Wednesday, 24 May 2017 00:00

"Beyond Vengeance", May 21, 2017

“Beyond Vengeance”
Romans 12:14-21
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 21, 2017
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

My name is Doug and I am a recovering violent person.  “Hi Doug.”

Jack Nelson Pallmeyer, who teaches Peace and Justice studies at St. Thomas wrote that the most popular religion in the world is not Christianity. It’s not Islam or Buddhism or Judaism or even atheism.  The Most popular religion in the world, says Jack, is violence. We spend an inordinate amount of our resources on it. We practice it in our recreation. We bow to it in the war-making cathedrals of power. We can’t take our eyes off of it when it comes across our TV screen.  If it bleeds it leads. We are in arms races to make bigger and better ways to scare people which causes them to be more defensive and more violent.  We believe in the myth that violence saves. And superior violence beats out inferior violence.

Martin Luther King told us about violence:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Violence was a mainstay of the religion around Israel in the time of the Bible. You can pick out passages where God is depicted as violent and bloodthirsty, even requiring the sacrifice of God’s own offspring.  Superior violence saves.

But Jesus’ words betray this viewpoint. He always advocated for people to do something counter-cultural.    When a woman is accused of adultery, Jesus goes against the norms and refuses to stone her.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was hailed as a military leader, but he refused to fight with violence. He fought instead with righteousness.  What Gandhi called soul-force: something more powerful than violence; something better than vengeance.

And so we get to today’s scripture. Paul writing a generation after Jesus said that we ought to be better than the culture.  We ought to be moving beyond vengeance.

David Bartlett, in his commentary in “Feasting on the Word”, notes that Paul spent 11 chapters making all sorts of arguments about God’s presence and the life of faith that is open to Jews and Gentiles alike.  Chapter 12 begins with the ultimate, “Therefore”.  Therefore, since we are all part of the same family, regardless of our race or background or even how recently we came to faith, therefore, let love be genuine.  And then he goes on about how we are to treat one another.

There are 16 injunctions that follow that “therefore” in today’s scripture alone, not counting the first half of the chapter.  Don’t worry, this won’t be a 16-point sermon.

In Romans 12, Paul is paraphrasing the Sermon on the Mount.  His 21 verses here are the cliff notes for Matthew 5, 6, and 7. 
 

           “Outdo one another in showing honor.
            Don’t lag in zeal.
            Be ardent in spirit.
            Rejoice in hope.
            Be patient in suffering.
            Pray.
            Contribute to the needs of the saints.
            Extend hospitality to strangers.
            Serve God.”

This is the relatively easy part.  The harder part is to do what is required in verse 14:  Echoing Jesus, he says, “Bless those who persecute you, and do not curse them.
            Rejoice with those who rejoice.
            Weep with those who weep.
            Live in harmony with one another.
            Do not be haughty—but associate with the lowly.
            Do not claim to be wiser than you are.
            Do not repay evil for evil for vengeance is God’s prerogative.
            Do what is noble in the sight of everyone.
            Live peaceably with one another.
            If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to eat.”
    

Wouldn’t that be a great affirmation?  Imagine the wars that could be avoided if we only fed our enemies. Imagine if we spent a fraction of our military spending on feeding and educating our enemies. Giving them housing and hope. Our bombing, instead, becomes a recruiting tool for the likes of ISIS.

Then we get to the last part of verse 20:  “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. For by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”

Ah yes, there’s that familiar vengeance. We’ll love them so much that we’ll watch their hair fizzle. We’ll love them so much that they will scream in pain.  You had us there. We are so smug; we hardly even notice the violence in that verse. Heap burning coals? What is Paul getting at?

