Blog
Daily Devotion – February 28, 2017
02.28.17

God’s Intentions
Jennifer Garrison Brownell

“Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…” – Genesis 5:20a

In May 2016, someone started a fire at First Congregational UCC in Vancouver, Washington, rendering our sanctuary temporarily unusable.  Over the summer the congregation gathered each Sunday in the sunny social hall of a local synagogue with a view of Mount St. Helens out of the floor-to-ceiling windows.

When Mount St. Helens blew in 1980, the volcano left a thick carpet of ash that covered the surrounding countryside for miles, decimating the woodlands, meadows and rivers. Experts figured it would be years or even decades before anything grew there.  But almost immediately, green shoots started coming up through the ash.  By the summer following the eruption, a whole new ecosystem began to grow, including plants and insects that no one had ever seen in this area before.

Whoever set the fire in our building figured it would scare us, or inconvenience us, or even stop us. They intended harm for us, but God has already worked it for good.

Watered by the outpouring of prayers, gifts and even a visit from another church (shout out to Greendale United Church of Christ of Greendale, Wisconsin!) and warmed by the sunshine of the Spirit, new life started poking up out of the ash of the church fire almost immediately.  There isn’t just one example of this, although I have been searching for one as I write this. Instead the new life is like a carpet of mountain flowers – sort of familiar, but unexpected too, and sprouting up in every direction, as far as the eye can see.

Prayer
Holy God, Thank you for the good you work from the most unlikely circumstances.   And thank you for the covenant that binds our churches in care with one another.  Amen.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Brownell is the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Vancouver, Washington, and the author of Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath, her inspiring memoir.



Sermon: “The Rocks Are Crying Out” (Rom. 8:18-22; Lk. 19:36-40) [2/26/17]
02.27.17

Didn’t we have some beautiful weather this week?  Sunlight gleaming, air refreshing, flowers blossoming, thermometer flirting with 80 degrees…in February.

There’s been a lot in the news lately about folks who accept the scientific fact of climate change and those who don’t.  With 97% of scientists agreeing that, largely due to human activity, the climate is changing, I don’t know that those of us in this room would debate those facts.

Even if we did want to debate the facts of climate change, worship isn’t really the time or place to do it…or even to strategize a plan for addressing it.  If you’re interested in working for climate change mitigation, I invite you to meet with Hugh Lowrey and me after 10:00 worship next Sunday.  For those who don’t know, Hugh is a scientist, a chemist who owns a couple of patents.  Deeply concerned about shifts in climate—and the devastating, life-as-we-know-it changes to which those shifts lead—Hugh has done some research and has found practical suggestions about how actively to engage in working to mitigate climate change.

So, if our task in this worship service isn’t to debate climate change or to strategize how to address it, what is our task?  In the context of worship, this space and time in which we open ourselves as fully as we know how to the God who has loved us, loves us now, and will always love us, how might we frame our concerns about climate change?

In an essay titled, “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” author Annie Dillard says, “God used to rage at the Israelites for frequenting sacred groves.  I wish I could find one” (87).  That’s her playful way saying that millennia ago, our human ancestors interacted with nature as if it were sacred.  Of contemporary faith expressions, paganism comes closest to retaining that strong spiritual connection to creation.  When Dillard says she’d like to find a sacred grove, she’s saying she’d like to reconnect with creation in such a way that its holiness becomes real to her.

Image result for picture teaching a stone to talk      Image result for picture stacked stone altar

The essay’s title describes the practice of an acquaintance of Dillard’s in the small village in which she lives.  Thirty-something Larry is trying to teach a stone to talk.  Each day, he takes the stone down from its perch and begins the lesson.  Other villagers chuckle when speaking of Larry’s pedagogical folly.  “Teach a stone to talk?  Bless his heart!”

I wonder, though.  Are Larry’s lessons folly?  Or are they a deep form of wisdom?

