Sunday, November 25, 2012

When Eyes See Truth

When Eyes See Truth
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 25, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:20-21
Matthew 17:14-21 

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.

I've been looking ahead to this part of the marks of a Christian since I started. It is enticing to say the least because it is the first one that talks about the reaction of the other, the effect of Christianity on other people, and for that alone it is cool, but then the claim of the effect is provocative as well. This morning we look at the last two verses, two because they go together, the second is the conclusion of the first, and possibly even the conclusion of the entire mission of a Christian, but since we finish today, let's start by reading the entire passage, even before we pull out today's:
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 depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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.” 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. [1] 

The gospel passage that I chose to pair with this passage is actually Matthew 17:14-21, the account of Jesus healing a young demoniac. I think the reason for the pairing will be apparent as we continue this morning, so I won't do much in terms of introduction. 

14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”  

If your enemies are hungry feed them, if they are thirsty, give them drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." As we have seen, this morning, Paul quotes this directly from Proverbs, so it is in fact ancient wisdom rather than a new Christian claim, but before I get too far into this I want to let you know a little about my journey because to be honest when I started looking at this passage this week, I didn't remember it being from Proverbs. I even thought when I copied it into the bulletin that the quotation marks were incorrect. I don't have the book of Proverbs memorized, though maybe I'd be that much wiser if I did. The first thing that I wanted to find out was, "do I understand this hot coals on the head" business correctly. I wanted to make sure that it wasn't some kind of idiom, that would mean something completely different to the early Christian audience than it does to us. I thought about it, maybe, lighting a fire on someone's head, could be like our idea of fire being spiritual or enlightening, inspiring action, but instead I found that it was a direct quote from Solomon's wisdom collection.
So I thought to myself, what is wisdom? I did some word studies about wisdom and found a couple of interesting things. One definition that I found of wisdom was that it means "a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations," and I also found that one of the antiquated synonyms of wisdom is the word, "Sapience" which comes from the same root as the latin for our species, Homo Sapien, and also that Sapience, comes from the Latin verb, sapere, which means "to taste" as well as "to know." So I take from this two major ideas that I think are important. 1. That wisdom is connected in every part to what it means to be human, on the most primal basic elemental basis, and 2. That wisdom is experiential in that it comes from the idea of tasting. But the question then remains is can our senses, our sensory perceptions of the "way things are" the way we see the world around us, the way we taste in our senses lead us to truth, or is something else needed?
The reason this is important is that many times our observations of the world do not point us in the same direction as Biblical Wisdom, and an example is a typical reading of our passage for today. Our passage for today seems to go against basic logic. It seems to directly contradict the common sense deal. If I feed my enemies he will be nourished, if I give him drink his thirst will be quenched. In other words, if I take care of my enemy, he will be stronger, and therefore likely to overcome and destroy me, which is not what I want, so I will not do it. That seems like logical truth. Why on earth would my providing for my enemy's needs ever pour "hot coals on his head?" I teach with a guy, who finds great pleasure in pointing out to me the idea that the Christian viewpoint is silly, fantastical, fairy tale nonsense. He would point to a passage like this one and our gospel reading for today and say that the teaching in it is metaphorical at best, and downright misleading at worst, completely impractical, completely untrue. Faith being enough to move a mountain is a particular favorite of his to point out that faithful people are ignorant.
This has been a problem for many Christians throughout history, especially when faced with the dilemma of science and faith becoming at odds with each other. John Bunyan in his book "A Pilgrim's Progress" has the allegorical character called "Worldy Wise" leading Christian astray. Is that forever the case, that science and faith are at odds with one another? It doesn't seem to be the case here because Paul is evoking ancient "wisdom" by quoting Solomon, but then maybe Solomon isn't worldly wisdom, but instead Godly wisdom, but I wonder why those need be at odds, when we affirm that this world was created by God. From a scientific standpoint it seems like the observations of faithful people throughout history should not be ignored, and from a religious point of view, aren't many of the claims of Christianity right in line with most scientific observations, do dinosaurs and evolution really challenge our grasp on truth and faith? Jesus often uses the natural world to help substantiate his claims, i.e., consider the lilies of the field, just to name one. It seems then that there should be harmony between our observations of the world, which we call science, and the claims of Christianity.
Let's take our passage as a test for this. What would need to be true for the idea that feeding and giving drink to your enemies actually pours hot coals on their head? Actually the Greek word for coal is Anthrax, doesn't that just make this passage all the more interesting? What would need to be true so that feeding and giving drink to our enemies actually heaps a little anthrax on their head? Obviously, the Anthrax or the coal is metaphorical. Everything that I could find in studying this phrase says that it has to do with feeling shame or embarrassment for your actions, which makes sense because when  you feel shame you blush, your face turns red as if you were hot, Hebrew is full of poetry like this, such is the case when you don't have a lot of words for stuff. So your enemies feel shame when you treat them kindly, why? Why would they even care, unless human beings, all human beings, even our enemies do innately know that there is right and wrong, and they also know the difference between right and wrong, and that kindness is always right and discord always wrong? That forgiveness and love are the ways the world is supposed to work, and discord and holding grudges are not.
Look at the Prayer for Preparation. It is a quote from Martin Luther King's writing explaining the idea of non-violent protest.

