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You can watch the sermon here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcXpBAY34jM&feature=youtu.be

Matthew 5:38-48

In the early 1900s, Japanese Americans and other Asians in the U.S. suffered a great deal from prejudice and racially-motivated fear. There were laws preventing Asian Americans from owning land, voting, and testifying against whites in court. In early 1941, President Roosevelt secretly commissioned a study to assess the possibility that Japanese Americans would pose a threat to U.S. security. The report, submitted exactly one month before Pearl Harbor was bombed, predicted that there would be no uprising of Japanese in the United States. The report declared that, for the most part, the local Japanese were loyal to the U.S. or at worst, hoped that by remaining quiet they would be left alone. A second investigation submitted in January of 1942, likewise found no evidence that Japanese Americans posed a threat.

And yet, the very next month, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order authorized the Secretary of War to define certain areas as military zones, clearing the way for the internment of Japanese Americans, and to a much lesser degree German Americans and Italian-Americans to concentration camps in the United States. As a result, approximately 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were evicted from the West Coast of the United States and held in internment camps across the country. “Over two-thirds of the people of Japanese ethnicity interned were American citizens. Many of the rest had lived in the country between 20 and 40 years.”[1] When they were taken into custody, they were allowed to take only one suitcase per person, so when they were released, most of them had nothing to their names. They had lost their homes and businesses, their hard-fought places in their community. “No Japanese American citizen or Japanese national residing in the United States was ever found guilty of sabotage or espionage.”[2] And yet they were treated as enemies.

The internment of Japanese Americans is one of many stains on American history. Since today is the 75th anniversary of that executive order, I couldn’t help but start there as we look at our scripture, Matthew 5:38-48. It is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is speaking.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This passage is hard to preach on, and perhaps even harder to hear. What are we to make of these statements? Are we really supposed to turn the other cheek to one who would hurt us? Are we not allowed to defend ourselves? And what’s with this “loving your enemies” nonsense? Doesn’t Jesus know that’s the way to get killed? (Oh, right. He does.) So can we assume this is metaphor? or exaggeration for the sake of making a point? Over the years biblical scholars, theologians, and preachers alike have offered various ways of interpreting this text, but many of them are obvious attempts to explain away Jesus’ words. Here are a few of the theories:

1) “Jesus was setting forth a set of values to which his disciples should aspire. They are impossible, but that’s the point. By striving toward them, we live better than we would otherwise.”[3]

2) Jesus was presenting the disciples with the impossible in order to show them and us our need for grace.

3) Jesus was offering “pragmatic advice to empower oppressed people. When you cannot force people to treat you justly, you can expose the injustice of the situation. When striking back will only get you hurt, confront the aggressor without retaliation…. When your occupier demands your labor, put him in an impossible situation by going beyond conventional expectations.

Though clever and insightful, all of these interpretations suffer from the same problem. Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, and the Sermon on the Mount in particular, repeatedly insist that Jesus means exactly what he says.”[4]

So we don’t get to make excuses when we look at the text. The scripture does not allow for us to say “that’s not really what Jesus meant.” Jesus meant what he said. There is, of course, another popular option. We can say: “In our modern world, with its complex relationships, global economics, and violent military threats, his advice simply does not hold.”[5] In other words, we can just reject it. I do believe there are times when we have to reject what the Bible says—including the implication that we should submit to abuse, which I do not believe is true. But if we claim this as our sacred text, we can only reject parts of it after prayerful study. It’s too convenient to pick and choose which parts of the Bible we want to follow.

So for the sake of argument (or perhaps for the sake of the sermon!), let’s say that this is not a scripture we can just ignore. Or at least let’s ask the question: What does it mean to us today?

I guess we start with the issue of enemies. Who are our enemies? Do we even have any? I wouldn’t say I have any personal enemies. Well, there is that one colleague in another state who thinks I betrayed her. And there is that person who blames me for—well, lots of things. And there is my ex-husband, who I blame for lots of things. And OK, I guess there are a few people in my life who might consider me an enemy, and one or two that I, well, strongly dislike. Are they my enemies?

