By Rev. Dr. Sally Brown
I’m glad to be here worshipping with you week to week these days, and so glad to be able to help out JC and be here in the pulpit today. We’ve traded places; I’m usually in Princeton all week, and that is where JC is right now with the “Log College Project” team from this congregation.
“Render no one evil for evil” – does anybody happen to know where and when and why we hear that phrase every week at this church? If you are here, and JC is here, you have heard “render no one evil for evil” often; does anyone know where in the service that occurs? Yes, in JC’s benediction! JC has just ended a series of sermons about core values of this church. And in a way, I think that benediction is a summation, really, of who we strive to be as a congregation. Right at the heart of it is this phrase: “Render no one evil for evil.” So easy to say, lovely to hear, and difficult to practice!
Almost before we learn to walk, we have learned the fine art of payback. It happened when you met your first cousin or your first sibling came along and they grabbed your favorite truck or your favorite whatever it was, so you hit them over the head or grabbed their favorite thing back. As I already alluded to in the children’s chat, we grow in age and sophistication, but the basics of payback do not change. You get in my way, I will get in yours. You annoy me, I will annoy you.
My husband Peter Dunbar was on the Session here – the governing board of the church – years back, and he was the elder for Mission and Outreach. Some of you knew him in that role. Less well known was another role that Peter felt called upon to play. He had a personal sense of mission and outreach which kicked in the minute he got behind the wheel of a car. Peter felt that part of his mission in the world was to teach a lesson to inconsiderate drivers. You know the ones – the ones that cut into your lane as if you did not even exist. The ones who tailgate you because you are only going eight miles over the speed limit not sixteen, as they would prefer. Or Peter’s favorite, the ones who go 28 in the 40 mile an hour zone and tap the brakes every time they see another car coming. Peter felt it was part of his purpose in life to help these drivers see the error of their ways.
But to say that I did not see this mission quite from his perspective, as I sat in the passenger’s seat – that would be an understatement. I would say as calmly as I could while white-knuckling the passenger door, “What if the person in that car is a little bit unbalanced? Because you know, if he was a little bit nuts, I’m thinking that you might not want to annoy him. What if he has a shotgun?”
Peter was never impressed by these observations.
“I’m not annoying him,” Peter would say. “I’m educating him. I’m rendering a public service here!”
Today’s gospel reading shows Jesus’s disciples in an unflattering light – with a thirst for payback – payback to some inhospitable Samaritan villagers. The gospel reading tells us that Jesus has set out on what we know will be his final journey, his journey to Jerusalem. He does not take a direct path. If you were to read the gospel of Luke, and tried to trace where he goes on this final journey, Jesus actually zig zags around quite a bit before reaching Jerusalem. He decides on an itinerary that starts off in the territory of Samaria.
As we know, that is a surprising choice because there was no love lost between the people of Samaria and the Jewish people. It was a centuries old situation of payback, retaliation, and mutual spite. So finding safe places in Samaria to stop, to rest, to get supplies – all of that – in the territory of Samaria presented special challenges. In an age without internet, or even any reliable postal service, Jesus did what a traveling teacher would have to do: he sent his disciples on ahead to reconnoiter, and to set things up along his route.
But what do the disciples find when they get across the border into this first Samaritan village, but “no vacancy” signs lighting up on all the motels. And in all the restaurant windows, an invisible hand turning over the sign from “Open” to “Closed” and pulling the curtains shut. By the time Jesus catches up with his disciples, they are hopping mad. And they have an idea. “Shall we call down fire from heaven?” they say. Fire from heaven? OK, the villagers have turned their backs on Jesus, that is pretty inhospitable. But incineration seems a little over the top. (I don’t think even Peter Dunbar would vote for that!)
So we have to wonder: is this just a bad case of first century road rage? Or is it possibly about something else? I do think it is about something else, and that is why we heard the reading today from the Old Testament about Elijah’s encounter centuries earlier with a couple of delegations from the region that later became Samaria.
