Fifteen years. Fifteen trips around the sun. It's hard to believe, isn't it? Fifteen years ago today, a generation came face-to-face with what evil looks like. A generation saw for the first time what it's like to be targeted. All of us faced the first act of war on our home soil in living memory for any of us here this morning.
Fifteen years ago... By the time we started this worship service, American Airlines Flight 11 had already hit the first tower. United Airlines Flight 175 had just barely struck the second tower. And right about now, here we come into the position again where we were when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. And right this very moment, fifteen years ago, quick-thinking Captain Jason Dahl, on the verge of death, was still struggling with hijacker Ziad Jarrah for control of United Airlines Flight 93. Before I finish this morning's message, we'll come 'round again to the point in time when a brave passenger named Todd Beamer prayed the Lord's Prayer and Psalm 23 with a phone operator before joining a passenger revolt that stopped the plane from striking either the White House or the Capitol building.
By this time fifteen years ago, American leaders had already realized who was behind the most devastating terrorist attack in our history: Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist network. Eleven years earlier, during the days of the Gulf War, we established a military base in Saudi Arabia to help defend them against Saddam's forces, with King Fahd's permission. Even after the war closed, we stuck around, just in case. Bin Laden was horrified – he thought our army was occupying and defiling Muslim holy land. So in 1996, he took it upon himself, a veteran of uprising against the Soviets in Afghanistan, to declare war on us.
Over the next five years, he collected more and more complaints. In his eyes, democracy was a form of idolatry, because it gave power to the people when he thought that power was God's alone; so in his view, Saudi Arabia's acceptance of our wishes meant that we'd induced them to worship our president in God's place. And because of democracy, Bin Laden concluded that every American civilian shared responsibility. So he publicly called for our deaths. To him, American lives weren't sacred; we have no more value than cows.
Bin Laden believed in two things: hatred and revenge. He convinced himself he was avenging his world against offenses we'd given. He said that women should nurse their children “on the hatred of Jews and Christians,” that “battle, animosity, and hatred … is the foundation of [his] religion,” and that his twisted perversion of Islam should be imposed on Western powers like America with force.
In the years that followed Bin Laden's assault, his network fractured. The branch in Iraq got extreme. Bin Laden, for all his madness, cared about popular support; his Iraqi affiliate leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi didn't. Al-Qaeda in Iraq got too violent and reckless for even Bin Laden's taste, so they cut ties.
And in time, this severed branch morphed into ISIS. Whatever hate and vengefulness were in Bin Laden's heart, their new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi multiplied. He explicitly calls on his followers to hate their enemies, says that loving others is an offense to his god; and in his first public sermon, he swore, “By God, we will take revenge! Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the ummah will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator.”
Those are the evil words of an evil man with evil ideas and an evil heart. There's no parsing them as anything else. That is a man so bitter, so obsessed, so possessed by demonic influence, that it's difficult to understand. None of us, after all, share the evil ideas of a Bin Laden or a Baghdadi. But for some of us, September 11 and provocations like it have exposed a harsh truth. And the harsh truth is that we, too, may be harboring a vengeful heart – maybe not so degenerate as his, but vengeful all the same.
In the days after 9/11, the American president gave a number of forceful, well-worded speeches, and in his public speeches he hit just the right tone: he called us to pursue the perpetrators and bring them to justice; he called us to stand together as a nation; he urged us not to blame our Muslim neighbors for the way Bin Laden's cronies had hijacked their religion. But on the day of the attacks itself, strained with stress aboard Air Force One, filled with righteous anger, the president cursed them and said, “Somebody's going to pay.” Some of the language, I can't repeat here. He said we would “hunt down and destroy whoever did this,” that we wouldn't let them off with “a little slap on the wrist,” but that we would find and avenge ourselves against them.
I think many, most, or all of us had similar thoughts. You can see it in our post-9/11 films, hear it in our post-9/11 music. It's true that millions of us stuck together in ways we never had before – rescuers marching to certain death to save others, people remaining by the dying to give comfort at great risk, and many more opting to donate blood or volunteer or otherwise show love. But as we learned what had happened, we became rightly angry – and, sometimes, vengeful, which was not so right. And sadly, not all of our countrymen listened to the president's wise words; some did indeed lash out at anyone who looked even vaguely Middle Eastern.
