Text: Romans 12: 9-21
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.
This is so hard. Some days I get the feeling that everyone is angry about something and they are just waiting for the one thing that will push them over the edge. Don’t you think that is how road rage happens sometimes? It is not the one thing that happened on the road, it is just that when the one person cut the other off, it was the last thing that happened; the last thing in a long string of events that we allow to pile up within us. Sometimes I think we are always ready to assume the worst, ready to jump to horrible conclusions and are ready to flash in anger at the slightest provocation.
I am reminded of a story about a young man who had gone out for a Sunday drive in the country-he thought it would do him some good because he knew he was a little stressed out. As the man drove he started around a large curve in the road; on that curve he met on oncoming car that was in his lane. The car was a convertible with the top down as it was a very nice day, and he also had his window down. Because the car was in his lane, the man laid on his horn and gestured toward the woman who was driving the convertible. The woman swerved out of the way and yelled back at the man, “Pig!”.
Well, our driver was furious, “I can’t believe she called me that” he said out loud even though no one else was in the car. He beat his fist on dash board and said again out loud to no one there, “she was in my lane! Who does she think she is?” He was still fuming when he finished going around the corner and had to swerve again in order to miss the pig in the middle of the road.
Sometimes I think that anger helps us feel powerful. It helps us feel like maybe we have some control in the situation when actually we have zero control. When we face overwhelming obstacles getting angry will at times help us to get the courage we need to overcome those obstacles. I also think that getting angry is sometimes just a habit. It is something we allow ourselves to fall into out of habit rather than through thought. I say that because if we actually thought about it, we would realize that our anger in no way changes the situation most of the time. It is only for our benefit that we get angry, it feeds our ego and we become addicted to the drama of the anger. We do this even though it causes us frustration and pain and more often than not it also negatively impacts anyone else who may be around. There simply are not very many upsides to anger-and this is what the scripture is trying to tell us. For the most part, anger is a waste of time and energy and has zero upside. If you really want to change things, you first have to embrace those you want to change.
This is what Jesus meant when he said for us to love our enemies. We must embrace those we seek to change; we must love one another with mutual affection. That can be a tall order and yet that is what the text tells us to do. It really is the only way to affect change in a situation. We know this to be true in history. Nelson Mandela had little success as a radical extremist committed to violence in his youth, but through love and tolerance and non-violence he accomplished a great deal, as did Desmond Tutu. The message of Martin Luther King Jr was always one of love and non-violence and of course the greatest example is Jesus himself. History has proven over and over again that love wins and violence and anger lose. But, alas, we are slow learners.
I have always appreciated the greeting “Namaste” which has its roots in the Buddhist faith tradition. I have heard a few different interpretations of this greeting but generally it means that the Divine in me recognizes the Divine in you. Some say the spirit of goodness in me recognizes the spirit of goodness in you, but however you choose to interpret the greeting, the idea remains the same. Everyone you meet has a level of the divine spirit of goodness that is within them-and we should do our best to try to recognize and see that in everyone.
This is also what this text is telling us; to look for the good, to see the good and respond to only the good. In spite of what our emotions are telling us, in spite of that anger that flashes up through our being, in spite of the fact that we might think someone called us a pig, we are to look for the spirit of divine goodness.
But toward the end of the text it gets really interesting. Verse 20 is a little confusing to me, because it tells us to do all these things and then when we do, we can actually get a little revenge! We can respond in this way and by doing so we are heaping coals upon their heads. There is more than one person out there I would like to heap coals on, this sounds like a pretty good idea to me. I like the thought of these fiery hot coals burning the heads of everyone I don’t agree with. One commentary I checked with about this text said the coals represent the burning shame that will come with the recognition of how poorly they have treated others when they are treated with kindness.
Is it just me, or does the idea of revenge here seem a little out of place? Is that really to be our motivation? To heap coals on the heads of those we would otherwise be angry with? Is there something else we should be able to uncover in this text, but it isn’t real obvious and even the commentaries miss it? I’m thinking we need a new way to see the last part of this text.
A few months ago you may remember that I traveled to Denver to attend the Festival of Homiletics. It was a weeklong event that gathered together some of the best preachers in the world and there were workshops and Q&A sessions that went along with everything else. It was a great experience. One of the preachers I heard while I was there was a black man from Zimbabwe and he spoke of this text. But he had a different interpretation.
One of the stories he told was ancient history of things that had taken place in his tribe for thousands and thousands of years. The story was about cooperation and friendship and how the greatest gift of friendship was shared among the people of his tribe.
During that time thousands of years ago, one of the greatest commodities was fire. It was difficult to survive without fire. The tradition of the tribe was that it was one of the duties of the women of the household to maintain the fire while the men were out hunting and gathering and so forth. On very rare occasions there were times when someone’s fire would go out. At times like these, the woman whose fire had gone out would turn to her friends and ask for help. She would bring a clay pot to her friends dwelling and the friend would bestow upon her the greatest gift imaginable, the gift of fire, because the gift of fire was the gift of life itself. You could not survive without it. Together, they would heap hot coals into the clay pot and the woman would carry it back home on her head. This was considered a great honor to be asked by someone for the gift of fire and it was a great honor to bestow the gift as well.
And so when we heap coals upon the heads of those who treat us with evil, we can think about this story and how when we respond with love, we give the greatest gift that can ever be given. We give the gift of fire, we give the gift of life itself.
When we respond to evil with love, we have the chance to not only change for the good who they are, but we have the chance to change who we are as well. Go in peace. Amen.