Pray for Our Enemies . . so that We May Be Changed

Epiphany 7A (Matthew 5:38-48)
St. Mark's Episcopal Church

In just a few moments, you and I are going to join together in prayer for God’s church and the world. We will pray for the leaders of our churches, our nation and the world, we will pray for all who are in pain and suffering, we will pray for peace, we will pray for ourselves. And we will end these prayers by asking God to answer them as God will’s and by asking God to teach us to be God’s hearts and hands in the world. 
Considering this is a weekly practice of our corporate worship, it is good to have a gospel reading that speaks to us of prayer.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[1] Great, we’ve got this covered.  We are doing exactly what Jesus’ asks us to do.  But the practice can leave us frustrated, yes? For example, we read the same names on the prayer list week after week after week.  Is God’s healing available to them?  We pray for our leaders and yet they do not always do what it is we are praying for them to do.  Is God’s desire for justice and peace even realistic?  We pray for the church and its leaders.  But even then, decisions are made that we don’t all agree with.  Is God answering only some of our prayers?  Prayer can be a frustrating activity and it is an activity that many abandon – for a period of time or, in some cases, for a lifetime. 
But when I read this Sunday’s gospel passage again this week, I was struck by something that had not caught my attention before. It is the end of the sentence: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, [COMMA] so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Jesus tells us to pray – and to pray especially for our enemies – but he tells us the reason is not, at least in this case, about the enemy.  It is about us.  Jesus tells us that we are to offer prayer so that God might continue to change US – to help us become who we are – “children of our Father in heaven.”  Well shoot.  Praying to change others is so much easier – even if it is frustrating. 
Addressing this very real challenge, C. S. Lewis, in a letter to a friend, wrote, “The practical problem about charity (in one’s prayer) is very hard work, isn’t it?  When you pray for Hitler and Stalin how do you actually teach yourself to make the prayer real?”[2]  I’ve shared the story in the past of a beloved 8 o’clock parishioner from St. Mark’s who used always to read this prayer from the Rite 1 service: 
 “We beseech thee also so to rule the hearts of those who bear the authority of government in this and every land especially Barack, our President, and Pat, our Governor, that they may be led to wise decisions and right actions for the welfare and peace of the world.”[3]
In January 2015, he no longer read the prayers of the people.  He simply could not bear to pray for Bruce, our Governor.  (Given his political convictions, I can only imagine how he might be responding were he still alive to hear us praying for Donald, our President).  He was fairly vocal with the congregation about his thoughts on this so I’m not breaking any confidences.  In conversation with him, I suggested that perhaps Bruce, our governor, especially needed our prayers that he might be led to wise decisions and right actions.  But alas, our friend replied, “there is no hope of that.”  Today, I wish instead I had Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount close at hand to remind myself and him that sometimes the purpose of our prayer is not to change the enemy – real or perceived - but instead to change ourselves. 
C. S. Lewis’, after acknowledging the difficulty of charity in prayer, goes on to say to his friend,
“The two things that help me are (a) A continual grasp of the idea that one is only joining one’s feeble little voice to the perpetual intercession of Christ who died for these very men. [and] (b) A recollection, as firm as I can make it, of all one’s own cruelty; which might have blossomed under different conditions into something terrible.  You and I are not at bottom so different from these ghastly creatures.”[4]
Before we react and say, “yes, but,” let’s remember where Lewis’ letter began – “When you pray for Hitler and Stalin how do you actually teach yourself to make the prayer real?”  Lewis was not talking about the person in the office, at school or next door with whom you have a grudge (though certainly his words would apply there as well). He is not talking about your siblings or your parents (though again, his words would still apply there).  He was talking about two extremely dangerous, cruel and hate-filled men and telling his friend that yes, your prayers for them must be real.  Lewis is truly getting right down to the heart of the matter.  And he says, Christ died for them too.  Take a moment to let that sink in.  Christ died for them too.  Isn’t that what Jesus is saying when he tells his followers, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[5]
And, as difficult as it may be to absorb those words, Lewis then goes on to say that you and I are not so different - born in another place or at another time, raised in a different set of circumstances, surrounded by a different set of friends, acquaintances, family members and political and social circumstances, who is to say that we would not have been and done the same. 
There was a post going around on Facebook a week or so ago that said, “Remember how we used to read history books and say, ‘if I were alive then, I would have done x, y, or z’?  Well, you are alive now.”  We are alive now and amidst the beauty in our world – and yes, let’s remember the beauty – amidst that beauty there is much work to be done for justice and for peace, for reconciliation and for love.  And all of that work begins with prayer.  The concluding collect for our prayers in this season ends with a reminder of this as we pray,
“Generous God, in your abundance, answer these prayers as you will. In our love, teach us to be your hearts and hands in this World. Help us to feel your presence, to know your love, and to be your stewards in this world.”
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” so that God might continue to change US – to help us become who we already are – “children of our Father in heaven.” 

