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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.

“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.”