STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 16, 2020

Rev. Sabrina Ingram

WORSHIPPING AT HOME TOGETHER

 

Call to Worship: Leviticus 19: 18 & 19

“Don’t hate in your heart any of your people.  Don’t seek revenge or carry a grudge.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  I am God.  Keep my decrees.”

 

Prayer of Adoration and Confession

Jesus, you are the Prince of Peace,

You came to start a new world order,

where the lion and lamb will lie down together,

where steadfast love and faithfulness will meet,

where righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Knowing our human frailty and our tendency to hurt one another,

you call us to forgive one another, not just 7 times but 70 x 7. 

You encourage us to be reconciled with one another.

You are the one who lay down your life so that we may be reunited with the Triune God.

 

We confess that we are proud people. 

We are easily slighted. 

Quick to demand what we want and slow to see the needs of others.

We are defensive.

We are slow to admit our faults.

We are resentful.

We cling to our entitlements.

Forgiveness doesn’t come easily to us.

We seek revenge and call it justice. 

Our hearts are bitter.

We throw away our dignity. 

 

Forgive us.  Free us from these attitudes.  Help us to not absorb the aggression, anger, demands, and needs of others.   Help us to be peacemakers. 

As we worship today, know that we love you and accept our gift of praise.  Amen.

 

Assurance of Pardon: Isaiah 35: 3 & 4

Tell fearful souls,

    “Courage!  Take heart!

God is here, right here,

    on his way to put things right

and redress all wrongs.

    He’s on his way! He’ll save you!”

 

Prayer for Illumination

Gracious God, as we listen for your Word to us this morning, remove from our hearts all vindictiveness so that we may forgive as we have been forgiven.  Amen.

 

Scripture Readings

“You have heard that it was 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 the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;  and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”  Matthew 5: 38 – 42  NRSV

 

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere?  Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it.  If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it.  And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life.  No more tit-for-tat stuff.  Live generously”  The Message

 

Leviticus 24: 17 – 22

1 Peter 3: 8 – 12

 

Message:

While searching the internet, I found a site that read, “It’s only natural to want revenge when you’ve been the target of a practical joke. Here are a few pranks that will keep your retaliation light-hearted”.   While the suggestions seem like harmless pranks, they are always meant to “get even” by publicly humiliating the other.  The introduction sums it up, “It’s only natural to want revenge.” 

 

Vengeance is instinctive to people.  While driving, if someone  impatiently passes me, I curse them, “I hope you get a speeding ticket”.  I could just as easily bless them with, “Arrive safely!”  My words reveal the unnecessarily vengeful state of my heart over something insignificant which I’ve personalized without cause.  There are, however, many legitimate violations (bullying, abuse, mental torment, injury, torture, enslavement, genocide, murder, betrayal, unlawful confinement, rape, etc.) to which the response of vengeance is not only natural but justifiable.   In the Middle East, the rule of thumb was “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”.  That may seem an inhumane or ineffective form of justice.  As Gandhi said,  “An eye for an eye and soon the whole world will be blind.”   For the Israelites, it was a civilized form of justice that served a number of purposes:

  • It kept the retaliation equal to the violation. When someone harms us, we often want to do something even more vicious to them.   This ensured the punishment would fit the crime.
  • It prevented family feuds. In tribal cultures if you harm one member, you’ve insulted them all, so the entire tribe would come to take their vengeance on all of your tribe.  A defined punishment kept people from turning into the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s.
  • It kept people from “taking the law into their own hands”. In Israel, a judge would be appointed to arbitrate and rule on the punishment, rather than the individuals involved.
  • Finally, it prevented anarchy in the form of vigilante groups or terrorists. It provided a defined, just legal order in which society could function.

In a way “an eye for an eye” was a merciful Law.

 

By Jesus day, Israel no longer took this Law literally because a literal interpretation could lead to injustice.  If the abuser’s eyesight is worse than the eye he gouged, does removing his eye balance the scales?  Civil disputes and injuries were compensated with money for: injury, pain, healing, loss of income, and indignity suffered.  To decide the cost of injury, the court determined the price of the person if he were sold as a slave, before and after the injury.  The difference was paid by the perpetrator.  They asked, “How much money would a person accept to undergo a similar level of pain?”  That would be the sum paid.  On top of this, all medical expenses, loss of income during the healing period and the difference in income if the man couldn’t return to the same job, were paid by the offender.  Indignity referred to the distress and humiliation the victim experienced, much like we consider the impact statements of a victim or their family today.  We can see how our own judicial system was shaped by these guidelines.

 

As with many other Laws, Jesus takes this one and stretches it further.  His teaching on this is one of the most unique and fundamental codes of Christianity.  It is also hard to accept and harder to live.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, “Do not resist an evildoer.”  What?!  Am I not to defend myself or seek justice?  Are Christians to be doormats?  Pacifists?  If war breaks out, are we to allow the enemy to take our country and property and even kill or enslave us without a fight?  Before we write this teaching off as impossible fanaticism or hyperbole, let’s consider what this may mean.

