This is the sermon I preached on July 29, 2012 at First Rowlett UMC. It is the first in a new series called “Famous Sermons Remixed,” in which I take sermons from well-known preachers and “remix” them – meaning I tweak it a little, contextualize it, rewrite bits, and fit it for my particular congregation in Rowlett. I don’t usually write a manuscript for my sermons, but preach from an outline, which is what I did in this case. The sermon below has been reconstructed from my outline. This remixed sermon is called “Loving Your Enemies,” by Martin Luther King, Jr., and was originally preached on November 17, 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. To read or hear the original sermon, click here.
“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.” Matthew 5:43-45
These are lofty words. Some would argue that they are too lofty, too difficult. Some would say that these are the words of a utopian dreamer.
But Jesus was no dreamer, no impractical idealist. He was a practical realist. His command to “love your enemies” is, in fact, vital for the survival of our civilization. Love will save the world.
Jesus was serious when he spoke these words. He was not playing around. He was not exaggerating to make a point. He knew that it was a hard command, and he was serious. In fact, the command to love was Jesus’ basic philosophy. And so, those of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus have an obligation to discover how to follow this command.
The first question we must ask is, How do we go about loving our enemies? How is this possible?
We begin, first, by analyzing self.
Now I realize that some people won’t like you, no matter what. They may not like the way you look. They may not like the way you sound. They may not like the way you dress. They may not like the way you do your hair. And there is nothing you can do about that. Those are trivial matters.
But we must also be aware that it is quite possible that people don’t like you for a particular reason. It may be because of something that you did in the past. It may be because of something you said, or did, to them. There may be something else in your personality that arouses the tragic hate response in them.
This is not only true about individuals, but it is also true in the international scene as well.
In the epic battle between terrorism and democracy, we know that we can never accept the actions of terrorists and religious extremists. We know that we can never approve of suicide bombings. We don’t believe that the end justifies the means. We can never accept the actions of terror.
But at the same time, we must look at our own actions and behaviors, and ask if we live up to our democratic ideals. We must ask whether there is something in our own past, our own history, which has sparked the backlash of terrorism. We must ask whether our support of the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians back in 1948 did not itself spawn the deadly terrorist attacks of the present. We must question our own actions, our own prejudices, our own weaknesses in the area of foreign policy, in order to fully understand where terrorism comes from.
That is what Jesus means when he says, “How can you see the speck in your brother’s eye when there is a log in your own?” We must be honest about our own selves first, in order to love our enemies.
Second, we must find the good in our enemy.
Each of us is schizophrenic. We are split up, divided against ourselves – good versus evil. Inside of each of us a civil war rages.
There is something in us which agrees with Ovid, the Latin poet, who said, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.” And we agree with the philosopher Plato who said that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions.
Our own apostle Paul said, “I know the good which I want to do, but I am unable to do it.”
Within us, the “is-ness” of our being is out of harmony with the “ought-ness”
The truth is that, within the best of us is some evil; within the worst of us, there is some good.
Think about that. This is a hard lesson to swallow. This means that, in Osama bin Laden, there was some good. This means that, in James Holmes, there is some good.
When you come to the point that you can look in the face of any person and see deep down within her the “image of God,” then you begin to love her.
The third way to love your enemies is this: when the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.
There will come a time when you have the opportunity to defeat the person who has been mean to you, the one who has insulted and cast you aside. Perhaps you will have the opportunity to say a bad word against her to her superior; perhaps you have the chance to stick a knife in his back.
But don’t do it.
That’s the meaning of love – the refusal to defeat another person.
When you rise to the level of this kind of love, you seek only to defeat evil systems. You learn to make a distinction between individuals and systems. Evil systems can, and must, be defeated. But individuals who happen to be caught in that system, you must love.
The Greek language helps us here by giving us three different, and distinct, words for love.
First, there is the Greek word “eros,” which refers to aesthetic, or romantic, love. Eros is the love you feel when you see someone who is attractive and you pour out all your love and attention on that individual. At its best, eros is love of the beautiful; at its worst, eros is selfish and possessive.
When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he was not talking about eros love.
Second, there is the Greek word “phileo,” which refers to the affection between friends, a brotherly love. Phileo is that good-natured affection that people feel for one another, when they genuinely like each other.
When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he was not talking about phileo love.
Jesus was talking about the third kind of love, the Greek word “agape.” Agape love is the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all people. Agape love seeks nothing in return. Theologians call this the love of God working in the lives of people
At this level, you love others, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every person, and you love them because you know God loves them.
Again, when Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he was referring to agape love.
Notice he didn’t say, “Like your enemies.” There are a lot of people I don’t like; I don’t like what they do to me or to others; I don’t like how they act, nor do I like their attitudes.
But Jesus says love them.
And love is greater than like.
This leads us to a second great question. Why should we love our enemies?