Think about it.  (Pull out stone.)  Each day at the appointed time, Larry pulls the stone down from its appointed place, sets it in front of him, and begins the lesson.  What do the lessons entail?  Only Larry knows for sure.  And the stone.

Related image

I’ve been thinking about what I would do to teach this stone to talk.  The first thing I notice is that the stone has no mouth.  That’s going to be a problem.  How can the stone speak without a mouth?  I could certainly carve a mouth in the stone, but even if I were to do that, there aren’t any vocal chords…neither is there breath to set the chords vibrating.

So the first thing I realize is that if I am to teach this stone to talk, I’m going to have to figure out how it might speak.  The first few lessons, then, I’d pull the stone off the shelf, set it in front of me, observe it, and contemplate how this stone, in light of its unique physical properties, might speak.

I wonder what might happen after several days of sitting with the stone…Might I get frustrated?  Might I grow despondent?  Might I pick that stone up and hurl it out the window?

Or…might I discover that the stone has been speaking all along?  That it has no need to learn from me how to communicate…that it’s been “crying out” for eons?  And with that realization, might I—finally—begin to listen?  Might I learn that it’s not so much a matter of teaching the stone to talk, but of learning from the stone how to listen?

Today’s Scripture lessons are mostly about things other than creation.  Each text, though, uses nature as a metaphor, an image through which to understand faith better.

In Romans, the author describes creation as groaning and likens it to the groaning of people of faith…not the groaning that happens when the pastor tells a punny joke.  Again.  The kind of groaning that comes from waiting…like the groaning that accompanies childbirth.  Intense pain, yes…but pain that leads to new birth.  As people of faith, we sometimes feel intense pain, we ask “Is this all there is?”  “What are we doing here?”  “Is there a God?”

In these verses, the author seeks to reassure people of faith who feel stuck, or disheartened, or who, in the author’s historical context, are being persecuted.  Despite the intensity of the current pain, if we don’t shy away from it, if we tend to it with all the love we have, like pains that accompany labor, inevitably, eventually, the pain will lead to new birth.

The author in Romans 8 wasn’t talking about climate change–the use of fossil fuels that would lead to the devastating effects of greenhouse emissions lay many centuries in the future.  The image of creation groaning, though, is an apt image for where creation is in the 21st century.  If we listen, I suspect we’ll hear creation groaning.  (Is anyone else thinking about fracking…and the earthquakes it causes?)  If we listen, I suspect we’ll hear creation writhing in pain.  (Anyone hearing the rush of flood waters in California?)  There’s little doubt that creation is groaning and writhing in pain.  What isn’t clear at this point is whether this intense pain will lead to new birth.

The passage from Luke is part of the Palm Sunday narrative.  Jesus is riding into town on a donkey when the large crowd of his followers begins praising him:  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Some Pharisees in the crowd order Jesus to order the people to keep quiet.  Jesus responds:  “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Certainly, this is hyperbole.  Jesus often used exaggeration to make his point.  Stones don’t shout…they don’t have mouths, remember?  If the crowds kept quiet, the only sound would be the sound of silence (or the Pharisees’ grumbling)…but by using this image, Jesus is suggesting that everything he was about extended to all creation.  He didn’t mean the stones literally would start shouting, but he did suggest that even the stones had a vested interest in what was happening.  The God-through-Jesus thing wasn’t just for people.  It was for all creation.

So.  What would Jesus do about climate change?  Because science and religious belief were at such different places 2,000 years ago, we can’t know for sure…but this bit about the stones crying out might give us a clue….

Why might creation have a vested interest in the God-through-Jesus thing?  Because we’re kin.  God created all of us, every single living thing.  Because all of us—people, trees, plants, seas, animals, dirt, sky…all of it—all of us—are created by God.  We are in relationship with everything else God created.  And just as we look for and see God in our fellow human beings, when we look for God in creation, we will find God.

