Walking through the woods in winter, it is easy to spot mistletoe. It sits in splendor on lofty branches high in an elm's canopy. After all the leaves have fallen and the woods have turned to grey, the mistletoe offers white berries and shiny green leaves like a Siren's song to those wandering beneath her. It is no wonder that all kinds of myths and legends have been written about mistletoe. Mysterious and vulnerable, she hovers above in glory offering plenty of room for those of us below her to judge her - both for her beauty and her poison. People have shot mistletoe down with BB guns and climbed dangerously high just to capture her twigs. Bound in ribbon and tied under a doorway, she emboldens those who stand beneath her to await a kiss. One legend declares that the dangerous fruit of mistletoe was used to poison the arrow of an enemy of the goddess of love in order to kill her son. Weeping tears on the deadly arrow, the goddess cast a spell over mistletoe promising all who passed beneath her to be given a kiss.
Mistletoe is a good symbol for the absorption that we give an enemy. We build enemies into mythical proportions, then lose sight of the path. Maybe, we think, if we could control our enemies similar to the way we treat mistletoe - cut them down, bind them, or use them for our own purpose - maybe, just maybe, we will gain control of our lives and have the power we think we deserve. Enemies draw us in, and we create myths about them to warrant our contempt. By giving so much power to an enemy, we create legends, give them space in our minds, and allow them to even step into our sacred dream world. When our enemies become our focus, they can obscure our path so we can't see the tree for the proverbial mistletoe and surely lose site of the forest. Walking through the woods, we can always find mistletoe atop oaks, pines, and elms. By viewing and loving mistletoe as part of creation, we can honor it for what it is. We can turn our eyes back to the path in front of us and not be blind to all the amazing gifts of the woods. Mistletoe reminds us that by loving each and every part of creation, both the good and the bad, we are able to keep walking down a sacred path. Loving our enemies is our saving grace.
In Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount given by Jesus on the plain, there were wild fields and flowers. He was preaching to folks in an occupied nation that held numerous powerful enemies. But instead of focusing on their enemies, he invited them to look around, to consider the wild flowers, and the birds of the air. He told them to think of the sun shining on both good and the evil. He was offering them a path to freedom by making them aware of their place within God's creation. He says to the gathered crowd, "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."
There is a way out, he reminds us, from the trap of giving power to our enemies and focusing on how we can free ourselves from poisonous thoughts. Instead, the invitation in this Gospel is to try walking a path of non-judgmental love that is blossoming with mercy and fruitful with gratitude. This is the path where forgiveness and freedom are found. The message of this Gospel is that if we can love our enemies, it will be our own saving grace. By walking the path he is setting before us, we are going to understand how God loves and forgives us. If we can be radical enough in this world to try forgiveness and mercy, then we might find forgiveness and freedom for ourselves.
In my work at Thistle Farms, a community of women survivors of trafficking, addiction and violence, I have seen the miraculous truth of this Gospel. I have learned that forgiveness does not mean you don't hold someone accountable and does not mean you will escape the trauma. It means there is a path forward that is deep and beautiful. Some of the steps on that path are forgiveness and mercy and not letting the enemy blind you to the beauty of the world. There is a woman named Sheila who was first trafficked at the age of five. She came into the Thistle Farms Community in 2007. Wounded and suffering with cancer, Sheila crossed a deep forest to find freedom and healing. She forgave her betrayer, made restitution with the courts, went back to school to gain a degree to help other survivors. She also got married and has two beautiful children. Sheila has gone on in her life to be a nationally recognized resource for hope and healing for women who are trafficked and has helped launch many survival programs across the country. Recently, she traveled with me to Mexico to help a group of women from the streets with a tea company, the Moringa Madres, who grow a wonderfully healing herb that is growing in popularity all over the world. Shelia's goal was to talk to the women about trauma-informed work communities and how they could support one another. When she arrived in the town in Mexico, she went to the home where one of the heads of the Moringa Madres was staying with her children. It was behind a dump under a tarped roof with a hose serving as the only source of water. When Shelia saw the way the family was surviving, she began to weep. She said that as bad as it had been for her - jailed, raped, and thrown into a river - she didn't think it had ever been this bad. Her compassion and loving tears were powerful preachers. Both women had reason to hold many enemies and resentments. And both women had chosen a different path, a path of freedom and hope that looked stronger to me than old enemies and deep fears. The mother explained that they could sell more of the Moringa, but it would cost $387 to purchase a booth in the local market. Immediately Sheila said, "I want to give you $387. She wasn't saying it out of obligation, but as an outpouring of love and gratitude for all the mercy she had experienced. "A good measure shaken down and pressed together running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." They had each forgiven much, and they preached the Gospel finding a new path through those scary and old scarred woods.
Shelia had walked in the woods beneath the mistletoe and not forgotten to see the beauty of the entire forest. She had embraced her enemies, had shown herculean strength in walking many extra miles, and had become the preacher of the truth of this Gospel. What mistletoes are you misjudging on your path that prevent you from finding a way through the woods? What do you still need to forgive so that whomever you might think of as your enemy no longer overcomes you? What is the $387 in your life that you could give or receive as a measure of this truth? These are the questions that are carrying me through this season. I want to be free to see the mistletoe in its beautiful winter light and love it as simply part of an amazing journey. May God give us all the grace to see clearly how loving our enemies can truly be our saving grace. Amen.