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Loving Our Enemies (Sermon for Sunday, February 19, 2023)

"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 … For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?”

The command to love your enemies has never been easy, but it is quite possibly more difficult in 2023 than it has ever been. Why? Because we have so many more of them.

Sociologists have been observing for the past 20 years that Americans belong to fewer and fewer social organizations, clubs, fraternal organizations, neighborhood or charitable associations, and churches. As we participate in fewer and fewer of the institutions that used to knit our societies together, that used to give us a sense of belonging and teach us how to live and get along with one another, our need for that sense of belonging has never gone away. So where has it been transferred? Politics.

Americans identify more strongly than ever with their own political persuasions, and those political affiliations are increasingly the lens through which we see the world and sort the people around us. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of Americans who view the opposing party “highly unfavorably” has risen from 20 to 60 percent. We are much more likely to believe that members of the opposing party are closed-minded, dishonest, immoral, unintelligent, or lazy. Perhaps most tellingly, younger adults are increasingly more likely than older adults to say that one’s political affiliation says a lot about his or her moral character. My party: Good people. Other party: Bad people.

None of this is surprising when survey data also show us that people increasingly have fewer friendships with people of differing political persuasions. Further, the past six years have seen a tremendous spike in the number of people ending friendships because of political differences – or rather, because they did or did not approve of certain political figures.

That could be in part because people just have fewer friends. In 1990, 33 percent of Americans reported having 10 or more close friends. In 2021, that was down to 13 percent. Similarly, in 1990, only three percent of Americans reported having no close friends. Twenty-one years later, that quadrupled to 12 percent. Maybe, you might think, people are content having fewer friends. But over half of Americans wish they had more friends. Maybe those fewer friendships are higher quality friendships, though! But fewer Americans reported having meaningful conversations with their friends, and the number of people reporting they had a friend who was the first person they turned to for personal support fell from 45 to 25 percent. In this, as in so many other respects, young adults in particular are increasingly reliant on their parents, rather than building their own adult support networks.

On the one hand, we can see that men are particularly bad at friendship. We are less likely to share our feelings, less likely to pick up the phone and stay in touch, less likely to have “meaningful conversations,” etc. However, I don’t think that we should exclude the possibility that people have been concluding that men are bad at friendship because of the anti-masculine values that are baked into these sociological reports. It turns out that women are much more likely to end a friendship because of differences over politics, for example. In my experience, women make friends more easily, but they also end friendships more easily too.

So where does that depressing situation leave us, and what does it have to do with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ? Christians should care deeply about friendship, because friendship is the context in which the Gospel of Christ is lived out in our daily lives. It is in friendship that we live the command to love one another, to see the image of God in one another, to care for our neighbor, and to spread the Good News of Christ. If we don’t have friends, we don’t have the context we need to put the Gospel in practice.

We can’t always change the world around us. We can’t change the fact that people of different politics, religions, and general life outlooks increasingly live in different communities, zip codes, and even states. But we can work on changing ourselves by cooperating with God’s grace at work in our lives. On this last Sunday before we begin the holy season of Lent, the Lord is calling us not only to prepare to receive mercy, but to become people of mercy.

To love those who do not love us (or at least, who do not seem to love us) is not easy. Perhaps this is why St. Thomas Aquinas said that mercy is a greater miracle than the creation of the world. Thomas was referring to God’s mercy offered to us through the saving Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, to the fact that God’s having restored us to grace is a greater miracle than having created us in the first place, because it goes so far beyond our own natural capacities. Christ invites us today to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” so we are invited to enter that miracle of mercy too.

Since this is the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent, hopefully you have been praying about how God is calling you to live the three disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving this Lent. Inspired by one of Christ’s most difficult commands, to love our enemies, ask yourself how each of those Lenten disciplines can be directed towards helping you to love an enemy. Prayer seems an easy place to start – pick an “enemy” to pray for. Pray for his or her authentic conversion – not for your vindication. Fasting – pick something to fast from that divides rather than unites us. Almsgiving – maybe there’s a social cause that’s typically thought to be on the other side of the political spectrum that every Christian ought actually to support.

Remember, though, that love isn’t a feeling. It consists in willing the good of the another. It is present in deeds and actions. Those disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving will be empty unless they lead towards concrete steps of reconciliation with those we’ve regarded as our enemies.

One of the reasons we lack deep, quality friendships is because by not working to reconcile with our enemies, we lose out on the opportunity for the makings of great friendships. Maybe I’m just really bad at first impressions, but some of the best friendships I’ve had over the years didn’t start out well. My best friend in college initiated our friendship with an email in which he described all the reasons he didn’t like me at first (odd, I know – but we were 19 or 20), and one of the few people I can always count on to answer the phone when I call is someone I brutally stabbed in the back amidst another foolish college-era conflict. Lest you write this off as the stuff of adolescence, the best new friendship I’ve made in the past two years or so is one that began with a really heated argument in which each of us seriously offended the other – all the while the mutual friend who introduced us was convinced this was the sign of a blooming friendship. Fortunately, she was smarter than both of us – maybe women really are better than men at this after all.

(Also, and this is probably not exactly the right place in this homily to say it, but I want to point out to the young men and women who’ve thought that the Lord might be calling them to the priesthood or religious life, that one of the great joys of this life is getting to focus on friendship. While we give up the possibility of the greatest human friendship possible, marriage, the Lord provides not only the opportunity for deeper friendship with Him but also the freedom to build deep and sustaining friendships with others at the same time. I think those statistics about friendship would look very different if they asked priests and religious – and fortunately, most of my friendships are not nearly as tumultuous as the ones I just described.)

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Look at the lives of the saints! During the great Western schism of the 14th and 15th centuries, when an antipope reigned in Avignon, France but many people were not sure if the real pope was Clement in Avignon or Urban in Rome, St. Vincent Ferrer vigorously defended the antipope Clement and St. Catherine of Siena steadfastly insisted on the legitimacy of Pope Urban. Not only are they now both saints, but they were both members of the Dominican order!

Another great example is St. Pontius, a Pope in the 200s, and St. Hippolytus, who was convinced that the Pope and other bishops were not nearly strong enough in their denouncements of heresies, so he set himself up as the first Antipope. (Sound oddly familiar?) Both, though, were imprisoned for their faith in Christ, and reconciled in prison. After their martyrdom, their relics were placed in the same sarcophagus on August 13, 236 A.D., and now we celebrate them together on that day each year.

Sometimes, we get the chance to reconcile with enemies, and sometimes we don’t. St. Catherine of Siena and St. Vincent Ferrer lived out their entire lives convinced that each was right about who the real pope was. One (St. Catherine) was later vindicated, the other (St. Vincent) was not, but we can trust that they have been reconciled in Heaven. That might seem like a long time to have to wait – especially considering how much longer each of us is likely to be in Purgatory than they were.

Focusing on growing in the virtue of mercy through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving that is directed towards reconciling you with your enemies, though, will purge your attachment to sin, and set you more firmly on the path to the place of the ultimate reconciliation. In these remaining days before Lent begins on Wednesday, ask God to show you ways that He is calling you to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that will help you to love and reconcile with your enemies and to grow in authentic friendship. After all, the only real failure or great tragedy in life is not to have failed to vindicate yourself or to prove your enemies wrong. It is quite simply, not to become a saint.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

VII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXIII


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