 

“Resist” may not be the best translation of the Greek word “anthistemi” for this context.  When it comes to resistance scripture is clear that the only one, we are not to resist is God (Romans 9:19; 2 Timothy 3:8; Luke 23:15; Acts 6: 10).  We’re to open ourselves to the Spirit’s will,  work for the Father’s kingdom, and accept Christ’s grace by faith for our salvation.   Also, scripture tells us to resist the forces of evil (Ephesians 6:13; 1 Peter 5:9; James 4:7) which include Satan, sin and those who sin against God’s kingdom.  We’re never told to condone sin, pretend it isn’t sin,  or act like the perpetrator’s sinful actions are acceptable.  Jesus recognized these people as “evildoers”.  He called evildoers to repent.  When Jesus’ speaks of “resisting an evildoer” he means it in the sense of not retaliating, or acting vengefully.   We’re not to let pride and bitterness get the best of us.  We’re not to “get even” or take the law into our own hands.  He goes on to give 4 examples of how this might look.

 

  1. If someone strikes you, don’t strike back. To hit someone on the right cheek usually meant a slap with the back of one’s right hand.  This was considered an insult, similar to smacking someone across the face with your gloves, in order to taunt or challenge him to a duel.   Jesus recommends that when someone tries to provoke us, we don’t respond; we stand there and take it, turning to him the left cheek also.  Rather than being a sign of weakness, standing one’s ground becomes a sign of strength.  Years ago, I got into a disagreement with an aggressive classmate.  She slapped me hard across the cheek.  Although fearful, I stood there looking her in the eye.  This took her aback.  Soon she walked away feeling awkward and humiliated.  When I told my dad what happened, he asked why I didn’t fight back.  I said, “Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek”.  He said, “I’d have plowed her.”  I said, “If I had, she’d have pounded me out.  She’s tougher than I am.”  Although I knew she  was physically tougher, standing my ground showed me to be the stronger person.   Had she started to hit me repeatedly, I could have protected myself, or walked away without engaging.   In a confrontation, Christians do not react from pride.

 

  1. If someone sues you for the shirt off your back, give him your coat also. Giving more than is asked is a sign of repentance. When we’re being sued, it’s easy to feel persecuted.  We forget we’re the offender.   Giving more than asked also de-escalates the situation.  When we’ve injured someone, we admit it, and make amends.

 

  1. During the Roman occupation, a soldier could conscript a Jew to carry his gear for a mile. Jesus said, “Carry it two”. “Use the occasion to practice the servant life.”  Instead of letting his power make you furious and crush your impotent spirit, chose to serve willingly and even happily.   When we’re made to do something, we don’t want to do, we do it without resentment, we use our God-given gifts, and we do our best.

 

  1. If someone begs or borrows money, be generous. Don’t expect to be paid back or blessed. “Giving to get” diminishes the gift because the giver is thinking more of him or her self.  We need to also consider the person to whom we’re giving.  Can we offer assistance while guarding the person’s self respect?  Will our gift be manageable for the receiver?  Will it be sufficient to ease their suffering?  All we have comes from God.  It isn’t “ours”.  In all our giving, we give to God (cf Matthew 25).  It is both a privilege and an obligation.

 

This is the essence of what Jesus was getting at: disciples of Christ are peacemakers in all situations.   We let go of our pride and anger, admit our errors, serve freely, and show kindness to everyone, regardless of how they treat us.  We resist the temptation to retaliate or to “go to the dark side” with the Darth Vader’s of the world.   The paradox is: we resist evil by not “resisting” evildoers.  We do not become what we stand against.  Jesus himself demonstrated this.  When he was on trial, he allowed his guards to hit him, whip him, spit on him, falsely accuse him, and crucify him.  We could argue he was outnumbered, but we’re forgetting the “host of angels” at his command.  Jesus endured this torture with silent dignity because he chose his Father’s will for him at that critical time.  He didn’t give his enemies power over him; he trusted his Father’s power was greater.

