I want us to look carefully at the Romans passage. If you have been listening to or reading my sermons for any length of time, you know that normally I focus on the Gospel reading. But what struck me this week was this:
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. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 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; bless, do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;… No, “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.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
There is so much in this “rule of life.” The beginning seems reasonable enough, be authentic, shun evil, hold the good, love each other with affection, show honor, be passionate in what you do, especially when it comes to serving God. Rejoice, be hopeful, be patient, especially if you are suffering, and keep praying! Give to those in need, and extend hospitality to strangers.
Hospitality to strangers: I think about the airplane that went down in a small town in Canada when they closed the airspace on 9/11. They got the plane down safely, but they were up in Nova Scotia someplace I think. There was a little bit of a town nearby, a village really. The townspeople offered hospitality to the folks on the airplane, simply taking them into their homes, offering not just food, but clothes, phone lines, and so on, for days, until busses could be found to take them back to the US. This makes sense to us, this kind of thing makes us happy. There is a video I saw recently that has a whole series of things where people go out of their way to help others, to give to those in need, extending hospitality. They are giving of their time, and of their ability, when someone else does not have the ability, and clearly has need, whether it is getting an animal out of a dangerous situation, or stopping to help an elder cross a busy street, or where a whole group of people pushed up against a metro train to free a man whose leg was caught in-between the train and the platform.
It is clear that this is good, it makes all of us happy. But then we go on to the second section. Here Paul is echoing the counter-cultural Jesus. Bless those who hurt you. He fires that off as a first round, just to get the idea in. Then back to the things that are not quite so difficult. Rejoice with the happy ones, weep with the grieving ones. Live in harmony (I hope our politicians hear that this week!), do not hold yourself higher in any way than others. Then the second zing: do not repay evil for evil, and then he goes on with the easier concept: go for what is noble. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. He acknowledges that it may not be possible to live peaceably with all, but that is the very clear goal, that is what we should be aiming for in how we live. All of this sounds very good, don’t you think?
But then he brings us back. First he has said: bless those who hurt you, then do not repay evil for evil, now he is very clear. Do not avenge yourselves, let God to that. And then the very interesting piece: “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.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. You may remember something about heaping burning coals on the heads of the enemy. It is such a lovely image, don’t you think? Anyone who has had to keep a fire going overnight knows that you carefully pull all of the coals together into a lump, and then you cover them well with sand, so that in the morning, you scrape off the top sand, poke a few leaves in, and if you have done it correctly, the leaves catch fire, and you have the next day’s fire ready to go. The coals are burning hot, a potent symbol in a society that did not have matches!
The story comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, I have told it before: The King of Israel and the King of Aram are fighting each other, again, and the prophet of Israel tells the King of Israel, you’d best not go over here today, and the ambush that the King of Aram had carefully laid was avoided. The King of Aram was furious, and wanted to know who was spying for Israel, and the soldiers were all very clear, none of us, it is the prophet of Israel! The next morning the prophet’s servant goes out, and there, ringing the hills are the soldiers of Aram. The poor servant is terrified, and runs back in to the prophet, who sends him back out to “see” the angels protecting them. When the soldiers come to the door, the prophet himself answers the door – like a servant – and they treat him like a servant, which saves him – and he asks what they want. They want the prophet, so he offers to lead them, and asking God to “close their eyes” in the same way that he asked God to “open” the eyes of his servant, the prophet leads them right into Israel’s encampment. The King wants to kill them, but the prophet says no, you will throw them a big feast. By doing so, you will heap burning coals on their heads. Sound familiar?
The last line of the story is very important. The King of Aram never attacked the King of Israel again. If the King of Israel had killed Aram’s soldiers, the war would have gone on and on, as they do. But this one stopped. Why? Because by offering hospitality to the enemy, things can change.
This is the countercultural message of Jesus that Paul is echoing, and that we need to wrestle with in our lives. One of the brothers of SSJE had a helpful word to offer on the subject this week. He said: “Radical hospitality is not synonymous with unconditional approval. It does imply a genuine welcome, a welcome that is real even though it may be (for the time being) quite minimal. And it does require respect for the other as a person created in the image of God and loved by God.” (Br. David Vryhof)
I don’t know about you, but when I hear things like “don’t repay evil with evil” and “bless those who hurt you” and “offer hospitality to your enemies,” I get twitchy! I also know that it is right.
The person who has hurt us is still a child of God, a person created in the image of God, a person loved by God. And I can learn to be hospitable without giving approval to their evil. If I really sit down and work this through, I can do it. If I just react in fear, I cannot. And that’s the big deal, don’t you think? Fear! If I am afraid, afraid of getting hurt, afraid of getting killed, then I will respond with evil. And I will not be standing with Jesus when I’m doing that.
But what happens if I am not afraid, or if I step over my fear? Then I can be hospitable to my enemies, and things can change. And it is even more powerful if we do this together. If I will stand up for my friend who is being bullied, I may be bullied too, but when we are standing together, it is different. And we have to be creative in being hospitable. I think about my father, the Methodist minister in Delano in the middle of a farming conflict in the late 60’s. There were the Mexican workers who were striking or threatening to, and there were the white farm owners who were afraid of losing everything. My father quietly invited the leaders of both groups to come to dinner at our house. Needless to say, the children had been fed early! He did not tell either group that the other would be there. It was a dangerous move, but a creative one. The Mexican leader arrived first. He had much to lose. He felt like he was walking into the enemy camp. My father assured him that he was safe in our house. The second man was so angry at my father when he saw who was already at the table, he said some very difficult things to my father. My father’s response was that he had made no promises to anyone, and that he was not on anyone’s side. He had invited the both of them, to eat together, they were both Christians, and that was all there was. The farmer stayed. That dinner, and the discussion afterwards, changed the issue. They sat down and worked things out.
If you think about the people who have hurt you, what names come up? Even if we have responded with hurt before, we can now think about new responses. We can practice them, so that when they happen again, and they will, we can choose a new response.
Sometimes people, and me too, say, well, but what about . . . You know, what about Syria and Assad, what about Gaza and Israel, what about? I have two answers to that. The first answer is that Jesus lived in an occupied country, and the Romans did not play around. If they thought you were causing trouble, there was no prison for you, it was chop your head off if you were lucky, and crucify you if you were not. They crucified thousands of people. In other words, when he was talking about not responding to evil with evil, it was not idle talk. Paul was living in the same system. When he talks about hospitality, that included, for example, Roman soldiers who walked in the door, who might be there to arrest you, or might be there as spies, or might be there to convert. So my first answer is that they were not giving easy answers that had no basis in their reality. The second answer is that we do not have to decide what is “correct” as a response to Assad, or Gaza, or Israel, or any place else. What we have to decide is what we will do, what we have done in the past, and what we want to choose to do in the future. That is our call. And that may include getting involved in politics, writing letters or making phone calls, or inviting the local imam over, or inviting a Muslim neighbor over for tea.
Speaking of our Muslim neighbors, and our black neighbors, we can think about how we might help the people around us who are getting hurt. It is easier to look away, and that is not the way of Jesus. When we, who are not hurt, stand in solidarity with those who are, it shifts power, and that is a good thing. What can we do? Let’s talk. What is the way of Jesus calling us to do now?