So the first step for us as people of faith in working for climate change mitigation is to remember that creation was created by God…and by virtue of its having been created by God, it is, like human beings are, holy.  Creation is holy.  Creation bears the image of God.  Whatever we do to the planet, we do to God.

As we decide how to respond to climate change, we’ll do well to reconnect with the sacredness of created things.  Science is important.  Earth-affirming legislation from all the world’s countries is vital.  But until we relate to creation as a living, breathing relative, until we open ourselves to its pain, until we look for and find that of the divine within it, until we listen to creation, all our efforts will be for naught.

In a recent article titled, “This Is the Most Dangerous Time for Our Planet,” physicist Stephen Hawking notes that inhabitants of planet earth “have the means to destroy our world but not to escape it.”  Which means, we need to take care of it.  We can’t just use this planet up and go somewhere else.  We haven’t figured out how to do that yet.  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/01/stephen-hawking-dangerous-time-planet-inequality

In unrelated news, NASA announced this week that it’s found not just one, but seven earth-like and habitable planets in a solar system just 40 light years away—an intergalactic hop, skip, and jump.  Those planets have water and everything!  Does anyone have Mr. Hawking’s email?  I’m sure he’d like to know about this.  J

Image result for seven new planets

So.  What if it was possible for us to colonize other planets…to throw up our hands and say, we’ve done too much damage to Planet Earth, let’s just give up, move away, and start over?  If we could move to another planet, as people of faith should we?

I think not.  Even if it were possible to use this planet up and toss it in the trash, I can’t see how that would be the faithful thing to do.  Creation bears the image of God!  We’re kin!  Creation was never meant to be used up and discarded.  Creation was meant to be loved.  We are called to love creation.  We are called to act creation into wellbeing.

Dave Isay has called listening an act of love.  I invite us this morning to love creation by listening to her.  Is she groaning?  Is she writhing in pain?  Is she crying out to us?  As the labor pains bear down, the question comes:  What kind of midwives will we be?  Will we stay with our patient, doing everything in our power to ensure that new life emerges healthy and whole?  Or will we simply sit in the corner and let the patient take care of things herself?  The rocks are crying out.  What are they saying?  How will we respond?

Related image

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2017



Daily Devotion – February 27, 2017

Matthew 6:16-18

Concerning Fasting

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Devotion by Julia Shiver

When Chris and I started attending PUCC in 2004, I was a very unhappy Christian.  My Christian family, my church, had become deeply divided.  The tension and conflict grew worse until my family, along with several others, were asked to leave.  I was wounded to the very core of my being.

So I wasn’t ready to get involved, to make myself open, to this new church.  The only problem was the people in this new church didn’t know what a “good” Christian I was.  I had grown up in the church.  I was a Stephen Minister and Stephen Leader.  I was involved with the Kairos Prison Ministry long before Chris was.  We had been involved in mission trips to Mexico, where we built churches and led the children in VBS.  I had really good credentials!

But no one knew that about me, knew that I was just as “good” a Christian, just as committed, as my husband.  He was getting involved in the church, and I sat on the back row whenever he had audio duty.  No one recognized my piety.  I am ashamed to say it, but I was a hypocrite.  Again, I was a hypocrite.

It took a lot of time, and a lot of healing, for me to once again be who God had called me to be.  To use the gifts God had given me, along with the education and experience I had picked up along the way.  And as I came back to myself with my new church family, I let go of the need to “prove” myself.  I didn’t have to whip out my CV whenever questioned.  So I thank God, and I thank my church family, for giving me time and space to heal.  To be who God called me to be, the me who didn’t need to seek approval or validation of my identity in Christ.  I was free to worship God and be of service to others which is my greatest joy in life.

 

Prayer:

Dear God, I thank you for the healing that comes from you, and time, and a loving church family.  May others always see the love you have for them that flows through me.  Amen.