I am quite aware of the fact that there are persons who believe firmly in nonviolence who do not believe in a personal God, but I think every person who believes in nonviolent resistance believes somehow that the universe in some form is on the side of justice. That there is something unfolding in the universe whether one speaks of it as a unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as some unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled we had cosmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the universe is on the side of justice. [2]              

Do you hear it? That is the idea here. There is something observable in the world, and King says it transcends "religion," that even non Christians can get a sense of it, he calls it justice, I would call it love because I think the way the word justice has been used lately brings trouble,  now I believe Dr. King can see the non Christians belief this way because he is a Christian, and therefore sees how the world works within God's control, and that no human being is born without this God consciousness even if they can't put it in the words of Christian faith. This being the case, when human beings are faced with the truth of righteousness it forces them to see it, and the result is shame and embarrassment, or heaping of hot coals on their heads, or as happened in the Garden of Eden, shame, hiding from the truth. Forced to see the truth change then occurs, it has to, because that is the way the world is set up. The success of nonviolent protests throughout the world, from Birmingham, Alabama, to Cape Town, South Africa, to British Controlled India,  is an observable scientific testament to this powerful truth, that it is more than just antiquated wisdom, and more universal than an exclusive Christian claim that places God in a small box, that it is undeniable true truth, sapience, wisdom and part of being human, the true throughout the entire world regardless of religious affiliation. It's just a truth often missed, and often shadowed in the mist[3] of what we call sin.
I mentioned, the hiding from God, from Genesis. Let's think about that story more. My friend would say the story is fictional, but look at how the truths espoused in the story are more in line with the truth we are observing around us. Look at what happens, the serpent says to Eve, you shall not surely die, a direct refutation of God's statement, you shall surely die, upon eating the fruit, in other words, God lies, and if God lies, then truth is not truth, wisdom is not wisdom, if God is a liar, the God who speaks things into existence, a la "Let there be light and it was" if that God is a liar, what does it say about existence, purpose, etc.? We call believing this, original sin, and we then feel shame and hide ourselves, sound familiar? What are the fruits of sin then? How does it manifest itself in our world outside the garden, blinding us to real truth?
A couple of years ago I was teaching American Literature, and I actually used this complete story this morning in Sunday School to make a point, subtly cultivating the soil for this morning's message. The story is Young Goodman Brown, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of  his many short stories covering, much like The Scarlet Letter, his Puritan ancestors in Salem, what is now Massachusetts. In the story the main character, Brown, ventures into the woods to meet the devil. In the woods he sees all of the other people in the town, there as well, making him forget his own sinfulness, and focusing on how the rest of the world is corrupted. At one point the Devil says the following:
Depending upon one another's hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race

On a test I posed to my students this question:

This is the climax, the main message of the devil’s sermon in the woods, in “Young Goodman Brown.” Explain his message. How is just believing this message to be true enough to destroy Young Goodman Brown’s life? How is just believing this message to be true enough to destroy our world? Give an example from today’s culture that would lead us to think that people do believe this message.

