Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday September 3rd 2017
The Reverend Alan Neale; “Toxic Vengeance”
The priest and his wife were a happy couple and rarely argued about anything of substance. But one area that often raised hackles… the wife’s constant longing for a contemporary wardrobe. “But darling,” he argued, “our finances are limited.” “Yes, I know… it won’t happen again. But the devil tempts me.” “Well, next time tell him… ‘get behind me Satan’”. Weeks passed with nary a slip until one day the wife returned, red-faced, carrying a new garment bag. In frustration, the priest asked, “What happened? Didn’t you tell the tempter to get behind you?” “Well, yes I did… but I heard him say… it looks rather good from behind as well!”
In today’s Gospel Jesus turns on Peter with a venom. As Peter tries to dissuade his beloved Lord from moving towards Jerusalem and certain death, Jesus utters those memorable words (looking at Peter) “Get behind me Satan.”
Peter is taught a profound lesson that the church ever since has needed to learn; the ways of this world, the accepted behavior of this culture, the mores of our society often have to be rebuked in strong terms and resisted with potent vigor by the church. We forget too easily that the Church and the Christian are often, if not generally, in conflict with the community in which they find themselves. And nowhere is this more stark than in the area of “vengeance” which St. Paul addresses in today’s passage from Romans (Romans 12).
Paul is writing to a Christian community entrenched in a political and social environment at odds with the ethics and standards and mores of the church. Whereas the military and economic might of the Roman Empire was wont to crush its enemies, literally, “with a vengeance” – this was not to be, is not to be, the way of the Church, the way of the Christian.
It is difficult to hear these Pauline strictures without a passionate yearning, a craving ache, to justify vengeance but Paul resoundingly, stoutly, firmly gives us any leeway.
Romans 12:17-19 (Message Translation) “17-19 Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it”… Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. Or as a more traditional translation reads “19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
From road rage to politics, from childhood hurts to national calamity… it seems to be part of our spiritual and psychic DNA that we seek revenge. Friends in Christ, we are called to be a better path and our Lord (with a myriad of saints) leads the way by example.
William Barclay comments, “We are to keep ourselves from the thought of taking vengeance…” Oh, Dr. Barclay… I can labor in the Lord, maybe, to keep myself from the action of vengeance but from even “the thought” – that will take a great miracle.
Paul offers three reasons why the path of vengeance is not to be trod by the Christian, the disciple and the follower of Jesus.
1. “Vengeance belongs to God”… and who am I to declare unilateral independence from the God who has made me and who knows the hearts of all people.
2. “Vengeance may break the will but not the heart”… I remember the story of the young child who insisted on standing on a chair during a family meal. After much remonstration (and doubtless some threats) the child sat down but as she did, she whispered, “But I am standing up inside.”. And
3. To stoop to vengeance is to be ourselves overcome by evil. As Booker Washington said, “I will not allow any man to make me lower myself by hating him.” I have known too many lives that have become bitter and gnarled as they have sought vengeance on another; forgetting that inviolable rule that to wreak vengeance may be as daft as to swallow a poison intended for one’s enemy.
The Christian’s goal for her/his enemy is not to squash them, vanquish them, destroy them but to transform them. Such is ever the divine attitude towards us, thank God, and such should be ours towards other by the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
For another time, and perhaps for another forum, there needs be debate as to whether Paul’s directions for the Christian apply to communities, to nations. But this we cannot avoid… though we doubtless may use all the tortuous sophistry and tangled casuistry available, I/you am not to seek vengeance.
Years ago, in a church not many miles from here, a young teenage girl often read a lesson at early service. She always read with careful preparation, thoughtful understanding until one day… when she informed her father, “I will not read this passage for it talks of ‘pouring burning coals’ on our enemies.” Her father read the passage.
I wish I had known then what I know now… the Proverbs text (quoted by Paul) signifies not the adding of pain to our enemy but rather the awakening of a deadened conscience; read this way “the burning coals” are there to re-ignite a sense of remorse and a desire for reconciliation.
C.H. Dodd comments on this passage, “Where divine love floods the heart, there evil will be met with an unwearying beneficence which, in the end, will wear out the evil.”
In his book “Hillbilly Elegy” J.D.Vance describes himself as “alienated by optimism.” I am ready to be alienated by optimism in a world that despairs of transformation and all too readily acquiesces to vengeance. This is worth our labor in the Lord.