Sermons

Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-2, Matthew 16:21-28

Vengeance.  It’s an ancient addiction. 

In Jeremiah, we hear the words of the prophet from the turn of the 6th century BCE.  Jeremiah is angry at God for failing to bring about punishment for those who persecute him.  Jeremiah begs God to do to his enemies what they do to him.

God answers Jeremiah, telling him that he will prevail against his enemies, but not with vengeance.  Vengeance is worthless.  God asks Jeremiah to speak what is precious instead.  Vengeance is just giving the world what the world gives.  How can anything change if Jeremiah perpetuates vengeance for vengeance?  Speak what is precious, Jeremiah, and then see how God’s work can get done.

This is the same trap in which we see Peter get caught in the Gospel from Matthew.  Just last week, Peter proclaims Jesus the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and Jesus rewards him by calling him the very rock on which he will build the church.

This week, that very rock has become Jesus’ stumbling block.  How quickly things have changed for Peter.   Like last week, I again imagine myself in the group of disciples, jealous at Peter’s instant fame and now, maybe just a little glad for his public shaming. 

Vengeance.  It’s seductive.

Peter’s problem here is that he can’t bear hearing Jesus predict that he is going to Jerusalem where he will suffer and be killed.

That is not part of Peter’s plan.  Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah was based on an understanding that the Messiah would come and deliver the Jewish people from under the oppression of Rome by overthrowing the government with force.  It was an army Peter wanted Jesus to be leading.  “This must never happen to you” Peter says, aware that should Jesus suffer and be killed it will mean that their Messiah had failed; that Rome would have won, again.

Jesus turns to Peter, calls him Satan and tells him to get behind him. 

Remember Satan?  Not the guy in the red suit with horns and a pitchfork, but that force that met Jesus in the wilderness and tempted him to take the easy way out; to trade the things of God for the things of the world.  Here, Jesus recognizes that temptation once more and calls it for what it is – a seduction to offer the world back what the world has offered him.  But that is not what Jesus is about.  Jesus is interested in creating something new, breaking the ancient cycle of vengeance and violence.

“Get behind me” isn’t so much a shaming of Peter to get out of his way, as it is an invitation to him to follow Jesus’ lead.  “Peter, follow me.  I am going to Jerusalem to do a new thing.  Do not lead us into battle, follow me in the path of justice, where we will find mercy and love.

In our own live, today, are we forging into battle, or are we following Jesus on the path of justice, where we will find mercy and love?

As I marched as part of the crowd of 40,000 to fight white supremacy two weeks ago, I found myself, at one point, behind a group of people who had cut out large cardboard hearts they were holding over their heads.  I was, at the same time, in front of a group holding signs calling those we were marching against various adjectives I cannot repeat from the pulpit.

Those angry signs behind me appealed to me on a very deep, instinctual level, while the hearts in front of me called me to higher ground.  Depending which way I pointed my camera phone,  I was either leading a group seeking vengeance or I was following a group seeking justice, mercy, and love.

Maybe because I was in my collar, I kept trying to catch up with the group holding the hearts; to put some distance between me and the group behind me.  But I was stuck in the middle.

This week, you may have heard of the “Nashville Statement”.  This is a document signed by a group of fundamentalist preachers articulating their already articulated belief that GLBT people are outside the bounds of God’s love and mercy.

I rolled my eyes,  and signed a petition that made it clear the Nashville Satement did not speak for me, my church, my denomination or my faith.

As I was writing this sermon, I received an email from the organizers of the petition I signed announcing the tremendous response they had received.

The title of the email?  “It’s blowing up in their faces.”  

Seriously, I wondered?  Is this the best we can do?  Are we trying to lead into violent battle with them, or might we follow Jesus to do something new, and invite them to join us in our mission, as Jesus does Peter?

The incredible tragedy and loss of life that Hurricane Harvey brought was no match for our lust for vengeance.  “Remember how those representatives voted during Sandy?  Now it’s their turn.” 

Jesus is not seeking vengeance.  He does not want to wage physical war with Rome, make them suffer, have this whole occupation thing “blow up in their face,” as addictive as that might be for his followers to fantasize.

Can we fight for justice without harming those with whom we disagree with our actions or our words? Can we love others into transformation?  Can we see even those who represent everything we hate as beloved children of God and talk about them as if they are? Can we fight vengeance with the radical love of God?

I do not think anyone could accuse Jesus of being shy about calling others to task, or too weak because he would not raise a fist.  He fought injustice, he called people to task, he was known to flip a table to make a point.  But is precisely because Jesus would not answer vengeance with vengeance that we are here, 2,000 years later as his followers.

Jesus’ audience wasn’t only those who sought to crown him a military King.  He was equally interested in the transformation of those who sought his destruction.

Jesus created a beloved community where love, not vengeance would be our only motivation, love not vengeance, would lie behind our every word.  Jesus knew that, as the one at the front of such a movement, he would suffer and die, as others have who followed his lead. 

And he tells his disciples that if they want to follow him, they are going to have to free themselves from their addiction for vengeance.  They will need to be the first once not to trade insult for insult, wound for wound, violence for violence.  It will feeling like dying.  And it will make room for a new life they can’t yet imagine. 

Do you imagine that the whole reason you are here on this earth is simply to give the world back what it offers, to be a cog in the ancient wheel of name-calling, spite, anger, violence and vengeance?  Or might God be asking you to get behind Jesus, and offer the world something new;  Something that looks like justice, served with mercy and love?

We can do better.  We have to do better.  And we have to call on those who are caught in the trap, bound in the cycle of vengeance to choose another way.  We need to demand this of our leaders.  We need to practice this at the office, in the home and on the playground.  

I want you to conjure in your mind one person who might be the target of your calls for vengeance right now.  Who is that person who stands for everything you stand against, who has hurt you or someone you love?  Can you see them in your mind?  Can you see them with your heart?  

I invite you to take on the discipline this week of praying for that person every day.  Not to pray that they wake up and suddenly agree with you, but pray every day that they might know God's transforming love, and grace, and mercy.  Pray for them as beloved children of God, for that is who they are.

See what happens.  Listen for what God might have to say to you in your prayer.

The seduction of vengeance is strong.  But Jesus calls us to get behind him and to follow, to answer vengeance with love, that we might know God’s mercy and peace.

AMEN

© 2017 The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello

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