Paul is quoting from the 25th chapter of Proverbs here, so we can excuse him, right?  Proverbs often use physical imagery to provoke a reaction in people.  Proverbs talks about taking away a garment on a cold day, or pouring vinegar on a wound. The physical picture of discomfort illustrates that trying to make a person in mourning happy just distresses them more. Likewise, the passage about coals is about the emotional discomfort an enemy will feel when you waken his conscience about his conduct toward you. Make him ashamed. Make him feel remorse. It’s about the shock that an enemy will feel when someone is kind to them. Couldn’t you have just as easily said that you will dump cool water on their heads and had a more pleasing image? Maybe it’s about the coals of sacrifice, yeah that must be it.  

Here’s the truth. We have a lot to undo in order to be Christ-like. We run to vengeance when we have been wronged. We try to get back at people who have done us an injustice. But what if we really tried to befriend our enemies? What if we really tried to overcome evil with good?  What if when they went low, we went high?  What if our rewards are not seeing our enemies burn, but seeing them transformed into friends?

Getting revenge is easy. It’s what our culture says is right. But getting beyond revenge is where the Gospel is at. Every year, Al Franken hosts a Minnesota hot-dish bake-off. He invites the Democratic and Republican representatives and senators to come together in a Minnesota tradition. It’s a little tongue in cheek, but it’s also designed to break down barriers and come together on hot dish. I think Michelle Bachman actually won the contest for several years.

This morning’s Star Tribune had a front page story about John LaDue, the bespectacled white teenager from Waseca who plotted to kill his family and blow up his school with homemade bombs and numerous firearms. The story was an examination of him and his community and his struggles to be accepted. He has served his time and is now trying to make a life for himself. At no point in the article was he called a terrorist, but instead a person who struggled with mental illness. I wonder if he was of Arab descent or had darker skin, if he would have been released so quickly. I wonder if he would have been called a terrorist, or a threat to society.

This past week Jeff Sessions has decided to reverse the Obama administration practice of releasing non-violent drug offenders, the majority of whom are black.  These people are now pulled form their families and purged from the voting rolls.  Seems like an embrace of vengeance to me.

You know, maybe Paul is reminding us that he was a work in progress, just like we are. After all, he was once a persecutor of Christians.  Maybe he needs to get back to his 12-step group for recovering violent people.  And maybe we need to do the same.

In his essay in Feasting on the Word, United Seminary professor Eleazar Fernandez, wrote that we are to embrace the radical hospitality that is the backbone of the church. He says “We must move beyond hospitality as charity to hospitality as an act of justice.  Hospitality as charity offers crumbs from our tables; hospitality as justice offers a place at the table.  In the context of our predatory global market, hospitality involves transformation of the system that is inhospitable to many…The conspiracy of radical love is not only a strategic political necessity; it is a spiritual necessity as well.”(Feasting on the Word p.17)

I think of this as we prepare to offer sanctuary to those who are facing deportation.  How we deal with our supposed enemies defines how we are to be a Christian community.  Hear again these words of Paul:

            “Let Love be genuine.
             Hate what is evil
             Hold fast to what is good.
             Love one another with mutual affection.
             Outdo one another in showing honor.
             Don’t lag in zeal.
             Be ardent in spirit.
             Rejoice in hope.
             Be patient in suffering.
             Persevere in prayer.
             Contribute to the needs of the saints.
             Extend hospitality to strangers.
             Bless those who persecute you, and do not curse them.
             Rejoice with those who rejoice.
             Weep with those who weep.
             Live in harmony with one another.
             Do not be haughty—but associate with the lowly.
             Do not claim to be wiser than you are.
             Do not repay evil for evil for vengeance is God’s prerogative.
             Do what is noble in the sight of everyone.
             Live peaceably with one another.”

And most importantly, keep vengeance to God.  Don’t be overcome by evil, like I am, but overcome evil with good.  The real life of a Christian begins when you can move beyond the righteous need for vengeance to the justice-laden promise of community with your worst enemy. It ain’t easy, but nothing worth it ever it.  May we move beyond vengeance and toward community, even with our enemies. When we do so, we are living the Gospel truth.