Jesus’s ministry took place in Israel in a time when the country had long been occupied by powerful empires, occupied by the oppressor. It was a military occupation situation, and it had been this way for generations. This brought on very high levels of frustration among the Jewish people. It also brought on a lot of interest in the Jewish tradition that, one day, God would deliver the people of Israel from this kind of oppression; and the sign that God was about to do that was said to be the reappearance of the prophet Elijah. The belief was that Elijah would return, and deliver the people from foreign occupation.
When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, for example, some people thought that he was Elijah. There was the similarity in their clothing that is in the Bible: John, like Elijah, dressed in wild animal skins with a leather belt around his waist. Rumors flew that John the Baptist was Elijah returned.
Then Jesus comes along, and the focus shifts to Jesus and the possibility that because of his wonder-working, he is Elijah. Because among the prophets, Elijah and Elisha are unusual in that they work wonders; they work miracles. The gospel of Luke among all four gospels is the most interested in this parallel between the works of Jesus and the works of Elijah. So, for example, if you were to look in 2 Kings Chapter 4, and I am not recommending you have to do that right now, in the midst of a famine, a visitor brings to Elijah twenty “barley rolls.” Elijah has his servant place those in front of a hundred prophets, and they all have enough to eat and there is bread left over. That is 2 Kings Chapter 4. We all know the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 – how Jesus took “barley loaves” and fish and fed a multitude, and there was food left over.
Another parallel: in I King 17 Elijah restores to life the dead son of a widow. Luke, in Chapter 7, is the only gospel writer who records the story telling how Jesus raised the dead son of a widow to life in the town of Nain.
I think the disciples probably caught on to these parallels. And now that Jesus had set his face, as Luke says, “like flint” for Jerusalem, they thought, “This is showdown time!” It’s time for the decisive confrontation with the occupying power! Now they’re ready to see the other side of the Elijah precedent – the violence, the aggression, the confrontation! We know something about that from the Old Testament reading this morning. The Assyrian king, King Ahaziah, decides he is going to call Elijah to his court. He does not like what Elijah is saying about him. He sends troops, 50 soldiers and their captain. Elijah says, “If I am a man of God, let fire fall from heaven.” And it does. It incinerates them. And then a second 50 come. Same thing happens.
Clearly, the much-revered Elijah was a prophet not afraid to use violence. So the disciples are not just thinking up this “fire from heaven” thing out of nowhere. They are thinking, “God has come back to us. God is going to deliver us! Now let’s see Jesus do what Elijah did!”
I mean, can you imagine, you know, if this Samaritan town is going up in flames and there is smoke billowing to the sky? That is certainly going to get the attention of all of Samaria – and maybe even the attention of Rome.
“Shall we call down fire now from heaven, Jesus? Is this showdown time?”
But they are in for a surprise. Jesus rebukes not the inhospitable Samaritans, but his disciples who wish to use violence. Jesus refuses, at this point, the Elijah precedent. And you know what I think? I think that Luke has set us up for this.
He emphasizes the parallels between Jesus’ miracles and Elijah’s, so that when Jesus refuses the Elijah precedent – we get it. We get that this is a new chapter in God’s redemptive work. This is not the old way of God getting things done. This is a new way of getting things done, and it does not involve violence!
Jesus is determined that the only blood he will shed in fulfilling his mission is his own. He sheds no blood but his own in fulfilling the will of God.
As we go on in today’s reading from Luke (which I think really deserves a whole second sermon, and I won’t keep you for that today) about the three would-be disciples, we learn just how different this mission is really going to be! Jesus says to one volunteer, “Don’t be thinking that people are going to roll out the red carpet for you when you are with me! Foxes have their holes to sleep in, and birds have their nests for refuge, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
And then Jesus actually invites someone to follow him. Isn’t that interesting? He is already on his way to Jerusalem, and he is still inviting people to become followers of his.
Jesus says, “Come and follow me.” And the man says, “Well – I will; but I have to go see to this obligation, this family obligation I have, to deliver my father’s bones to their ultimate resting place.”
But Jesus tells him, “On this mission there is no time for business as usual.”
