Exodus 14; Matthew 5:43-48
Mandisa Hundley was a gospel singer and one of the 12 finalists on the TV show American Idol, season 5. She stood before judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson to find out if she made it through to the next round of the competition. Mandisa, is a full-figured woman, and Simon had previously made a sarcastic remark about her weight saying, “Do we have a bigger stage this year?” When she entered the room to learn the judges’ verdict, Mandisa looked right at Simon and said to him, “Simon, a lot people want me to say a lot of things to you. But this is what I want to say…yes, you hurt me, and I cried, and it was painful. It really was, but I want you to know that I’ve forgiven you, and that you don’t need someone to apologize in order to forgive somebody. And I figure that if Jesus could die so that all of my wrongs could be forgiven, I can certainly extend that same grace to you. I just wanted you to know that.” Randy said, “Amen.” Simon apologized and hugged the singer, and Mandisa discovered she had been selected to advance into the next round of competition.
Simon Cowell, that straight talking, contemptuous Brit, is an example of total freedom without love. He thinks has free reign to say whatever he wants, but his honesty is never tempered with compassion. In fact, at times he seems to disdain the very contestants he is supposed to promote.
Can we have freedom without love? Let’s think about that question in the story of the Passover, since it’s being celebrated in the Jewish world this week. Passover is a story about liberation and love. For four hundred years, the iron hand of Egypt bore down on the backs of Israel, burdening them with the yoke of slavery. Moses brings Israel out of bondage and into liberation – into freedom. Imagine the scene where Moses and the tribes of Israel make it to the other side of the Sea of Reeds (by the way, they did not cross the Red Sea, home of the Suez Canal in Egypt. The Hebrew text only tells us that they crossed something called yam suph, the Sea of Reeds). As they look across the span of water, now behind them, they see Pharaoh’s horses and chariots sinking to their deaths. Israel’s distress lifts. Like a cry rising from a pierced heart, a song of redemption suddenly erupts from the mouths of the hundreds of thousands of people who had been released from the shackles of slavery.
There is a Jewish story that tells another side of the events. It goes like this: The song of Israel rises to the heavens. The angels in heaven are so enthralled with Israel’s rescue, their songs of rejoicing begin to fill the heavens. Suddenly, a voice cries out – the voice of God. “My children are drowning. How can you sing praises?” You wish to surrender yourselves to an unbridled joy and celebrate in splendor? How dare you do such a thing? The singing stops. Their joy falls silent. From that point on, Israel would have no share in joy while God’s creations drown. God reminds them that their fate is bound with the fate of all humanity. “My people, you are not free yet. You will not find true liberation until you remember that there is no freedom unless there is also love.”
How can we recognize the humanity of our enemy, even when they have been so cruel? It is not easy. But the Jews found a way. After WWII, Israel captured Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, and placed him on trial. The Israeli court would have been justified in treating him as he treated the Jews, gassing him or torturing him. Instead, they protected his human rights as they put Eichmann on trial. He was allowed defense counsel and even regular clergy visits. Justice was done and he was hanged, but only after 14 weeks of testimony with more than 1,500 documents, 100 prosecution witnesses, and one appeal. The worst enemy the Jewish people have ever known was treated like a human being.
“My children are drowning. How can you sing praises?” God’s words are a clarion call to us – a call to the human conscience to remember the humanity around us. The voice of mercy should become the second nature of Christian conscience. We, as people of God, cannot stay composed and indifferent in the face of inhumanity. Wherever poverty, sickness and disharmony are felt, wherever justice and freedom are impaired – this inner voice always calls out – “My children are drowning in the sea…” Can there be liberation without love? Without compassion? Without forgiveness? The message here is unmistakable. We may never celebrate when inhumanity wins the day. As Robert Burns wrote, “Man’s Inhumanity to Man, makes countless thousands mourn.”
“My children are drowning. How can you sing praises?” If anyone knew about freedom and love, it was Jesus. Today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount calls people embrace humanity in others. Jesus says, “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. God gives God’s 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.”