What about you? you have enemies, or at least people like those I named? What about political figures? Do we consider them to be enemies? Do we act as if they are? What about Muslims? Are they our enemies? Some Muslims are enemies of the United States. Does that mean all Muslims are suspect, like the Japanese Americans were? What about other immigrants? Are they our enemies? I’m guessing that most of you would answer “no.” Of course they’re not. And yet they are treated as such by many in our country. So if immigrants and Muslims are our friends, then are their enemies our enemies? Where do we draw the defining line? Jesus said to love our enemies. But people I hold grudges against—they’re not really my enemies, right? I ask because if we don’t actually classify anyone as an enemy, can we get away with not loving them? Or does the fact that we refuse to love them make them our enemy? And how do we ever love them?

It’s not simple, but there is one possible way listed in that same line of scripture. We pray for them. You cannot pray for someone and then wish them dead. You cannot pray for someone—lifting them up to God—and then wish them in hell. You cannot pray for someone and continue to view them with contempt. Oh, sure, you can do those things if you pray once and expect that to do the trick. But imagine how it would feel to pray for someone who has hurt you. It would be hard at first. It might even feel impossible. At first you would struggle to find any words that didn’t taste bitter on your tongue.

God, please help Hank not be such a jerk!

God, please help Hank because he sure needs it!

God, please help Hank to see that we’re not all out to get him.

God, please help Hank to see that he doesn’t need to act this way.

God, please help Hank to heal from whatever pain causes him to act this way.

God, please help Hank to know that, in spite of his pain, he has value.

God, please help Hank.

You see, it can change us. Perhaps that’s the purpose of prayer—not to change the situation but to change us. As one writer says: “When I pray for someone, I start to see that person as I imagine God does: as a flawed human being made in God’s image. Just like me.”[6] When we do away with the concept of enemies, we begin to see that we’re all children of God.

Although I’m not always a fan of Bible paraphrases—I prefer the more accurate translations over one person’s opinions—I do like how The Message paraphrases this passage. It says:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

That’s what it means at the end of our passage when Jesus says “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” Most of us, when we hear that command, think we’re talking about moral perfectionism. And who can be perfect? Especially compared to God? I don’t know about you, but I don’t need anybody else telling me I have to be perfect. But the Greek word translated here as perfect is telos, which means goal, end, or purpose. To be perfect in this sense means to live as we were intended to live, to accomplish our God-given purpose. Jesus isn’t asking us for perfection Jesus is asking us for persistence—persistence in becoming, persistence in loving, persistence in forgiving, because it may take a while.

“None of this is meant to deny the difficulty of all this. None of this is meant to sweep under the pulpit the fact that sometimes people wound us so badly that we can at best love them only from a distance because the relationship is shattered. None of this is meant to deny that we need to allow the government to punish con artists and those who intentionally suck the lifeblood out of us or our neighbors. And none of this is meant to deny that sometimes the process of forgiveness can take years. None of this is meant to deny the phenomenon perhaps all of us have experienced at one time or another: just about the time you think you’ve forgiven Georgette, you are reminded of something which sets you right back to square one…. But all of this is meant to say that in the midst of a world full of jagged edges and crooked people Jesus is trying to mold a certain kind of heart.”[7] A heart that is strong enough to survive and soft enough to love.

The Japanese American people interned in camps were not our enemies, and they knew it. And they wanted to prove it. Many of the young men in the internment camps joined with other Japanese Americans who had served in the U.S. Army before the war but had been removed from active duty. Together they formed the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. “In June 1944, they were deployed to Europe, where they fought in eight major campaigns in France, Italy and Germany. In October of that year, they played a key role in the bloody rescue of the ‘Lost Battalion,’an Allied unit that had been trapped and surrounded by Axis forces…. In April 1945, the men of the 442nd–many of whom had family members living in U.S. internment camps–

were among the first Allied troops to participate in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau…. The 442nd became the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history. In less than two years of combat, the unit earned more than 18,000 awards, including 9,486 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars and 21 Medals of Honor.”[8]

They may have looked like the enemy, but they were not. Jesus may have looked like the enemy, but he was not.

Who is your enemy? What will it take to make you love them?


[1] Wikipedia.

[2] ibid.

[3] Carey, Greg. Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1, pp 381, 383.

[4] Carey, Greg. Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1, pp 381, 383.

[5] ibid.

[6] Sevier, Melissa Bane. melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/praying-for-enemies/

[7] Hoezee, Scott. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-7a/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[8] Maranzani, Barbara. “Unlikely World War II Soldiers Awarded Nation’s Highest Honor.” November 3, 2011. www.history.com

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