Wamplers Lake in Michigan is a beautiful setting for a vacation. For some families it has been a battleground ! For 25 years, six neighbors have fought over the use of a footpath that leads from cottages to a boat dock on the lake. Because of their friction, they have gone to court numerous times . Court rulings have included that they are not to physically harm, or kill each other and they are not , if at all possible, to make eye contact with one another ! The presiding judge has said about this continuous lakeside squabble : “It has to stop.”
Loving our friends and destroying our enemies is a built-in response. We naturally want to retaliate. Look at Bugs & Yosemite Sam:
“Ooh- you long eared, flea bitten varmint- I’m going to blast you to smithereens! (Yosemite Sam)
An enemy is someone who threatens me or harms me, or who I believe will do so. Enemies can be individuals or groups of people that we don't care for:
nasty neighbors, devious co-workers, folks who have injured me or others.
I was told about a church in Indiana where two men in the same congregation could not get along. When Communion was served at the altar rail, they would not go and kneel at the same time. They wanted it to be known there was no love lost between them.
Jesus' teaching in the Scriptures about treating our enemies with compassion is a puzzling lesson. How can you be kind in the midst of mudslinging?
Maybe Jesus did not know anything about enemies... except that he did.
In his life he faced numerous enemies. He lived in territory occupied by the Roman army. When Jesus was a young child, Herod's soldiers attempted to take his life when they brutally invaded the Bethlehem village.
Jesus was Jewish and the Jews were enemies with their neighbors, the Samaritans. The Samaritans were looked down upon and their neighborhoods were avoided. (Jesus however told some positive stories about good Samaritans.)
Jesus had personal enemies: others of faith who thought he was a trouble maker, and therefore they threatened his life. He was well acquainted with conflict and animosity. His teaching came from his own experience.
Is it even possible to live by Jesus words? Let's look at the story of Gracia Burnham and her husband Martin who were Christian missionaries in the Philippines.
Martin was a pilot and they provided medical and supply support. They were on a vacation on a Philippine island when they were kidnapped by a militant group who thought that they could get ransom money.
For a year, the Burnhams and other hostages were at the mercy of their captors. Often chained to trees and with meager food, they were forced to travel with the group from hideout to hideout.
Toward the end of their ordeal, Gracia and her husband had a conversation about this experience with their enemies.
Martin said “Here in the mountains I've seen hatred; I've seen bitterness; I've seen greed; I've seen covetousness; I've seen wrongdoing.” Gracia agreed thinking of all the horrors they had seen. Then she realized that he hadn't been talking about their captors.
Martin said “I've seen each of these things in myself.” He had hated the kidnappers and wished that he could chain them to trees and starve them while eating in front of them. Martin continued “We are to be servants of all, even those that we have every right to hate. “
Gracia writes that they did begin to pray for the young men who held them in chains.
One of their guards had horrible headaches, and Martin shared with him some of the ibuprofen that he had. In small ways, they did what they could to show grace in a bad situation.
Sadly when the Philippine army attempted to rescue them, Martin Burnham was one of the ones killed in the crossfire. Since then, Gracia has continued to tell their powerful story of two people caught up in a situation where the enemy was real, and they tried their best to follow Jesus' words.
In his teaching on enemies, Jesus uses a helpful illustration about rain and sunshine.
No matter whether we are right or wrong, one side or the other, God sends his blessings to all of us. The rain falls and all our gardens are nourished. God is a God of abundant life.
Colonel Tom Moe is part of our congregation and during the Vietnam War, he was a POW for 5 years in Hanoi prison. He wrote an article about his experience which was published in the Notre Dame Alumni Magazine in Jan.1996. The writing is not easy to read because it describes the extreme suffering and pain that can be afflicted by one human being upon another. It is also a story of extreme courage and perseverance.
For me, his story holds a deep truth. It was not hate that gave Tom the ability to survive.
Tom knew and felt hatred, and he realized that hatred was “ a corrosive element of the spirit, a “horribly destructive action” .
I believe what did give Tom strength was his training, his fellow soldiers, his sense of humor, his searching faith in God , and his many prayers.
Both from the Gospels and from Paul's writing in Romans, we have guidelines about how we treat our enemies. I would like to focus on one action: prayer . It might be the hardest of them all. In order to pray for someone you don't have to like them, you don't have to want to be in the same room with them , but you can still commend them to God and his grace.
To pray for them does not lessen or dismiss the harm that was done. It does not erase the consequences. The wounds and scars are still there. By my saying their name in prayer, I am taking a big step toward recognizing that they too are part of the human race and handing them over to God.
We think of the cross , and the salvation through Jesus' death , and a question comes to mind, does God have favorites? Are we loved more than those we call our enemies?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached on our Scripture passage in Germany prior to WW11. He said: “Everything depends on this: that whenever we meet an enemy, we immediately think: this is someone whom God loves; God has given everything for this person.”
This photo captures an unlikely meeting between two very different people ,Pope John Paul 11 and Ali Agca. The Pope was seriously injured in 1981 by this gunman and two years later, they met , as you can see, in his prison cell. They were of different religions (Christian and Muslim), different nationalities (Polish and Turkish); one was known throughout the world by thousands , and the other became famous because of an act of violence. The first time they interacted it was so harm could be done; the second time, they met it was a time of hope and possible understanding.
The Pope would not reveal what they talked about in their meeting, other than they did talk about forgiveness.
Stephen Taylor, a Christian composer, wrote a song about this photo, and it begins with the line:
“I saw a man he was holding the hand - that had fired a gun at his heart.”
Song goes on to talk about the marks we leave upon one another thru love or hate.
The song ends with the line describing Jesus : “I saw a Man with a hole in His hand who could offer the miracle cure.”
In our world, where it seems there is no end to the squabbles and the fights, it is Christ that offers the miracle of hatred and bitterness being changed. In our relationships, we can choose to add fuel to the fire, or we can , by God's grace, live out Jesus' words:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”