Love is a Verb: Loving our enemies

Rod Stafford is the lead pastor of Portland (Oregon) Mennonite Church. He has also served congregations in Lawrence, Kansas and Pasadena, California. When he is not at the church he likes to ride his bikes, watch baseball and do the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle with his wife, Molly.

Three Sundays ago these words of Jesus were part of the lectionary reading from Matthew 5. The Sermon on the Mount is really in our Mennonite wheelhouse. This commandment in particular, is a lot easier to hear in our worship services. We are a historic peace church after all. We have already rejected the barriers and violence that most often mark conventional reactions to the “other.” And a fair bit of the time we can just about convince ourselves that we don’t really have any enemies anyway. We make quilts to raise money for people in need around the world. We rush to rebuild homes and communities after fires and earthquakes. Who doesn’t like the Mennonites?! So that morning I preached what I thought was a pretty good sermon.

In our congregation, after the sermon we always include a space for silence. It is a nod to the Quakers who worship with us … although it is never long enough for them. Then we have time for responses. That Sunday two people stood up and spoke briefly. Honestly, I probably could have just skipped the sermon. What they said in those two or three minutes was enough.

Love is a VerbOne of the people who spoke was an older man. He’ll turn 90 at the end of the month. I am always struck by the depth and undiminished fervor of his faith. I often, only half-jokingly, say that I want to be like him when I grow up. He recalled another sermon he heard many years ago. That preacher had said that our “enemy” is whoever arouses feelings of hostility in us. Then he went on to confess that that definition lengthened his list of enemies quite a bit.

The second person who spoke said simply that the hardest part of loving her enemies was giving up the need to be right. Of course we think that our beliefs and opinions are right; otherwise, as Anne Lamott once pointed out, we’d get new ones. Sometimes though, we can hold our convictions so tightly that it is easy for us to make enemies of people who disagree with us. When we insist that they think like us, when we cannot separate who they are from what they believe, it becomes very difficult to practice love.

Who evokes feelings of hostility in me? Who have I made an enemy because they don’t agree with me?

Those are good questions for us to ask in the midst of our daily relationships, our congregational relationships and our relationships within Mennonite Church USA. Right now there are political leaders who are evoking deep feelings of hostility within me. In our congregation, we are in the midst of a very difficult decision about blessing same-sex marriages; and people are finding it is straining relationships. And in our denomination, well, as far as decisions that strain relationships, take your pick.

Jesus calls us to love our enemies. Love is a verb. It is something we are to do daily, practically, and persistently. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pushes us deeper. He makes clear that loving our enemies is connected to who we are:  “Love your enemies … so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).

Love is at the heart of God. It is the defining characteristic of the household of God. It is indiscriminant, unconditional, limitless. It has the capacity to make us children of God, even when we ourselves have been enemies (Romans 5:10).

We are always welcome to come home, to be part of God’s family. If we are to be sisters and brothers in God’s Beloved Community though, then we also have to love one another, whether friend or neighbor, stranger, or even enemy. May it be so.