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On The Side of Love

On The Side of Love

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Someone once asked a wise man,

“How do we treat others?”

The wise man answered simply, “There are no others…”



“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind….and …love your neighbor as yourself.”


I can’t imagine a more relevant passage to preach on in this moment.


I can’t imagine a harder passage to preach on in this moment.


I can’t imagine more relevant words to live into or harder words to live by.


Friends, you know that I am a firm believer in the idea that how we love others is how we love God. I don’t believe that you can love God and hate your neighbor, no matter how other your neighbor might be. I love how unequivocally Jesus binds theses two commandments together in this passage.


But how do you love in a time of war?


How do you love in the face of atrocity?


How do you love your neighbor and your enemy or your neighbor and their enemy when violence is unleashed, when innocent people are caught in the crossfire, when there are no easy answers or clear paths forward?


We have been watching the war play out in Ukraine for more than a year now. We are dimly aware of conflicts raging in Congo, Haiti, Nigeria, Myanmar, and Yemen, and painfully aware of the random acts of violence destroying lives right here on our own soil.

And now, once again, we are watching with horror as Israel bombs Gaza for the horror inflicted by Hamas in a cycle of retaliation that goes both back, back, back, and on and on and on, with no end in sight.


I can only speak for myself in this moment, but when I look at the news these days, I don’t really see sides any more. I just see suffering….so much suffering… and I pray for it to stop.


Honestly, it was a bit surreal to be in Assisi as this most recent conflict in the Middle East was unfolding. Thanks to St. Francis, Assisi is a holy place deeply saturated with prayer.


You can’t walk the streets or enter the churches, gaze up at the skyline or down into the valley without being deeply moved by the beauty of holiness, the wonder of creation, and a deep and abiding hope for humanity.


We all felt a dissonance within us as we opened ourselves up to the peace that permeates that holy place even as news of unspeakable violence was filtering in.


I don’t know how much you all know about St. Francis because we’re protestants, after all. I think most of us associate him with the blessing of animals and the “Make me an instrument of your peace…” prayer, (which he didn’t write - I know, I was so disappointed - but is still very much in keeping with who he was). So let me just say that St. Francis is revered the world over for how thoroughly he embodied the way of Jesus.


Francis loved God with all of his heart, his mind, and his strength and Francis loved all of his neighbors, from the locust on his finger to the leper on his doorstep, as himself. He loved all of God’s creation, humanity included.


Francis chose a life of non-violence and poverty, renounced all he had until he was both powerless and penniless, devoted his life to prayer, preaching, and caring for the least of these, and among many, many other things, traveled all the way to Jerusalem to try and make peace between Muslims and Christians in the midst of the never-ending violence that was the crusades, because Francis saw all people as children of God.


He was universally respected and deeply loved, so much so that people revered him as a saint even before he died. And those same people moved quickly once he was gone to preserve and build up the city he called home so pilgrims from all over the world could come, pay their respects, and learn from his example.


Because Francis was born and raised in Assisi, received his call in Assisi, established his brotherhood, ministered, died, and is buried in Assisi, every corner of Assisi has a story.


We renewed our baptismal vows at the fount where he was baptized. We prayed in St. Claire’s basilica right underneath the cross where he received his call to “repair the church.” We stood in the courtyard where he renounced his inheritance in defiance of his father, walked up and down the very hills he would have walked on the very same stones the Romans laid long before he was even born.


I assumed the city was so well preserved because there isn’t a part of it Francis didn’t eat or sleep or preach or heal on, and that is in fact the case. But what I didn’t appreciate until the final day of our visit was that in spite of all that history and the care people have taken to preserve it, how easily it all could have been lost. Lost not just to the ravages of time, but lost in the midst of any number of conflicts that have raged throughout Europe including the mass destruction that accompanied World War II.


