Sermon Archives

Sunday, February 24, 2019
The 7th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C)
The Reverend Dr. Walter Brownridge
Loving Our Enemies

In the Name of our Ever-Living, Ever-Loving, and Ever-Leading God

Loving our enemies is the true measure of our capacity to love. One of the things I love about being here at Christ church with you is that Father Drew, in calling me here to be an associate to work in Christian formation is how seriously he and you as a congregation take this, what we call in churchy language, the teaching office of the priesthood. And part of that has been the joy of being with you on Wednesday night as I lead the Amaze Journey, as Father Drew leads the Catechumenate. And in the Amaze Journey, the past several weeks starting at the time that the Bishop of Atlanta, Rob Wright was with us and preached and shared up the Rector's forum is that we've been reading this book, this is [inaudible 00:01:06], Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King and the Black Social Gospel.

And just another advertiser, we have one more week this coming Wednesday, you feel free to join us whether you read the book or bought the book or not. Great fellowship in meal and then some learning. But in this book, those who have read it have had the joy of coming in contact with really Dr King's fore bearers and contemporaries and those who supported him and challenged him and taught him. And one of his great mentors you've heard before from me and father Drew is the reverend Dr. Howard Thurman. I think even before I got here, Father Drew was using some of his books, like Disciplines of the Spirit and The Growing Edge. And his most famous book, which he wrote in 1949 and Thurman was born in 1898 or 1899, so he was like 50 years old when he wrote this classic book called Jesus and the Disinherited.

And in fact, it was so important that as ... You know about Thurman, he never led a march. He never gave a famous speech at a rally. He never testified before Congress about legislation, never did a press release. But as a teacher, as a preacher, as dean of two college chapels, one historically black Howard and one the first one to be a black man at an historically white institution, Boston University's Marsh Chapel, and in between, to start the first ecumenical and interracial church in San Francisco, Thurman was the mystic who everyone who had been at a march and led and had a leading role, everyone who had ever given a speech about the need for America to rid itself of the shackles of racism and white supremacy and other kinds of oppressions, anyone in the last 100 years who had anything to do with any of that was in some ways either taught or mentored or read Howard Thurman.

And King, as you know, I said before, kept this little book in his briefcase every day of his entire public ministry. So Thurman is someone to be reckoned with. And today's Gospel, in preparing this sermon, I was thinking about Thurman in that context, because this is what he said about the concept step of loving one's enemies, and he always begins where he'd always begin. You see for Thurman, he as a black christian in the mid 20th century was challenged not only in India when he met with Gandhi and other leaders of their anti-imperialistic move, "Why would you as a black man be a Christian and support these doctrines? Because it is Christians that have enslaved and oppressed you and killed your people."

And Thurman was up front. "I'm not here in India to be apologist or to proselytize you if you're a Hindu or a Muslim. If you're a Christian, so be it and fine. And if you want to know more about Christianity, fine. But I don't preach about the doctrines and high theologies that I was taught in seminary. For me, I'm a Christian." Thurman would say, "Because I believe in the religion of Jesus." Thurman took the teachings and witness in life of Jesus Christ and applied it like I think no one else has. And what he did was say that at its core is the love ethic, that all the ills and sins of the world, whether it's around greed, hatred, deception, fear, oppression can only be dealt with not by violence, not by anger, but by the love ethic of Jesus.

He said once, "In many places, in many analysis of hatred, it is customary to apply this attitude of hatred as of the strong towards the weak. And thus we have the general impression that many white people hate Negroes and that Negroes are merely the victims. Such an assumption is quite ridiculous." Thurman knew what Jim Crow had done to the psyche and soul of the black man and woman, and he gives this story, this example, he never drove a car, and he would often on long trips have to ride trains. And at least until the late 1950s he had to ride in trains certainly in the south that were segregated, Jim Crow segregation. And he tells this story, and he was on a train once in Texas and as he got on the train and waited in his Jim Crow car, he looked out on the platform. He noticed that on the platform was a concession stand where passengers could buy sandwiches and get a cold drink and even get ice cream.

The only problem of course is that, this was a segregated situation so only white people could buy such goods. And Thurman noticed that a mother, white woman with two beautiful little girls were getting ice cream. And walking by at the same time, these girls who were having their ice cream enjoying it and oblivious to the scene that was unfolding behind them, the two little black girls also wanted ice cream. It's all the little kids do, right? And they said, "Please mama, can we have ice cream?" Thurman could read lips and see this. And she said, "No you can't." And she hustled them, hustled them up on the train, and they were like, digging in their heels. They really wanted ice cream. The mother just had to say, "No, that's for white people only." And the children got on the train quite angry and upset, and they sat in front of Thurman and they stood and they glared out the window at these white girls who were enjoying their ice cream. And then as the whistle was blowing saying final boarding.

