When we were enemies
SERMON FOR 3rd LENT, MARCH 15, 2020
CHRIST CHURCH, NEW BERN
The Rev. Margaret C.F. Pollock
Prefatory note: I prepared this sermon before COVID-19 swept into our lives. In light of the pandemic, what I’m about to say makes most sense when we realize that we live in a fallen creation. From the time that our ancestors disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, our lives have been marked by snakes, thorns and thistles, sweat and pain, and arguably among these is our present-day virus infection. Not only we, but all creation cries out to be saved.
From Psalm 95:
For forty years I loathed that generation and said,
“They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.”
Therefore in my anger I swore,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
The Apostle Paul says: WHILE WE WERE ENEMIES
As a society, it seems we are surrounded by enemies. Political enemies, certainly. I’ve learned that I’m what’s called a political “hobbyist.” Not an activist, but I do keep up with day to day
developments. On occasion, this political hobby makes me sick to my stomach, and causes me to grit my teeth while I sleep. Somehow, though, I feel it’s important for me to witness the
good, the bad, the simply ugly in the political ring.
I have an ancestor who served in General George Washington’s Continental Army, Apollos Cooper, Lieutenant, 3rd Virginia Regiment, who died at the Battle of the Brandywine, on September 11, 1777. I’ve been to the battlefield, walked the ground, researched dispatches of the battle, and I am in awe that my young ancestor – husband, father of three – pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor in the contest for American freedom. His enemy was King George III and the soldiers who fought for him. If Apollos could make the ultimate sacrifice, surely I can at least pay attention to today’s clash of enemies.
Sensibilities in the political ring have become inflamed by immoderate rhetoric. Enemies – not too strong a word – are purported to be liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans or Democratic Socialists. White supremacists. Then there are supposedly malignant or simply unwanted immigrants, from non-European nations – as I understand it, there is a call out for European immigrants to bolster our slow-growing population. Possibly enemies are moneyed interests, or elusive cabals or even technology. Our enemies are China or Russia or Iran, and certainly North Korea.
Yet we hold as enemies folks close to home as well, otherwise why would we shun people unlike us, people who make us uncomfortable unless they are across a check-out counter, or are cleaning our hotel room? Sometimes, worst of all, enemies are within our own family.
You may be questioning whether you or I, specifically, are responsible for these enmities. Quite possibly, one feels like a spectator to the horrible clashes, free to comment but without a dog in the fight.
Distance would be nice, but we cannot honestly claim it. Any characteristic of the society in which we live and to which we contribute is ours as well, like it or not. This is what’s called institutional sin. Of course I’m not racist, I might protest, but if my society is, then I am too. Of course I deplore the battering that truth takes in the public square, but if this is my society, then I am a batterer, too. Dogs are in the fight, and one of them is yours, one of them is mine.
Paul wrote to the church in Rome, while he was staying in Corinth during his Grecian travels, probably in the late 50s CE/AD. This predated the vicious persecution of Christians in Rome by the Emperor Nero later in his reign, but Christians had to guard against Roman enemies nonetheless.
Christian worship of the One God put them permanently at odds in a society where public festivities commonly purposed the worship of the pantheon of pagan gods. For the same reason, Christians refused to light incense to the Emperor – in his supposed embodiment of the empire, he was considered a god.
Then, too, Christian practices were misunderstood. Eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ sounded like cannibalism, and the habit of referring to each other as brothers and sisters in Christian enclaves carried a whiff of incest. For these causes, Romans were suspicious of Christians in their midst, and sometimes were openly hostile. This drove Christian practice out of the public sphere and fearfully into secluded venues, such as private homes or shops or women’s apartments.
Local enemies certainly were a fact of life for the church in Rome. There also was conflict within the church, between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians.
For all these reasons, thinking of enemies, Paul speaks to the church of suffering:
“...we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us...”
But Paul’s main thrust was different, and shocking to our ears, since probably most of us, most of the time, feel on good terms with our good Lord. He refers to a time when “we were enemies [of God].”
Enemies of God, the apostle says.
Though strong language, this should not surprise. Humankind has rejected God – been enemies of God – since the Garden of Eden. Long ago in those storied times – yet only yesterday – did humankind reject God. And institutional sin is why Paul could rightly attribute humankind’s enmity towards God to the Roman church – by extension to our own church, and to us as individuals.
Thus we merit -- and must expect – God’s righteous anger against us. Though true, this is too horrible to contemplate. Paul calls us “ungodly” and states the obvious: we need saving from the wrath of God.
Yet we cannot save ourselves – no matter how much our hearts are bruised by contrition, or how our spirits are stained by tears. Only one recourse is open to us: humbly to plead God for mercy, even if we hardly dare. Though God is wrathful, it is an anger flooded with sorrow and love for God’s children, we who are formed in God’s self-image to be companions of God.
The initiative to save is purely God’s. Paul makes it clear, that “...while we were still weak... Christ died for the ungodly... [and] now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.”
As I say this, and take it to heart, I feel a wave of gratitude for God’s mercy. And the church’s grateful response is to sing God’s praise, as in Psalm 95 of today’s lectionary:
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving:
Let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
As well, today, [in the later services we will sing] [we did this with] Hymn 686:
Come, thou fount of every blessing
Tune my heart to sing thy grace.
Streams of mercy never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of God’s redeeming love.
THANKS BE TO OUR MERCIFUL GOD. AMEN.