Seventh Sunday After Epiphany 2019

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Seventh Sunday After Epiphany 2019—24 February 2019
Rev'd Martin Johnson

There was a time when I used to read the passage from Luke’s gospel that we heard this morning and ask ‘who are my enemies?’ I wondered if I really had any. When Father Brown is investigating a murder he will generally ask the grieving widow ‘did he have any enemies?’ The answer, usually through a flood of tears, is invariably ‘no!’ That used to worry me somewhat it seems that people who have no enemies have a greater chance of being murdered! But I digress!

This question ‘who are my enemies’, changed for me when I went to Afghanistan. I had to wrestle with this question but more importantly I believe I had to come to terms with another question: why are they my enemies? During the course of my tour of duty the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah from Luke’s gospel, became something of a theological theme tune. ‘Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel who has visited his people and set them free.’ At one point Zechariah sings: ‘to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.’ He concludes ‘to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ Upon my return to Australia I was asked to write a theological reflection on my deployment, it was based on these very words of scripture.

It was, of course, very obvious that I was surrounded by enemies in Afghanistan and I had plenty to time to consider very carefully my response to them and the way that I then wanted to influence the soldiers and officers under my care. The military doctrine under which we operated was broadly speaking that of Counter Insurgency, what the military call COIN Doctrine, we did not speak or act, officially, in terms of offense. The soldiers did not speak of forgiveness and neither did I, that was too difficult but we did speak about a non-vengeful response. The soldiers did not talk about loving their enemy and neither did I. But we did speak about respect, we did speak about sensitivity to local custom and culture, and importantly we did speak about justice and peace. The word love as we generally use it did not apply and I don’t believe it was what Jesus intended either. But I don’t think I properly engaged with the question: why are they enemy, what has made them enemy?

We heard this morning of the wonderful story of the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers. It is a classic story of sibling rivalry and jealousy. Joseph’s brothers are jealous of the favoritism that he receives from his father – remember the Technicolor Dreamcoat! His brothers sell him into slavery, he goes to Egypt and after some ups and downs, he makes good! What we heard this morning was the family reunion! But Jesus is not speaking about this kind of love - filial, family love and affection, love as an emotion. The love that Jesus speaks of is action, it is about justice, peace, respect. This reading is offered to us today because we need to ask the question why these folk are my enemies. Clearly Joseph is not the innocent party he created an environment where there was jealousy, he is not innocent. Looking at the broader narrative I think we can appreciate why he made enemies of his brothers

When the Taliban placed explosive devices along our supply routes we simply dug them up, we didn’t retaliate. When they tried to destroy the schools and hospitals that we were we building, we simply repaired them. When they were injured we would ensure they received medical care, even though our doctors had to ensure their identities were concealed for fear of reprisals. Ideally, the aim of Counter insurgency doctrine is to defeat, not to kill the insurgents and this is done by creating an environment where all can live and thrive together safely, where all have enough to eat, where all have access to education and healthcare. Counter insurgency is a very expensive, lengthy, difficult form of warfare. Loving your enemy is a very, very, very difficult thing to do and we need to consider some searching questions.

The context in which Jesus calls us to love our enemies is an important one. You might recall from last Sunday that Jesus has gathered a great multitude around him and we hear Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. They are much shorter than Matthew’s and they lack Matthew’s religious slant, they are earthy – Luke does not seem to be so interested in the meek or the pure in heart! He is concerned with the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the excluded and the reviled. He then launches into anti-beatitudes - woe to you, you who are full, rich and happy. And then he says listen! Love your enemies.

But there is no mention of warfare, violence not even minor disagreements. Is Jesus telling us that the poor, the hungry, the marginalized are potentially enemies and that we need to be reconciled? Many folk return from war zones greatly impaired because of their experiences. They are places which are violent and frightening. But more than anything else they are places in which there is great poverty, hunger, grief and sectarianism. They are risky places, costly they leave us vulnerable, weak. When Zechariah sings his song, my theme song in Afghanistan he asked that we might be saved from our enemies in holiness and righteousness, clearly justice is a big part of dealing with those who might be our enemies. During my time in Afghanistan I began to realise why such people might be my enemy given my abundance and their total abject poverty.

Many folk returning from such places wonder if it has been worthwhile. I would suggest to them that small acts of kindness, understanding, respect went along way to creating peace. Such things leave us vulnerable, they are risky. What both Luke and Paul are suggesting is that small steps are the way. These small acts of kindness towards those in need those who potentially become enemies are like seeds sown, they are like the giving of ones very self. Luke suggests that by emptying ourselves we are leaving room for God that he might fill us and more besides. Paul tells us that such seeds sown in weakness will be raised in power. Amen.