That's no surprise. The confrontation with Bin Laden's hate exposed our own vengeful hearts, too. Vengeance is the sinful perversion of our anger (righteous or unrighteous) and our God-given yearning for justice – for the restoration of righteous order and balance in a world gone haywire. A desire for vengeance is nothing new. It has a distinguished history all the way back to Cain, who compensated for his feelings of inferiority by bloodily avenging himself on his righteous brother Abel. It finds fuller fruit in Cain's descendant Lamech, who boasted, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain's revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech's is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23-24).
So in time, every nation tried to find ways to regulate the human desire for vengeance and turn it into justice. And if you look at the laws of the early pagan nations, you'll see some real problems. Some of them valued life too cheaply, allowing easy payments for every crime, even grievous bodily injury. And so the rich could hurt whomever they pleased without fear. Other law codes went to excess, punishing even minor crimes with great harshness. But most law codes managed both faults. They distinguished between free and slave, or upper-class and lower-class. Even the best pagan law said that if a nobleman assaults a nobleman, then the punishment is eye for eye, tooth for tooth, broken bone for broken bone; but if he assaults a commoner, the only pain he feels is in his wallet; while if a commoner assaults him with even a slap, the man loses an ear.
The laws God gave to Moses weren't like that. They made no distinctions based on socioeconomic class. They put the brakes on attempts to let the rich or political insiders off with a slap on the wrist. But at the same time, they kept the firm guidelines for punishment that restrained our tendency to escalate things. “Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:21). “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done, it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. … You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 24:19-22; cf. Matthew 5:38). That was the Law: justice without double standards and without the spiraling cycle of vengeance.
Even so, people are what people are. Over time, they hunted through the Law for a pretext for what was already in their hearts. And so popular thought came to be that, if the Law said, “Love your neighbor,” that means those who are just like you, those whose natural interests are tied up in yours. Everybody else is fair game – love the good guys, hate the rest.
And to first-century Jews, that especially goes for the Roman oppressors. Hating them was practically mandatory – they were, after all, the enemy. After all, the Law says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) – so surely foreigners are fair game, they figure. And if someone messes with you, make sure they get what's coming to them. If the courts won't do it, take the law into your own hands, they figured (cf. Matthew 5:43). In other words, people have a natural tendency to be like Lamech.
And now, enter Jesus on the scene. Jesus sat down on the mountainside and reminded the crowd that Lamech's heart and God's heart are so far apart. People like Lamech busy themselves in building up their own little sandcastle kingdoms; they aren't fit to inherit the kingdom of God. And the insecurity of our sandcastle petty kingdoms, especially when we confuse them for God's kingdom, is what really triggers all this need for revenge and retaliation.
Jesus didn't deny that his countrymen were opposed and oppressed by the Roman soldiers who traipsed to and fro throughout Galilee and Judea, or by their local power-brokers. But Jesus had ideas for protest that would stop the cycle of revenge in its tracks.
One of the greatest insults you might receive, in those days, was a slap on the right cheek. Because for a right-handed person to hit you on the right cheek, they had to use the back of their hand. It was actually a punishable offense, because it was a way of implying you were beneath your attacker. In response, you might strike back. You might take them to court. You might wage war with fists or words. But Jesus invites the crowd to try turning the other cheek – yes, inviting further abuse, but silently insisting that if they slap you again, they treat you as an equal (Matthew 5:39).
Or you might face a lawsuit yourself. And if you were a poor Galilean, you'd be afraid of losing your tunic. But at least you had one thing no lawsuit was allowed to take from you: your cloak. Because the cloak was the most essential; it doubled like a sleeping bag, and could be perilous to lose overnight (Exodus 22:26-27). And so Jesus invites the crowd to answer a lawsuit in a daring way: if they want to take your tunic, hand over your cloak as well (Matthew 5:40). Rather than a cycle of revenge, now the one filing the lawsuit has some hard choices to make.
Or you might be conscripted by a Roman soldier, who legally had authority to force Jews to carry equipment for a tolerable distance – usually they recommended one Roman mile, because anything more risked sparking an uprising or a riot. To be seen making someone carry the equipment further was to invite suspicion. So Jesus invites the crowd to concede the first mile and then voluntarily carry the equipment for a second – providing more loving service while also making the Roman soldier consider the risks (Matthew 5:41). I wonder how many soldiers, after run-ins with Jesus-followers, were shamed into finding other ways to get their stuff from place to place. And in the process, those who followed Jesus' instructions regained what the Roman occupation was meant to snuff out: their dignity. And dignity frees us up to hold everything lightly, letting us give freely to those in need (Matthew 5:42).
