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“When Enemies Seem Just About Everywhere We Look”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
Sermon at Bach Vespers
“When Enemies Seem Just About Everywhere We Look”
Sunday, February 19, 2017 (7th Sunday after Epiphany)
Matthew 5: 38-48

The words, “Love your enemies,” are simple to domesticate.  They easily become trite fodder for crossed-stitched samplers hung on our dining room walls.

And yet, if the truth be told, Jesus’ invitation to turn our cheeks and to love our enemies has bedeviled many good people for a long time.  While I may not be a very good person, the directive regarding enemy love has bedeviled me most of my life.  I concocted a college minor called “Peace Studies” to try to come to grips with what Jesus was saying.  I took courses on pacifism and Christian nonviolence from a very good Quaker, created an independent study on the works of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton who had much to say about enemy love, and took history courses that examined how nations have tried to coexist throughout the ages with other pesky enemy nations.  You may or may not want to know, but my senior thesis was my “Conscientious Objector” papers which I then submitted to my local draft board in Wheeling, West Virginia, during the Viet Nam conflict.

It has been forty-four years now since those papers were handed to the draft board and yet, to this day, enemy loving continues to befuddle me.  The classic question asked of those who claim that they will refuse to fight in any war is, “What would you have done in the face of Adolph Hitler?”  That is an important question to ponder and points to how monstrously difficult it is to live purely in this world no matter how hard we try.

It is so simple to be naïve about matters of war and peace and even simpler to be self-righteous prigs about loving our enemies or defending the common good.

For those of us who live comfortably, it is convenient to get all teary-eyed as we place our hands over our hearts and sing the National Anthem at the Yankee’s game all the while leaving the bloodier stuff to less fortunate souls who do not have the advantage of good educations and fat parental investment portfolios.  Unless we or our own children are in the line of fire, we dare not arrogantly rattle our sabers in the name of God and country or profess purity about refusing to engage in armed conflicts, especially if we are benefitting from others’ sacrifices.  Whether we bear arms or refuse to, loving our enemies is dreadfully difficult.

As I have said, this question of how to love our enemies has bedeviled me a long time. As a Lutheran, I do not come from one of the historic peace churches like the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish.  We Lutherans have typically had a cozier relationship with the state; perhaps it is in our blood to be warriors as opposed to peace lovers.

You will soon hear these words in this evening’s Bach cantata: “A Christian should strive to be dove-like and live without falsity or malice.”  The question: how to do that?  Asked another way, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you for being dove-like?”

To be frank, it takes a fool to love one’s enemy, a fool like Jesus, a clown who died on the cross for those who hated his guts.

A fool…Actually, the fool has a rich tradition in some churches.  The holy fool is revered in the Eastern Orthodox Church and held in similar esteem to bishops and priests, deacons and monks.

It takes fools to love their enemies because they typically have nothing to lose.  They have no houses to defend because they most often sleep in the bushes in Central Park or on church steps like Holy Trinity’s.  When we pass them on the street with their matted beards or soiled dresses, if we have heard of holy fools, we might blessedly find ourselves wondering if we could ever be so blessed not to have the many wretched cares that so easily drive us to hate others. What would it take to be a fool like that?

These fools, often found in Russian writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, are particularly prevalent when the church and the empire have gotten too cozy with one another.  They are not the least bit impressed when the emperor holds his coronation at the cathedral on the hill or at all awestruck when Caesar shows up at the church across the street on the day of his elevation to high office.  If anything, the fool is on the church doorsteps with a sign that says, “Love your enemy.”

Could it be that one of the deepest joys awaiting us is learning to love our enemies?  On this Presidents’ Day weekend, we do well to remember a very good man and a very fine president, Abraham Lincoln, who once said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

When we make our enemies our friends, our lives are changed for the better.  Not only do we quit seething in bitterness, we also create a vision of living in peace.  Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes all people blind.”

Maybe it is not such a risk to love.  Maybe in loving our enemies, we catch a glimpse of life lived at full stretch.  Maybe we should try it, especially in these contentious days when our enemies seem just about everywhere we look.

“Enemy Loving”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Enemy Loving”
Matthew 5: 38-48
February 19, 2017 (7th Sunday after Epiphany)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

G. K. Chesterton was a late nineteenth and early twentieth century English writer and lay theologian. He once wrote: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

When we think of our enemies, our first inclination is likely not to think of our neighbors or those belonging to our church. The word “enemy” makes us instinctively look for terrorists and spies living far across the ocean, certainly not those who haunt our local Starbucks.

My experience suggests that Chesteron is on to something. The farther our enemies live from us, the easier it is to pontificate about loving them—after all, we don’t see them daily and aren’t forced to put up with their shenanigans. The nearer our enemies, the more likely they are to infuriate us—after all, we know them so much better!

I speak from experience. On Monday evening, Dagmar, our younger son Caspar, and I attended the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. We had dreamed of this for years and even considered flying here to see the doggies when we were living in California. We have been particularly enthralled by the public-address announcer David Frei who says things that make us smile. I can imagine him introducing your current Holy Trinity dog in residence, Cisco, at the Garden: “The Boykin Spaniel, the state dog of South Carolina, is bred for the rigors of low-country waterfowl hunting. He loves to hunt pigeons and squirrels in Central Park and imaginary animals in tiny Upper West Side apartments. Do not let his cheery disposition, curly brown hair, floppy ears, and adorable eyes fool you: though a doting companion, the buoyant Boykin is not for the faint of heart.”

We were thrilled to be at the dog show. Sitting immediately behind us were four people who were investing their parents’ entire trust fund on $12.50 beers. As the night wore on, they got funnier in their own minds and more obnoxious in ours. These were our neighbors and I wanted to clobber them. I kept thinking about what I could say that would humiliate these hot shots in the presence of their lovely dream dates. Suddenly, the enemies Jesus told us to love were sitting a row behind us and kicking our chairs throughout their drunken escapade.

Funny, isn’t it, how our nearest neighbors are often our enemies. Some of you have heard me say that when and if I arrive at the Pearly Gates, if a congregational meeting is in session, I will ask Saint Peter if there is another option besides heaven. Think of those church meetings you have attended where nuclear wars have been waged in Jesus’ name over such monumental matters as the color of paint for the parish hall, the choice of hymns, the use of incense, and where coffee hour should be held. Forget about enemies lurking in Russia, Syria, and ISIS camps, our enemies are closer and far more dangerous and, often, they are Lutherans!

This loving of enemies—and neighbors—is so difficult. Perhaps that is why it took Jesus to show us how to do it. No matter what people turned their back on him, friend and foe alike, Jesus loved them all the way to the cross. We do well to keep our eyes on him, to see how he loved his enemies. Jesus never gave up on those he loved nor does he give up on us. Even when we fail to love those who drive us nuts, Jesus keeps loving us back.

I hope that you have a few good role models who have taught you a thing or two about enemy loving. I doubt any of you have heard of the Rev. Will Campbell though some of you may know him as the Rev. Will B. Dunn, the bombastic preacher with the broad-brimmed clerical hat in the comic strip “Kudzu.” The only reason I know Will Campbell is because I heard him speak at the divinity school I was attending and where he had graduated twenty-five years earlier; I was mesmerized by the story he told, a story about enemy loving.

The good Reverend Campbell was a contrarian sort of fellow. He was active in the civil rights movement and left his job as the chaplain at the University of Mississippi when he started receiving death threats over his views on integration. He was the only white person Dr. Martin Luther King invited to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He helped escort African American students through angry mobs in an attempt to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Will Campbell eventually abandoned organized religion, accusing the Southern Protestant churches in particular of standing silent in the face of bigotry.

You may be thinking, I wish I could have met him. But wait, there is more. Reverend Campbell was a real, honest-to-goodness, down to earth, Southern enemy lover. Not only did he stand up for black folks, he harbored the quaint belief that Jesus also died for racists. This odd notion prompted him to become a chaplain of sorts to members of the Ku Klux Klan; he visited James Earl Ray in prison after he assassinated his good friend Dr. King in 1968. Now, that, my friends, is enemy loving in the extreme and it does cause us to wonder, “Jesus, you don’t mean all our enemies, do you?”

