Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’
10 days ago I was in Bosnia. Just outside Srebrenica, where the worst genocide since the second world war took place, stands the Potočari cemetery. Over 7000 white pillars mark the graves of those killed, all of them bearing a date between 11 and 16 July 1995. There is room in the cemetery for more burials: over 1000 people are still missing. Their remains have not yet been found.
Just over the road from the cemetery stands the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial museum, based in the former UN compound in which thousands of Bosniaks took refuge as the town of Srebrenica fell to the advancing Serb forces. It was from here that the genocide began, as men and teenage boys were separated from women and children before being killed.
In the Memorial museum, four women from the organisation Mothers of Srebrenica told their stories. Each of them had lost many close relatives: husbands, sons, fathers, uncles, and cousins. They spoke with dignity, with courage, with emotion, and with the strong desire that this story be told: genocide denial is strong in this part of the country, which has remained under the control of the Republika Srpska since the Dayton Accords, which brokered an end to the fighting but left the people of this country caught in the unresolved and unreconciled past.
‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’
What I did not hear from these women was hatred. I heard the desire not for revenge but for truth; for justice, not for retaliation. I heard their persistent refusal to accept their own dehumanisation, matched by a refusal to dehumanise those who had perpetrated such horror and violence.
They taught me something of what it means to love your enemy – and what it doesn’t mean. Loving your enemy doesn’t mean you have to like them. It doesn’t mean colluding with the revisionist history that refuses to acknowledge what’s happened, or giving up on the quest for justice and truth – in fact, in the end, justice and truth will bless your enemy as well, for there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed, and we must all render an account of our lives. Loving your enemies doesn’t mean quietly putting up with what’s done to you, submitting to evil or violence or abuse. Love, in fact, isn’t necessarily a feeling at all. Love is made visible in concrete actions: according to Jesus, in doing good, in blessing, in praying, in giving. Love is made visible in refusing to become an enemy yourself.
Now, we might argue that loving your enemy, doing good to those who hate you, blessing those who curse you and praying for those who abuse you is too difficult, that Jesus’ idealistic commands simply can’t match up to the hard realities and complexities of life. And we would be right to say that it’s difficult. But it’s not impossible: we are not let off the hook so easily.
We see Jesus’ words fleshed out in his life. Blessed are the poor, he says, having been born in a stable, and having nowhere to lay his head. Blessed are those who weep, says the one who will howl into death’s abyss at the grave of his friend Lazarus, and who will be wracked with tears in the Garden of Gethsemane. Blessed are the hungry, he says, being unfussy about whose table he shares, and giving himself as Bread for a starving world. Blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you and revile you, from the one who is unjustly condemned and dies a criminal’s death on a hill outside the city.
This is what God called blessed? We should, perhaps, not be surprised. His mother sang of the exaltation of the lowly; of the hungry feasting while the rich are sent empty away. At the start of his ministry Jesus had unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and announced that the Lord had anointed him to bring good news to the poor.
And this is the good news: blessed are the poor, the hungry, the reviled, those who weep. And to hammer the point home, he gives us the corresponding woes: woe to those who are rich; to those whose fridges and bellies are full; to the laughing and the well-regarded. This is so completely contrary to what the world calls blessed that Jesus’ words form a sort of anti-beatitude to what we assume must be the case. Blessed are the poor, he says, when we think ‘blessed are those on the property ladder. Blessed are those with a good and stable job. Blessed are those with savings. Blessed are those whose kids are doing well, and who visit. Blessed are the fit, the successful, the attractive.’
This feast of All Saints reminds us that Jesus’ kingdom upends all our assumptions about what it means to be blessed. In this glorious company of saints we remember that the blessed are the oddballs, the misfits, the ones who take Jesus at his word, who find his life translated into their flesh, making them brave and loving and wise and good. Blessed are those who remind us that God’s kingdom is not of this world, and whose lives show us that you can touch this kingdom and live in it. Blessed are you, for this is your inheritance, too, and your calling.
The saints are those ordinary men, women and children who show us what God’s love looks like in every place and time. They are made of the same stuff as us: the raw material of sanctity is humanity, formed and moulded by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Jesus. The saints are our brothers and sisters, and they encourage us to live in openness to God; to dare to trust that the places of our poverty and hunger and tears can also be the wellsprings of glory and signposts to the kingdom.
Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to become poor, to weep, to go hungry, or to seek out the opprobrium of others for his sake. He tells them that those in these conditions are called blessed. The beatitudes are not instructions but a description of reality from the standpoint of the kingdom of God. The instructions come after the beatitudes and woes: love your enemy, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, give to those who beg from you…
In other words, love as God loves, who, while we were still far off, met us in his Son and brought us home. To love your enemy is to treat them as a human being, and to act as a human being, and so refuse the dehumanising rhetoric, the lies, the easy divisions, and the empty gestures which make space for hatred and violence to grow.
We hear more and more of this sort of rhetoric in the world today. The cemetery in Potočari shows its awful end. And the world again needs those who will tell a different story and inhabit a different kingdom: a people who will bless and do good and pray and give – saints of every tribe and language and nation, whose lives are a provocation and a challenge to live out and share the reconciliation God wills for the world.