And so then Jesus Christ went one step further. He struck at the root. The problem, he points out, isn't merely with the little injustices people do to us. The problem isn't ultimately in our circumstances. The problem is a narrow, vengeful heart – a heart looking for reasons to be selfish and excuses to fight; a heart focused on pride and self-preservation; a heart set on a sandcastle. And Jesus shows us that God never meant the human heart to get like that. That isn't his design for us. God has a very particular vision for the kind of hearts we should have. He wants to see in us hearts like his. And what Jesus tells us is that God's heart isn't stingy when it comes to love. God doesn't ration out his love as though there isn't enough to go around. He gives gifts to the worst of the worst. He never deprived even the Romans of sunshine or rainfall (Matthew 5:45). His love isn't a mere feeling; it's a lifestyle of action.
In the face of tremendous evil, we don't really want to admit that. Jesus' words prick and gall us. What does he say, after all? “I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). Those are intense words, extreme words, life-changing and life-giving words. And to think of them and what they really mean is a pain to the vengeful hearts we may harbor. And reading his words may make you wonder how Jesus would have responded if the Twin Towers had fallen, not in New York City, but in Nazareth. Had Jesus' earthly ministry crossed al-Qaeda's path, what would Jesus have done?
We don't have to simply wonder. We can see for ourselves. There's a gospel-inspired development group in Iraq called the Preemptive Love Coalition. This summer, they sent an aid convoy to take food to refugee camps near Fallujah. Overnight, the trucks got stuck in a rut, and a few team members chose to stay with them to protect it. And then there came the sounds of bullets and rockets in the distance. And soon, less distance. A large convoy of ISIS militants were sweeping through the corridor. The team guarding the food trucks hid in a ditch. The terrorists were close enough to see, close enough to hear on their cell phones. Then the bombs began to drop as American aircraft fired back at ISIS, narrowly missing the aid team.
Some time later, after Fallujah had been secured again, many suspected ISIS fighters were in a detention camp. Conditions there were crowded, unhygienic, without enough food or water to go around. And it would be easy to think, “Too bad for them. They're the enemy. They deserve it.” But the Preemptive Love Coalition had a different idea. They sent a group to the compounds with aid packets – food, water, toothpaste, clothes. And one of the people sent there was Sadiq. Sadiq had been the leader of the aid team that ISIS nearly captured this summer. And before that, Sadiq had been friends with an Iraqi security officer whom ISIS did capture – and executed on video after getting loyal tribal leaders to condemn him to death.
One of those leaders happened to be at this detention camp. And so Sadiq went. He recognized the man who condemned his friend to death. Sadiq knew exactly what he'd done. And Sadiq said, “You killed my friend. But I've come here to feed you.” And Sadiq lifted a water bottle to the lips of his now-helpless enemy and showed love. I don't actually know if Sadiq is a Christian. The article telling his story didn't say. But Sadiq followed Jesus that day.
Sadiq could see what Jesus would tell us: That even Bin Laden was made in our Father's image, designed for a glory of which he fell so tragically short. That God shines his sun on terrorist training camps, on detention centers, on Ground Zero and Guantanamo Bay, all the same. That his raindrops fall on soldier's helmets and drizzle down al-Baghdadi's beard. That the Father sent Jesus to redeem sinners from every sin, however great or however small. That Jesus came to serve the unworthy, to minister to the morally deformed. That in Jesus we see clearly that God loves his enemies, which all of us were when we didn't know Christ – God loves a world of people who oppose him, whether they march under the black flags of the so-called caliphate or under the red, white, and blue, or under none of the above. And Jesus points, not to Bin Laden, not to al-Baghdadi, not to Cain, not to Lamech, but to the God who loves his enemies – and says, “There's your role model. Be like God.”
These words have been radically liberating. When Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of a co-founder of Hamas, read these words in a Bible, they changedhis life and set him on the path toward a real relationship with Jesus and a lifetime of working toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians. These words helped him lay aside the weight of his heritage of violence and end the cycle. But these words are not easy to follow, to put it mildly! So it's no surprise that these words of Jesus have been oft-rejected and oft-criticized.
A Christian aid worker who spent time in Afghanistan wrote a memoir, and she quoted these words of Jesus to a roomful of Afghanis. They responded with outbursts: “Crazy!” “Impossible!” “That makes no sense!” And when she told them how Jesus lived it out, and how he prayed for his enemies, they objected that he should have overwhelmed them with force and taught his abusers never to insult or harm him again. They were addicted to the cycle of avenging their honor. And if that means hating and punishing enemies, so be it.
