Loving the Bully

Matthew 22:34-46

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, “The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ‘? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

So I did something totally out of character for me this week. I ate lunch at a Burger King.  On Wednesday, I had a junior Whopper with an order of onion rings and a giant Diet Coke.

Please believe me when I say I am not a snob about fast food. I am a sucker for McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches.  I’ve never met a Wendy’s frosty I didn’t like. I travel around by car a lot for church work, and I’m truly grateful for the convenience and speed of the drive-through lane in a pinch.

I have, however, never been a fan of Burger King. My few experiences there have never been good and the food always seems to be cold and unappetizing. I will always pass by a Burger King when traveling if there’s a better option available. And there usually always is a McDonalds or Wendy’s within spitting distance of a Burger King.

But this week I deliberately drove out of my way to go to Burger King.  I drank my diet Coke. I ate my junior Whopper and onion rings, and the food was as terrible as I remember.  But you know what, I’ll eat there again.  I will drive past McDonalds and I will forgo my beloved Frostys.  You know why?

The reason has nothing to do with Burger King’s political beliefs or who they supported in the last election or their stands on controversial social issues.

It has nothing to do with how much they pay their hourly employees which, I will assume, isn’t a living wage by a long shot.

My new allegiance to Burger King has nothing to do with where they source their produce or the prices on their value menu, and certainly nothing to do with food quality.

I will eat the terrible food at Burger King because I am convinced that there are at least a handful of people at the company or at their advertising agency who actually love God and love their neighbor.

No, I’m not joking. If you go home today, sit down at your computer, and google “Burger King Bullying Ad,” you will find a 3 minute ad produced by Burger King in cooperation with NoBully.org.  https://youtu.be/mnKPEsbTo9s In the video, a group of teenagers played by actors bully another actor who plays a high school junior. The camera pans around the restaurant where we see other patrons eating – ordinary people, not actors – and nearly all of them completely ignore what’s going on right in front of them.

The other plot twist is that Burger King employees deliberately “bully” the sandwiches they prepare for customers. They pound on the hamburgers with their fists until the Whopper they serve is a mushy mess.

At the end, 95% of customers return to the counter to complain about their “bullied” Whoppers.  Only 12% of customers witnessing the high school kid being picked on and teased by other kids intervene on his behalf.

The message of the ad is clear. We should care for one another in the decidedly non-sacred space of a Burger King. We need to stick up for the kid being picked on. We need to pay attention, and go out of our way to build God’s beloved community.

So as we attend to our scripture text for today, I am wondering about many things.  But mostly I am thinking about how lightly we receive this command from Jesus, and how we badly underestimate how extremely difficult it is to live up to what Jesus is asking us to do.

Because I do not believe the 88% of the customers in the Burger King commercial are bad people who don’t care about kids.

I think that loving our neighbor is hard.

Love God and love neighbor are the hardest commandments to follow in addition to being the greatest commandments.

Yet in today’s text, Jesus distills every law of Torah into those little words.

Love God. Love neighbor. That’s the whole enchilada. Period. The end.

Jesus has faced opposition from religious leaders throughout his ministry, and that opposition continues to grow in today’s reading. Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and the Pharisees about money and mission and doctrine and identity reaches a crisis point. The authorities are getting tired of Jesus and the way he keeps tripping them up with his answers to their questions, and maybe, at this point, they are getting a little desperate.  The Pharisees finally send in a lawyer, the best and the brightest interrogator they can find, to ask Jesus one last question:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

The problem people always have with interpreting this text, of course, is that we tend to confuse the biblical meaning of love with our own modern conceptions of it.  The culture around us equates love with intense emotion.  To love someone is a stronger response than to just like them.  We say we love a movie because it entertains or moves us.  We love a friend because they make us happy or listens to our problems.  We even love a church because the people are friendly or it has great preaching.  Love is a word we toss around carelessly, and this commandment from Jesus might make us want to circle back and think about what it really means to love God with all our heart, soul and mind.   How does one conjure up feelings for something remote, mysterious and disembodied as the concept of God?  We cannot look into God’s eyes, wrap our arms around the Spirit, or even see the face of Jesus.  What is it to love God with all our being?

An Ignatian writer once wrote that he hoped to be, “seized so completely by the love of God that all the desires of my heart and all the actions, affections, thoughts and decisions which flow from them are directed to God.”  That kind of love is far from the passive emotion we normally experience when we say we love a book or would love a cup of coffee.  Love becomes a verb — demanding action, — not an emotion with soft edges. The love this writer describes in which we are “seized completely” by God, is an active response that reorients our lives and, over time, begins to shape every decision we make.

Including the decision we make about what to do when we see the weak being harmed by the strong. We can decide if our love of God is sufficient for us to go out on a limb and protect our neighbor in need.

The problem, of course, is that there is more than one kind of neighbor.

In fact, I might go so far as to say the church, generally, does a pretty good job of extending something that looks like love to our most vulnerable neighbors. We stand for victims and the poor and the least of these in our communities and around the world. We write checks. We volunteer and do all the charitable things. Many people would argue that the church doesn’t do nearly enough, but we certainly try.

But Jesus doesn’t just tell us to love our nice neighbors or our pitiful neighbors.

