A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 28, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 6: 37-42
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show us the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
When I was getting ready to write this sermon I took a look back to see exactly when we started this series. We have been looking at the "Marks of a True Christian" since June 10, and here it is the last week of October, and we are getting closer and closer to the end. It is pretty amazing because I didn't measure it out ahead of time, I just delved right in, and it looks as if it will take us exactly up until the beginning of Advent. There are only a few verses left, and most of them have to do with the same basic idea, and that is, how we are supposed to deal with the "evil" that surrounds us in this world. My second sermon on the series introduced that we are to "hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good," and now Paul goes into some more detail about just what that means. This week we have, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all," and looking back we see,
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
That is this week, and looking forward this theme of dealing with evil is continued. . .
18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;g for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 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.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Since in the weeks to come we will be looking at not avenging against evil, and how we are even to feed and clothe our enemies, and overcome evil with good, I wanted to look today at why many times we actually miss the mark and repay evil with evil because we have trouble recognizing the evil that we ourselves do and are capable of. Often we inadvertently miss this mark because we mistake our own role in the breaking of our relationships. For this reason I picked the following passage, about our own vision of ourselves, and others. Luke 6: 37-42:
37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
39 He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 42 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
My class this week began reading Sophocles' tragedy, Oedipus Rex, and I was continually struck by connections with the passages I was studying this week for this sermon. Oedipus, the famous man, fated to marry his mother and kill his father, does so and doesn't know about it, but that all happens before Sophocles play begins. The play instead centers around the character Oedipus, the king of Thebes, as the truth about himself is slowly revealed to him, and how through most of the play he is blind to the truth, even hostile to it, despite the fact he is in every way earnestly seeking truth. I thought so much of it that I pulled a passage out and put it in the bulletin for you all to consider this morning. In this passage, the famous blind prophet Tieresias is pushed to his limit and so tells Oedipus the truth about himself, and Oedipus responds with defensive denial, accusing the prophet back, he just cannot accept the truth in the moment, self preservation takes over as the overpowering instinct, emotion rules over reason, and his blind spots are revealed. He is too wrapped up in saving his city, and so resolved in his own self importance, to even imagine for a second that he is the problem, and he is and these figurative blind spots result in actual self inflicted blindness in the poetic justice of the plays conclusion.
And so let us look at our gospel passage. the famous speck and plank. Blind to our own plank we cannot help but see the speck within our neighbor's eye. This is one of Jesus' more straight forward metaphors. He uses it to explain the Judge not lest ye be judged mandate. It is paired with this idea in both Luke and Matthew, but I chose the Luke version because it goes into more detail, especially going beyond just not judging, but to not condemning and to the forgiving. It is interesting to me that Jesus says do not judge, and then says not to condemn, and then says to forgive, but if you haven't judged, what do you have to forgive. It is almost as if he knows that Judging and condemning are within our nature. It is funny how we don't even notice the inconsistency of it all. To forgive seems to require some judgment was made. Think about what that means for us as we go around self righteously forgiving, sure of how right you are that you are big enough to forgive. If you think about it, you really cannot be a forgiving person without being a judging person and a condemning person first. Have you ever thought of it that way, or is that one of our blind spots, one of those little unthought of inconsistencies that we hold to?
A student of mine, whom I taught last year had me look over one of his college application essays, in which he was supposed to write and introductory letter to his future prospective roommate. It seemed the essay was trying to get at who they are on a personal level without the pretensions of a formal essay. The student did a pretty good job, but one piece of it struck me as inconsistent. He wrote how, growing up in Nigeria he loves diversity, loves being surrounded by different people of different races, but then in the next sentence he talked about how he sees every one as the same and is color blind. I asked him, hey which is it? Do you enjoy diversity or are you color blind? He was amazed, he had never thought of it like that before. I understood what he meant, but the words made him think beyond the slogans, and for a minute he could see his own blind spots.
What are our blind spots within ourselves? What are those little inconsistencies that we do not see? We all have them. I think this is what Jesus means when he says the plank in our own eyes. These are the things about ourselves that we miss completely. For Oedipus it was the fact that he was trying to do the best good for his kingdom, that there was no way he could comprehend the notion that he himself was the evil he sought to eradicate. For my student it was that within his loving notions of equality, he was in some ways carrying his own subtle unconscious hypocrisy about the self righteous way he sees himself and other people. What are our blind spots? The biggest problem in identifying them ourselves obviously is that we are blind to them. And you may be asking yourself at this point, hey Pete, what does this have to do with repaying evil for evil?
Let me get to that. I think that most of agree with this statement, that it is bad to repay evil for evil. It is bad because it never ends the cycle. Evil begets evil begets evil begets evil, one bad turn results in another and another and another, that human beings have a tendency to seek revenge rather than reconciliation, and that something at some point must be done to stop the downward spiral, and the only hope there is, is to insert good, to insert forgiveness, that doing more evil just never helps. It is why we hold up as heroes people like Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. because they were able to overcome the violence and evil, not with more evil, but were able to stop the cycle of hatred by inserting love, reflecting goodness, and prohibiting the violence of evil to tear their message and movement apart, and so India became independent, Apartheid was overcome, and segregation was challenged.