On our final day in Assisi we visited the only actual museum there - “The Museum of Memory” - which tells the story of how Assisi not only survived the great war, but managed to safely hide 300 Jews within its walls thanks to the faith and cooperation of the Catholic Bishop, Giuseppe Nicolini, the Fascist mayor, Arnaldo Fortini, and the Nazi commander, Colonel Valentin Muller, who was assigned to the city toward the end of the war.


A Catholic Bishop, a Fascist Mayor, and a Nazi Commander. It sounds ;like the beginning of a bad joke, but these there men saved the holy city of Assisi and harbored 300 Jews within its walls because, as it turns out, all three men were devoted to St. Francis, and their devotion informed their partnership and their actions throughout the war.


In 1943, the year Mussolini was overthrown, Italy surrendered to the Allied forces, but the Nazis still maintained control of significant regions to the north, including Assisi.


As the Allies advanced, countless historical treasures were destroyed, including the first monastery of the Benedictine order that dated all the way back to the 6th century. Responding to faulty intelligence, America bombed Mt. Cosimo to smithereens in what is, to this day, considered one of the greatest military blunders of WWII.


Refugees were fleeing from the north and the south and thousands converged on the little city of Assisi. In order to protect them and the city itself, Bishop Niccolini, Commander Muller, and Mayor Fortini worked all of their connections to have Assisi designated as a “hospital city” meaning that it could not be bombed according to the rules of the Geneva Convention.


Commander Muller, a physician who had done all he could for his Jewish neighbors back in Belgium before he was conscripted, was in charge of medical operations for the Germans. He eventually moved all active military personnel out of Assisi by moving 2000 wounded soldiers in.


Meanwhile, amongst the refugees also fleeing to the city were about 300 Jews. When asked after the war why they would flee to a city that was 100% catholic and already occupied by the Nazis, many responded, “we had faith in St. Francis.”


Their faith was well placed. By day Bishop Niccolini and Mayor Fortini were working tirelessly with their people to feed and shelter all of the refugees, but they pulled together a small group of resisters who worked by night to hide the Jewish families in plain sight. They set up a printing press in a local souvenir shop to create false identity and ration cards.


The bishop employed 26 monasteries and convents as hiding places, including his own residence.


The bishops most trusted assistant, Don Aldo Brunacci, recalls staying up with him late at night as he opened the walls of the churches to hide priceless holy relics and family treasures that the Jewish refugees had brought along with them, precious objects that he then sealed into the walls where they remained safe until the families could reclaim then again after the war.


In the video we watched at the museum, Brunacci took great delight in recalling the generous heart of his superior. Toward the end of the occupation, with the whole city bursting at the seams, he told the story of yet another family arriving in need of shelter. The bishop whose whole house was full to bursting, said to the family, “I have only my bedroom and study left… but I can sleep in my office. My bedroom in yours.”


Mayor Fortini worked similar good deeds, falsifying records, squirreling away valuables, and blatantly lying to the occupiers in his midst on behalf of Jewish refugees. He was arrested by the Allies at the end of the war, but released thanks to the testimony of Jewish families whom he had aided. One man whom he helped wrote the following:


We arrived in Assisi on October 9, 1943 to escape racial persecution…a few days later we visited Fortini…to talk to him openly about our situation… He was able to support us immediately, and gave us some sound advice which was instrumental to our salvation. He (made a call) to communicate that we had moved to Florence in order to have our names deleted from the list of local inhabitants…when the law confiscating Jewish properties and imprisoning Jews in concentration camps was enforced - he went to Perugia to collect 100,000 lira from the sale of treasury bonds I had just made,… (and) kept with him all of our valuables ….which he returned to us on the day of liberation. He (secured) residence permits and ration cards released with a new surname we were temporarily using to escape persecution, telling (officials that) we were his intimate acquaintances. I can also say that in several conversations he clearly showed his disagreement with the direction taken under Fascism in its last days. I am telling you this as a sign of gratitude to him, for his selfless work…”


At the very end of the war, as the Allies advanced and the German line broke, Assisi was in danger of being overrun. The Nazi forces could have hidden within its walls and made a last stand, turning it into a military target once more. But Muller placed hospital staff at the gates and stood there himself with a pistol warning his own forces away.


