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.
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.