[1] Matthew 5:44-45a.
[2] C. S. Lewis, “Letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, 16 April 1940,” from The Collected Lettersof C. S. Lewis; Volume II : Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949, Walter Hooper, editor, (San Francisco: Harper, 2004).
[3] Book of Common Prayer, 329.
[4] Lewis.
[5] Matthew 5:45b


Repairers of the Breach, with God's Help

There is an easy way in which our Old Testament readings of late seem to speak to the present circumstances of our nation and the way in which many of us at St. Mark’s feel about those circumstances.  Last week, perhaps one of the most famous passages of scripture which comes from the prophet Micah declared: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[1]  And then today, we have from the prophet Isaiah a condemnation of fasting that does nothing to alleviate the conditions of injustice and of hunger and of homelessness in which the Israelites are living.[2]  It is easy in a congregation like St. Mark’s where the majority of our members consider themselves to be socially progressive, where much of our activity during the week centers around the Wednesday lunch program and the offering of space for guests at the Hospitality Center.  It is easy to point to the words from Micah and from Isaiah and to say to ourselves, “see? We are doing what God wants?”  When we stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters to protest the travel ban, it is easy to pat ourselves on the back and say we are doing what God asks and requires of us.  When we stand with our Mexican brothers and sisters and protest the building of a wall between our nations, it is easy to congratulation ourselves and say we are doing what God demands.  When we call our senators and representatives to demand that they oppose the appointment of Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick for Education Secretary again we can applaud our efforts, celebrate the jamming of the Senate phone lines and again say we are doing what God asks of us. 
While clergy colleagues in other parts of the nation find themselves in a quandary because they hold political and social views that are diametrically opposed to the majority of their congregants, I have the privilege of standing here feeling relatively confident that I’ve got the backing of most of you.  Sure, someone may tell me during coffee hour that I went a little too far – or, on the same day, that I didn’t go quite far enough; but, by and large, we are on the same page – or, at least, reading the same book.  What this can also mean for those of us of like mind is that we read passages like these from Micah, from Isaiah, and rather than hearing what they ask of us, we use them to wag our fingers of condemnation at others.  Our Facebook pages and our Twitter accounts are filled with scorn and derision for “those people” who elected this President and for “those people” whose hearts are filled with hate.  And I think Isaiah has a word to say to us in this regard in this morning’s passage – well, not directly to our use of Facebook and Twitter – but to our growing tendency to “other” those who think, believe or act differently than we do.  Isaiah says, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil . . . then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”[3] 
Twice this week I’ve had occasion to speak with individuals about the challenge of communicating with friends or family members whose political views differ from their own.  Sure, we’ve had disagreements with friends and families before; but somehow this seems different, it seems bigger, insurmountable even.  And that perhaps is the biggest challenge facing our nation, our churches, our families today.  Two “sides” seem to have emerged and the breach seems beyond repair.  We stand across the street from one another waving signs in one another’s faces --- “I support a woman’s right to choose” squares off with another sign proclaiming “I support life.”  Both sides recognize that the issue at hand is more complex than either sign and yet, there we stand, face to face and yet miles apart.  Many of us had to declare Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners as politic-free zones in order to keep the peace.  Others simply chose to abandon gathering with family because the chasm was too wide and the hurt too deep. 
I’m not suggesting that we abandon our protests, our standing with neighbors, or our calling of senators and representatives.  I think that the Scripture is clear that wherever we see injustice we are called, with God’s help, to respond; that wherever we see suffering we are called, with God’s help, to provide aid; that wherever we see brokenness we are called, with God’s help to offer healing, comfort and hope.  But as much as I believe Scripture to be clear about these things, I also know that there are others who read the same Scriptures and end up with very different conclusions.  And I struggle with what to do with that.  And, I know that many of you have the same struggle. 
I don’t have an answer, but I do have an idea.  I am wondering if part of the problem is that when we come face to face with those with whom we disagree it is almost always in the context of the very thing about which we disagree.  In other words, when I encounter someone who thinks gay marriage is a sin it is almost always in the context of a debate about gay marriage.  In 99% of cases, there is no other occasion in which I interact with that person.  I have no basis for a relationship with that person other than my knowledge that we disagree.  And, in that knowledge, I make all kinds of other assumptions about the person.  On Facebook, when I encounter someone with whom I disagree I can choose to “unfriend” them or to “block” them.  I never have to engage. 
What might it look like if we started to be more curious about people we disagree with?  Deliberately seeking out people with whom we suspect we disagree and trying to get to know them, to understand what motivates their views, to discover places in our hearts and minds that we share in common. 
There are places where this already happens. Last Sunday, nearly 1500 people gathered at the Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove. Those gathered were Christians, Jews, Muslims and probably agnostics and atheists and a variety of other religions.  Those gathered spoke a variety of languages. They were straight and they were gay. The gathering was meant to be a celebration of diversity, a day of empowering people to come together across difference.  And it was successful in doing that.  But it became a day of protest as it fell just one day after President Trump’s executive order banning travel for those from 7 countries.  This diverse gathering of people came together around a common cause.  Would this same group have gathered if the issue were different?  Maybe. Maybe not.  But, in this instance, we look to and celebrate what did bring this diverse gathering together.
I have a clergy colleague who does not believe that gay people should be priests.  But we are able to come together to talk about the challenges of racism and to talk about the frustrations of being parish priests!  We choose not to talk about sexuality because we both know that we disagree and we both know that we have no intention of changing our points of view.  But, I have no doubt that if I needed support from a colleague, I could call him and I hope he knows that he could call on me as well.
What might it look like if we started to be more curious about the people we disagree with?  Deliberately seeking out people with whom we think we disagree and trying to get to know them, to understand what motivates them, to discover places in our hearts and minds that we hold in common.  When we say we will respect the dignity of every human being, I guess “unfriending” isn’t really what God has in mind.  Instead, I wonder what might happen if we reached out across those differences. . . . The prophet Isaiah promises that “the Lord will guide [us] continually, and satisfy [our] needs in parched places, and make [our] bones strong; and [we] shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” He even suggests that we may be able to “raise up the foundations of many generations,” that we might “be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”[4]  Can we do this?  I believe that we can with God’s help.

[1] Micah 6:8.
[2] Isaiah 58:5-7.
[3] Isaiah 58:9b, 10b.
[4] Isaiah 58:12b.