 

So, are we to be sponges for the cruelty of others or passively bear all torment?  Is the spouse to be a punching bag for her abuser?  Are we to refuse to participate in all war?  Are we to rid our societies of police and judicial systems, to forgo all punishment or imprisonment, and to replace litigation with arbitration?  Are we to be like the saint who let lice nibble him, refusing to kill them, maintaining he had to suffer and couldn’t resist evil?   Saint or not, that’s both masochistic and pointless.   Jesus would be the first to say, “set boundaries”; “let your yes be yes, and your no be no”, remember?   While we’re to be free of the desire for revenge and personal animosity, and we’re to repay evil with good, we still have boundaries.  The Christian’s patience, humility, kindness, and generosity are limited only by love.  This takes careful discernment.  We’ll want to prayerfully ponder our response with a cool head and detached spirit.  We need to consider what is in the best interest of the other person or persons involved, what is in the best interest of society and what Christ is calling us to do.  It’s not in anyone’s interest to allow an abusive person to continue their abuse.  The abused party needs protecting, and the abuser needs to be removed from the situation.  When someone’s soul is on the line, we don’t let them dig a deeper hole, we show them “the Way”  to transformation, which is Christ.  We help them turn away from sin.  When war breaks out and basic democratic rights are challenged, it’s not in the best interest of society to allow a dictator to invade your country.  When people are threatened with genocide or treated as less than others, it’s not in the best interest of a free and just society, to allow the subjection to continue.   Revenge is not the way of Christ and will likely make matters worse.  The followers of Christ should be the first to model and advocate new ways of being in the world, systemic changes, and the letting go of personal vendettas.  We seek to heal divides, not increase them.   Spurgeon summed this up, “We are to be anvils when bad men are hammers.”

 

So once again, Jesus is concerned with the attitudes that drive our actions and the state of our hearts.  The burning need for vengeance binds us.  Instead of letting evildoers get under your skin and draw you into bitterness, decide for yourself to handle the situation graciously.  Instead of seeking pay-back, we can let go of insults.  Instead of tearing the other person down, we can lift both parties up.   Instead of demanding that life be fair, we can choose to be open-handed and big-hearted.  Instead of refusing forgiveness, we can bless.   We can be the bigger person by choosing to extend kindness.   When we choose our reactions, we’re free.  We rise above the person or circumstances that could otherwise destroy us.  We retain our dignity.   We work for peace.

 

Questions for Reflection

How do you react to this teaching of Jesus?

How do you respond when someone offends you or treats you poorly?

Are you a vengeful person?

Are you able to set boundaries against evil without being aggressive?

 

Offering

God of mercy and justice, today we surrender to you our pride and our bitterness.  We give you our hearts, so that you may renew us.  We give you our desire to be people who forgive and people who bless others.  Accept our gifts so that we may bear witness to Jesus our Lord.  Amen.  

 

Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession

Living Christ,

We are thankful that you walked this Earth as one of us, knowing joys and sorrows;  beauty and terror; love and animosity.  Your compassion for us overflows.  Your love for us is enduring.   When we reach out to you in times of desperation and with various needs you hear our prayers.  You’re always with us and you never forsake us.

 

Thank you for the many dreams and desires you have placed in our souls.  Bless us and what we do in your name.  You know our limitations.  You know we wish we could do more.  Help us to do what we can to increase your kingdom.

 

Thank you for our church, and the fellowship and love we are missing and value so much.  We are thankful for each person’s unique contributions and acts of service.  Lord, with this pandemic, with civil unrest, with disasters and losses around the globe, things have changed.  We are uncertain about coming together as your people.  We are uncomfortable by the changes that must be in place and resistant to them.  Help us to adapt.  Give us to put the needs of others first.  Help us to worship you regardless of how we feel.  Help us to be co-operative.

 

We praise you for our families and friends.  In the aftermath of lockdown, we appreciate them even more.  We are refreshed by their presence.   Lord, every family has troubles and concerns.  We pray that you would heal our differences.  We pray for those in our families with needs, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual.  We pray for those who have turned away from you, in anger or indifference – draw them back.

 

We thank you for our community and our country.  We are blessed with freedom and wealth, with order and compassion.  Help us to never take these qualities for granted.  Show us the ways in which we are all inter-connected.  Help us to lift up the lowly, the poor and the oppressed.  We pray for our political leaders that you would give them wisdom and integrity.  Fill them with the desire to serve all their people well.  We pray for our indigenous people, help us to work together for healing and reconciliation.  Show us our blind spots.

 

We thank you for our places of work, for the places we shop, and the places we live.  We thank you for the many people who make up our social circle.   Help us to be accountable to one another and put the needs of the whole before our own.

 

We thank you that you are a God of love and power, who holds us in the palm of your hand.  We pray for those we know who are ill….

For those who are struggling to reconcile unwelcome news…

For those who are approaching death…

For those who grieve…

And for those who face overwhelming challenges…

 

We thank you that you are our comfort and strength.  When we are weary, you lift us on to your shoulders and carry us.  When we are puzzled, you light our way.  When we are worried, you invite us to take up your yoke. When we are uncertain, you are truth.

 

Living Christ, you are the Source of peace and new possibility for us all.

Help us trust in your grace for today and tomorrow.

Fill us with the strength and hope we need to walk with you, united in your love.

For it is as your loyal followers we dare to pray the words you taught us:

 

The Lord’s prayer

 

Invitation to Mission

We go from here to be people who live and offer the forgiveness of Christ to all who show evil intent towards us. 

 

May the Triune God bless you and keep you.

Amen.