 

 



Daily Devotion – February 26, 2017
02.26.17

Matthew 6:5-6

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Reflection by Lynne Buell

I don’t think there is a definite right or wrong way to pray to God.  Praying is a personal experience.  Praying brings me closer and humbly to God.  I pray when I wake up, when I’ve driving, and during the day if thoughts appear in my mind of loved ones who are in pain or distress.  Sometimes I bow my head…usually in church, but I don’t feel it necessary to bow my head to talk with God.  I used to think there was a specific ‘format’ for praying.  I know there really isn’t, yet I still have a difficult time leading a group in prayer.  Having said all this, the scripture is clear in its meaning.

 

Prayer:

Gracious God, I choose to thank you for this beautiful day and all that is good in our world.  Amen. 

 



Daily Devotion – February 25, 2017
02.25.17

Matthew 6:2-4

 

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.  Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

 

Devotion by David Burns

 

One of the current trends in church-life is the public acknowledgement of folks who do something especially impressive for God.  The idea – when it comes to financial gifts, and it often does come to that – is that when you publicly acknowledge, say, in worship, the surprising or substantial gift someone makes to the community, you encourage others to do the same.  Ostensibly, because they want to be noticed and applauded, as well.  This may be good business strategy, but I think it disregards an essential teaching of Jesus.

 

The verses for today’s reflection, and several of the verses that follow these, fall under the general subject heading of Matthew 6:1: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Our most grounded and powerful motivation for kindom behavior is because it pleases God; not because we improve our standing in the community.  The minute we start looking horizontally for affirmation for our behavior we become vulnerable to losing our center.  Other human beings begin to direct our choices and pollute our motivation.
The motivation for everything we do is to express our love and gratitude to God.  This is so simple, so 1960’s Sunday school, we are tempted to ignore it.  But see it again today, with your experienced hearts and minds.  If we spend our money and our time and our attention as an expression of our love for God we place ourselves in the life-giving flow of God. We focus ourselves on the truest light we have and draw ourselves into profound collaboration. Of course, we always pay attention to the affect our choices and behaviors have on others, but we do not start with seeking their approval or their love.

 

Looking to God for our provision and our rewards and blessings will deeply anchor us amidst the ever-changing seas of public opinion.  This kind of orientation may not get you elected president of anything, but it just might lead you to life.

 

Prayer:

 

Loving God, increase our trust that you are paying attention to what is happening in our lives, day-by-day.  Teach us how to love you in our gifts and actions so that we may be made whole.

Amen.

 

 

 



Daily Devotion – February 24, 2017
02.24.17

Matthew 6:1

Concerning Almsgiving

‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Reflection by Duke Yaguchi

What is Matthew telling us to do in this scripture? And what is he not telling us to do? It is plain to see that if our religious intent is to boast our righteousness, then it will not be rewarded by God. What is in our heart is just as important as our actions. Just doing what is right in order to shame others is not what God seeks. At least that’s what I read into today’s scripture.

But does this mean we should only pray in silence and solitude? I don’t think so. Sometimes, we do need to be seen by others, so others can be encouraged to join us. That’s why I’ve always believed that attending church has been much more meaningful for me than watching an evangelist on a Sunday morning television broadcast. I gather strength in my beliefs when I am with other believers in community – my community – the Pilgrimage community.

We recently admitted new members into our congregation and sang a hymn that included the words, “Will you let me be your servant” and “Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant too.” I’ve always liked the gentleness of the message that not only should we help others, but we should let others help us. At different times, for different reasons, we are all in need.

Prayer

Dear God, let us see others and be seen by others, to strengthen our relationships with God. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.



Daily Devotion – February 23, 2017
02.23.17
Garlic Party
Vince Amlin

“They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”
– Isaiah 65:21-22Wendell Berry says, “plant sequoias.” That’s a little more faith than I can muster. But the new church I am starting with my friend Rebecca did host a garlic-planting party in November. And that feels like an act of hope.

