The Seventh Week after Epiphany 2022
Originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church, East Setauket, New York.
Do you all know what this week is? It’s National Brotherhood Week! Or at least it was, up until the last two decades. Do any of you remember it? National Brotherhood Week was started in the 1930s by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and was usually the last week of February. The idea behind it was to create better understanding among religious groups and to promote harmony and friendship among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, and later, people of other faiths, and eventually, to promote racial harmony. It was a noble idea, dedicating a week toward tolerance and understanding. But, did it work?
Well, by 1965, it seemed some folks saw the whole thing as a somewhat naive gesture. Maybe people always had. But the math-professor-turned-satirist Tom Lehrer decided to lampoon National Brotherhood Week for a broadcast of the American version of the television news review, That was the Week that Was. His song, “National Brotherhood Week,” lists numerous racial, socioeconomic, and religious groups that are generally opposed to one another, singing about how they all are supposed to hate each other—except for during National Brotherhood Week. “Oh, the poor folks hate the rich folks, / and the rich folks hate the poor folks. / All of my folks hate all of your folks, / It’s as American as apple pie!” Lehrer sings, and at this point in the song, you’re thinking, you know, he might be right. In the final refrain, he sings,
“But during National Brotherhood Week, / National Brotherhood Week, / It’s National Everyone-smile-at-one-another-hood Week. / Be nice to people who / Are inferior to you. / It’s only for a week, so have no fear. / Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!”
Lehrer was making fun of empty gestures as well as the supposed “brotherhood” being displayed while violence was erupting in America’s cities—it was February of 1965, after all, and there had been terrible race riots in the US the year before (and would be again that August in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles). The country (and the world—let’s not forget, this was also during the Cold War and our involvement in Vietnam) had a long way to go for peace and tolerance—still does. But it’s really the final two lines of that last refrain that sticks out for me. “It’s only for a week, so have no fear. / Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!” The point of the song is that, in our society, we like to say that we hate people who are different than we are. In fact, we throw the word “hate” around like it doesn’t mean anything. “Oh, I hate it when that happens!” “Oh, I hate those guys!” “You don’t agree with me? Then I hate you!” (or “you must hate me”). Hate seems like a national pastime. We like to fight with each other. Tolerance is often not a word in our vocabulary. And any attempt to change that, even for a week, is contrary to that inclination.
How different is that mindset from what Jesus says in our Gospel reading this morning!
“27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them….35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” – Luke 6:27-31,35-36
Jesus’ position is not the one Lehrer satirically describes in his song. Hate for someone else should never be the default, and if someone is your enemy? Well, you should love them–and I mean really love them, not that sort of Southern “bless your heart,” passive-aggressive sort of “love”–love them to the point of letting them harm you without retaliation. Love them to the point of letting them take your things if they’re going to steal from you. And this is the sort of ethic that should last longer than a week, longer than a year! It should last a whole lifetime.
But who are our enemies, and how can we love them? Is Jesus just talking about people we don’t like, or those who don’t like us? The sorts of enemies Jesus is talking about are a little different than the people we disagree with. They’re people who actively hate those who follow Jesus on account of Jesus. We’re talking about real persecution with great prejudice. If someone hates us because we are Christians and abuses us because you believe in Christ, all of what Jesus says applies to us. “Love your enemies, be good to those who hate you, bless those who persecute you, pray for those who abuse you.” These aren’t optional. Remember, we cannot only love the people who love us. We cannot only be nice to people who are nice to us. We
You should have this attitude with everyone. The way of the world is to only like those who like us, to only do good to those who show us friendship. Not so for children of God. This is the attitude that separates Christ-followers from the rest of the pack, that shows us to be people who trust in Jesus. And why? Because this is God’s attitude toward us. God is merciful at all times. Anyone who follows Jesus should be, too.
And how does God show us mercy? He shows us mercy through his Son, Jesus. Our sins made us enemies of God; indeed, our sins made us hate God, and in our unrighteousness, we could not stand in the presence of his righteousness. But God had mercy on us through Jesus’ taking our sins upon himself on the cross, wiping them away, blotting them out. God was (and still is) merciful to us in spite of our sin that separated us from him. Through Jesus, God’s mercy was made known, and we have received it.
And this is why it is important to listen to what Jesus tells us. Our Father is merciful, so merciful that he sent his Son to bear our sin and be our Savior so that we could live in eternal harmony with him. If we are children of our Father through the blood of Christ, then we should mirror our heavenly Father in interactions with others. We should meet hate with love. We should make mercy and forgiveness our watchword. Indeed, hate should be a reserved word, really only for demonic things. Because Jesus tells us that anyone who hates his brother is really guilty of murdering that person in his heart. Hate is equivalent to murder. We shouldn’t be so lax with our use of that word.
Which brings me to a question that is likely on your minds: if, as I said earlier, Jesus is talking about us being merciful toward those who go so far as to take the clothes off our backs because we follow Jesus, what about people who aren’t persecuting us? What about people who just plain don’t like us? Or who disagree with us? Do any of you use Twitter? The vitriol on that platform is palpable. It’s a dumpster fire of malice. Someone writes something that somebody else disagrees with, and the anger just explodes. Social media in general are terrible in this way. They allow for no nuance in language, and fights break out so fast that suddenly, what could have been an interesting, measured discussion, erupts into two people who have never met insulting each other in the worst way. Nobody does what Luther suggests in the Small Catechism, to “interpret everything in the best possible way.” Instead, we (as a culture) are more than happy to insult and belittle each other.
Our current political discourse is suffering horribly, too: I just read in the news the other day that death threats against elected officials are up. People who disagree with other people are writing them letters saying that they want to kill them or harm their families on account of their opinions. That’s what the world is like right now, and probably has always been.
So do Jesus’ words apply here, too? If someone says they hate you for holding a particular opinion, should you love them in the same way? Yes! As Christians we are in a unique position to be different—to interact with the world differently. It doesn’t mean we have to be quiet and not speak our opinions. But we should do so from a place where we show love to the people who both hate us (really hate us) and toward those with whom we disagree. As baptized children of God, we have a calling to be a different kind of voice, different people, not ruled by our emotions and anger, not quick to fly off the handle, not quick to hate other people. And perhaps, if we face the world this way every day—not just one week a year—we may see some real change in the world. We may see some real changed hearts. Just as Israel was the beacon pointing to the coming Messiah, we are now little beacons pointing to the fact that he has come. Jesus called us to be salt and light for the world. When we show love and mercy because God was merciful toward us, that is what we are – reflecting his light to others! That is who we are called to be, and if we struggle to be this in the world, God, in his mercy, strengthens us to try again. He guides us with the Holy Spirit and teaches us to be merciful, just as he is. Through our being merciful, others may come to know his mercy, too.