Words to Build a Life On:
Live Peaceably With All
Scripture readings (which you may wish to read prior):
Romans 12:9-21 (also included in the text below)
Our sermon series on “Words to Build a Life On” Continues this week
With a familiar passage to many here at this congregation.
In the fall of 2014, when we dedicated the Kirk Peace Park outside
And, as part of that, also the Pergola that marks the entryway to the walk
Through the plaza and around the building
Many people remarked at the scripture passage that adorns that structure.
As far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Romans 12:18.
A picture of it is on the cover of today’s bulletin.
It was one of Clay Cook’s favorite scriptures, our pastor emeritus
And it is a fitting epigraph for all to meditate on as people enter that space.
For the past few weeks, we’ve explored
Basic ideas of the Christian faith
that can be remembered in shorthand
That can become the building blocks of a faithful life
Some of you have been telling me that you’re writing these down
Keeping them handy
Next to your computer or in a journal.
Its helpful to have, at the ready
These fundamental ideas.
So that when you are trying to decide how to read some scripture passage
You can remember The Greatest is Love
And you can interpret your reading through the lens of love.
So that when you are wondering about
Whether and how to get involved in something
You can bring to mind Micah’s call
To Seek Justice, Love Kindness, and Walk Humbly.
Or when you are driving around town
You can remember God’s repeated desire to reorient our geography
Blessed are you when you walk through the realm of God.
When you stand where God stands
Comforting the mourning
And supporting the peacemakers.
Those were the first three weeks of this series.
Today we are thinking about Live Peaceably with All.
You can write that one down too, or you can just look at the pergola
And thank Pastor Clay for the reminder.
At first glance, it appears commendable
But we all know that its not quite that easy.
I suspect its that “all” part that is the hang-up, most of the time.
It is for me.
What is the Apostle Paul getting at?
I invite you to open your hearts and your minds
To this reading of God’s word from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome:
9 Let love be genuine;
hate what is evil,
hold fast to what is good;
10love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honor.
11Do not lag in zeal,
be ardent in spirit,
serve the Lord.
12Rejoice in hope,
be patient in suffering,
persevere in prayer.
13Contribute to the needs of the saints;
extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you;
bless and do not curse them.
15Rejoice with those who rejoice,
weep with those who weep.
16Live in harmony with one another;
do not be haughty,
but associate with the lowly;
do not claim to be wiser than you are.
17Do not repay anyone evil for evil,
but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
19Beloved, never avenge yourselves,
but leave room for the wrath of God;
for it is written,
‘Vengeance is mine,
I will repay, says the Lord.’
20No, ‘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.’
21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
And may God bless to us
Our Reading, and our understanding
And our Applying of these words, to how we live our lives. Amen.
It was January of last year, 2017
during the presidential inauguration,
during the protests that filled the streets of Washington DC
when someone punched Richard Spencer in the face
while he was there, on the streets, talking to a reporter.[i]
[I don’t want to embed the video on my blog.
You can find the video on youtube
Here’s some context, if you don’t know the name:
By all accounts, Richard Spencer holds some reprehensible views
He’s done some dastardly things.
He is a self-described White Nationalist
He runs a white supremacist think tank
And people often call him a neo-nazi
A label he himself rejects.
He was a featured speaker at the so-called “Unite the Right” rally
in Charlottesville last year
And he goes around spreading hate pretty much wherever he goes.
Now, this is a sermon. We are to proclaim the gospel,
And I don’t like giving this guy or his views even the amount of time I already have
Because its sinful and evil and dangerous and deadly, racism is, white nationalism is,
And I honestly hated having to read up on him again
So I could get these details right,
But I need to talk a bit about that January morning in 2017
When someone came up to him while he was giving that interview
and punched him in the face
before running off away from the scene.
Its partially because I get it: the urge to punch a Nazi.
That’s the way it got portrayed on social media, by the way: punch a Nazi.
There’s even a website “canipunchnazis.com”
with the answer: ‘Yes’
and, as if to emphasize the point
the website says “It is ALWAYS Ok to punch a Nazi.”
The website shows the picture of Spencer getting punched in the head.
I get the rage at this surge of overt racism in our country
Coming out from behind the shadows.
I feel the anger too.
Spencer has been complicit, it appears,
In a lot more violence than that one punch thrown at him
And our concern and our compassion and our work
Must be on standing in solidarity with people of color and other targets of bigotry
And resisting fascism, too, which we thought we defeated back in World War II.
And its not that I am a pacifist, not ultimately
In that I think that sometimes force is required
to sustain public order and to help the vulnerable.
