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Blessing for Evil

Sermon - 4/27/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Peter 3:8-12

I invite you to recall once again the social context of the first letter of Peter, which we began studying a few weeks ago.  As I have mentioned the last couple of Sunday's, that social context was the early church, predominantly in Asia Minor (what is today modern Turkey), the congregation to whom this letter is addressed.  Churches that were largely made up of people who were dispossessed and displaced.  Slaves, exiles', the poor, the disenfranchised. 

People on the margins, who, unlike their Jewish counterparts, were not part of a well-established religious tradition recognized by the Roman government as a legitimate, bonafide religion, with its own homeland, history, scripture, and languages.  And you see, early Christians had none of that, hence the story we read from Acts of Paul preaching in Athens.  This was a new pitch, very unfamiliar to those folk.  And that created hardships for that early Christian community.  They were often subject to various forms of discrimination, persecution, even execution for their faith.

Pliny the Younger, so named because he had an uncle (Pliny the Elder), was Governor of a region in northern Asia Minor (that same area to which 1 Peter is addressed) and he reported to the Emperor about the year 111-112, that he had interrogated accused Christians, and if they confessed to being Christian, he gave them two more chances to recant -- adding the death penalty as a consequence for refusal to do so.  And if they still persisted in their faith, he ordered their execution.

He wrote Trajan, the Emperor:

"For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that stubborn and inflexible obstinancy deserved chastisement".

I wonder if he had any teenagers? J If he did, they probably didn't survive their childhood.

Upon further investigation of this strange, new religion, Pliny goes on to give a more detailed account to the Emperor of their activities.  He writes:

"They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light.  They sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath -- not to do any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery.  Never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it.  After which it was their custom to separate and then reassemble to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.  Even in this practice, however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations.

I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth with the assistance of torture from two female slaves who were styled "deaconess", but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition".

So his description of the early Christian community.

Now, keep that image in mind of these two deacons of the church, female slaves, tortured -- probably to death -- only so Pliny could learn that they practiced what was preached in that early Christian community.

Here then is such an example of that preaching, written probably about two decades, maybe three, before Pliny's letter to the Emperor:

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. [And then the author of this letter quotes from Psalm 34] 10For

‘Those who desire life
   and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
   and their lips from speaking deceit;
11let them turn away from evil and do good;
   let them seek peace and pursue it.
12For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
   and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’ .

 

The core concept of this rather remarkable text -- do not repay evil for evil, but instead give a blessing for evil -- I would suggest to you is perhaps the most important concept Christianity has to offer in our world today.

And while it may not be unique to Christian faith, certainly it is central to our faith.  Recall the words of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount, when he says:

"You have heard that it was said 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth', but I say to you:  do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.  You have heard it said that you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you:  love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you".

The Apostle Paul, in his most important, lengthiest letter to the Romans, writes in the 12th chapter:

"Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of 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.

 

But perhaps the most important text from which this whole idea of Christian non-violence (or non-retaliation) comes is none other than the example of Jesus on the cross, who of course said "Father forgive them, they know not what they do".

This basic concept that not just the best way but really the only way to overcome evil is to do it with good, is desperately needed in our world today.  From the conflict in the Middle East to the little injustices we endure in our daily lives, when we return insult for insult, injury for injury, or as the text says -- abuse for abuse -- evil for evil, we only escalate the violence and multiply the problem.

I think it was Mahatma Gandhi who observed that 'when your law is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, you end up with a blind and toothless world'.

Most of us would agree.  But when we are the ones who have been wronged, when our rights have been violated, when our loved ones are harmed, overcoming that evil with good is easier said than done. 

Like that story of the truck driver who went into the Diner and sat down at the counter and ordered a sandwich, a piece of pie, and a coffee.  When the food came, so did three big bikers -- Harley dudes.  You know, leather, tattoos, tough guys.  One sat to the left of the truck driver, two sat to his right.  One ate his sandwich, another ate his pie, the third one drank his coffee.  The truck driver said nothing.  He quietly got up, paid his bill, and walked out.

They slapped themselves on the back and said 'He wasn't much of a man, was he?'.

The waitress said:  "Not much of a truck driver, either".

"Really?", they said, "why not?".

"Well, he just backed up his truck over 3 motorcycles!" J.

 

We like that story, don't we?!  You know, it feels good!  Yeah, get 'em!

But somehow I don't think it conveys the sentiment of this text, to repay evil with a blessing.  So let me share some true stories with you (I know that story was true, but these stories are factual, as well as true).