We will never be truly free in Christ until we learn to love. This means loving our enemies as well as our friends. It means loving the unlovable, the outcasts and sinners. It means that until we can look at the most revolting members of the human species and see the face of Christ, we are still imprisoned by prejudice and hatred. And that’s not the way Christ wants us to live. If your God tells you that hatred and exclusion is OK, then you do not worship the God revealed to us in Christ. As Author Anne Lamott once wrote, you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
I’ve been inspired by a few stories of those who have overcome their hatred and learned to love – and found true freedom. One of those stories is about Yonggi Cho, pastor of the largest church in the world -- 830,000 people. Several years ago, as his ministry was becoming international, Cho told God, “I will go anywhere to preach the gospel—except Japan.” He hated the Japanese with gut-deep loathing because of what Japanese troops had done to the Korean people and to members of Yonggi Cho’s own family during WWII. The Japanese were his enemies. After a prolonged inner struggle, Cho felt God calling him to preach in Japan. He went, but he went with bitterness. The first speaking engagement was to a conference of 1,000 Japanese Christian pastors. Cho stood up to speak, but all he could say was: “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.” Then he broke down and wept, both brimming and desolate with hatred. At first one, then two, then all 1,000 pastors stood up. One by one they walked up to Cho, knelt at his feet and asked forgiveness for what their people had done to his people. As this went on, God changed Yonggi Cho. The Lord put a single message in his heart and mouth: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
So, maybe you are not a spiritual powerhouse. How might enemy love work out in your own life? A father writes about his son Chase. One night after supper, Chase sat down in the living room to begin the task of signing and sealing the Valentine’s Day cards he had picked out for his second-grade classmates. Seeing him surrounded by mountains of cards, envelopes, and a list of names that filled an entire page, the dad decided to give him a hand. Chase said, “You can seal the cards and mark the names off the list,” as he shoved 15 or more cards and envelopes into his dad’s lap.
About halfway through the stack, dad noticed a bold red and pink Valentine inscribed with the words, “I am thankful for you.” What caught his eye was not what the card said, but the thick black lines that had been scrawled over the word thankful. Dad nudged Chase and said, “ I don’t think it would be very kind to give this card to one of your friends.” He was not prepared for the angry outburst that followed. Chase sat up straight and yelled, “Every day that girl calls me names, and I have asked her to stop, but she just laughs calls me names!” The dad’s heart felt a lurch of pain as he pictured his son standing undefended in the schoolyard with this unknown girl teasing him. He sat and took in the tears that were rolling down Chase’s face. He told his son how sorry he was and that he could understand the pain. Chase jerked himself loose from dad’s arm and with a fresh flow of tears choked out, “She embarrasses me! Do you want me to just stand there and let her call me names?” Here was a young son facing a moment of suffering that might seem small to some but was clearly a big deal to him. Dad put his arm around Chase, wiped his tears with a Kleenex, and said, “Yes, Chase, I do want you to let her call you names. I don’t want you to do anything that would hurt her.”
After a few moments, Chase slowly picked up a new card and addressed it neatly to this girl who so easily hurt his heart. His choice was to offer her forgiveness and grace in the form of a Valentine’s card.
19-year-old Ryan Cushing and his friends stole a credit card and then took off on a shopping spree… for no reason. They stole a 20-pound frozen turkey and proceeded to throw it from their speeding vehicle headlong into the windshield of the car driven by Victoria Ruvolo. The result: the victim underwent surgery for six hours as metal plates and other pieces of hardware were fitted together to rebuild her face. The prosecutor in Ruvolo’s case stated that for crimes such as this one, victims often “feel no punishment is harsh enough.Death doesn’t even satisfy them.”
How did Victoria react? She was concerned with “salvaging the life of her 19-year-old assailant.” She did not seek revenge in any way. She sought information about the youth and how he was raised. She insisting on offering a plea deal: second-degree assault, which carried six months in the county jail and one year’s probation. He could have been sent to prison for 25 years, returning to society middle-aged with no job skills or prospects.
This is only half the story. What happened in court is the truly remarkable part. After the verdict, Ryan carefully walked to where his victim was seated in the courtroom. With tears and in a whisper he said, “I’m so sorry for what I did to you.” He and Victoria embraced, both weeping. She stroked his head, patted him on the back, and comforted him. “It’s OK,” she said. “I just want you to make your life the best it can be.” It was reported that hardened prosecutors, and even reporters, were choking back tears.
The theologian and activist Thomas Merton once wrote these words. They come from the book entitled Seeds of Contemplation. I offer them for all of us to contemplate.
“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you were capable of loving him he would no longer be your enemy.
“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weakness of men.
“Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God. For it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith”
God’s children are drowning. How can you sing praises? Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of God.
Roots and Wings: adventures of a spirit on earth, by Jack Haas