But a hundred or so years ago, a Muslim critic of our faith named Rashid Rida put it all more succinctly, when he wrote that any impartial observer would “see that the Christian teachings are built on exaggeration and excess. Their scripture states: 'Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you,' as in the Gospel of Matthew 5:44. This is exaggeration in love, something of which humans are incapable, as it is beyond their control.” In other words, Rida says, the love we teach is extremism, and we need to be reined in.
But we might be critics of Jesus, too. Maybe when it comes to this, we're tempted to agree with Rashid Rida. Maybe we don't want to answer terrorism with the greater bravery of love. Because when we actually attempt to put Jesus' words into practice, it really does feel like exaggeration, like excess, like surrender.
Andrew White, the famed Vicar of Baghdad, pastored a church there in Iraq long after everyone advised him to get out. He's seen terrorism up-close and personal. And after all that, he wrote this:
At the end of every service at St. George's, we say together, “Al-Hubb, al-Hubb, al-Hubb” – which means, “We must love, we must love, we must love.” 'Love' sums up all we are trying to do in Iraq. … Love is vital, but love is not easy – certainly not the love that Jesus spoke about, since he told us to love our enemies. … People resort to violence when they feel something has been taken away from them. Giving love to them, instead of returning violence for violence, is returning to them something that has been lost. Giving love can radically change even seemingly hopeless situations. This is why Jesus tells us to love those who do not love us.
Now, I doubt any of us are likely to come face-to-face with any members of al-Qaeda, ISIS, or any other terror group, for that matter. That's not to say we can't find ways to show love, like committing to pray for them. (I personally also believe that dismantling their ability to carry out their evil designs is a way our nation can show love for both them and their victims.) But while we can pray, I doubt we'll ever be near enough to treat them like Sadiq did.
But if that's the extreme way our Father calls us to love enemies – if he calls us to love even those enemies – can we do any less for the more ordinary enemies we meet in our day-to-day lives? People who wish us ill, people who compete with us, people whose interests don't mesh with ours, people who treat us as maybe they shouldn't?
God loves your ex-spouse. God loves your cantankerous co-worker. God loves your business rival. God loves your meddlesome in-laws. God loves your nasty neighbor. God loves the judge who won't give you justice. God loves criminals and terrorists, and God loves you and me and everyone around us. And he calls us to do the same, and to do it in practical actions instead of just mealy-mouthed sentiments and flippantly 'pious' clichés.
This all may be, like Rashid Rida said, “something of which humans are incapable,” something “beyond [our] control.” Rida may have been right. But what he neglected was that a Christian's love is not something that happens under a Christian's control. To follow Jesus means to surrender control to his Spirit. And his Spirit shapes and grows a new heart within us – a heart that's forgiving, not vengeful; a heart that's loving, not hateful; a heart through which God will do what's outside our capability – even loving our enemies.
The kingdom of God makes us free to do that, and the Spirit of God gives us power to do that. We can love our enemies because we have new hearts, and we grow new hearts in part through practicing loving our enemies.
And when we do that, and the rest of what Jesus has been teaching us – when we aspire to be like God and race in the Spirit toward the Law's goal – then we follow his latest command: “Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The word Jesus uses there means 'complete,' 'mature,' 'whole' – he means we need to have complete love-full hearts like God's completely love-full heart.
Because just loving a few, loving those like us – that's no credit. Even tax collectors do that. Even pagans do that. Even terrorists do that, among their cells (Matthew 5:46-47). But to be cured of the anger that leads to murder, the lust that leads to adultery, the dissatisfaction that leads to divorce, the deceit that necessitates oaths, the resentment that leads to revenge, and to overcome hate with love.... That is to be “conformed to the image of [God's] Son” (Romans 8:29). That is holiness. Because that is wholeness. That is the kind of people God wants to raise.
And what if the church were like really like that? What if we raced together toward the kingdom like that? If we lived by love even for our enemies, might we catch anybody's attention? Maybe they'd think we were crazy – a crazy church. But maybe, just maybe, they'd start asking us for the reason for the hope that's so obviously in us (1 Peter 3:15). And our so-called “craziness” would be a glimpse of the kingdom of God. We need no petty sandcastles; we need not defend our honor or grasp desperately after vengeance in the name of justice. The resurrection of the crucified Christ is proof enough that what matters is safe and secure in God's kingdom.
So in light of that promise, may we find new ways to be extremists of love, as the Spirit gives vision and power. May our heart as a community be to love our neighbors, even those who don't love us, even those who harm and cheat us. And may the love of Jesus be made clear to all the Welsh Mountain and all the Pequea Valley, 'til his kingdom come. Amen. Amen.