Gilead Chicago is a church that doesn’t exist…yet. It’s mostly a beautiful website. And it’s Rebecca and me buying people coffee, talking to them about Jesus, and hoping that some of them stick around.

Meanwhile, garlic has to be planted in the fall. It has to rest in the snow-covered Chicago soil for months. It has to send up leaves and then scapes in spring. And finally, in July – eight unimaginable months from when we planted it – it will be ready to harvest, and eat, and share with our neighbors.

A timeline on our Google Drive says that by then Rebecca and I will be celebrating weekly worship with Gilead. But where that worship will be, I can’t tell you. Who will be in attendance is a mystery. And the funding…(pops a Tums).

Like Jeremiah, we (mostly) trust that God will bring this work to fruition. That those who plant will stick around to reap and be joined by others. When I’m feeling faithful, I can almost taste it.

Prayer

God, bless our garlic and every seed of hope your people dare to plant.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vince Amlin is co-pastor of Bethany UCC and co-planter of Gilead Church Chicago, forming now



Daily Devotion – February 22, 2017
02.22.17
Psalm 99:1-5
1. The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim,
let the earth shake.
2. Great is the Lord in Zion; he is exalted over all the nations.
3. Let them praise your great and awesome name — he is holy.
4. The King is mighty, he loves justice — you have established equity;
in Jacob you have done what is just and right.
5. Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his footstool; he is holy.
Reflection by Darlene Wagner
Hebrew praise and worship envisioned a King of all nations, mightier than any force
in Nature. At the same time, this King, exalted over the nations, stood for social
justice and ethical purity. This was a King with a heart, despite unlimited power. In
his love for justice, the Hebrew Divinity exceeds all the humanlike representations of
the Divine in nations neighboring ancient Israel.
It is easy for the modern student of scriptures to mock the “heathen” peoples who
did not embrace the “true faith” of the Israelites. Yet, both the ancient Hebrews and
their so-called “godless” neighbors would be shocked if they could observe the
religions of modern peoples. Today, too many people of faith trivialize Divinity as
mere doctrinal statements. Worse, some modern believers invoke Divinity to
advance their worldly political ambitions. The words of Psalm 99, by contrast,
speaks of a Higher Reality who can reach inside each individual to create a passion of
justice and reverence. The Fascist mob-rule of so-called believers in the modern
world are a crude counterfeit to the Spirit from scriptures of the ancient world.
Prayer for finding my way:
I pray of you Dear Mother, light the way ahead
or walk beside me in this night!
Please lead me to a place of rest,
that I may tune my life-breath towards your Love.
Empower me in your ways, Dark-Eyed Love Divine,
to carry your compassion in this world of lost.


Daily Devotion – February 21, 2017
02.21.17

Matthew 17:1 – 9

 

The Transfiguration

17 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.

 

Devotion by Anne Mooney

We’ve all had them.  We call them mountaintop experiences.  They are moments of amazing grace.  They feel life-changing and full of significance.  Then we come down the mountain and go back to our everyday lives.  Has the mountaintop experience really changed us?  Do we, like Peter, try to hang on to the mountaintop moment?  Or do we do as Jesus suggested?  Do we get up, unafraid and step boldly into our lives transformed with knowledge and faith that God is with us? Christ is with us?

Mountaintop experiences, like the Transfiguration, are bound to end.  While this can be unsettling and discouraging, our real work is in our everyday lives when we encounter suffering and do what we can to ease it.  Jesus didn’t come to sit on the mountain.  He came to be with us.  He came to teach, comfort, and heal.  We are called to do the same.

 

Prayer

Dear God, Thank you for Jesus’ example and guidance.  He showed us how to live according to your will.  He showed us we are never alone.  Amen.