Two months ago the Forgiveness Project came to town, a rather remarkable effort by a non-religious group to promote the concept of forgiveness as a means to resolve conflict and to promote reconciliation.  And they do it primarily through real life stories of people who have suffered enormous evil in their lives.

The most recognized face in their exhibit undoubtedly was that of 
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, champion for civil rights of all South 
Africans during the reign of apartheid and recipient of the Nobel 
Peace Prize in 1984, ten years before Nelson Mandela became the 
President and apartheid was ended.  Mandela recruited Tutu to head the 
Truth & Reconciliation Commission which was given the authority to 
grant amnesty to anyone who fully confessed to their wrong doing 
during those 34 years of racial tyranny and as a result, helped that 
country to heal many of the terrible wounds of that painful period.

From that experience Tutu observes,

http://www.theforgivenessproject.com/stories/desmond-tutu

That idea, that we can help the perpetrator become a better person, is 
precisely what overcoming evil with good is about.  No one illustrates 
that better than Anne Marie Hagan.  Her father, Thomas Hagan, was 
killed by an axe-wielding man who believed that his deceased mother 
had told him to kill the elder Hagan.  Anne Marie, 19 at the time, 
witnessed the attack and was also injured in it.  This is how she 
describes her subsequent reaction:

http://www.theforgivenessproject.com/stories/annemariehagan

Marianne Pearl has no intention of forgiving the murders of her 
husband.  You might recognize her name if I show a picture of Angelina 
Jolie, the actress who portrayed her in the movie, “A Mighty Heart”.  
She does not seek revenge for the death of her husband, journalist 
Daniel Pearl, only justice.  She says,

http://www.theforgivenessproject.com/stories/mariane-pearl

Many of the stories of the Forgiveness Project are the stories of 
those who have suffered great physical harm, like that of Eric Lomax, 
tortured for over three years by the Japanese in Siam during WWII.  He 
writes,

http://www.theforgivenessproject.com/stories/eric-lomax

 

Final story.  While these stories of the Forgiveness Project were being exhibited here in Eugene, I was in Israel meeting with a number of religious and political leaders, but none more impressive than these two, Shireen Essawi (on the left, a Palestinian) and Aaron Barnea (on the right, an Israeli)

They are members of the Bereaved Families Forum, a group of 250 Palestinians and 250 Israelis, whose sole criteria for membership in the organization is that they each lost a family member to the current violence. (see http://www.theparentscircle.com/) Shireen’s brother was killed by Israeli soldiers, Aaron’s son was killed by a Hizbollah bomb (5 days before he was to be released from the military).  When the organization is asked to speak to groups or when they hold educational events, they always do so in pairs.  Their goal is to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians in the sacred memory of their deceased loved ones, that no other families will need to suffer as they.  The story they tell of finding hope and support from one another in their common loss is literally a story of how reconciliation and forgiveness can save lives.

On November 11, 2004, the Palestinian co-founder of the organization, Khaled Abu Awwad, was speaking with his Jewish counterpart to a group of high school students when word came that his 15 year-old son, Muayad, had been shot in the pelvis by an Israelis soldier.  As he left the auditorium to head for the hospital, he stopped to give one last word to the students, “listen to me—whatever happens, we mustn’t lose hope.  We mustn’t stray from the road of reconciliation.”

Muayad was taken to a hospital in the West Bank but as is too often the case in these situations, the severity of the wounds were too great for the facilities and doctors in that hospital.  Meanwhile, back in the offices of the Families Forum, frantic calls were being made to anyone and everyone with any influence to save a child’s life.  Before long, a physician high up in the Palestinian Authority and an officer in the Israeli Ministry of Health were coordinating efforts to transfer the boy to a hospital in Jerusalem.  Army medics and ambulance make the transfer, stabilizing the young man en route.  Two teams of surgeons prepare for his arrival in Jerusalem.  Several 
hours later one of the surgeons comes to the pacing father.  “Had it taken another ten minutes, we could not have saved his life.  Had it taken another five, we would not have save his leg.”  It would be days before the danger had completely passed, but at least he was alive.  In those next few days the hospital staff watched in amazement as Israelis and Palestinians alike, and often together, came to visit father and son who, by the end of the year, was able to walk out of the hospital on his own.

Of course it is not right that one should have to find friends in high places to save their child.  That is the evil still too prevalent in that troubled land.   But were it not for his efforts to bring reconciliation to end that trouble, he and his colleagues would not have known who to call, on each side of the conflict, in their time of need.

That is the good, trying ever so mightily, to overcome the evil.  And sometimes it does.  1 Peter calls it a blessing.  Indeed it is.

May it be a blessing we can all share.

 


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