time with people who happen to have skin of a different color. I’ve been trying, imperfectly, most every day, to do the hard work before the other hard work. First, there’s the hard, inner work of facing my own history, reflecting on my own implicit bias, my reactive behaviors, while I keep writing what’s called my “racial autobiography.” Then, and only then, can I get up and try to do the hard, outer work I believe I’m called to do here in Memphis, in this, my final chapter of life.
That hard, outer work is wonderfully described by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and the author of the groundbreaking book Just Mercy. Bryan Stevenson says that, to do the racial healing and justice work that needs to be done, we first need to get “proximate,” to get closer. Then, we need to realize that getting proximate can make us uncomfortable - but to get uncomfortable anyway.
A young teacher in the Shelby County School system puts it this way: We need to get comfortable with getting uncomfortable (Mollie Clark, The Commercial Appeal, 12/31/16). We need to get comfortable with getting proximate, getting close to people who may feel in some way like an enemy. Then, after getting proximate, we need to get more and more comfortable with just how uncomfortable that closeness can make us feel.
Dr. Altha Stewart, who directs a Center for Health in Justice-Involved Youth at UT's Health Science Center, reports that "A staggering 60 percent of the children in our courts have diagnosable mental health conditions, many triggered by physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or other kinds of trauma. We have spent decades hoping these youth find their way out of the justice system, and we live with the results - recidivism (75%), violence, and children left to fend for themselves" (Commercial Appeal, 6/25/16).
How do the court-involved children and youth of Memphis feel like our enemies? Do all of them need to be incarcerated or detained or put on probation as a primary treatment for their childhood challenges, challenges that cause them to keep making bad choices? How do they, as children of God, simply need some justice and some healing? How do we? How do they, as children of God, simply need unconditional love? How do we?
Sometimes, you just have to tear up your sermon and start all over again. A few years later, Mike Kinman upgraded his preacher friend’s wisdom. Sometimes, he said, you just have to tear up the script of your life - life as you knew it, life as you thought you were going to live it - and start all over again. I wonder: On this Martin Luther King weekend, as we remember his life and legacy, how might it be time for the impossible? How is Jesus inviting us - right here, right now - to get proximate, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, to tear up the old script of our lives and re-write a new story, a love story - as individuals, as a church, as a city, a county, a nation? How might we love our enemies - with God’s help?
~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee January 20, 2019