The third encounter is really interesting – where a volunteer says, “I am going to follow you, but first let me say goodbye to my family.” Because – guess what? Elijah allowed his disciple, Elisha, to say goodbye to his family before he went with Elijah! So again: Jesus is setting aside the Elijah precedent and saying, “This is a new day! This is a new day, and our values have changed, our priorities have changed.”
“Render to no one evil for evil.” That’s fine for Jesus, but maybe that is just Jesus being – well, Jesus. This is fine for Jesus, but is it really for us?
A first crucially important point when we think about refusing to retaliate is that this is not the same thing as allowing oneself to be abused. I can’t say that clearly enough. Jesus doesn’t stick around to take abuse from spiteful villagers. He keeps his eye on the horizon, and he puts distance between himself and the source of the abuse. When it comes to abuse, the rules are very clear: Put distance between yourself and the abuser. Encourage anyone that you discover is suffering from abuse to put distance between themselves and the abuser. Report the abuse of a child always – always. Standing up for ourselves starts with protecting ourselves from abuse.
A second point: Taking injustice seriously and taking justice into our own hands, those are two different things. In a 2014 article in Psychology Today, psychologist Leon Selzer makes the observation that, more and more, people are confusing these two things. Selzer goes on to explore some of the distinctions between revenge and seeking justice.
Revenge is very personal. It is about evening up a score – except the score is never even is it? Somehow things always escalate. Retaliation sets in motion a cycle of revenge. Justice, on the other hand, seeks a rectification of a larger system for the common good. It is more than seeking vindication for the self; it is seeking to create a more just situation. Revenge perpetuates a cycle of payback, justice seeks the kind of truth telling and change that produces closure, not a cycle of revenge. And Jesus was a seeker of justice. Jesus sought justice, however, at his own expense. Jesus was the absorber of violence, not the perpetrator of violence. The absorber of violence, and not its perpetrator.
Back to JC’s benediction: “Render no one evil for evil.” Do you know what the next phrase is in that benediction? “Hold fast to that which is good.” It is actually a paraphrase of Romans 12:21 which goes this way, “Render no one evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.” So that is where our energies go if we are followers of Jesus, to become absorbers of violence, who then use our energy to overcome evil with good.
What does that look like in a world that believes as sincerely in payback as ours does?
A colleague who teaches in the deep South told me a story. I have never forgotten it, and so I will share it with you.
It was in the spring after the confrontations and tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a warm Saturday afternoon in another Southern town, and in this southern town, there was a small college. Students had organized a march down the main street of town to demand that some of the symbols of the Confederacy which stood on their own campus and around the town be draped or hidden or removed. Black students, white students, students of every ethnicity were marching together in this cause. You could imagine the town was deeply divided; these are complicated issues. Even the churches didn’t agree on how to view the issue of these monuments. It was a very tense day.
At one location on the march route, two churches stood across the town’s main street from each other. At the church of which my colleague was a member, the church had set up a table full of water pitchers and trays and water cups, and they had a lot of volunteers from the congregation filling trays with cups of water and carrying them out to the marchers, so that the marchers could pick up a cup of water on that hot day. My friend was on duty to keep the water cups filled.
Then a small lone figure on the lawn caught his eye, a little tiny frail woman – he knew her – white haired, not even five feet tall, in her late eighties. And she stood there, frail, gripping her tray with her water cups. But she was not looking at the marchers, she was looking across the street.
Because there across the street, at the other church, there were people holding up signs, “This is not your town.” Other people shouting, “Remember your history, don’t erase our history!” There were little kids, who were kind of out of control, and they were picking up dirt and throwing that at the college kids. This little lady was watching all of this.
And then all of a sudden, like a ship under full sail, she started to make her way forward, weaving through those marchers right across the street, until she reached the opposite curb. And the little kids dropped the dirt, and ran over to grab a cup of water. And the detractors shouldered their signs and took one cup, then two, and thanked her. Others stared at her in disbelief.
“Render no one evil for evil. Overcome evil with good.”
What does that look like in your closest relationships and in mine? What does that look like at your workplace, and what does it look like in mine? What does it look like for us as a congregation among others? What would it look like if we took this seriously, and broke the chain of retaliation at every possible turn?
May God help us to do so.