Sermon: “Following Jesus by Loving Our Enemies” (Mt. 5:38-48) [2/19/17]
02.20.17

Yeah.  So, this is one of those passages we’re supposed to read metaphorically, right?   Jesus didn’t really mean to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us, did he?  He didn’t mean that when someone takes our coat we should actually hand over our cloak, too, did he?  He didn’t mean actually to go two miles when compelled to go just one, did he?  And surely, surely, he didn’t mean to love our enemies, like, our real enemies, like, out-and-out, dyed-in-the-wool bad guys…did he?

Over the centuries some commentators have tried to make this text easier to digest…like, saying that “turning the other cheek” would make the person hit you in a way that would be demeaning for him; or giving someone who wants your coat your cloak, too, as a way to embarrass him; or walking two miles when you’re only forced to go one, as a way to get a Roman soldier in trouble.

I get where people are going with all those exegetical gymnastics…they’re wanting to downplay what they see as a weak response to bullying and violence.  No one wants to be a doormat.  Everyone wants to feel strong.  But what if Jesus meant exactly what he said?  What if he really is calling us to a life of intentional non-violence?

A few weeks ago, I shared a passage out of the comic book memoir of John Lewis describing the training he’d received in non-violence, a training based directly on today’s Gospel Lesson.  “The hardest part to learn,” Lewis writes, “the hardest part to truly understand, deep in your heart, was how to find love for your attacker.”  “Do not let them shake your faith in nonviolence,” they were told.  “Love them!”  (March, 29)  Love your enemies.

Image result for rep john lewis pictures

Love.  Your enemies.  Act your enemies into wellbeing.  So what if you love your friends and family, those people who love you back? Jesus says.  What more have you added to the world by doing that?  In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it this way:  “We can love our kith and kin, our fellow citizens and our friends, whether we are Christians or not; there is no need for Jesus to teach us that.  He takes that kind of love for granted.”  (152)

Bonhoeffer goes on to remind us that, by its very nature, discipleship calls us to go beyond what is expected.  If we only do what is expected, nothing changes.  The world remains exactly the same.  If the world is to change, if we are to build God’s kindom on earth, if we are to make God’s dreams for the world come true, we have to go beyond what the world expects…

…which is the invitation the Sermon on the Mount extends with every verse.  Every sentence, every phrase invites us to go beyond the expected.  “You have heard that it was said (the expected)…but I say to you (the beyond)…”  Go beyond the letter of the law, Jesus says at every turn…because the good stuff of faith, the meat of it lies beyond what’s expected.

But what does that mean in terms of loving?  For Jesus, a love that goes beyond what’s expected is a love that extends to the person who doesn’t love you back—your enemy.  Loving those who love you back, that’s nice, that’s important, but it isn’t the kind of love that characterizes discipleship.  True discipleship calls us to an even more profound love, a love that reaches out to the one mired in hatred.

But why?  Why love those mired in hatred, especially when that hatred is directed at us?

When six year old Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960, parents of all the other children kept their children home.  Every day, federal marshals escorted little Ruby to her classroom, protecting her from the large, angry mob assembled each day at the school’s entrance.

Image result for Ruby Bridges pictures

One morning, Ruby stopped and faced the screeching crowd.  Watching from the window, Ruby’s teacher thought she saw her speak to the crowd.  When asked later what she said to them, Ruby said, “I was praying for them.”  When asked why she was praying for people who were saying such mean things, Ruby said, “Well, don’t you think they need praying for?”

Even at the tender age of six, Ruby Bridges got what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.  We love our enemies because they need our love.  Folks who are mired in hatred don’t have access to their full humanity.  Part of what it means to be human is to recognize the humanity in others.  If we are unable to recognize the humanity in others, our own humanity is diminished.

So, when Jesus calls us to love our enemies, he’s calling us to act them into wellbeing and thus to affirm their humanity.  And what happens when we affirm the humanity of our enemy?  Our own humanity is strengthened.