Jesus doesn’t tell us to only love the bullied. We are to also love the bullies themselves.

Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you. Jesus says love your neighbor, every neighbor, including your enemy. Do good for those who hate you. Treat well even those who treat you poorly.

This text from Matthew takes place on the Monday of Holy Week. This conversation is Jesus’ last confrontation with the religious and political powers before he will be arrested and put on trial just 72 hours later.  Jesus has been openly talking about what he knows will be his fate all along.  He knows he will be both victim and victor very soon. The bullies of the Bible are about to do their worst.

Although Jesus stands up to the authorities, engages the authorities, challenges the authorities, you will notice that he does not deny their humanity. He does not walk away from them and proclaim them unredeemable. Jesus walks in a way that models who we are to be –seized so completely by the love of God that all the desires of Jesus’ heart and all the actions, affections, thoughts and decisions which flow from them are directed to God.”

Jesus’ walk to the cross reminds me of all the neighbors I need to love if I am serious about loving God.  Who are my neighbors?

The white nationalists marching with torches in Charlottesville?

The Harvey Weinstein’s and Bill O’Reilly’s who harm and demean women?

That guy who murdered a baby in Ohio and was finally arrested at the Sheetz in Franklin Park?

Loving those neighbors?

And it gets even harder for me when I move from abstract people on my Twitter feed or on the news. Just who are the neighbors Jesus is not only suggesting, but requiring me to love?

Loving Harvey Weinstein is a breeze for me compared to loving the kids who are mean to my kid.

Those rotten kids on the bus? Those awful kids in the cafeteria?

Do I have to love them, Jesus?

Do I?

Love God. Love neighbor. With all of your whole heart, soul and mind. It is the challenge of a whole lifetime. And it becomes more challenging the closer God gets to the dark part of your heart, the part you want to pretend doesn’t exist or at least the part you want to hide really well. Because that is the part of you in dire need of God’s redeeming and cleansing grace.

God knows, in the dark part of my heart I need my enemies to stay my enemies, become sometimes it’s hard to know who I am if I don’t know who I’m against.

If I don’t have to think of my enemies as my neighbors, then I also don’t have to think of them as human beings.

Because if I think of my enemies as human beings, I have to admit they are also made in image of God. Which means if I want to love God, I have to love the people God made in God’s own image. Which is really, really hard.

This is why you cannot separate the commandments: Love God. Love Neighbor. And that is why Jesus is very careful to point out that Loving God is the greatest commandment of all.  It is the love from which everything else that is good and right and beautiful will flow.  Without that true star, without that love that will not let us go, we’re sunk.

And here is the really scary part, like Halloween-y scary.

If I think of my enemies as human beings, then I have to admit that it could just as easily be me. I could be the mother of a bully. Or a white supremacist. Or Harvey Weinstein. There but for the grace of God go I.

God loves you. God loves your enemies. God loves those who love your enemies. Which means that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love towards us even though you and I are, in all likelihood – someone else’s enemy.  None of us are off the hook. We’re all Pharisees and Sadducees and the people standing around, looking down at our feet, hoping Jesus isn’t talking about us when he says, “Hypocrite!”, and knowing that on most days, he probably is.

In this divided, vitriolic age in which we find ourselves living, brothers and sisters, we need to hold tightly to this awfully good, terribly difficult commandment. Love God. Love Neighbor.

One of my favorite PBS radio programs is “On Being” with Krista Tippett which is a program that seeks to explore what it means to be human, and how we want to live.  In a recent episode, the question of the day was how can we live beautifully?

Isn’t that just the best question ever?  How can we live beautifully in an age of vitriol, when the bullies seem to be on the rise, a time in which the quickest way to get noticed is to post something angry on Twitter, and when most conversations seem less about listening for truth and more about scoring points.

The narrator told a story not from the Christian tradition, but from the Muslim point of view and I think it is instructive for us.

The story was about Omar Mukhtar, a Libyan warrior and leader who led the resistance against the Italian Fascists between 1911 and 1931. The Italian colonial powers inflicted a terrible violence on the Libyans. They imprisoned some 125,000 people in concentration camps. Italian forces slaughtered thousands of Libyan civilians whose only crime was resisting a foreign occupying colonial army.

After thousands of their countrymen were imprisoned by the Italians, the Libyans were finally able to capture two Italian soldiers. Many of the Libyans wanted to execute the Italian prisoners in retaliation. Omar Mukhtar refused.

The folks who had argued for killing the prisoners objected: “But the Italians killed our prisoners.”

Omar Mukhtar softly responded: “They are not our teachers.”

 We have our teacher. We are called to follow our teacher. We are to study his example. We are not bound to return an eye for an eye, a tweet for a tweet. We are not bound to stoop down to the gutter. We can do better. The Church can do better.

This week, my teacher showed me a more excellent way and he did it through a 3-minute commercial from a fast food company. And as of this weekend, that video has reached almost 3 million people.  Isn’t that crazy?

And the good news, brothers and sisters, is that the teacher has called us, trusts us, his Church – to be teachers. Teachers of grace. Teachers of compassion. Teachers of love, even the most difficult kinds of love, in which we look in the eyes of our enemies and see the eyes of Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.