The white mother then was having to get her two daughters onto the train. And lo and behold, this happens, if you've ever had a little child with ice cream, and they're not too great at holding things, one of the little white girls ice cream fell onto the ground. Thurman could see it. The two little black girls in front of Thurman saw it, and the black girls started to laugh. They didn't know the [inaudible 00:07:53], but what they knew was that they were taking the light in the misfortune of others because by golly, if they were getting something, these girls, that they couldn't get because of the color of their skin, nobody should be able to get it and so good for them. They lost their ice cream, or at least one of them did. Thurman was appalled. He wrote later, "Through what torture chambers had these little girls come from, what torture chambers had so attacked the grounds of humanity in them that there was nothing within them capable of calling forth any appreciation or understanding of white persons. There was something in that that made me shiver."

Thurman would go on the write, "Hatred in the mind and spirit of the disinherited is born out of this great bitterness. A bitterness that is made possible by the sustained resentment, which is bottled up until it distills into an essence that will ultimately become deadly." You see, for Howard Thurman, there was an antidote to this. It was just in the religion of Jesus, but not the religion of Jesus that was promulgated by slave owners and pro-segregationists. That kind of religion of Jesus, what Christianity was about, when they would hear the gospel, "Oh, turn the other cheek. Love those who oppress you. Know, your place." But what Thurman says is that they got it wrong at least in fullness. They get a little bit of it right, but those segregationists got it wrong because the love ethic of Jesus is the best antidote to the hounds of hell and fear and deception and hatred. And it does begin with loving your enemies as Jesus said.

That is the essence of Thurman's message and is the essence of today's message. But it is about ... And you have to now go back into the Gospel, the backstory to understand how this really gets flushed out. If you remember last week, those here, Susanna preached powerfully in part one of this discourse of Jesus's sermon on the plain. And remember it points out that Luke calls it the sermon on the plain, not as Matthew did the sermon on the mountain. And Biblical scholars could debate were there two sermons or did somebody ... Luke call it this and Matthew called it that. But the main thing is that, in Matthew, Jesus sits high on a mountain and gives the lovely platitudes about blessed are the poor and the weak and those hunger and thirst for righteousness. It's all lovely, but he's up on a mountain, six, 10, 20 feet above contradiction. And on top of that, he never says anything that Luke does about the woes.

So in Luke, Jesus comes down from the mountain, Susanna postulates relates that he probably was kneeling because he looks up at the disciples when he speaks, so he's kneeling to heal and touch them. And then he looks up at the disciples, and I happen to think maybe what was happening as Jesus came down from the mountain to get amongst the people to get his hands dirty, the disciples were reluctant to do that. So they were lingering back on the side of the mountain, overlooking the scene with that comfortable reserve. Today as we remember Saint Matthias the 12th Apostle, remember that these great apostles began as disciples who were a little bit shaky about following Jesus all the way. And so in this context, Jesus says those words last week, which we're uncomfortable and awkward for those of us who enjoy some type of privilege.

And certainly as a male, I know I enjoy male privilege, [inaudible 00:11:48] education, I enjoy some educational and class privileges despite own badges of inferiority and oppression that sometimes are placed upon me. But [inaudible 00:11:59] uncomfortable, when Jesus says, "Woe to you, when you're doing good and woe to you, when people say good things about you." Those are warnings. And Susanna said, it's really about Jesus giving us a warning that we're all called to do better. And then today what we hear part two is Jesus explaining that, "I'm here to make everybody uncomfortable." And so yes you that are oppressed, you that were raising your fist in the air at last part one, now need to know that I'm telling you, you got to love those who have hated you and oppressed you, that you need to do good to them, that may appear to be your enemy.

And yes, some may misinterpreted and then spite that, but the only way that we get to that is that the core of the love ethic of Jesus is what Jesus said, "Look, do to others as you would have them do to you." And if you follow fully in the love ethic of Jesus, then you're not going to be an oppressor. You know that is the wrong way to go. What Jesus is really saying in this discourse is that you're all in it together, rich and poor, Jew and Greek, whatever your ethnicity, your nationality, whatever your station in life, you're all on level playing with each other, and you are called to love each other. And if you say that you love, it's not going to be for me to judge you on the context of how you love your wife, how you love your children, how you love your mother, your father, your cousins, your friends at work. But how did you love those family members that you don't quite get along with?

