Proper 17: Jeremiah 15.15-2; Romans 12.9-end; Matthew
O God, you declare your almighty power most chiefly in
showing mercy and pity: mercifully grant to us such a measure of
your grace, that we, running the way of your commandments, may
receive your gracious promises, and be made partakers of your
heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"DO NOT be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
In July, in the build-up to the beginning of the four-year
commemoration of the First World War, we held a study morning at
Durham Cathedral on Hensley Henson, the Dean of Durham during that
war. His copious journals, letters, and sermons shed light on how
he tried to respond faithfully to the shock of his world's being
plunged into conflict.
Always aware of his pastoral responsibilities to the troops who
hastily assembled, and to the people of Durham who were being asked
to send their men to war, inevitably he worked with the themes in
this week's readings. So, preaching in the first days of the war,
Henson drew parallels between Jerusalem, invaded by Antiochus
Epiphanes, and the Belgian people, who did not deserve the cruel
treatment that they had received from the Kaiser and his army.
A few weeks ago, Jeremiah was berating God for enticing him, and
now God has deceived him. He had been utterly faithful, had truly
delighted in God's word, and was glad to be called by God's name.
So it was reasonable to ask why his pain was unceasing and his
wound was incurable, like a running sore that would not heal.
He was extraordinarily bold, given God's impatience with
grumblers. Yet, because Jeremiah's heart was set on God, his was a
lament, not a whinge; and God took him utterly seriously,
responding with profound promises.
Jeremiah's situation leaps across the centuries. People still
struggle to be staunch in their commitment to God through dreadful
situations, and many Christians are supporting people through
unfair and unrelieved suffering. Paul's exhortation was directed at
a Church that, in its short life, had already faced cruel
persecution, martyrdoms, and, for its Jewish members, exile.
"Be patient in suffering, do not lag in zeal, be ardent in
spirit," were gritty and tall orders for his readers, given what
the Romans had endured. Paul went on relentlessly with demanding
words that describe Jesus Christ's example to us: "Do not repay
anyone evil for evil. . . If it is possible, so far as it depends
on you, live peaceably with one another. . . Do not be overcome by
evil, but overcome evil with good."
It is worth noting that Paul said "if it is possible, so far as
it depends on you": sometimes, it is not possible, and does not
completely depend on us. Then, like Henson, we face hard decisions
about how to respond to evil.
From the start of his wartime preaching, Henson was resolute
that there should be no animosity against the German people, whom
he saw as hoodwinked by their leaders. So, preaching on "salt and
light" in July 1915, he described as anti-Christian the inevitable
demand for reprisals and vengeance which would arise as the war
continued, and fresh provocations provoked exasperation.
The test of the English Church, revealing whether salt had lost
its savour or light had been darkened, would come when, ultimately,
the German nation learned how its leaders had wronged it. For his
congregation in Sunderland, after a year of "unprecedented
slaughter and devastation", those were prophetically uncomfortable
words, which echo Jeremiah's entrusting of his yearning for
retribution to God.
As we begin to commemorate the Great War, and as we hear the
dreadful news reports of the continuing slaughter of innocent
people today, of revenge killings of more innocent people, of there
being more refugees now than at any time since the Second World
War, these readings confront us.
Few of us face such absolutely desperate situations, but we do
encounter situations in which it is hard to rejoice in hope, be
patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer. Jeremiah's brutally
honest response was to plead to be remembered by God, and to hand
over his instinctive desire for vengeance to God for action rather
than take it himself.
Paul made extraordinary demands of his readers, given their
circumstances: contributing to the needs of the saints was one
thing, but feeding their merciless enemies was another. Radically
counter-cultural, it could spring only from an attitude that
"take[s] thought for what is noble in the sight of all".
While Peter wanted Jesus to bypass suffering, Jesus held his
life in a different perspective, and faced suffering head-on.
Paul's final words sum it up: "Do not be overcome by evil, but
overcome evil with good."