Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
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.