I need to offer a caveat.  Loving the enemy doesn’t mean to put our lives at risk.  The call to “turn the other cheek” has been used way too often to encourage people—especially women—to stay in abusive relationships.  Sometimes the best way to love our enemy, the best way to act them—and ourselves—into wellbeing, is to remove ourselves from the situation.  Following the way of non-violence only comes after making a conscious choice to engage it, not because we don’t feel like we have a choice.

So, Jesus said a lot of annoying things during his three short years of ministry…This might be the most annoying of all.  Love our enemies?  But if, as Bonhoeffer suggests, the Sermon on the Mount can be summed up in the single word of love, then perhaps the kind of love Jesus is talking about, the kind of love that comes from God, the kind of love that’s unique to God, is the love that is capable of extending to enemies.

Which begs the question:  Can we truly know the love about which Jesus speaks without loving our enemies?  

When that question came to me this week, it jarred me to my core.  I’d always assumed that loving my enemies was a nice thing to do on occasion, an add-on to the very good discipleship work I was already doing .  But if the love God offers, the love Jesus showed us is characterized by loving our enemies, then it follows that I can’t know fully God’s love until I love my enemies.

But what if I can’t?  What if it’s just too hard to love my enemies?  Clarence Jordan offered a great way of understanding this.  He saw loving our enemies as the final stage of the process of spiritual growth.  The first stage is unlimited retaliation (“You hurt me, I’ll crush you…just because I can.”).  The second is limited retaliation (“an eye for an eye”).  The third is limited love (“Love your neighbor [that is, people like us] and hate your enemy.”).  The last stage is unlimited love (“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”)

Our affinity for any given stage in the development of retaliation/love identifies our level of spiritual maturity.  Jordan explains:  “To talk about unlimited retaliation is babyish; to speak of limited retaliation is childish; to advocate limited love is adolescent; to practice unlimited love is evidence of maturity.”  (Sermon on the Mount)

If loving our enemies is something we’re growing toward, then—Whew!—it’s not a deal-breaker if we can’t love all our enemies right this very minute.  Jesus isn’t going to kick us out of the disciples club if we’re still working on it.  J

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was still working on it his first trip to the United States in 1930-31.  Among his close friends at Union Seminary in New York was a student from France named Jean Lasserre.

Related image

In 1931, the two friends went to see the movie, All Quiet on the Western Front.  Bonhoeffer biographer, Eric Metaxas, calls the film a “searing indictment” of World War I, the war in which the friends’ home countries, Germany and France, were bitter enemies.

In one moving scene, a young German soldier, left alone in a trench, brutally stabs a French soldier who crawls into the trench with him.  Overcome by the horror of what he’s done, the young German “caresses the dying man’s face, trying to comfort him, offering him water for his parched lips.”  ‘I want to help,’ he says.  ‘I want to help.’  “After the Frenchman dies, the German lies at the corpse’s feet and begs his forgiveness.  He vows to write to the man’s family, and then he finds and opens the man’s wallet.  He sees the man’s name and a picture of his wife and daughter.”

Image result for all quiet on the western front pictures

“The sadness of the violence and suffering on the screen brought Bonhoeffer and Lasserre to tears, but even worse to them was the reaction in the theater.  Lasserre remembered American children in the audience laughing and cheering when the Germans, from whose point of view the story was told, were killing the French.  For Bonhoeffer, it was unbearable.  Lasserre later said he could barely console Bonhoeffer afterward.”

“Lasserre spoke often about the Sermon on the Mount and how it informed his theology.  From that point forward it became a central part of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, too, which eventually led him to write The Cost of Discipleship.”  (2302)

Love your enemies.  Love.  Your enemies.  Act your enemies into wellbeing.  Annoying?  Yes.  Difficult?  Oh, yes.  Mind-boggling and gut-wrenching?  Yes. And Yes.  Necessary for fully grasping what it means to be a follower of Jesus?  (Sigh.)  Yes.  Yes.

Image result for love your enemies pictures

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2017