Sermon Given at Church of the Good Samaritan, Knoxville
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany | February 24, 2019
On February 17, 1977, in Uganda, the Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum was murdered on orders by the dictator Idi Amin. For years since, he has been remembered as a modern Christian martyr, a man of God who stood up to a brutal, demonic dictator. For doing so, he was killed.
This week, on the 42nd anniversary of Luwum’s murder, the following news account appeared in the Living Church, an Episcopal news site –
The family of Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum have reconciled with kinsmen of dictator Idi Amin, who ordered his killing. Uganda’s Black Star News reports that the Rev. Canon Stephen Gelenga, from the same Kakwa tribe of Amin, delivered an emotional apology to Luwum’s family and the people of Acholi tribe during events honoring the archbishop’s legacy.
“What happened during the reign of Idi Amin, who is my kinsman, we still feel the pain after 40 years,” he said. “Ugandans cannot heal this country if we pay evil for evil.”
“As Christians from the Kakwa Community, we said we should put aside what happened in the past and let it die completely,” Gelenga said, according to a report by the Daily Monitor.
Gelenga told the newspaper that Christians from Kakwa met with Luwum’s widow at the family home in Wii Gweng and they prayed together.
“Mama Luwum forgave us,” he said. “We slept at their home, we asked for forgiveness on behalf of the people who sinned. We also want to forgive those who wronged us during the time.”
The retired Bishop of Kitgum, Macleod Baker Ochola, welcomed the development: “After 40 years, the people of Kakwa asked for forgiveness for the killing of Archbishop Janani Luwum. The people of Arua, Koboko, and the people of Uganda are witnessing this great miracle happening in Mucwini.”
After reading this news account, I read today’s Gospel. It is as if the writer of the news story also picked the reading for this morning.
If you are told by Jesus to love your enemy, it is much easier to do so if you think about the enemy in the abstract. If you are an early follower from Galilee, perhaps you consider loving an anonymous Roman soldier you meet in the city. He hasn’t actually hurt you, but you know you do not like what he represents. So, reflecting on Jesus’ teaching, you decide to “love” him.
However, when I read the account of Archbishop Luwum’s widow forgiving the kinsmen responsible for her husband’s murder, my sense is that this is more like what Jesus had in mind. It is also less a teaching we can follow, and more a miracle that we might pray for, with the emphasis on might.
For if you have been truly wronged, truly hurt, for your own protection, shouldn’t you make sure you protect yourself and keep the enemy far away and still on the enemy list?
Now let me say here, and clearly, that this gospel lesson is not saying to someone in an abusive relationship to return and take more abuse and more harm. Too often, this scripture and other Biblical texts like it have been used to sanction abuse. No, if you recall, our baptismal promises ask us to treat each other as the Christ and to respect the dignity of all.
Still, Jesus asks us to love the enemy, to love those who have cursed us and struck us and demanded unjust things from us. So, what is going on here?
There was a New Testament scholar named Walter Wink, who helped many Christians see this passage as a kind of call to Gospel resistance. Wink noted that in the culture of Jesus’ day, shame played a huge role in community life. If someone has wrongly taken your coat, if you offer them your shirt, then what happens?
You stand there bare-chested. In other words, without responding in kind, you have shown the community what has been done to you. The shame is a way to expose the wrongdoing without attempting to offer an eye for an eye.
In calling us to love the enemy, Jesus is asking us to turn the world upside down. In loving the enemy, we are being invited to find creative, non-violent ways to disarm the enemy, to turn their hearts, to let them know that the Way of Love is stronger than a community of perpetual enemies.
Such a love, according to Jesus, is stronger than the violence of the cross. Now, we do need to remember that the empty tomb is a miracle. If you go to the cross, the grave is the next step. From there, there are no more steps.
Except if you are Jesus. Jesus forgave his enemies as he was dying and sought to be reconciled to them. The Resurrection is the greatest measure of the love of enemy. Jesus did not simply break the bonds of death. He also chose not to seek the deaths of those who had killed him.
Before his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was an enemy of Jesus. He had been present at the stoning of Stephen. He had sought the arrest of other early Christians. He was satisfied to be an enemy of the One who called us to love enemies.
On the Damascus road, Jesus turns the other cheek to Paul. The loving light that knocks Paul to his feet does not seek to wound his face. Rather, it pierces his heart. It changes him. He is made a friend of Jesus.
Hearing the news this week that Archbishop Luwum’s widow has forgiven the tribe responsible for his murder seems like a miracle. But in hearing it, I know it helps me believe again that the Gospel has power to change hearts, to transform lives, to make us new, to change a world that seems to resist changing.
Because that is what we say the Gospel is about, right? Why else do we go to this trouble to gather and worship amongst only friends, or friendly-looking visitors? We do so because we have a mission to restore all people to unity with God.
All people must surely mean then enemies in our lives. Jesus made friends out of people who had been enemies before. In doing so, the life of Jesus expands, grows larger. Loving your enemy should never be confused with a diminished, cowering life.
Archbishop Luwum faced a frightening dictator in Idi Amin. No doubt, he must have had real moments of being afraid. But he overcame that fear in order to stand up for what the gospel of Jesus was asking of him in that particular moment. Like Moses before Pharaoh, Luwum stood before Amin in order to tell him of the power of God and that gospel love is stronger than human hate.
So often when we hear the teachings of Jesus, we might hear them and think, “All this is resting on my shoulders. I have to live out this teaching alone, in isolation.”
However, consider how Archbishop Luwum and his widow practiced the loving of enemy together over the course of 40 years. The Archbishop was committed to proclaiming divine love in the face of arbitrary killings. This past week, Mama Luwum proclaimed forgiveness and turned the hearts of many. Neither did this by themselves.
We are a body. A body in need of each other, in every season this is true. For as followers of the One who has called us to love the enemy, an independent, self-reliant spirit is not known by us. In every season, whether we are weak or strong, we need each other, depending on each other and the Spirit of God to live out the miraculous call to love and forgive and be reconciled.
Remember Jesus begins this lesson by asking us to listen. When I don’t listen, when I act on my own power, the Gospel seems impossible and even very bad advice.
But when I listen, when I listen for the voice of the Christ, I am reminded that Jesus has made a friend of me, forgiven me and graced me with undeserved friendship. Such a gift is not to be hoarded, but shared. AMEN.