Although the fighting intensified, he refused to allow the battle into the city. He evacuated his wounded men north with the last of the retreating soldiers, left all the medical supplies behind as a gift to the city, and finally left the night before the Allies took full control. To this day, the people of Assisi claim they were “protected by God, St. Francis, and Colonel Muller.”


***

“Why did you run to Assisi?”


“Because we believed in St. Francis.”


The Jewish refugees believed in St. Francis.


The Nazi Colonel believed in St. Francis.


The Fascist Mayor, the Catholic Bishop, the people of Assisi, they all believed in St. Francis…


Why?


Because St. Francis believed with all his heart, his mind, and his strength in Jesus; believed him when he said that loving God and loving our neighbor is our highest calling, our supreme goal, the most important thing we can do, even and especially in a time of war, even and especially in a time of atrocity, even and especially in a time when there are no easy answers or clear paths forward and its hard to know whose side is the right side.


I share this remarkable story with you this morning, not in spite of all the labels it employs but because of them. Labels like:


Jew, Catholic, Nazi, Fascist.


Ally, refugee, citizen, resister.


Bishop, lay person, mayor, commander ….


I share this story because none of those labels tells the whole story of any one of those people. I share it because none of those labels prevented these people from finding ways to love and serve and protect their neighbors, their enemies, and their neighbor’s enemies.


We are all more than the labels we so easily ascribe to one another, especially in war-time, and reducing people to labels or sides reduces us all.


There are always people on every side of any conflict looking for a better way. There are always people on all sides, caught up in the violence but trying to mitigate the damage. People trying to show mercy and find a way out. People who never wanted any of this to happen to anyone….


Which brings me back to the question with which we began. How do we love our neighbor and our enemy or our neighbor and their enemy in a time of war?


Esther Perel, herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, posted something early on in this conflict that I found really helpful.


Be careful,” she writes, “to separate people from the policies of their governments.


Be careful to separate people from the actions of the terrorists who live among them.


Be careful not to collapse history and context into narrow interpretation.


Be careful not to eschew complexity and nuance for the sake of memeification.


Be careful to realize that grief for one side does not mean hate for the other.


Be careful to understand that support for one side does not mean hate for the other.


Be careful of gaslighting on a mass level: disinformation and denial of loss.


Be careful not to dismiss the excruciating and real pain of others. Do not make it worse.


Be careful not to add hatred on top of hatred: we are all being crushed underneath its compounding weight.


Be careful not to lose empathy for those with whom you disagree.


Be careful not to dehumanize others. Doing so dehumanizes you.


Do not lose touch with the parts of you needed most:


Your compassion. Your humanity. Your care.


Be careful, my friends, not to lose touch with what is most important…love. The people of Assisi held onto it and practiced it during World War II and I pray we will hold on to it and practice it as well. Pray your love into this conflict, but don’t stop there. Find ways to show your love in any way you can to the people around you.


Let Jewish and Muslim friends know you are holding them in your heart. Ask if there is anything you can do to help them feel safer or more supported right now. Let them know you see them and you care. Give to relief efforts. Shut down racist and warmongering talk. And resist if you can, the urge to take sides.


Thich Nhat Hahn, says that “If we take sides, it is impossible to do the work of reconciliation. And humans want to take sides. That is why the situation gets worse and worse.” But “Are there people who are still available to both sides,” he wonders?


“They need not do much,” he says, “They need do only one thing: Go to one side and tell all about the suffering endured by the other side and go to the other side and tell all about the suffering endured by this side. This is our chance for peace.”


And ultimately I believe that peace is what most of us long for no matter what side we find ourselves on. May it be so. Amen.

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