LIFE CHOICES: ENMITY OR KINDNESS?
Matthew 5: 43-45; Galatians 5: 16-23
It was baseball player and dry wit philosopher, Yogi Berra, who once confused listeners with this sage advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” It was American poet, Robert Frost, who made the idea of making right choices significant with his famous line: “Two roads diverged into the wood, and I, I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” And it was the Lord God who, through Moses in Deuteronomy, said to all who were listening: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse:” And then God offers this wonderful piece of advice: “Choose life! Then you and your descendents will live.” Every day we make choices: what clothes should I wear; what shall I eat; when will I call it a night? Only children, unable to make wise choices without a parent’s guidance, generally have less say on these questions. But through life, the questions get harder: Will I take this test and cheat or study and do the best I can? Will I keep having these friends even though they always get me into trouble? Will I tryout for cheerleading or run for student government, or join the French Club or do all of them? Will I be in Boy Scouts and try out for basketball and join the Flying Club or just do some or none of them? (I actually did all three in high school.) Every weekend, someone is deciding whether or not to take a drink, and if they do, whether they will then drive under the influence of alcohol. Sometime along the way you may have chosen to stay with a boyfriend or girlfriend or to break up. On the other hand, someone may have broken up with you which is one of the most difficult hurts for teenagers and college aged students to overcome. Some say, when they lose their patience or their temper, that another driver or a husband, wife, child, or friend made them do it. No; no one has the power to cause your bad behavior. Only you allow your bad behavior. I hate it when I cannot blame my behavior on someone else as much as you do! I could parade a dozen specialists in front of you today- psychotherapists, pastoral counselors, even 12 Step Program mentors – and they would agree with that statement. Life is full of choices, and behavior is one of them. How you feel carries no moral weight; how you act does. Today and the rest of this month the sermon series is on LIFE CHOICES.
As we begin, the first question juxtaposes a term from Paul’s the “works of the flesh” list: enmity, with one term from the “fruit of the Spirit” list: kindness. “Enmity” is, as you might surmise by looking at the word, “is a posture of making enemies of others.” “Kindness” on the other hand, has its roots in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “hesed” which means “steadfast love,” or “kindness.” Sometimes neighbors become enemies, perhaps out of different viewpoints, or from rudeness, or from stubbornness. When you make enemies, your body, mind and soul, all of them, go through physical, emotional, and spiritual changes. Enmity has been documented to bring about physical symptoms: not only does one’s soul get troubled when one has enemies, one’s mind gets troubled so that sleep gets interrupted, life gets so filled with maddening distractions so that one can hardly function, and smiles go away from everyone’s faces involved. Our bodies go into “fight or flight” mode, a reflex intended to help in an emergency, but not intended to be used for weeks or months on end. Those in threatening situations are often tortured by a syndrome called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for years of their life. Fighting enemies, whether another condo owner, or a bully at school, or your mother in law, or law breakers if you are on a police force or the system if you are a social worker, all of that is stressful. Enmity also causes health care costs and pharmaceutical profits to rise as medications are used in quantity for headaches, chest pains, stomach problems and indigestion. There may be times when enmity is a necessary evil: “Americans have traditionally stood firm against enemies, both foreign and domestic, as military officers and presidents have taken aim at enemies in Oklahoma City, in New York City, in Hiroshima, and in Berlin. Enemies of all shapes and sizes who do diabolical things to other human beings become the enemies of God and of those who stand by ones unjustly killed or tortured. Sometimes our country has joined arms with other nations so that allied forces have the strength to stop a dictator or ruthless regime. And sadly, sometimes the places in the world where such force may be warranted are not the places where force is aimed. There are, for example, documented human atrocities going on in Sudan, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Uzbekistan. Many Scripture passages show that God condemns, and will judge harshly, those who carry out such acts. Such brutality was agonizingly captured about the regime of Idi Amin in the 2006 film THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. But interestingly enough, Herod the Great (self named), and Herod Antipas, his son, were among the most ruthless of dictators as well, but there is no word from Jesus that they should have been killed for killing others. “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for and eye,” Jesus said, but I say do not resist one who is evil.” And it was a Hindu leader, Mohandes Gandhi, who read and respected the teachings of Jesus and taught tolerance toward Muslims (and he was killed by a fanatic because of that tolerance), who said the actions of “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” In many cases, with steady pressure or undying patience, offering handshakes after agreements can take the place of making enemies. It was President Reagan who brokered peace between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was President Carter who brokered the Camp David Accords to deal with Arab/Israeli conflicts between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem Begin. History has recorded both successes and tragedies when it comes to work for justice and reconciliation. We need not chose the path of making enemies first when the Savior of the world once said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That is radical, isn’t it? Have our nation’s leaders asked us to pray for Osama Ben Laden, Fidel Castro, or Kim Jung Il? But in our ordinary run-ins with people that escalate into confrontations, might there be ways to ratchet down the anger or threats? It is our nature to react in human ways; it is our goal to react in Christian ways. As Christian professor Marva Dawn once put it: “Most Christians say they love Jesus; fewer of them love what Jesus loved.”
