Below is an excerpt from a sermon I preached at Calvary Baptist Church on Sunday, August 6, 2017, as part of a series titled, “Songs for Troubled Times”. It was my daunting task to respond to Psalms 91. My encouragement as I waded through the density of this Psalm came from Eugene Peterson who said, “The Psalms tug at our attention, saying, “Remember, this is a story you are in. By praying you do not get out of the difficult work of sin and enemy and family, you get further into it. Instead of finding it easier, you will find it more demanding.”
I resonate with this video because it gives us a glimpse of the possibilities that can occur when we look beyond labels and sound bites to understand people’s context. Not all interactions end this politely and heart-warming. I also can’t but help be critical that it’s still a beer company selling its product. I mean, it’s an ad. But maybe that’s the best mainstream popular culture can come up with. We’ve created such a chasm between one another that we need a beer company encouraging us to engage face-to-face with our “enemies”.
Let me ask you something, what if we prayed Psalms 91 through the lens of the “enemy”? What happens when we identify more with the enemy “placing a fowler’s snare” than the victim to whom it’s intended to? Have we ever considered we might actually be someone’s enemy? And if so, what if that person was praying for their protection against us? How would you feel?
A few months ago I posted an article on Facebook. It generated a lot of discussions but there was one comment in particular that I couldn’t let slip. So I responded and then we were off to the races! Like most online discussion, there was no resolution. Eventually, she sent me a private message saying, “I’m sorry Omar, but for my mental health, I’m going to block you. It’s clear you won’t convince me and I won’t convince you.” I felt horrible and ashamed. Here’s the thing, I know she has struggled with issues of mental health and has had a long fight towards stability. I also know she respects me so for her to block me, I knew I had caused her great pain. That was never my intention, but to read those words made me feel horrible for my bluntness and persistence of being right. In that moment, I was her enemy and she was surrendering.
Here’s the truth, we are all in the middle of a story where every character shifts and changes. In one chapter we are the protagonist overcoming obstacles and in the next, we are the antagonist inflicting pain on the protagonist. To talk about our “enemy” is not simply to read the headlines of a newspaper or the feed on our Facebook. To talk about our enemy is to also look at our homes, churches, neighbourhood and the relationships that often inflict us with the most pain. Because here’s a fun fact: those we love the most often hurt us the deepest.
The moment I use my words to hurt someone is the moment I become the enemy.
The moment I intend to cause harm, I become the one who shoots arrows that fly by day.
The moment my actions directly or indirectly perpetuates the exploitation of the vulnerable, I become the wicked who deserves punishment.
Maybe, to pray this Psalm is to acknowledge that we are capable of hurting others. Maybe, what we need protection from is bitterness, anger, resentment, envy, and hatred.
We’ve seen how these emotions, when left to linger and fester, can wreak havoc in our lives. They debilitate us and without knowing it, we become the enemy people need protection from. That’s a mind trip for me because I’m used to seeing myself as the victim, not the perpetrator.
But the gospel does something really profound-it erases the line of division and enmity and declares no one is left unloved.
The message of the gospel is obsessed with including those on the margins to join in the party. While we may have a soft spot for the poor, oppressed, and vulnerable, the liberating truth of the gospel is truly how far the net is cast. The gospel is not “good news” only to those who evoke our compassion. The net of the gospel goes further than we’d ever been willing to go on our own-it lands on enemy territory. The net of the gospel extends to those who’ve betrayed us, who’ve wronged us, who have hurt us. The net of the gospel is far more reaching than we’re ready to admit. World Vision highlights the victims of poverty but it’ll never ask you to help them reach those who make money off the backs of the poor. This is the part where I get more and more uncomfortable and risk losing many of you. We will see pleas to help the victims of crime but seldom, if ever, will we see GoFundMe pages for the family of the perpetrator or for the perpetrator themselves. Our compassion only bleeds so far until it drys and cracks. Our mercy extends to those who are most like us. Like the Heineken commercial, the message is that as long as we can recognize how similar we are, we will extend our compassion and mercy. But that’s not the gospel, is it? The gospel goes further than that; it invites us to love those who are most unlovable. The prerequisite for love is not finding common ground.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Luke 6: 32-36
Popular culture invites us to have a beer with those we disagree with. Jesus invites us to offer our lives, our kindness, and our resources to those who wish us harm. Engaging in conversation with those who’ve hurt us is not the goal; the goal is to love them. Maybe, it all begins with a chat over beers and you picking up the tab. Or maybe it begins with listening and offering someone the benefit of the doubt before responding with a rebuttal. Regardless of how we move forward, it’s going to be difficult and costly. But we don’t need to do this alone. Let’s offer each other grace and encouragement as we stumble forward.