That’s another conversation for another day
And it can get, as they say, complicated,
But its not that I think ALL punching is out of place.
Had Spencer been directly attacking someone, for instance,
I think you or I would be morally obligated to stand in the way
And stop it, even if it meant striking him.
We can parse through this sometime, if you’d like
When its academic
Talk about when its ok to use force.
What about war?
Defensive just war theory maybe, or whatever
Even as I know, and we all should know
That for some people who don’t have the privileges that most of us in this room have
Their safety in this world isn’t academic or theoretical.
But that moment
when someone sucker-punched Spencer
Out on the street
A bad guy not really doing anything
It has bothered me ever since.
And it bothered me as good people I know,
People who abhor racism and hatred and bigotry
And also who abhor the violence that Spencer promotes
Good people, how they
shared gifs of that moment and celebrated it.
And I think the reason why it bothers me
Is this passage from Paul to the Romans.
Hate what is evil
Hold fast to what is good…
Love one another with mutual affection
Outdo one another in showing honor
Bless those who persecute you,
Bless, and do not curse them…
Live in harmony…
Don’t repay evil for evil…
If it is possible
So far as it depends on you
Live peaceably with all
Now, I think we can all agree on the general call to harmony Paul is promoting here.
When we’re talking about a next-door neighbor whose party is a bit too loud
Or the guy in the pew behind you who is snoring a bit too obviously during the sermon
That Paul is reminding us not to be a jerk about these things.
Good advice, by the way, for the person who follows after Jesus.
Try to get along. Don’t be a jerk.
But it gets trickier when we’re confronting some really unsavory ideas and people.
You have to read this passage pretty closely not to get carried away
Into some point that Paul is not trying to make.
But Paul, do you mean that we just let evil people get away with it?
No, that’s not what Paul means.
Paul just spent chapters in this letter talking about “the good”
About not doing evil ourselves
And about supporting efforts to restrain evil.
That passage about God supporting just government
You know, the one that recently got misapplied by some of our national leaders
To discourage peaceful dissent or critique of their handling of the immigration crisis
That passage from this letter to the Romans
is better understood as Paul’s support for how the rule of law restrains evil
And protects the innocent. When it works rightly.
Paul doesn’t mean that we just let evil people get away with evil.
But Paul, do you mean that we just do nothing?
That we stand back and wish for bad people to stop
That we naïvely let down our guard
Because that means hopefully that guy will see how nice we are
And just stop it.
Again, that’s not what Paul is getting at.
This isn’t a text that justifies staying in abusive situations
Or discounting the fact that there are some hurtful, hateful, violent people out there.
But some people assume that Peaceful means Passive.
Why do they assume that?
In part, because sometimes we only can think in terms of violent power
Where we presume that the only form of resistance is physically forceful
that the only other option to physical force is to let the weak get walked upon
And the unjust to get off scot-free.
This is hardwired within us, the ancient fight or flight impulse.
But we know that some of the most potent movements
for social change in this country
Have been non-violent.
When Martin Luther King Jr. for instance
walked with sanitation workers
When he marched against the Vietnam war
And linked arms over the bridge in Selma, Alabama for racial justice and equality,
He wasn’t passive. He wasn’t weak.
In fact, King KNEW that this form of resistance
Was much stronger, was much more powerful.
King knew that the television pictures of school kids
Being drug out of soda fountains
And news reports showing
People hit with water hoses
and struck fearful at snarling police dogs
Would change hearts and minds
And convince people of the justice of the cause.
And when King went about organizing for justice
And preaching in pulpits and exploring the gospel
King … stopped to pray for his persecutors.
He talked about loving his enemies.
He resisted cursing them.
In one sermon,
Where King was trying to help people understand
Why he did so,
here’s how he put it:
“[L]et me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious
when he gave this command;
he wasn’t playing.
He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies.
He realized that it’s difficult to love those persons
who seek to defeat you,
those persons who say evil things about you.
He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard.
But he wasn’t playing.”[ii]
This isn’t about liking those people.
Becoming best friends with them, King said.
It is about loving them as human beings too.
Worthy of dignity, both oppressed and oppressor.
In that same sermon, King said:
“Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization,
love even for enemies.”
King knew that “Peace” means a world where justice and love coexist together.
Where we refuse to dehumanize evil people
Where we love even our enemies.
There is something satisfying in returning hatred and violence against the violent.
Again, its hardwired into us.
I was listening to the TED Radio Hour
On NPR this week
And they had a whole show on the topic
“Why We Hate”
One of the presenters
Was talking with the host
About the research she had done about this for her life’s work:[iii]
I was desperate to find evidence that we’re not wired to hate.
