Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Loving People You Don’t Like”
Rev. Art Ritter
February 24, 2019
“But 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.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
A truck driver was sitting in a crowded roadside diner, ready to eat his lunch. It was not just any diner and any lunch, it was his favorite diner and it was the meal he loved the most from that diner- meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Just as the waitress brought him his meal, a motorcycle gang swaggered into through the front door. They walked to near where the truck driver was sitting and most of them piled into the booth directly behind his. But not all of them would fit. One of the gang members still standing turned to the truck driver and barked, “Move! We need to use that table!” The truck driver looked up at the motorcycle gang member and calmly said, “I haven’t finished my meal.” With that the gang member took his dirty finger and swiped it directly through the mashed potatoes, green beans, and gravy and then licked his finger off. Another of the motorcyclists took the truckers cup of coffee and poured it over the remaining food on the plate. He then snarled, “You’re finished now!” The trucker stood and without comment, wiped his mouth with his napkin and walked to the cash register to pay for the meal. He then silently exited the diner. All of the bikers began to laugh. One of them shouted, “Ain’t much of a man, is he?” A waitress who walked by then pointed out to the parking lot and said, “Apparently he isn’t much of a truck driver either. He just backed his rig over your motorcycles.”
How do you react to people who make life more difficult for you? Perhaps there have been times recently where you wished you had a big rig to drive over a few things that belong to those who have insulted or aggravated you. In these divisive times, how do you handle those whose opinions and values differ from your own? How do you suffer through the social media posts that get under your skin, the fellow drivers who show no common courtesy on the shared road, and the co-worker who treats your space as his or her own? How do you treat the so-called “jerks” in your life? Who pushes you to the breaking point? Who would you regard as your enemy?
Sadly, most of us go through life, for better or for worse, no matter how hard we try, with a few people whom we just do not like. Perhaps in most cases, the word enemy is too strong but these are people whom it is extremely hard to love. There are people who hold a grudge against us for mysterious reasons. There are people whom we have offended who cannot forgive us. There are people who are jealous of us and people whose good fortune we envy or do not understand. There are people whose words and actions offend us. There are people who opinions and beliefs run counter to what we hold dear to our own hearts. There are those who challenge us and even wound us, whose words point out our weaknesses and our faults. And there may even be those who have bitterness in their hearts for us and seek anything but the best for us. How can you love someone when that someone is not just a difficult co-worker or crotchety next door neighbor but someone who would literally destroy your life if only given the chance?
In the sixth chapter of Luke, Jesus gives what is known as the Sermon on the Plain. Many of his teachings here are the same as what he taught in the Beatitudes, or the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” He then goes on to offer some specific advice about turning the other cheek, offering your shirt as well as your coat, and giving to anyone to begs from you. Jesus closes by saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love only those who love you, what credit is that for you? Love your enemies and expect nothing in return. Be merciful, just as God is merciful to you.”
I think of an internet meme that I have seen several times in which Jesus is pictured teaching a large crowd of people. On top of the picture are the words, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” On the bottom of the picture are the words, “No, seriously.”
A colleague wrote of passing a church in New York City. The sign out front indicated that the title of the upcoming sermon was “Following Jesus is Loving and Practical.” My colleague contemplated the message of the sign for a moment and quickly decided that he disagreed. Following Jesus may be loving but it certainly isn’t very practical. He instantly started making up a list of all of the impractical things that Jesus called us to do but didn’t get too far past these demands in the sixth chapter of Luke to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.
I don’t know if I can offer any life-changing advice in this short sermon time. I don’t think that I can give you a step by step practice to follow to love difficult people. But I will try to share a bit about what I think Jesus was getting at in the hopes that his words at least move our hearts and hence our wills just a little bit.
First of all, the word used for love in Jesus sermon was agape. Agape is not the romantic love. It is not even friendship love or liking love. What agape means is whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for the well-being of the other. Loving enemies or those who have done us harm does not mean we support them or agree with them. We simply try to put ourselves in a place where we end the cycle of hate and anger. Loving those who don’t like doesn’t mean we might become good friends. Instead of wanting to drive your semi over someone’s motorcycles, or responding to their stupid Facebook posts with words of condemnation, you express your dislike and offer your desiring of what is best for them.
In fact, Jesus even gave us some suggestions for how to love those with don’t like with agape love. Again, it is not an easy step-by-step process but suggestions to keep in mind and to move the needle of compassion. Do good. Do what is right and just and honorable. Sometimes what is right and honorable and just is nothing, the complete opposite of what our anger and passion are driving us to do. Bless. Speak well of the other person, find something for which to praise them. Focus on something positive about the person, perhaps a positive shared experience of the past. Pray for them. Lift up something to God on their behalf. Ask God to bless them, to speak to their needs, to melt their hearts, to move them to understanding your pain and your frustration.
Secondly, Jesus gave an example of one who loved despite not liking. That was God’s love for us. Jesus is recommending no more and no less the same thing that he has seen all along in the love of God. God witnesses our ungrateful nature. God sees us when we strut about as if we have done it all ourselves. God forgives and carries on with us in love, despite the fact that often we really don’t change very much and sometimes repeat the same hurtful behaviors. Jesus wasn’t asking us to be suckers and chumps and let the world take advantage of us. He was simply asking us to try to be more like God in our relationships and in our understanding of others. Still not easy, but perhaps more easily understood.
Finally, Jesus taught us to love those whom we do not like because such love has a certain redemptive power. If we continue to hate and to speak in anger nothing will change. This is the attitude that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. embraced and taught in sermon delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on November 17, 1957. In that sermon King wrote, “You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at first, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There’s something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”
In the sermon, King offered the example of Abraham Lincoln who appointed someone he didn’t like, Edwin Stanton to be his Secretary of War. Stanton had previously made several derogatory statements about Lincoln, making fun of his appearance and his intelligence. But Lincoln believed that he owned the best skills for the job. In their association together, Stanton and Lincoln grew very close. Their relationship was transformed. Upon Lincoln’s death, Stanton issued a memorable eulogy ending with the statement, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Both men could have gone to their graves not liking, perhaps even hating one another. But through the power of love, they were both transformed.
Love. Loving those who don’t like. That doesn’t mean giving a free pass to those who wrong you or that you are required to support actions of leaders with whom you disagree. It doesn’t take away the responsibility to seek justice and resist evil. It means that what we do in response must be rooted in desiring what is good for the other person also. Resist the temptation to dehumanize the other person. Pray for the other person.
Theologian Walter Brueggeman imagines Jesus telling his listeners and telling us today, something when we are tempted to lash out, strike back, or even things out with our words and actions. “Think ‘larger’ than that. You know more and you know differently, and you have the freedom to act differently. You know about the larger purposes of God, and you are called to act concretely as though the purposes of God really did make a difference in your life.”
Mother Teresa said, “Love, to be true, has to hurt. I must be willing to give whatever it takes not to harm other people and, in fact, do good to them. This requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise there is no love in me and I bring injustice, not peace to those around me.”
Perhaps that in itself is the bottom line. Love your enemies. Love those whom you don’t like. It isn’t just an ethical thing. It is much harder than that. It is a way of being. It is a way that reflects God way in our world. It reflects the same love and mercy and compassion God shows for us.