Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
As we sit in this sanctuary, over a thousand Methodists from all around the world are gathered in St. Louis, Missouri to work towards a new future of the United Methodist Church as it relates to sexuality, marriage, and ordination. Pastor Cathy—while not a voting delegate—is currently there to represent our church and to support our conference and our bishop with her presence and prayers.
There are four prominent proposals that are being discussed at this moment, ranging from total inclusion of our LGBTQI+ friends and loved ones in the life of the church to full exclusion. It’s a moment in which these delegates will consider what kind of church we are and what kind of church we will be in the years to come. Admittedly, there’s no way of truly knowing what is going to come out of this session. We know that the United Methodist Church will look and act differently; the question is what it will look like when this conference is adjourned on Tuesday. Nevertheless, I ask that you be in prayer for the United Methodist Church, for our church here at Park Avenue, and for our LGBTQI+ friends and loved ones, for whom this weekend will be incredibly difficult, heart-wrenching, and at time alienating.
But one aspect that this General Conference has already made known more generally is that we as a church are divided. Even within the same church community there can be different theologies about sexuality, much less within a denomination that spans our nation, different cultures, and different continents.
And this quality of being divided isn’t relegated to the United Methodist Church on this one topic. Our politics are surely divided, between Democrats, Republicans, and everything in between. We’re divided racially—indeed, our nation was built on racism in slavery—and we’re still seeing that play out each and every day in our streets and in our homes. We’re divided economically, culturally, musically, theologically—you name an aspect of our lives, and there is some kind of division. While it seems that we’re encountering a bolder expression of these divisions, we know that these divisions have been around since the beginning of time.
We’re divided. A divided United Methodist Church. A divided United States of America. A divided world.
And when we’re so divided—when we are convinced that we are right and the other person is dreadfully wrong—we begin to vilify the other side and see others as enemies. Even within our denomination, there are some who we see as enemies rather than as part of the body of Christ. Within our communities around the city, we may have those that are enemies before they are neighbors. Within our families, there are those who we see as enemies rather than family members.
It’s understandable, and in many cases it’s reasonable. I’m not necessarily disparaging it; we have enemies. Maybe not as extreme as enemies in a war, but enemies nonetheless. And I’m not saying that we ignore our differences and just try to get along, because that does no one any good. If my enemy is making hateful statements and excluding others, there are good reasons as to why they may be seen as an enemy. Jesus surely had enemies; you have enemies; I have enemies. It’s part of living in a divided world that we cannot control.
But what we can control is how we respond. And our Gospel lesson this morning that Rebecca just read, we hear a strange and difficult call from Jesus: love your enemies. On paper, it’s a ridiculous calling. It’s dangerous to love someone when they’re actively harming you. It’s hard to love someone when they are always putting you down, trying to change you so that you conform to their perspective of truth and reality. But yet we still have this call: love them. Bless them. Pray for them.
It occurs to me, however, that we often are unclear as to what we mean by love. Far too often, I think we conflate a romantic or family kind of love as what all of love is. Yes, those are types of love, but I really don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about here. Rather, I think that this kind of love is something a little different; a kind of love where—even when we despise someone and when they are actively causing harm—we want the best for them. Because we are inescapably bound together, we must recognize that the best for our enemies is in turn the best for us. As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail,
All…are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality. 
We are called to love in this way because it is the only way that we get through this world in one piece. It’s the only way that peace is possible. It’s the way that we are being saved.
But let’s think about this love for a little bit. Because I am becoming more and more convinced that the love that saves us is not a sentimental kind of love but a tough love. Love is patient, as the Apostle Paul tells us, but it is also requires truth and justice. Love is kind, but it is not always nice. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, but it is courageous and bold and prophetic and challenging. Love does not absolve us from caring so that we let another do whatever in the name of just getting along; love compels us to sometimes call the lover out when they are not living or speaking in the ways of love. Sometimes love knows that the best thing to do is to take a step back for a minute or two; to disengage until cooler heads prevail. Sometimes love knows when a relationship is not working, and the best thing to do is to change the paradigm of the relationship for the good of the greater whole. Sometimes love is praying that our enemy will see the light and move closer to the way of justice and love.
You see, Jesus is not calling us to a sanitized version of love; this isn’t the same expression of love that you’ll find on a Hallmark card. It’s a tough love; a challenging love; a difficult love.
It also occurs to me, however, that sometimes the enemy is not another person. Sometimes we are our own enemies. As we tell ourselves lies about who we are and what we can be; as we constantly denigrate ourselves and fall into a pattern of self-hatred and unhealthy denial. In a roundabout way, I see that Jesus’ call to love our enemies is also a plea for us to learn how to love ourselves well. Still in a challenging way, and still in a way that wants the best for us. But nevertheless, sometimes loving our enemies is the call to love ourselves. And more often than not, this is harder than loving our enemies out there.
But, thanks be to God, this is not a love that happens singularly. It’s not love that we come up with on our own. If it were, we know that that it is unsustainable.
For the source of our love is in the wellspring of God’s very self, the love that was from the very beginning; the love that created all things. The source of our love is found manifested in the image of Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross after being convicted by the Roman Empire for political crimes. And in that moment where the guards and crowds are mocking him and spitting at him, he summons that same love to cry out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” It’s the love that went to Hell and conquered death, and it’s the love that reaches out to us now. This is the love that we are called to; this very same love. Not easy, but by grace it is possible.
By Tuesday evening, we will know the results of this special General Conference. Perhaps the outcome will be a more loving, more affirming practice within our denomination. I pray that it is. Perhaps the outcome will be one that continues in its exclusion. Perhaps we’ll still be a United Methodist Church, or perhaps we’ll discover that the union is no longer tenable. I don’t know what it’s going to look like. But regardless of what happens, we know that our vocation as a church and as a people is still the same: to love all without hesitation and without restriction. To be bold and courageous in our love. To love in a way that confronts those aspects of our lives and of our churches that are not life-giving, that are not true, and that are not just. Sometimes it may be a tender love, and sometimes it may be a tough love. But still, we find that our calling never falters.
May we be granted the grace to love unceasingly in return. May we learn to love more openly and more extravagantly. And may we find the courage to call others to the same.