A Plan for Following Jesus.
Faithful Living for Hard Times: Return No One Evil for Evil.
A sermon preached at The Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on July 30, 2017.
The fourth in a ten part sermon series on our community charge:
Go out into the world in peace;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak,
and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
A few weeks ago, our family spent one sweltering Sunday evening
Taking in the Heart of America Shakespeare festival
with some friends of ours. It was great.
This year the show was Hamlet.
Hamlet is wonderful in its own right,
But this performance had the added bonus of featuring
the dashing Nathan Darrow, a local guy, went to Shawnee Mission North,
the actor who famously played Meechum in House of Cards.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet,
there is the scene where old Polonius,
He’s an aging, sentimental blowhard,
And the scene shows him giving advice to his son, Laertes.
Laertes is preparing to leave for France, and old Polonius,
knowing what sometimes happens to 18-year-olds in Paris,
does what parents do – he offers ADVICE.
Most of his advice is rather innocuous.
In those days, a seemingly more innocent time,
there wasn’t really any important parental advice like,
“Always remember what the Surgeon General says…”
Polonius’ speech to his son is a favorite of Shakespeare lovers.
Its the kind of text that a High School English teacher reads
the last day of class senior year.
I’ve heard that you can find these words of Polonius painted
in grand six-foot tall letters on the walls of a dining hall
at Indiana University
for all the students to meditate upon as they eat breakfast.
People in Indiana ought to know,
that as it turns out,
Polonius’ advice–like a lot of advice parents give their children—
–is mostly hot air and doesn’t bear much analysis:
“Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.”
“Give every one thy ear, but few thy voice”
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be; to thine own self be true…”
What is that supposed to mean—“To thine own self be true”?
Act like yourself?
Sometimes, parents hope that’s the LAST thing
their sons or daughters will do
when they leave home.
Laertes, like most eighteen-year-olds,
politely stands on one foot and then the other
while his old man prattles about,
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be. . . to thine own self be true.”
After all, parental advice doesn’t usually do harm
— as long as it’s NOT taken too seriously.
Can you imagine some of the things your parents have told you
printed in six-foot letters
across the wall of a university cafeteria?
“PICK UP YOUR SOCKS OR YOU’LL NEVER GET MARRIED.”
No wonder that by the time most people reach ADULTHOOD—
–we have become inoculated to advice of ANY KIND.
It’s a self-protective mechanism to preserve us
from the onslaughts of the Poloniuses of the world.[i]
The problem, maybe, is that too much of the advice we get is thin
Or just plain groundless.
Brook found a video this week
Showing a poor guy sitting down to eat his breakfast
When some other guy, a time traveller sort
Zaps in to stop him!
“Don’t eat those eggs!” He shouts!
Cholesterol! It’ll kill ya.
So he convinces him not to eat the eggs,
departs with a hearty “godspeed”
and leaves the hungry man there
but ok, maybe not the eggs
so he starts to cut into the steak
And a second later:
Back zaps in the time traveller:
WAIT. We were wrong about the eggs!
Turns out there are two types of Cholesterol, see
The good kind, and the bad kind
And it won’t all kill ya
Just don’t eat the yokes.
And above all, stay away from that steak.
Don’t you know its all the fat in that red meat
That’s so dangerous!
The whole thing there took just a few more seconds,
And with a hearty ‘godspeed’ off the time traveller goes
Leaving the man stuck there, looking at his plate
Suffering breakfast whiplash.
Ok, no egg yolks, no steak.
So he starts to put butter on his toast
When, yes, back zaps in the time traveller:
WAIT! Just what are you doing!
Don’t eat that toast!
What we’re supposed to be doing is eating like our ancient
Paleolithic Ancestors ate.
Those hunters ate a lot of meat!
But no bread! You can’t eat any bread!
Throw that bread out!
Another ‘godspeed’ and flash of lightening
The man looks down at his plate
Eggs. Steak. Toast. Getting colder now, sure.
All he wanted was to sit and eat and get on with his day.
So he shrugs, and starts in on his steak one more time
When, yes, you guessed it, back comes the time traveller
He looks, well, disheveled.
“Oh man” he said
“I was just spending some time with those
ancient Paleolithic ancestors of ours
and, yeah, they’re all messed up
maybe we shouldn’t follow that advice
of eating just like them
seems like maybe they should be
eating a lot more bread…..”
This sermon series, I’d like to suggest
Isn’t really like that. Not at all.
This suggested road map for trying to figure out the life of faith
Is more about discovering our true selves,
Good old Shakespeare had that part right, after all
Than it is trying to figure out healthy food choices
In a labyrinthine maze of options and self-help books.
There are scores of diets out there.
New parents know, all too quickly, all too painfully
that the number of “how to parent” books
with contradictory advice and stress-building expectations
would easily fill the largest room in their house.
What is different about our charge
Is that, as we listen to it, there isn’t anything in here
That we can’t learn simply by listening to Jesus
Teach us who we are, and whose we are.
Go out into the world in peace…
Because God sent the prince of peace to the world
Because God walks with you to do the right and the good thing
Hold fast to what is good…
Because you are God’s hands and feet in the world
And God is doing a good and a true thing through people
Just like you and me.
Our work here is about reminding ourselves whose we are: we belong to God
And allowing that reality to shape our lives and our choices and our days.
And today, we’re considering Return No one Evil for Evil….
This one might be the most difficult one for us.
There is so much within us that is wired for revenge, or at least retribution.