An alternative path to take in life is kindness. We might call it love, a means of grace that the King James translates as “charity.” Some of the best charitable (unselfish, caring for others) events have been from eclectic sources: pop stars have sung to feed hungry people in Africa; comedians have given us Comic Relief. Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, tells the story of Paul Newman calling him personally to ask what particular projects needed supporting through his “Newman’s Own” brand. When he heard about all the international projects, he asked Fuller, “Why have you included countries outside of the United States? The money I gave you was made from sales in the U.S. I think we should use the money in the U.S.” “Then that’s where it will be used,” replied Millard Fuller. “By the way, why do you help in other countries?” Newman asked. To which Fuller replied “First of all, it is good religion to have a worldwide concern and ministry. God is not an American citizen. God’s love is universal and our expressions of love should be the same. We should put no artificial boundaries on our various expressions of love.” He then went on to point out that America could not accommodate all the immigrants of the world if the only livable country in the world were the U.S. He said if all good but poor people could have at least a decent place to live, then some would turn to God in thanks, some would think kindly about America, and some might “pay forward” the kindness that was offered to them. Learning that, Paul Newman said use his money wherever it would do the most good. [THE THEOLOGY OF THE HAMMER, Smyth & Helwys Pub., 1984, p.121.]
When Paul the Apostle wrote the words in Galatians on the works of the flesh and the works of the Spirit, he had witnessed both of them first hand. The members of that early Galatian church were acting more like they were led by the flesh instead of the Spirit. Some in our day act that way too. This Roman citizen, Paul, who was a Jew who turned Christian, had found a way to look at life and at others differently after his conversion. Paul, for the first time in his life, saw the possibilities, the potential, and the positive nature that others could have if they claimed Christ and acknowledged that God loved them. Sometimes I have run in to those true “born again” people; no, not the ones that bash you on the heads with their Bibles and judge your Baptism and your salvation, I mean the ones who, at one time, were fighters against Christ or at least apathetic about Christ and his teachings, then one day they get it! The scales fall from their eyes; they go from having desires of the flesh to desires of the Spirit. They begin to care about others instead of living in the infantile stage of self. I wonder if Paul Newman, or even Millard Fuller, a lawyer on the brink of divorce who gave up on law but not on his marriage to help poor people get a home, I wonder if they had conversion experiences? Fuller has had his personal problems, so we can choose to shun him or appreciate him: we have life choices too. What I DO notice from some prominent politicians and preachers is that those who condemn the loudest are among those whose personal sins are later exposed or whose judgmentalism squeezes all the juice out of the “fruits of the Spirit.” We are not to live as victims of circumstances, nor are we to live as Monday morning quarterbacks, analyzing the “plays” of others perfectly, but never casting a glance on our own sins. It is exasperating to be around those people for very long. Our life comes down to choices, not down to blame or criticism. How are you doing with your life choices? Are you busy making enemies, or making friends? Are you busy making noise or are you busy making a difference? Are busy making people mad or are you making them glad they know you? Take responsibility for yourself and your actions. Do the tough work of being honest with yourself. Acknowledge that you cannot change others, only the way you react to others. And then try some fruit for a change, perhaps some love, joy, peace, or patience; maybe a taste of gentleness and self-control. But this week, try kindness; people can be unreasonable; try it anyway. Paul believed it so much that he made the list right after the works of the flesh list: the first list made him sick about the Galatians; the second list gave him hope. Perhaps God thinks that way about us. I’ll close with these words from Mother Teresa: “
“We are all capable of good and evil. We are not born bad: everybody has something good inside. Some hide it, some neglect it, but it is there. God created us to love and to be loved, so it is our test from God to choose one path or the other…This shouldn’t be such a struggle to achieve.”
[A SIMPLE PATH, 1995, P. 51] Jeffrey A. Sumner June 10, 2007