SERMON Easter 2c 2019
I was surprised looking through my sermon files this week. After 30 years of preaching, I have as many as ten sermons for some Sundays, but almost nothing at all for this one. Well, silly me: of course not! I’m usually on a break the Sunday after Easter, which many people call “Low Sunday”, not because the congregations and collections are small (though that is also true) but because Easter is such a “high” festival.
It’s always the story of Doubting Thomas, one of my favorite stories in scripture. When I was being confirmed Catholic at 13, I took Thomas for my confirmation name (you probably know it’s traditional to take a saint’s name at confirmation; it’s the name the bishop pronounces when he slaps you). There’s a story behind that choice, but it’s a long story, and on Low Sunday I think you deserve a short sermon.
So I will leave Thomas for another day, and instead I will teach the confirmation lesson that nobody believes; at least I’ve never been able to convince a Confirmation class of its truth and usefulness. Nevertheless it’s wrapped around the heart of the church, and is urgent business in the world today.
I rejoiced when it turned out that the fire at Notre Dame wasn’t terrorism for once, but along with all of you I was dismayed by the terrorist attacks on Christian churches in Sri Lanka last Sunday. When did slaughtering innocent people at worship become such a fad? Probably millions of people have been killed over the centuries for their faith, but this suicide bomb thing is satanic.
Sometime in the middle of the week, the Islamic State took responsibility – if that is the right word for it – claiming the attacks were revenge for the recent shootings at the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Everything is revenge for something, it seems.
At first I was worried that Sri Lankan Christians might try revenge, and I was frankly angry not to hear Pope Francis, not to hear the Sri Lankan bishop denounce revenge and decree that any Catholics who took part in revenge attacks would be excommunicated. He didn’t say it, but at this point he may not need to. Some Muslims fled their homes in fear of revenge attacks from Christians, but I couldn’t find any reports of such.
This is absolutely as it should be. Revenge is one thing that is forbidden to Christians. Breaking the cycles of revenge that have infected our world since Cain killed Abel is at the heart of our Christian project, just as it is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. The sermon on the Mount, Chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s gospel, should be written on all our hearts, and in it Jesus is particularly clear about one thing: no revenge.
“You have heard that it is 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 to him the other also.” (Mt. 5:38-39) And of course this is literally what Jesus did at his trial before the high priest on the last day of his life.
“You have heard it said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5:43-44)
There is great wisdom in this teaching, from the playground to the councils of nations. Evil can only thrive because injured people confuse revenge with justice and so commit further evil. The deadly conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims dates back to the beginnings of Islam in the 7th century. The horror in Kosovo some years ago was a direct descendent of a particularly bloody battle called the Field of Blackbirds, fought between the Ottomans and the Serbs in 1389.
But we can see cycles of revenge played out at PS 49, the New York State Senate, between races and tribes and families. It’s the self-generating, self-perpetuating evil and it touches all our lives.
I promised you a short sermon, so I’ll leave it there: the confirmands don’t believe it, most of the world doesn’t believe it, but for those who have the Spirit of God and practice the teaching of Christ, there can be no revenge, none whatsoever. For anything. The Amish got this one right when a crazy man killed a room full of young girls in Nickel Mines, PA, several years ago. But Luther got it right too, at least on paper:
Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever!
(Ein Feste Burg, vs 4, Lutheran Worship)
Let us pray.