And so the great thaw has begun. This week, in our wild and variable weather patterns we only had the threat of a tornado. Many of us have found ourselves positively giddy at temperatures in the mid-60’s. It feels different in your body, doesn’t it? It feels free. We are naturally more relaxed. My shoulders, which have been hunched against the cold since Christmas, are finally able to let go in the warm breeze and sunshine.

It was Christmas in 1957, when Martin Luther King delivered a sermon in Montgomery, Alabama on our Gospel text today: Love your Enemies. His first point is, You can’t get to loving your enemies without going though forgiveness first. And it’s hard to forgive others unless you yourself have experienced forgiveness. Unless you have experienced the mercy, the compassion, the release of having someone open their arms and their heart to you and say “All is forgiven. Come here because I want to hold you. I don’t want to lose you again.” That’s a powerful experience and one I believe we all crave. Previously, I have shared this story, but it bears repeating.

Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story called “The Capitol of the World” and it begins this way: “Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is a diminuitive of the name Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about the father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of the newspaper, El Liberal, which said: Paco Meet me at Hotel Montana Noon Tuesday All is Forgiven Papa and how a squadron of the Civil Guard had to be called out to disperse the 800 young men who answered the ad…” We laugh because that’s a lot of people answering to the name Paco. We laugh also because we recognize the need to be forgiven. We hunger for it in our own hearts.

Forgiveness is a funny thing. You can ask for it, but you might not get it. Because forgiveness has to be offered from the wronged party. But one of the ways to work on forgiveness is to practice forgiving those around you who have wronged you. Build the bridge of forgiveness from your side, an old priest I love used to say. In just a few moments we will pray together the words: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us. They go hand in hand. And whether you are doing the forgiving or being forgiven, either way, hearts are open, love is flowing, transformation is possible, hope is restored. And that is why Jesus tells us to love our enemies.

In the Leviticus reading we heard Hailey read, the people are commanded to love your neighbor as yourself. But in that context neighbor was clearly defined as those who follow God’s law, which means fellow Israelites. That love was not expected to extend to those outside the law, those other religions that threatened the security of Israel. But this Jesus, he pushes the envelope. In the Matthew Gospel Jesus makes love of God and neighbor the essential command – On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets, Jesus says to the Pharisees. Jesus was making these statements under the oppression of Roman occupation. Love those who are persecuting you, love those who are different from you, love the outsider who hurts you. This is big stuff. He says, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? …Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly father is perfect.” Perfect is a loaded word, but in this context it means, as a beloved child of God, and as a follower of Christ, you are being held to a higher standard. Because you are already loved, you are already forgiven by God. We are expected to model that behavior, to find a way to rise above our hurts and indignities and fears to love those who have hurt us.

I’m not sure how one does that, but I know that it can only happen by the grace of God. Last week, on February 18th, in Springfield, Missouri, a 10-year old girl also named Hailey was kidnapped. Her body was found the next day and it was confirmed that she had been murdered. The man suspected of these crimes was caught and is in custody, but news of this event ripped through that community as these kinds of events do. And the Episcopal Bishop of West Missouri, Marty Field, felt compelled to put out a statement the next day. He said “The shock of man-made tragedy spreads, and leads us inevitably to the question, "Why?" He says, “there is no sensible reason, or a satisfying rationale to make sense of what has happened. There is, for we who believe in God, only one place to go -- to our knees and to God's throne of grace. Only God can fill our empty questions with comfort, our anger with peace, our repulsion with love.” He asks people to pray for Hailey and her family, for the first responders and law enforcement who had to deal with this tragedy and he says “Pray -- though it is the hardest prayer of all -- for the perpetrator of this crime. He too is a child of God and in need of God's healing.” Maybe a first step to love your enemies is to pray for them. Because if we pray for our enemy, then we have to acknowledge that we’re all in need of prayer. They are broken as we are broken. They were made in the image of God as we were made in the image of God. I think Jesus knew that if you open your heart to your enemy or at least pray for them, they cannot remain only an enemy.

This is hard stuff! But I don’t see an alternative. “There is no future without forgiveness.” This was the rallying theme behind the Truth and Reconciliation Committees, established following the apartheid regime in South Africa. No future without forgiveness. In that same Christmas sermon, Martin Luther King asks the question: “Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies-or else? The chain reaction of evil - hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars - must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” He wrote that in 1957 and was assassinated in 1968. Where are we today, nearly half a century later? We spend too much time constricted by our fears and crippled by our anxiety. How do I know this? Because I live it, too. Jesus bids us to love anyway, for love is the only way through. Love is the only force than can turn an enemy into a friend. Love can overcome any barrier. Love creates new relationships and restores hope. Jesus is asking us to see the world through the heart. To listen through the heart. To speak and act from the heart. The heart is the circulatory system of the spiritual life. The heart is where your courage lives.

When you are fearful, when you are constricted, when you are hurting, when you are angry, it is hard to imagine that love is the answer. It is hard to believe that you can even feel love any more. It feels like that is just the way it is. Until, all of a sudden, a warm breeze blows, the snow begins to melt and you start to feel your heart come alive again. And it feels good. It feels free. Maybe it took an act of forgiveness. Maybe you got tired of being frozen. Maybe you made the decision to open your heart and to see what happens. This is an important muscle to strengthen because there are four more weeks of winter. Sadly, there is more pain and senseless tragedy ahead of us because that is life and that is the way of the cross.

To love is a choice. We have to be willing to be an instrument of God’s love. We have to give our consent to open wide to the feelings and forgiveness and transformation that is available to us all the time, if only we believed it. If only we dare to love. Don’t be fooled into thinking that love is only an emotion. It is an act of will. It is a choice and it is a risk. I’m in. Are you?

A Celtic blessing

I will kindle my fire this morning

In the presence of the holy angels of heaven

God, kindle thou in my heart within

A flame of love to my neighbor

To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all

To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall.