Bless Their Hearts

Passage: Romans 12:9-21
Date: September 17, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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As we continue on in this little sermon series on Romans 12, we focus today’s sermon on verse 14, words that encourage us to “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

And I’ve struggled this week about what to say, because I know that Paul was writing to a new Christian community that was experiencing real persecution because of their faith, and that doesn’t translate directly to our situation. I would venture to say that Christians in America do not experience religious persecution, although people of other religions in our country do experience, if not persecution, some pretty strong prejudice or hate. Christians in other parts of the world are persecuted, and by that, I mean killed because they are Christians.

It’s complicated. In the United States, there are hate crimes committed against those of other faiths, and perhaps most common are hate crimes against Muslims. Mosques are graffitied and burned; Muslims are threatened, hurt, or killed. We decry that.

If we read about the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world, often it occurs in predominantly Muslim countries, carried out by Muslim extremists. That strengthens the resolve of those in our own country who persecute American Muslims. But I would say that radical Islamic terrorists do not represent the heart of Islam, just as white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan, which claims to be a Christian organization, do not represent the heart of Christianity.

Because at the heart of Christianity lies something other than hate and vengeance. Jesus was not hateful. He did not seek revenge on Judas who betrayed him, on the soldiers who arrested him, on the leaders of religion and state who sentenced him to death. As he died, he did not call down legions of angels; instead, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

That’s echoed in these words of Paul in verse 14, “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” It makes no sense – unless you fully immerse yourself not only in the teachings of Jesus, but also in the kind of life he invites us to live.

One of the interesting things about working with the letters of Paul is remembering that they were written before the gospels, although the gospels tell a story that took place before Paul wrote his letters. I wonder if Paul had heard some of the stories of Jesus that would be written down after his own death – if he had heard some version of the beatitudes and interpreted them in the writing in his letters; there’s a lovely harmony between the beatitudes and this scripture passage.

But Paul wrote in a very different context than the gospel writers. He was a devout Jew, raised at the crossroads of world civilizations, and drew from the great academic traditions of both the Greeks and the Romans. He had an experience of Jesus that changed his life. He stopped persecuting Christians, and began following Christ. Perhaps he knew of what he wrote when he urged the Romans to bless those who persecuted them. Perhaps he knew, better than most, how a blessing, a good word, a sincere praise, could change hate to something else.

In some ways, his letter to the Romans, and especially this part of chapter 12, best presents his understanding of the new way of life Christ calls his followers to. In ways subtle and not so subtle, Paul took on the way of life proscribed by Rome.

Go ahead and picture in your mind’s eye some wonderful old Cecil B. DeMille-type, ancient-Rome movie – chariots and gladiators and the coliseum and soldiers. Caesar after Caesar after Caesar ruled by military might – the Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) was achieved through military victory. If someone stood in your way, you killed him. It was a violent world, and loyalty to Caesar was essential. Human Caesars were considered divine and were worshipped, along with the pantheon of other Roman gods.

Then the Christians came along. They wouldn’t worship Caesar, wouldn’t call him “lord” because Jesus Christ was their Lord. The authorities of Rome claimed these Christians practiced abominations, that they were mischievous and superstitious. They thought the Lord’s Supper sounded a lot like cannibalism. They thought Christians, in renouncing the ways of the world, hated the human race. Christians didn’t honor the class distinctions that were so critical to a well ordered Roman society. Politics and religion were intricately intertwined, and Christians were on the wrong side of both, as far as Rome was concerned.

When there’s something new that is different, and weird, and you don’t understand it, and you’re the one in power, the first impulse can be to get rid of that thing. And so Rome practiced, to varying degrees, persecution of those who followed Jesus.

And Paul told those followers of Jesus that in response to the persecution, they were to bless those soldiers and those gladiators and those Caesars. Bless them, don’t curse them. In other words, speak well of them; don’t call on God to destroy them. It makes no sense unless you look at the whole of Jesus’ message, which is that peace will be achieved not through physical power or violence, but through nonviolent justice, and that begins by seeing your enemy not as an enemy but as a human being. As Paul writes later in the passage, “if your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”

The thing about making peace by seeing your enemy or your persecutor as a human being, and the thing about pursing peace through nonviolent justice, is that it takes a long time. There are no quick fixes, no easy victories, no sated blood lust, and no revenge or satisfaction that can feel so good and righteous. It’s more like one step forward and two steps back.

I think about the long and arduous work engaged by people in the world to overcome persecution. It was in South Africa where Mahatmas Gandhi learned about nonviolent resistance as a man of color in a white-ruled nation. He took that learning back to his native India, where he worked tirelessly, using nonviolent means, to help India gain independence from Britain and to establish a country that embraced religious pluralism. That did not happen, but Gandhi continued his work – until he was assassinated for being too accommodating of those who opposed his work.

As the issue of apartheid came to a head in the 1980s, it was the work of the church, of Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the calm-in-a-storm leadership of Nelson Mandela that helped lead that country out of repressive racism. When apartheid was dismantled, the government began the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a very public confession of very real violence and sin, an effort to cauterize some wounds by opening them and exposing them to the power of healing. It’s not perfect there yet, not by a long shot. There are still tensions, and poverty, and racism. But the thumb of oppression has been lifted, and the church, in part, is to thank.

In Northern Ireland, the Troubles between Roman Catholics and Protestants rumbled for decades, creating a society of such sudden violence that no one felt safe. It was Christian against Christian, though the conflict was political in nature. Only a few remembered the way of life Jesus called them to. When the Troubles ended in the late 1990s it was more because of a weariness of all the violence, and some key political concessions, more than a Gandhi-like leader helping to bring resolution. But who knows what effect all the prayers had, prayers of all the people, the priests, the pastors, the nuns, the laywomen and men who were tired of their loved ones dying.

I wonder how Coptic Christians in Egypt, or Orthodox Christians in Syria, or Christians staring down Boko Haram in Nigeria would hear these words of Paul. Do they live amid so much violence that they cannot imagine blessing their persecutors? Or do they hold fast to these words as the only real, holy solution?

The natural disasters of the last month have been horrifying and depressing and sickening. The silver lining has been the stories of good, the stories of neighbor helping neighbor, of people going the extra mile for complete strangers who, in other circumstances, they might hate or consider their enemies or their persecutors. Jim Wallis of Sojourners tells one such story about the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

“I read a story about a top mixed-martial arts heavyweight fighter — Derrick Lewis, who is black — rescuing a white couple in spite of the fact that the husband insisted on bringing his Confederate flag with him. The way Lewis tells it:”

“I picked up one guy and his family, his wife – he just kept apologizing to me, because all he really had was his clothes, and he wanted to take his Confederate flag,” Lewis said. “He wanted to take that with him, and he just apologized and said, ‘Man, I’ll sit in the back of your truck, man. I don’t want to have my flag inside of your truck like this.’ I said, ‘Man, I’m not worried about that.’… His wife kept hitting him and saying, ‘You should have just left it.’”

There are things we will have to leave behind if we’re going to follow Jesus on this slow road to peace. We’ll have to leave behind our desire for vengeance. We’ll have to leave behind all the good curses we’ve been storing up. We’ll have to leave behind our definition of enemy.

But who knows what we’ll pick up along the way? A friend, perhaps, or some grace, or an insight that changes everything. Who knows?

God knows….