So maybe, to reflect the example of these great men, as people inspired by Jesus, and his not repaying evil for evil message, I should have chosen the more consistent, "turn the other cheek" statement of Jesus to pair with it. That seems to capture the notion of not "repaying evil with evil" much better. Yes in many ways that is true. Turning the other cheek allows for the evil not to be repaid with evil, but how often when we are the ones who apologize or forgive, do we expect something out of the other person? We expect them to do the same or more with us, to act differently. Are we forgiving or trying again to control? Why are our supposedly selfless acts of forgiveness or our apologies just one new way of gaining control of a situation and others, and again right there in our blind spot evil is lurking. Like I said back in June when we were looking at the "hate what is evil" passage, evil is difficult to nail down in our world.
I was watching "Sleeping Beauty" last night with Coralee before she went to bed, and in comes Malificent. Coralee at two years old could recognize her as evil. Coralee asked me, when she poofed into the scene in a flash of green glowing fire, dressed in black, with black horns, black lips, and pale green skin, and an evil laugh, "Daddy is that the bad witch?" "Yes, honey," I said. Of course, evil is easily identified in the cartoons, and the good little fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, in bright shades of pink, green, and blue, sweet grandmotherly types with little wands and wings. But in our world it's not that easy, not only in recognizing evil in others, but because of our blind spots, we often even miss our own propensity for evil.
It is easy to mask evil. It is easy to talk it away, to reason it away, to say that the ends justify the means. It is amazing how fast, when thinking about the ends rather than the means, the evil that we do finds its way hidden completely within our blind spots. How many times when one of our relationships gets broken do we see everything the other person did to cause the split, but none of our own? I can think of many times where I was so convinced that a person I had a disagreement with was so wrong, completely wrong, and needed to apologize, at least in the moment, but then after time passed I could see how I could have handled the situation better as well, that my own weaknesses were more to blame than the other person's, but I just could not see them. I took the time passing to be able to notice the wrongness of my own role in the problem. It seems that another thing, other than trying to control the ends of a situation, that creates these blind spots is being "in the moment." In the moment emotions cloud reason and our blind spots seem to grow.
Our nation as we do every four years finds ourselves in the middle of an intense election. As the election heats up, just over a week from the voting day, how deep have our blind spots grown, and look at how divided we have all become. Both sides are convinced that the other side is evil, or lying, or cheating, or misguided, or whatever euphemism you'd like to use instead of evil, but the truth is there. Demonization is ramped. It encapsulates a little of both our identified reasons for the growth of blind spots, concern for the ends, trying to make our guy win, and the emotional high tide of the closeness of the reckoning day. It will even get worse, but the truth is it's not just the two sides, the two parties, and the two candidates. Even those in the middle who complain about seem to disdain the others who are so wrapped up. It really does reflect us all. It reflects a truth about our fallen human nature, but again the Marks of what a True Christian is supposed to be holds up a mirror in front of our face, and challenges us to look truly at ourselves, to uncover the blind spots, and become better, but not so we can judge, and condemn others, but so that we can get beyond it all and truly love each other, to allow love to end the cycle of evil, as only love can do.
So how do we do it? How do we shed light on our blind spots so that we can love truly to end the cycle rather than buying our ticket and jumping on the spinning carousel of evil ourselves. Last week I talked about having a welcome mind, and I think that is part of it, the second piece of the passage, taking thought for what is noble in the sight of all requires that, listening to the other side, what they have to say, but we've shown today that something in us makes that almost impossible especially real time, so let's look also at the causes we have noted so far about the catalysts for the growing of our blind spots: anxiety about the ends, the results, the future, and the other the heat of the moment emotional response. We need to let go of our anxiety and somehow seek to gain perspective, in order to take a clear look at our blind spots, but how? I wish there were simple answers, that it were easy, but if it were easy, our world would be a very different place, but I think a starting place is prayer, prayer as communication with God, open communion, honest, soul bearing prayer, because through prayer we find that God is there, that God has the ends in the palm of his hands, and that he knows us and loves us blind spots and all, and not just us but the other as well.
I used three different bulletin covers this morning, and to be honest I did it because, Gerri was gone and I needed something, but I'm glad that I did because prayer often is in my blind spot, and I don't know if I would have concluded this sermon suggesting prayerful openness if I hadn't looked at the combination of the three. Some of you have the Lord's prayer, Deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Some of you have "Footprints" showing that how even in our darkest depths, our most difficult times God is there and carrying us through, and some of you have Thanksgiving, the glorious response that we give to God for all of the wonders he has done. That's it isn't it, against that glowing light, that shining love, that cycle beginning with God's love, comprehended through prayer, felt in hard times, ending with Thanksgiving just in time for the cycle to start again, and we realize that our blind spots really are irrelevant, the plank and the speck too become irrelevant, and all that is left is love, God's love for us, making possible our love for God and our love for each other.
Amazing grace how true the sound
Which taught my eyes to see
That evil just is not the way,
Your love it set me free.
And I no longer blind to truth,
My neighbor I can love,
For standing in your gracious hand,
I see from high above.
Yes high above, far above with just enough perspective for it all to fall away. May it be so! Amen.
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 12:17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.