It can be the small things:
Like the guy who cuts you off in traffic
Or steps in front of you at the deli counter
Or, one that has been lingering with me for far too long, as you can tell
When they brought Madison Baumgarner out AGAIN in game 7
of the 2014 world series
He pitched for five whole innings
After he pitched all of game 5, 117 pitches in game 5, a complete game
three days prior.
But there are bigger things that gnaw at us, too.
A persistent jerk at work, or at school. Maybe a bully, even worse.
They guy who assaulted you. Or your friend.
That two-timing ex. The guy who stole from you and ruined your business.
A “friend” who publically humiliated you.
The drunk driver who took her away.
The dealer who sold him those drugs
The terrorist who flew that plane into that building.
The guy with a shotgun who walked into that school.
Bigger things. More potent evil.
Paul is getting at something fairly nuanced here, I think.
There’s nothing in here suggesting that we let Evil win.
No. Paul says “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.”
We explored that last week.
This isn’t a commentary about civil justice, when we exercise it fairly.
Or about the need for people to be held accountable for their actions.
This is about our own hearts, our own disposition
In how we deal with the evil in our lives
Are we going to punch back ten times harder
Are we going to seek the same pain suffered that we suffer
Or is there something else, is there another way to go?
Paul remembers Jesus’ teaching about praying for our neighbors and our enemies
About turning the cheek, about going the extra mile
About God providing for all of God’s creatures
The righteous and the unrighteous
And so he suggests that we bless our persecutors: not curse them
That we live in harmony with one another, where it is possible
Not boasting, not puffing ourselves up
Which is what that word haughty suggests
But seeking peaceful ties with everyone.
Leave vengeance to God, Paul says,
Because it is good for you to do so
And because it belongs ultimately to God, and taking it upon yourself
Is a sign that you don’t ultimately trust God to be God
Oh, and because sometimes, whether you know it or not
Your rejection of a cycle of vengeance and violence
Might just be the sort of thing
That the person doing the evil won’t be able to withstand.
The good you do might be just the thing.
Return no one evil for evil
Is not just about our instinct for revenge or retribution.
Its about a disposition of the heart to seek the good for all,
even for people who do bad things, even for our “enemies”
simply because they are people
and God is working for both their justice and for their rehabilitation.
The evil that we do affects all of us,
The victim, surely, and the perpetrator, who harms himself by his actions
Just as truly as he harms his victim.
And following a God of both justice and reconciliation
Means affirming both justice properly administered
And ongoing and abiding efforts to bring healing to hurtful situations.
And sometimes, let us be clear, we might do the evil thing.
It may be us we’re talking about.
Particularly when we get caught up in this cycle of retribution
Where we follow up one evil with our own
Our very own Hatfield and McCoy tit-for-tat
That can very easily lead to so much more brokenness.
There are a few different ways that the Bible tries to show us the importance of this.
I almost had us read the story of Jonah today.
Oh Jonah, that hapless Jonah
Who was minding his own business when God told him to go
Tell Nineveh to knock it off. That evil city, and those evil people.
And he didn’t want to go, but God told him to go anyway
So he ran away, towards Tarshish
But there was a boat and a storm
And he got tossed into the water
And a big fish
And he waited, days, in that fish
But he found himself ashore and he got God’s point
So he went to Ninevah and he told them to knock it off
And get this: they did. They repented
And God relented.
And Jonah couldn’t stand it.
He couldn’t stand it. He stood up on a hilltop overlooking the city
And thought about the evil they had done
And he wanted to see them pay for it.
And he said to God that he knew God was merciful and slow to anger
And abounding in steadfast love
And he ran away because he was afraid
That he’d be successful in getting them to turn from evil
And that God would relent.
Jonah wanted evil returned to evil.
But what he found was a God who wanted something else: healing and wholeness.
Or then there’s today’s story of a man who had two sons
And one took his inheritance and ran off and squandered it
With a beautifully biblical oblique turn of phrase: in dissolute living.
And that son suffered, and pained, and crawled back to his father
Seeking to maybe, just maybe, be hired on as a family servant
But his father, seeing him return,
Rushes out with such prodigal love and grace
That there are tears and laugher and robes
The fatted calf and celebration.
But the older son, the dutiful son
Nurtured a grievance in his heart and struggled with all of this.
His brother had done an evil thing, it seemed to him.
And what, beyond not returning evil for what he has done
We’re going to do THIS? We’re going to throw a houseparty!??
Are you kidding me?
Son: I had to do this.
What was lost, has been found again….
Dear friends: the God we follow is the God who showers us with such love
That sometimes, from our perspective, it doesn’t make sense.
It sometimes doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem fair.
But that love is what heals our wounds and puts a fire in our souls
And convinces us that love is more powerful than hate or death or evil
A love that walks its way, for us, to the cross
A love that never returned to us evil for evil for what we did on calvary…
The sort of love that can move mountains and break ancient schemes
And can bring healing to the nations.
That sort of love.
To that sort of love be true.
Today’s stop on a roadmap for living the life of faith.
May we ponder ways of resisting evil without returning it
To bless our persecutors while tending to the hurting and the victims
To seek harmony and to reject the haughty
Where it is possible, to live peaceably with all, with all.
That would be quite sound advice, indeed.
May it be so.
[i] Illustration from Mark Ramsey and a sermon he preached at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina, on August 28, 2011, entitled “Therefore”
Image Credit: “Laertes and Hamlet Fight”, Brian Collins / Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.