First, because hate for hate only intensifies the hate and evil in the universe.
If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back .. it goes on forever!
Somebody must have a little sense, and be the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil.
Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.
Hate doesn’t cut off.
When we lived in Cameroon, I often had to drive my car long distances on the highways. I tried to keep from driving at night, because it was dangerous. But sometimes I couldn’t avoid it.
One time, I was with my wife, Leah when we were driving on the road after dark. Car after car would approach with their brights on, making it difficult to see anything. I would flash my lights, but rarely would anyone respond by dimming their lights. Finally, in exasperation, I said, “If nobody else will turn off their brights, then I won’t either!”
Leah said, “If nobody is willing to dim their lights, then we’re all in trouble!”
So many civilizations refuse to turn their brights off because their honor has been offended. Too few civilizations are willing to say, “Enough of this madness!”
But it’s a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for everyone.
Only love can end the spiral.
Second, we must love our enemies because hate distorts the personality of the hater. When you hate, you do irrational things – you can’t see straight, walk straight, stand upright, vision distorted. The ugly becomes beautiful, and the beautiful ugly. The good becomes bad, and the bad becomes good. The true becomes false, and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. Hatred destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.
Hate is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life.
And third, we must love our enemies because love has within it a redemptive power.
If you hate enemies, you have no way to redeem and transform them. If you love, you will discover that the enemy can be changed.
And so, you must keep loving people, even though they are mistreating you. If your neighbor is doing something wrong to you, keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. They might react in the beginning. They might react with bitterness because they’re mad that you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but love them even more. And by the power of your love, they will break down under the load.
Love is redemptive. It builds up and is creative.
Last weekend, I attended a ceremony of iftar at a local mosque. I spent some time speaking to the imam, named Musa. He had lived in the community for over 25 years. I asked him how the community had responded to the Muslim presence.
He responded by telling me a story. He said that a woman and her husband, a pastor, had moved into a house next door. At first, they didn’t communicate much. But over time, the two families began to speak, became friends, and even shared meals together.
One day, the woman saw Musa in the yard and waved him over. She said, “I have a confession to make.”
She said, “When I first moved into this house, I was terrified to be living next to you. I asked God why he would ask me to live next door to Muslims. But now, I thank God everyday that I live next door to Muslims. You are a part of my family now.”
I thank God that love transformed this situation
There is a power in love that the world has not discovered yet.
Jesus discovered it.
Gandhi discovered it.
But most never discover it.
They believe in hitting for hitting, They believe in eye for an eye, tooth for tooth. They believe in hating for hating.
But Jesus comes to us and says, “This isn’t the way.”
Of course, throughout history, some people are oppressed by other people. How can those who are oppressed deal with their oppression?
They have, essentially, three options.
First, they can rise up against their oppressors with physical violence and corroding hatred. But we have already seen that this is not the way. Violence creates more problems than it solves.
Second, they could acquiesce and give in to the oppression. But that isn’t the way, either – non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.
But there is a third option. They can organize mass non-violence resistance based on the principle of love. This seems to be the only way forward. This is the way to make this old world, a new world
Jesus discovered this.
Not only Jesus, but even our great military leaders have discovered it. At the end of his life, Napoleon said “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have built great empires. But upon what did they depend? They depended upon force. But long ago Jesus started an empire that depended on love, and even to this day millions will die for him.”
I can see Jesus, standing on a hilltop, and turning down the Roman Empire’s way. I can see him explicitly rejecting hate and violence, and instead, gathering an army of men and women who will be armed only by love
I’m proud to stand here in Rowlett this morning and to say that army is still marching. It grew from 11 men to more than a billion today.
Because of the power and influence of the personality of this Christ, he was able to split history into b.c. and a.d.
Because of his power, he was able to shake the hinges from the gates of the Roman Empire.
And all around the world this morning, we can hear the glad echo of heaven ring, in the words of the old hymn:
Jesus shall reign wherever sun
Does his successive journeys run
His kingdom spreads from shore to shore
Till moon shall wane and wax no more.
In Christ there is no East or West
In Him, no North or South
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide world.
This is the only way.
And our civilization must discover that. Individuals must discover that as they deal with other individuals.
There is a little tree planted on a little hill and on that tree hangs the most influential character that ever came into this world. But never feel that that tree is a meaningless drama that took place on the stages of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity, and see the love of God breaking forth into time.
So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all my brothers and sisters in Texas and all over America and Iran and North Korea, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.”
Let us pray:
O God, help us in our lives and in all of our attitudes, to work out this controlling force of love, this controlling power that can solve every problem that we confront in all areas. O, we talk about politics; we talk about the problems facing our nuclear civilization. Grant that all people will come together and discover that as we solve these problems – the international problems, the problems of nuclear energy, the problem of terrorism, the race problem – let us join together in a great fellowship of love and bow down at the feet of Jesus. Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen.