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.