Loving our Enemies

Preacher: Kent French
Date: November 30, 2021

The following Sermon was given at Morning Prayers at Memorial Church, Harvard University on November 30, 2021.

Audio of the worship here.
Transcript below:


"You have heard that it was said, 

“You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 

so that you may be children of your Parent in heaven; 

for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, 

and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 

Matthew 5:43-45

As some of the long-timers among you know, this Sanctuary has been a kind of spiritual incubator for me over the past 35 years: first as a member of the University Choir and much later, as a worshiper, and then, as seminarian and undergraduate chaplain. It was in this formidable room and from that crazily auspicious pulpit that I started learning something about preaching. It was in this room that my spiritual development started to mature and my vocational path started to form. And something about the Spirit’s tether has been bringing me back to this place recently, perhaps to find once again where God is leading me.

And before I say anything else, I want to say Thank You to the current stewards of this worship and directly to the Choral Fellows and their leaders for the gifts they bring day in and day out. I pray that you NEVER underestimate the soul-nourishing power of keeping this office and of your music-making. It is a gift and a treasure. 

Amen, church?

Returning more regularly to this space and this worship, I’ve taken solace as a worshiper rather than a worship leader. I’ve been re-captivated by the clear windows, the seasonally changing artwork of the foliage just outside, the curiosity-inducing iconography at the top of the columns, the sense of a centuries-old tradition and as always, the World War II Memorial Wall.

In scanning the wall, my eyes have always gotten caught on a name in the far upper right corner of the wall, one of the two names from the Divinity School: Adolf Sannwald, Enemy Casualty.

When they unveiled the wall in 1951 there was a significant uproar about his name being included. Editorials in the Crimson, saying things like “it is obvious he was not defending in any way the principles that have nourished Harvard.” People apparently forgot that 20 years earlier Dean Sperry advocated for a plaque over on the north side to remember two German lives from World War I. Eventually, it was announced that Sannwald’s name would be removed. However, the Corporation let it go. 

There’s actually a website dedicated to his memory, and some great work done in the mid-1990s by Joyce Palmer Ralph to track down his story. 

Adolf was the son of a mechanic. He grew to be 6’4”, powerfully built, excelling at sports and the challenge of hard work. His university friends nicknamed him “Saul.”  

He was ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1923. The following year Harvard offered him a one-year scholarship, where he became friends with a Midwestern grad student in physics named Martin Grabau, who 20 years later would propose his name for this wall. Harvard offered Adolf a second year, but the German Church called him back because of a shortage of young pastors. 

As early as 1931, his sermons caught the attention of and angered the Nazis. 

By 1933, Hitler was consolidating churches into a “German Christian” movement, loyal to the state. On the side of resistance stood the “Confessing Church” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth and hundreds of pastors, including Adolf Sannwald. In 1934, he published his own pamphlet called “Why Not German Christian?” in which he wrote, “God does not choose his children on the basis of race. We may not and will not confuse faith in Jesus Christ with some other faith in a religious or political world view.”

Eventually, Nazis would infiltrate local church councils and order church youth groups to become a part of the Hitler Youth movement. When the draft was instituted, Sannwald enlisted, out of a sense of patriotism, duty and a determination that Hitler not “own” the army too.

After several warnings from the Gestapo that his sermons could get him arrested, he accepted a call to a church in the Black Mountains where his family would be safer. In the large rectory he provided a haven for fugitive Jews. His daughter remembered: “They just appeared for meals. We were not allowed to know their names because we might be questioned by the authorities and ‘Christian children don’t lie.’”

A parishioner recalled that Sannwald “was always guided by his conscience in expressing himself unequivocally” about God’s will.

He regularly pressed the local Nazi leader about rumors of detainees being force-marched into Poland and disappearing. And as retribution he was sent to the Russian front at age 41, where he served in menial jobs in a rank below private, suffered frostbite and was not allowed to become a chaplain because of his affiliation with the Confessing Church and refusal to join the Party. He was allowed to speak at an Easter service, where he preached on resurrection and “collective guilt.” 

A month later, he died in an air raid, leaving behind a wife and five children.

Just a name on that wall. Adolf Sannwald, Enemy Casualty. A life of trying to live faithfully and morally in a whole tortured, messed-up, global conflagration.

His story reminds us that it’s easy for us to paint our enemies, near or far, any color we want to, especially if we go on scraps of information and our own unchecked, lazy prejudices. It’s often harder, as Jesus challenges us, to see them as fellow siblings in the humanity of God’s family.

On this Tuesday after Thanksgiving, I’m aware that loving our enemies may begin at home, as we learn to overcome the consequences of unskillful parenting, unresolved sibling rivalry, or both. 

Our loud and repetitive headlines about division just point to the dramatic conflicts in the larger human family.  

In my family, my brother and I sit on opposite sides of both the theological and political spectrums. 

We grew up with the same parents, the same school system, the same church, and yet, when presidential elections come around or traditional doctrines of the church, or most strikingly, when that litmus test of abortion comes up, we go to our separate corners. 

The media outlets would tell you that we are enemies.

This week last year, he and I were both helping my mother die peacefully and comfortably. 

And over the last few months, we’ve started having weekly soul-to-soul check-ins. 

Perhaps because now in our 50s and 60s we know that life is shorter than it used to be. 

Perhaps because we both try to follow Jesus and figure out what his Gospel of Love requires of us. 

Perhaps because we both believe in finding sensible, ethical solutions for people. 

And perhaps because we’ve finally figured out that the humanity we share is essential to understanding the issues that divide us, divisions that our politicians and news media like to magnify for their own gain in in the 24/7 news cycle.


As Jesus said:

God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, 

and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 

And at any time we contain both evil and good, both righteousness and unrighteousness.

At any time we are caught up in systems that have all of it.



Let us pray:

God, help us daily to remember that we are all your beloved children,

            all driven by thought and emotion, righteousness and unrighteousness,

            choices between good and evil.

Help us to follow your will:

to love our enemies, real or perceived, and pray for those who persecute us, 

that we may all claim our place as your family members,

seeking to do your will as best we can.