Sunday, November 18, 2012

Leave Room

Leave Room
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 18, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:19
Matthew 18:23-35 

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.

So this long journey we've been on is nearing its close. Next week is the last Sunday before Advent begins, and with advent comes a new Christmas year, my green stoll will turn to white next week and then to purple, a new season, a new year, and a new focus. For the past six months we have bee looking at the marks of a true Christian according to Paul's letter to the Romans and we are now down to our final two passages. They both have to do with our role in our relationships with each other, how we interact, how we engage with one another, and most importantly how we forgive one another. The verse for this morning is, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord." And now looking back: 

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. 18 If it is possible, so far as it.19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord ”  

Though I know vengeance and forgiveness are not the same thing they are two sides of the same coin. Vengeance is the active antithesis of forgiveness, and anything other than forgiveness, in such a situation is truly just passive vengeance, so long as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. I chose the following parable to share with you this morning, because it has to do with forgiveness, and it paints what I think is the most important part of this mark, which is that it ends the cycle, allowing God to work according to His will, Matthew 18: 23-35.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”[1]  

I always like when I can find literary examples for my sermons, and the topic of revenge, may just be one of the most often repeated themes throughout all of literature. The most famous is probably The Count of Monte Cristo where Edmund Dantes, the future count, is wrongfully imprisoned, then escapes and dedicates himself to seeking his revenge. In one of the verbal exchanges between him and his mentor the Abbe Faria, the Abbe is trying to tell him to forget his revenge, and he quotes our Today's Mark of a Christian. The Abbe Faria says:

" Here is your final lesson - do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence. God said, Vengeance is mine.

To which Edmond Dantes replies:  

I don't believe in God.

That seems to say it all doesn't it. That truly that seeking vengeance is not an act of faith, but rather one of doubt. If you believe that God exists, and if you believe that God is in control of all things, and that God is just, then vengeance need not be part of your mindset. Easily said sure. From this standpoint I've always also wondered about my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet. Think about it the ghost of Hamlet's father comes to him, from Purgatory, claiming to come from Purgatory, and asks Hamlet to avenge his death., to which Hamlet says, "O cursed spite that I was born to set things right," believing the vengeance all to be in his hands, but think about it: the ghost comes from Purgatory, which in the literary world that Shakespeare creates and according to the Catholic faith proves that God is real and that God is Just, otherwise  there would be no Purgatory right, but yet Hamlet does not see that his visitor from the afterlife is a witness of the resurrection and divine providence of his maker, but rather a spur for him to be the agent of vengeance. Both Hamlet and Edmond Dantes learn their lesson but in both cases it comes too late. Let's look at quotes from them to show their learning of this principle. Dantes says later, having acquired a new level of faith
 For all evils there are two remedies - time and silence.
And Hamlet says:
Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The
readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows
what is't to leave betimes, let be. (5.2)

Let be, so easily said not so easily done. Let be is another way of saying as Paul does leave room, or as Dantes says, "time and silence." How hard for us is it to do nothing, to not act, to allow the Providence of God's loving justice to take over control.
I hate to do it, but I have another literary example, hey I teach literature, and it is taking all the discipline in the world to not give all football analogies, after winning the State Championship yesterday. The truth is that I always seem to be reading the right book, that whatever book I am reading seems to fit nicely, sort of providentially, in with the subject I'm called to preach about. For the last few weeks, well months really, I've been sort of busy lately, I've been reading Ben Hur, by General Lew Wallace, of Billy the Kid fame, and what an amazing story of redemption from the all consuming world of vengeance. Many of you have no doubt seen the movie, but the book is even more on point with this morning's message. If you've seen the movie, you know that Ben Hur is a Jewish prince, who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, when a tile comes loose on his roof falling on the new Roman Consul. The Romans see the accident as a chance to steal the Hur's fortune. They condemn Hur's mother and sister into a leprous dungeon and Ben Hur to life as a galley slave. Fortune smiles on Hur when he saves a Roman Admiral's life and becomes his adopted son. He, like Edmond Dantes, dedicates himself to revenge the people who treated him so poorly. Hur defeats the Romans who put him away in an epic Chariot race, for which The Roman, Mesalla  is embarrassed and due to betting on himself his entire fortune completely ruined. But that is not enough for Ben Hur, he now as a revolutionary transfers his vengeance to destruction of Rome entirely,

In fact, his hatred of Rome and Romans reached a higher mark than ever; his desire for vengeance became a thirst which attempts at reflection only intensified. In the almost savage bitterness of his humor many mad impulses took hold of him. 

Such are the fruits of a vengeful spirit, and when he hears of the coming of The Messiah, unlike the movie he commits himself to The Nazarene's Service, where he witnesses all of the amazing miracles and teachings accounted in the gospels. In his vengeance though he is blind to the truth about Jesus, even standing there with him. He is following Jesus, but carrying a sword, when asked, "Why are you armed?" he answers, "It may be necessary to defend the Nazarene." Oh the irony of using a sword to protect God. How often do we fall into that trap in our own lives? How often do we feel that we need to defend God, when all of the time it should be and is the opposite? All the time walking with Jesus, seeing the miracles, even the raising of the dead, and Ben Hur is still missing it, he looks at Jesus, he

Glowed with the thought that the melancholy man [Jesus], under gentle seeming and wondrous self-denial, was in fact carrying in disguise the subtlety of a politician and the genius of a soldier.  

He so wants Jesus to be what he is, he wants Jesus to hate Rome like he does, he wants God to do his will, but again God's plans are so much bigger, so much bigger.
Think about the parable in our Gospel lesson for this morning. How hard is it to return the favor of forgiveness? How hard is it to break the cycle of vengeance? Like the king who is hoping to end the cycle of debt, Jesus has forgiven us, but how often do we miss the import of what Christ is doing in our lives, fail to forgive others, and remain in the cycle of debt and vengeance where we are stuck?
Faith offers a resolution, an end to the cycle of vengeance, but faith is necessary isn't it? We have to know that God is working wonders in our lives and is in control. Do you feel forgiven? Have you seen God working in your life? I hope you answer yes to those questions, but I realize we may not be. If not the cycle of vengeance can live, as it does in Edmond Dantes, in disbelief. If you have felt the touch of God in your life, if you are aware of his presence, though, do you think that God's working within your life is limited in the ways he has done so in the past? Or is God's working, in your perspective, limited to his working in yours and not others? You have a concept of God working, but not sure how thorough it is, that maybe you are on your own to right the wrongs like Hamlet, or feel that the Messiah does not seem to be up to par like the way Ben Hur feels. When the truth is that the same God who made you, loves you, the same God who created the standards forgives you, the same God who determines what justice is, is in control to make justice happen. Therefore why hold the grudge, why force the vengeance, why create your own brand of limited misguided so called justice, instead forgive, love, and be thankful, for God is good, and is sufficient. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 18:23-35). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.