The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r055.htm
s055e02 Lockleys 1/9/02 Sunday 22
"by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads" Rom 12.20
This is a delightful reading from St Paul. It gives such practical advise. If there was ever a simple description of Christianity here it is. The first sentences of it remind me so much of the lovely passage from Micah: "What does the Lord require of you but to love justice, embrace kindness and to walk humbly with your God?" Those who would quote St Paul about justification by faith alone must reckon with these words, by the very same pen.
They show us that we do not have to be anyone special to do the work of the Lord. It doesn't require a theological or psychological pedigree to "rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep" - just a modicum of human compassion.
And there is a joy evident here. I am reminded of the description of the Narnians in Calormen, in the story "The Horse and His Boy" by CS Lewis. " ... instead of being grave and mysterious ... they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly and didn't give a fig for anyone who wasn't. Shasta thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his life." (p52).
I guess I am not alone in thinking however that St Paul may just possibly have relished the thought of his own enemies having burning coals heaped on their heads :-) There are times when I have thought, (privately of course :-), that such was a suitable punishment for those who "have troubled me" (Psalm 23) Even better if God would have me sit at table at the heavenly banquet and for them to have to look at me being waited on by God. Such retribution! In another letter St Paul wishes those who had unsettled the Galatians would go and castrate themselves :-) (Gal 5.12) St Paul's charity is not boundless!
But I want also to say that the reality is that the gospel does provoke strong reactions. "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild" might be true, but the human reactions to this can and are often, very violent. For while it is fine for Jesus to be meek and mild with me, we find, to our chagrin, that Jesus is as meek and mild with others as he is with us.
If I was to ask you how often people made an attempt on Jesus' life, you would probably all say: "one". But in fact there were two, the first unsuccessful. And who tried to kill him earlier? It was the people amongst whom Jesus grew up, the very people with whom he had sat in the synagogue, sabbath by sabbath for his whole life, people who knew the names of his whole family. It was these who sought to throw him off the brow of the hill, but he melted through the crowd. (Luke 4.29) This was certainly a violent reaction, just like the actions of the authorities later, who succeeded in having Jesus killed. It begs the question: "Why?"
Interestingly I was reading a sermon recently by Eric James entitled "Remember the poor" delivered in 1985 in the Grey's Inn Chapel ("Word Over All" - he was the then Honorary Director of Christian Action), where he says "It was doubtless the fact that he pointed out (the radical social and political implications - of the Kingdom) that was one of the main causes of his rejection, suffering and death." (page 16)
Now the reality is that nearly every week I get up in the pulpit and for about ten minutes expound the gospel to the best of my ability. The reality is that whatever I say and however I say it, I am likely to provoke some criticism. I daren't declare which football team I barrack for, let alone my political sympathies :-) I am distinctly agnostic when it comes to the republican / monarchist debate - and even then I will be accused of "fence-sitting :-) I could use this pulpit to encourage us to work for the preservation of the environment, and that would certainly be a worthy use for a pulpit - though again doing so would not be without its critics. I could use this pulpit to propound the rightness of the ordination of women, as in the past it has been used to propound the error of this. The reality is that people will make up their own minds about such things despite what I or others might say. Actually if you as a congregation are any gauge, it is clear that your beliefs are not in complete agreement with what has been taught from the pulpit in the past :-)
Another thing I could do in a sermon is that I could give good advise like the sanctity of marriage and there is certainly nothing wrong with this, except for those whose marriages have failed and struggle to forgive themselves and try to move on.
Fortunately whatever I say from the pulpit will wash over you. You will accept what you agree with and dismiss what you disagree with, hopefully without getting too "het up" about any of it. If I go off on some esoteric tangent - you will just assume that Christopher is "off with the fairies" again, and get on with your own prayers. And this is no criticism - it is vital that this is the case. The most important thing is not what I say but what you say in your hearts to God. God already knows the words of the liturgy, and largely what I am to say in the sermon I give. God doesn't need to listen to that *again* - so God doesn't. God does listen to what you are saying however, for that may well not be a repetition, like my words.
I am reminded of the words of George Herbert: "Judge not the preacher; for he is thy Judge. / If thou mislike him, thou conceivest him not. / God calleth preaching folly. Do not grudge / To pick out treasures from an earthen pot." (quoted in "Word over all" Eric James page x). The words of the sermon are not necessarily meant to be instantly and immediately applicable to each and every person sitting in the congregation, each and every week. I could well imagine that many people here are more concerned with the issues that face their children and grandchildren, than the words of the sermon. This is as it should be.
You know that you're loved despite the adequacy or inadequacy of preaching - and this is a *good* thing. The reality is however that we all find it difficult when the message is to love our enemies - this is when the gospel gets a bit close to home.
I am reminded that the first murder recorded in the Bible happened because someone perceived that his brother's offering was more more acceptable than his own. We have to ask the question, was this perception a true perception, or was the offering brought in a spirit of competitiveness anyway? Perhaps it was this spirit of competition that tainted Cain's offering, and if so we need to make sure that our offerings are not brought in the same spirit of competitiveness with others. And again, murder is a fairly violent reaction to the graciousness of God.
Indeed I was thinking just the other day, if our feelings towards Cain would be any different if Abel was gay, and Cain was put out that God accepted his offering at all.
A spirit of competitiveness may be that our offerings are just so much more *correct* than those of the ancient people of God the Jews, or the worship of people of other faiths, or the offerings of charitable works of those who do not formally acknowledge a God at all. If these taint our own offerings, it may be that we find it is ours that are not accepted.
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild. But as I say, often we want Jesus to be gentle towards us, but less than gentle towards others. We expect God to excuse our foibles, but find the foibles of others less than tolerable. We cannot have it both ways.
As I look at the parables of Jesus we have everything from the conception that God is like the hard taskmaster, who reaps where he does not sow and gathers what he does not scatter. The person who conceives of God like this, is, sadly, not disappointed. But others can have a picture of a generous God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and again we will, most assuredly, not be disappointed.
For the reality is that for those who wish burning coals to be heaped on their enemies' heads are actually very likely to be heaping burning coals on their own heads, in the process. How could I ever forget the person who spent so many years of her life unhappy with the theology of a priest and trying to get rid of him? Week after week the stedfast refusal to retaliate in kind did indeed heap coals on her head, but it was the gospel not the priest.
We are all invited to choose our God carefully, for we are very likely to be right, for ourselves and for others.
But it does beg the question: are we allowed to have such a choice? Surely God is in heaven and is unaffected by what we think. We are, of course, the creatures - and God is the creator. Yet some other passages show us that this is not the entire story. So the psalmist says: "With the pure you are pure: but with the crooked you show yourself perverse." (Psalm 18.28)
In the end, I can only invite you to gaze on the Cross, and ponder why Jesus was put there. For me, Jesus was put there because he kept visiting and accepting the offerings of people other than the religious authorities - so Jesus accepts my offerings, partial as they are, as well as the offerings others bring, even though they are different to mine.
It is my experience that it is very difficult to determine what or who is actually "evil", but as we live in the way that St Paul directs in the first section of our epistle reading, it really doesn't matter, because the genuineness of our love will overcome whatever befalls us.
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