We easily let Jesus’ words, “Love your enemy,” fall off our lips like melting butter on a warm cinnamon bun but sometimes the enemy is so close it isn’t even our neighbor. Sometimes the enemy we loathe dwells deep within ourselves. Some of our fiercest hatreds and most abusive behaviors are directed not at others but at ourselves where self-loathing threatens to annihilate us. Jesus invites us to love this enemy with tender compassion. Indeed, when you feel angriest at someone else, always, always, first look to see what enemy lurks deep within you that infuriates you so. See whether you are able to love yourself before trying to love your neighbor.
“Love your enemy,” says Jesus. A good place to start this enemy loving is in our own neighborhood, in our own our own church, in our own heart. These are good training grounds if we ever are interested in trying to love those who live outside our zip code.

By the way, you learned how to do this as a little tyke but may have forgotten. Let’s review: whenever fury starts doing its dirty business inside your heart, immediately begin to sing that simple children’s song, “Jesus loves me! this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Remember: Jesus loves you and all your neighbors and he wishes you would, too.

“Precious Treasure of Final Words”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“Precious Treasure of Final Words”
(Deuteronomy 30: 15-20)
February 12, 2017, Bach Vespers
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Israelites were almost to the Promised Land, almost, but they just as easily could have been a million miles away.  It had been a long haul, forty grueling years to be precise.  God’s chosen people wandered aimlessly through the wilderness; poisonous snakes attacked them; they argued bitterly; they even doubted whether God was all that their fathers and mothers had made God out to be.  Sure, God freed them from Pharaoh’s brutal slave camps but that was forty years ago and that was long enough to lose every ounce of hope.

We just heard a few of Moses’ final words spoken to his friends and family with whom he had been through so much.  Moses had spotted the Promised Land through his sunburnt, cataract eyes, but he had heard from God that he would never cross over the Jordan to the land of milk and honey.

These final speeches are created in love and uttered in tenderness.  They recall heartbreaking squabbles and betrayals and do their best to make amends; they contemplate the what-ifs and understand that all things can never quite be as wished; they even invent future hopes and dreams right on the spot.

You know how this goes because you have been there with your beloved spouse, your mother, your father. Final words are precious treasures to be cherished forever.  I remember the last ones I spoke with my father face-to-face.  I hated to leave his bedside, sensing those were our final words.  I listened carefully because I knew I was hearing what meant most to my father. He told me to take care of my mother.  Then, he said things that would surprise you if you didn’t know him.  He spoke of finances—my father, after all, was schooled in that discipline and it guided his plans and determined the personal sacrifices he made on behalf of those he loved.  In those final moments, he wanted to do his best to make certain his loved ones were protected.

That’s how it was for Moses.  You might as well have been there with him on the far side of the Jordan as he spoke his final words—he was, after all, speaking to you: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess…Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

“Choose life” sounds so daunting.  Experience tells us what it told the Israelites: life is messier and more difficult than that, especially when we try to be faithful to God.  Experience also tells us that God is faithful to us, in every age, even if we turn our backs on God and the journey becomes unbearable.  Over and over again, God coaxes us back home, talking lovey-dovey to us and doing everything possible to get us to choose life and not opt for death.

Moses’ final words were his way of telling every generation that God chooses us.  These words must be on every good Jew’s lips and heart, when lying down and when rising, upon entering home and when leaving: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” These words are placed in the mezuzah at the doorway of every Jewish home as a reminder.  We who are Christian inherit this stunning memory and lively exhortation to choose life, never forgetting that God has created us in God’s image.

It is so easy to forget who God is, so easy to create our own modern day golden calves.  Political ideologies and charismatic leaders, political and religious alike, cause us to forget who is in charge; flashy consumer goods entice us to believe that we can be as good as God if not even better; the latest smartphones are our beguiling Tower of Babel, tempting us to assume we can have perfect answers to life’s most monstrous mysteries simply by typing a few letters or saying, “Siri, why does God let evil exist?” Moses knew of these atrocious idolatrous temptations that would lure us time and again from choosing life and casting us into the dangerous wastelands of desolation.

Moses is here tonight tenderly urging us, on God’s behalf, to choose life.  Moses’ hopes and prays that our lives will be much richer when we realize that The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  Moses only has a few words left and so he says to us, “God who freed our ancestors from bondage can free us, too.”

