Propers for the Nation
Isaiah 26:1-8; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 5:43-48*
*The Gospel lesson is taken from the propers for Independence Day
The other day my father sent me a selfie with the caption, “I will return this tie next trip.” I looked at the picture and saw that he was wearing my tie—a tie that, judging by how long it had been since I had worn it, must have been in his closet for around a decade. In reply, I let him know that if he ever looked in my closet he would see several ties, shirts, sweaters, and jackets that belong to him. My only hope is that it has been so long that he has forgotten which things are actually his. Like most boys, I have been raiding his closet since I was old enough to tie a tie. From a very early age, I remember wanting to dress like him and wanting to be like him.
I do not know when I learned it, but as a child I knew that my father had a peculiar way of hanging up his trousers. He tossed them up in the air and then caught them by the other end in order to align them perfectly and naturally for hanging. I practiced that little trick until I had it down pat. One day, when we were both getting dressed in the same room, I made sure he noticed when I tossed my trousers up in the air and caught them. Unfortunately, my method was different from his, and, instead of seeing a similarity between us, my attempt only underscored in his mind how he was still the only person he knew who threw his pants up in the air before hanging them on the hanger the way he did. He mentioned it, and I hung my head in disappointment and walked out of the room. I just wanted to be like him.
Nowadays, I notice my elder son wanting to be like his father. He wears a bowtie to church. He wants to know what color trousers I have picked out for Sunday morning so that he can wear trousers of the same color. He knows that I often wear black shoes, and he wants a pair of black shoes of his own. It is flattering, of course. It is endearing. It is special to see a child want to be like his parent. As the inevitability of adolescence approaches, I know that one day he will outgrow that imitative instinct, but, in the meantime, I find myself wondering how long it will last. How long can we keep up this close connection between father and son? When is it that we forget how good it feels to pretend to be like our parent?
Jesus said, “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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-48 NRSV). So that you may be children of your father in heaven. When I read this passage from Matthew 5, most of it is familiar to me. The command to love our enemies is the kind of outlandish thing that sticks with us. We know that it will be hard work. We know Jesus is expressing the Christian ideal—the human ideal. But the phrase with which Jesus links that behavior to our relationship with God seems to leak conveniently out of my memory. I would rather forget that part. I would rather not think about what my attitude toward my opponents says about my relationship with God. But that is where the power of the gospel is to be found—not in the articulation of a faraway ideal but in the invitation to be that which we admire. We are called to become children of God, and, if we want to become children of God, we must be like our Father in heaven. We must love all people—good, bad, friend, enemy, righteous, unrighteous—just as God loves them.
As I wrote last week in our parish newsletter, this election cycle has resulted in the dehumanization of our opponents. We are no longer debating policies. We are questioning and denying the integrity, motive, and character of the candidates and the people who support them. Every day, my Facebook news feed is full of articles on why no Christian could ever vote for Hillary Clinton and why no Christian could ever vote for Donald Trump. Unfortunately, these are not desperate pleas for a third-party candidate. They are unequivocal, non-negotiable statements from Republicans and Democrats who are convinced that the other side represents not merely a contrary position but a genuinely evil and anti-Christian, anti-American, anti-reasonable platform. And, as long as we allow our disagreements and differences to inhibit our ability to see the humanity of our opponents, we allow Satan—the ultimate divider—to win.
Love your enemies, Jesus said. Love them. Why? Because God loves them, and, if we belong to God, we must love the way that God loves. That is where it all starts. God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good. God sends rain upon the righteous and the unrighteous. In other words, God's blessing, God's provision, God's love are unconditional. There are no ifs to God's love. God does not love you if you love him back. God does not bless you if you believe what he tells you to believe. God does not provide for you if you go to church, if you make a pledge, if you vote for a Republican, or if you vote for a Democrat. God loves everyone because that is who God is. God is love. That is the foundation of the gospel. That is the source of our hope. If that begins to unravel, everything is lost, and, as soon as we begin to put caveats on that love, it all falls apart.
If we want to belong to God, we must love the way that he loves. If we want to be children of God, we must love everyone—even our enemies. If God loves everyone yet we attempt to deny that love to anyone, we cannot know God's unconditional love. Once we place a condition upon that love—once we try to hold it and keep it for ourselves and for those we think deserve it—it slips right through our fingers. If we believe that there is anyone on earth who is outside of God's love, then we deny not only the humanity of that person, but, more importantly, we deny the One who loves without limit. Yet, in one way or another, we all seem to be participating in a political process that does just that—that denies our faith in Jesus by denying the universality of God's love.
I do not know whether you have gone to the polls yet. If you have not, I hope that you will. The stakes are considerable, and I believe that disciples of Jesus are called to help make the reign of God manifest on earth through our political process. But, when you go to the polls and when you watch the results come in, I urge you to do so not as a Republican or a Democrat but as one who belongs to God. Do not buy into the false narrative that there is only one way for a faithful person to vote. Look for the good within your opponents. Love them just as God has loved them. We are called to be children of God. Jesus urges us to imitate our heavenly Father—to be perfect and complete in our love just as God is. We cannot be children of God if we refuse to love our enemies. That is what is really at stake in this election. Today is not only about a nation choosing its next president. It is a moment for the people of this country to choose to love one another without limits. Will that love win? Will the reign of God be manifest in our nation? If so, it starts with us.