And it turns out, we are [wired that way], to an extent.
All right. I mean, that’s like you and I, way back when in our loincloths,
we were sitting in the valley banging our rocks together.
And, you know, some strange people we didn’t know in their loincloths
came up over the hill, and we were afraid of them.
And that, over thousands of years,
turns into wiring in our brains that makes us fear the other.
But what’s useful here – a metaphor someone uses in the book
is the difference between hardware and software.
So that’s the hardware that we all have.
But who we hate is the software.
That’s been encoded into our brains by society and culture and politics.
There’s not some part of our DNA that makes us racist.
And there’s not some synapse
that makes us hate Republicans or hate Democrats.
That’s the software. That’s the programming.
It’s what we’ve all learned. And that means we can unlearn it.”
Paul is describing a new way, a third way,
The way of the realm of God
Where we not only refuse to be jerks to our neighbors
But we also, so far as it depends on us, live peaceably with them.
The extension of that is that we
Refuse to adopt the tactics of people we find reprehensible
In opposing what they stand for, in our commitment
To seek love and peace and reconciliation for the world.
That we love our enemies
That we feed them when hungry
And give them water when thirsty
And treat them like the human beings they are.
I don’t always want to do that.
And its not that we don’t seek justice:
Richard Spencer should be held accountable for any act of violence he incites.
Its not that we don’t seek truth:
King was right: right to march for justice.
But you cannot let yourself
Start treating your enemies with hatred
And celebrating when evil is done to them in return.
A theologian from the last century
Put it this way:
“Evil can be opposed,
without being mirrored.
Oppressors can be resisted,
without being emulated.
Enemies can be neutralized,
without being destroyed.”[iv]
For what happens to us when we adopt the tactics and the methods
Of our enemies?
When we, as Paul puts it: return evil for evil?
When we allow ourselves to dehumanize
Those people who dehumanize others?
When we harbor hatred for the hateful themselves
Instead of for the hate they promote and accomplish?
What happens to us?
My friend Marci pastors a church in Boise, Idaho.
There was a horrible stabbing in Boise on July first.
9 people were stabbed, six of them children.
A three-year-old girl, an Ethiopian refugee, was murdered in the attack.
It was her birthday party.
In her sermon that week,
Marci reflected the notion that atonement,
What God is doing in the world through God’s love in Jesus Christ
Atonement means God is making us one: atonement means at-one-ment.
And she shared with her congregation
This remarkable comment from Brene Brown
When she was talking about her book
Braving the Wilderness,
Where Brown said this:
“We’re in a spiritual crisis.
The key to building a true belonging …
is maintaining our belief in inextricable human connection.
That connection —
the spirit that flows between us and EVERY other human in the world –
is not something that can be broken;
however, our belief in the connection
is constantly tested and repeatedly severed.
When our belief that there’s something greater than us,
something rooted in love and compassion, breaks,
we are more likely to retreat to our bunkers,
to hate from afar,
to tolerate bullshit
and to dehumanize others.
Addressing this crisis will require a tremendous amount of courage.
For the moment
most of us are either making the choice to protect ourselves
from conflict, discomfort, and vulnerability
by staying quiet,
or picking sides
and in the process adopting the behavior
of the people with whom we passionately disagree.
Either way, the choices we are making to protect our beliefs
are leaving us disconnected, afraid and lonely.”[v]
The third way
is what Paul is offering for us
To affirm that we are all connected
That we respond to hatred with love
That we react to evil with the good
That we strive to live peaceably with all.
That third way
Is life for this hungry, hurting, acing world.
It refuses to treat anyone as unworthy of love.
It rejects the idea that that feeling of satisfaction
When you see your enemies reeling
But, instead, argues that true redemption
Is when their hearts and minds are converted, in God’s good time
By the overflowing grace and love of God.
Marci shared with her congregation
In that moment where her city was in grief after that horrible attack
A saying that has stuck with me ever since:
“People are hard to hate up close. Move closer.”
That’s what Paul is encouraging us to do:
To move closer to one another.
In so far as possible
As it depends on you
Live peaceably with all.
Live peaceably with all.
Words to build a life on.
May it be so.
[i] News reports for the incident are available at various places. Here is one from CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/20/politics/white-nationalist-richard-spencer-punched/ (accessed July 21, 2018)
[ii] “Loving your Enemies” a sermon delivered to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, November 1957. The text of the sermon may be read online at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church (accessed July 21, 2018)
[iii] Sally Kohn, What is the Opposite of Hate: https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=628591191 (accessed July 21, 2018)
[iv] From Engaging the Powers: 25th Anniversary Edition (Fortress Press, 2017) p 200.