The truth is, this is sin talking. It is a reframing of the serpent's message in the garden, but how deeply does it permeate the way we see ourselves, see our neighbors and see the world in which we live, not created "good," not created by a good God, but hopelessly evil, where virtue, truth, and even God himself, are "but a dream."
Also on that test, I played for them a song written by Kris Kristofferson, entitled, "To Beat the Devil."( ) (In the song the devil sings to the speaker, when he is down out and in a bad place,

"If you waste your time a-talkin' to the people who don't listen,
"To the things that you are sayin', who do you think's gonna hear.
"And if you should die explainin' how the things that they complain about,
"Are things they could be changin', who do you think's gonna care?"
There were other lonely singers in a world turned deaf and blind,
Who were crucified for what they tried to show.
And their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time.
'Cos the truth remains that no-one wants to know.

Then he completes the song with the following:

Well, the old man was a stranger, but I'd heard his song before,
Back when failure had me locked out on the wrong side of the door.
When no-one stood behind me but my shadow on the floor,
And lonesome was more than a state of mind.

You see, the devil haunts a hungry man,
If you don't wanna join him, you got to beat him.
I ain't sayin' I beat the devil, but I drank his beer for nothing.
Then I stole his song.

And you still can hear me singin' to the people who don't listen,
To the things that I am sayin', prayin' someone's gonna hear.
And I guess I'll die explaining how the things that they complain about,
Are things they could be changin', hopin' someone's gonna care.

I was born a lonely singer, and I'm bound to die the same,
But I've got to feed the hunger in my soul.
And if I never have a nickle, I won't ever die ashamed.
'Cos I don't believe that no-one wants to know.

That is the beauty of truth, it tends to stand on its own, and it cannot be denied, when people are forced to face it, so feed your enemies and quench their thirst because it will show the world that this world is set up for good, that God exists, and that this world will bend over backwards for those who are loving because that is the way the world was made, and the way the world functions.
Christ's teachings show us the wisdom that faith allows, Christ's life shows us the possibilities of what faith allows, and Christ's death and resurrection show us the limitless wonder of what truth is, the truth that Goodness, Righteousness, and Love are the real powers in this universe, forever defeating doubt, evil, cynicism, and wrong. Christ reminds us that we are created in God's image, and seeks to wipe away that sin that keeps us from that glorious distinction. Christ shows us that evil can be overcome by good and that evil will be overcome by good because good is the way the world truly is. Believing such will allow you to move mountains because the mountains themselves are a part of that creation, and are a piece of that created potential, faith makes things possible beyond our wildest sin filled imaginings.
I want to close this morning with an amazing quote from a man who understood this truth about the world, and the amazing perseverance that such faith gave him, and the mountains he moved, even through long years, when "failure had him locked on the wrong side of a door" his door was a prison cell in South Africa, Nelson Mandela said the following:

Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate,
but that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.

And, as we let our own light shine,
we consciously give other people permission
to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

How about that for truth, that "heaps hot coals on our heads?" Mandela's story shows us the potential of the world that God created. Let us allow Christ to wipe away that sin, and live into the truth of a world created by God, having left behind sin, living finally into the Marks of a True Christian, we will see a world where we are not overcome by evil, but that evil is overcome, not temporarily by more necessary evil, but forever into infinity by good. You can almost hear Jesus' words echoing throughout time, asking us when:

You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”  


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 12:9-21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2] King, Martin Luther. "The Power of Nonviolence." Teaching American History.
[3] Allusion to a line in my poem, "Night Lights"
When stars shine in darkness
Sparkling white ‘gainst the night
It’s a moment often missed
Or oft times shadowed in the mist
Too much light can blur that far off twinkle
Artificial light blinding our eyes
To the natural wonder of created gleaming
Brighter beaming, but an eternity away
At least seeming because we cannot control
What we have not made, though we try
Thinking if we just could, it would be better
Truly made righteous, made just, for us, by us
Or at least me, I cannot speak for others
So many opinions there would be on just
How it should be, what perfect could be
If we could just agree. Maybe that is why
He who made the sky, made all things
All rules, all decisions, for only He knows
The hearts of all, the dreams we all seem
To find in the sky, hidden behind the gleaming
Of our artificial light’s own beaming.