How do you love your coworkers that rub you the wrong way? How do you love those that you read about in the paper and on the internet that say and do things that really infuriate you? Jesus's words today and Howard Thurman's commentary on them are about love, loving your enemies is the measure of our true capacity to love. So let me finish with a story. I haven't, I don't think shared a South African story for a while with you. So I thought to me the greatest example that I've witnessed in my ministry, at least and in my life, it's been the example of the Biehl family from California. Amy Biehl was a bright young woman. She grew up in a Lutheran household in southern California and she went to Stanford University. And then she was later in a PhD program at Rutgers University in New Jersey and her area of study was African history and in particular African political history.

And in particular the situation in South Africa at the time of the 1980s and early '90s, and for her fieldwork, she made her way to South Africa to learn firsthand and to work firsthand with community groups and organizations, in this period between 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released and 1994, when a new and free and democratic South Africa was born. And Amy chose not to live in a student housing section in a nice part of town or something. She lived in Gugulethu, a poor black township outside of South Africa. And it was quite dangerous and deadly riots and violence between police and protesters. Black on black inter [inaudible 00:15:31] rivalries were being brewed. And Gugulethu was one of those places in particular with such violence. But Amy was wise enough to go everywhere with her black colleagues and friends as a way of protecting her. But one day that protection did not help.

An angry mob who was rioting saw Amy, a white woman driving, sitting in a car with three black men, and she was pulled out of the car as they said, "Kill the Boer." Which is South African term for White Afrikaner killer. And even though her friends tried to get between them and say, "No, no, this is Amy. She's one of us. She's a friend. She's a supporter." They still beat and stubbed her to death. Her parents, Peter and Linda Biehl, Peter having been a successful businessman in southern California, Linda, a housewife and mother, they got on a plane to South Africa. In the horror of that situation, they got into South Africa and were greeted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and others expressing their condolences to weep with them. The Biehls collected their daughter's body and went back to America to bury her. No one could blame the Biehls if they had decided then to never dock in the shores of South Africa.

As the Bible says, to shake the dust off their sandals, to not ever want to hear the word South Africa again. But then in two years Peter and Linda Biehl decided to finish what Amy had started. They were proud of their daughter, and the life she lived, born not only of her great humanity and humanitarian nature, but even her Christian faith. And so the Biehls went back to that same community Gugulethu where Amy had died, and they began to work. First starting a daycare center for little children and then an after school program for older children. And then as kids would get through high school, they opened up a bakery that also had a store that taught kids how to bake bread and then sell bread to be entrepreneurs. Was a sign of continuing Amy's work, but not only did they do that, they engaged in the truth and reconciliation process.

And just as soldiers and policemen who had challenged, who had killed and murdered and tortured went before that commission with Desmond Tutu leading it to confess their human rights atrocities, and as just as gorillas on the other side likewise, were forced to come forward and confessed to their atrocities, Amy's four killers who were sentenced to prison, likewise went before that commission. And Peter and Linda were there. Not only were they there to support this process of truth and reconciliation, Linda Biehl went to the home of the mother of one of her daughters, killers, a simple, very poor house, but in the living room they embraced, they shared tears, they had tea, and they bonded as the way perhaps only two mothers who had both lost their children through tragedy in a way. Peter Biehl died about 2001, but I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Biehl when Tina and I and our boys lived in South Africa.

I thought about Amy again because I was in Washington DC a few weeks ago, and I was in a bookstore and there was this big new book called Amy Biehl's Second Home or Last Home, and it was about her life and time and South Africa and about the witness of her parents after her death. And as I actually opened up the book in the bookstore, and I read it, I was so moved again and taking back all those years and I found the author, teaches at Auburn University, I believe and I wrote to him, and he wrote back and then he said, "Can I reach out to Mrs. Biehl?" And I said, "Well, she won't remember me, but sure, go ahead." And she wanted to use my quote that I'd given to him to publicize the book. And she did, and she reached out to me, and she remembered that time that we had met at a mass with Archbishop Tutu and then had this lovely breakfast together. She's indeed a remarkable woman.

And I'm not telling you that everyone here needs to try to be exactly like her, but I am saying that Jesus is trying to point you in a direction that may lead you down that same road to love and forgive those for whom you have in fact, all the rights and reasons in the world that you don't need to forgive, and you don't need to love, but the religion of Jesus, the love ethic of Jesus, I believe is the only way that this world, which is so fractured, this nation, which is truly so fractured, this community, whether it's the Detroit or Ohio or California, or anywhere else you think about, which is so fractured. The only way that it can be truly healed is to not only say we follow the love ethic of Jesus, but we go and do likewise. Amen.