“The Grammar of Grace”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“The Grammar of Grace”
Matthew 5: 21-37
February 12, 2017 (Sixth Sunday after Epiphany)
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-Manhattan

Miss Ball was my eighth-grade English teacher, the best I ever had.  She forced us to diagram sentences, learn all the prepositions by memory, and know how to use who and whom, he and him, and she and her, properly.  Eleanor Ball did not suffer fools gladly: she once told me, before an assembled throng of fourteen year-olders, that I was the poorest English student of the entire Miller clan and that included my parents and sister, aunts and uncle.

If you had a teacher like Miss Ball, you were drilled in the figures of speech: alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia.  I particularly struggled with remembering the difference between metaphor, simile, and hyperbole.  I will not bore you with the specifics but I invite you to review what Miss Ball said about hyberbole: “Hyperbole is an extravagant statement used for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect.”

Here are a few hyperboles: “If you insult a brother or sister…and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…”

I, at least, pray Jesus was overstating the case here just to turn us from sin.

I wonder if this is hyberbole: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  If this is not stretching the case for effect, I am fearful you will soon be running off to make up with your sisters and brothers and never return to put your offering in the plate.  I fear attendance at Holy Communion will be pretty sparse!

Here’s why this all seems hyperbole to me.  Martin Luther teaches us, over and over again, that we cannot be perfect.  One of the primary reasons we teach our children the Ten Commandments is not so much to make them good little girls and boys but more to the point to help them realize they are hopeless sinners in need of God’s grace.

It is so tough to admit we are sinners.  We easily point our finger at others—you are a miserable sinner!—but it is another matter altogether to point that same finger at ourselves.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little book, “Life Together,” writes: “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.  So, everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.  We dare not be sinners.  Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous.  So, we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.  The fact is that we are sinners!”

Could it be that Jesus wants to shock us, scare us straight, so we know, without a doubt, that we cannot achieve perfection—even if we so desperately want to?

Church folks find it hard to admit to imperfection.  There are some groups, however, that are pretty good at this.  If you have ever attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, you know that recovering alcoholics admit their shortcomings the moment the meeting begins, “Hello, I am Scotty and I am an alcoholic.” AAers are well versed in the twelve steps because they are read at every meeting.  Here are steps one and two: 1-We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable; 2-We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Do you know anyone who possesses such courage—elegance?—to admit their lives are unmanageable, that they need something beyond themselves—like God—to turn their lives around?

I recently saw such a person.  Patti Smith is, we might say, the 71-year old punk rock queen-mother of New York; she is also a serious author who has written the National Book Award winner, “Just Kids,” and my favorite, “M Train.”  She represented Bob Dylan at the recent Nobel Prize awards on December 10.  She sang Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song she has known since she was a teen-ager.

Patti Smith writes: “Every spare moment was spent practicing it, making certain that I knew and could convey every line…I sang the words to myself, over and over…I bought a new suit, I trimmed my hair, and felt that I was ready.

“….And then suddenly it was time…As I sat there, I imagined laureates of the past walking toward the King to accept their medals. Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus. Then Bob Dylan was announced as the Nobel Laureate in Literature, and I felt my heart pounding…I heard my name spoken and I rose. As if in a fairy tale, I stood before the Swedish King and Queen…

“The first verse was passable, a bit shaky, but I was certain I would settle. But instead I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them…Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue…

“As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure…”

If you have not seen Patti Smith’s performance that night in Stockholm, Sweden, I beg you to go to YouTube.  You will witness a beautiful woman, not because of her perfection but because of the depths of her fragile nature.  As she sings and stumbles and is repeatedly rendered speechless and apologetic, the camera sweeps the audience and catches a woman in the audience so deeply moved by Patti Smith’s stunning humanity that she is wiping away tears.  You might call that a moment of grace, an occasion when someone is rendered beautiful not because of make-believe perfection but because of the profound honesty that she needs something more to help her get through the night.

I believe Jesus uses hyperbole, shocking stuff like plucking out eyes, chopping off hands, and sending people straight to hell fire, so we might all realize we are God’s beautiful, precious children.  I pray that this place’s deepest glory will come as we witness one another’s brokenness being bathed in the forgiving waters of heavenly grace.  If we do this, others will pass by here and be moved by tears because they will see just how much God loves us…and them, too.