Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sun, October 26, 2014 - Reformation Sunday - Freed to Relate to God

Jeremiah 31.31-34; Romans 3.19-28; John 8.31-36

In the book of Jeremiah from our first reading, we hear Jeremiah proclaiming that God is going to put a new covenant in the hearts of people, so that they can develop a relationship with God that comes from within each person, rather than from some rules developed by someone else. Jeremiah was reacting to the pressure of the priests of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. In Israel during Jeremiah’s time, there was a tendency towards exclusivity when it came to worshipping God. Israelites were being told that the only legitimate place to worship God was in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even though there was a Temple in Samaria, and one in Elephantine in Egypt, and even though the Israelites had their own thriving religious practice in their homes, the priests of Israel insisted that the only way to worship God - the only way to have a relationship with God - was by worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem. If you didn’t live in Jerusalem, too bad - you would have to make your way there at least once a year. That the priests demanding religious conformity of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem were working at the Temple in Jerusalem was not lost on Jeremiah, or on many of the prophets. But that didn’t stop the priests. They insisted there was only one way to worship God. Only one way to develop a relationship with God.
This attempt at what I call religious conformity is behind Paul’s writing in Romans, too. I mentioned last week that the early Christian communities were struggling with the mix of Christians who were Jewish and Christians who were Gentiles - non-Jewish. And this comes out in this letter - the Jewish Christians thought that the Gentile Christians should conform to the religious practice of Judaism - namely, circumcision - in order to be Christian. The Jewish-Christians were arguing that followers of Christ could obtain righteousness only by developing a Jewish relationship with God, Father and Son. They insisted that there was only one way to develop a relationship with God. They insisted on religious conformity - conforming to a single religious practice.
Today is Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate our Lutheran history as a denomination that protests this very thing. Our readings for today emphasize the problems that come when we try to force people to practice their religion in one uniform way. As we hear so often in the Lutheran church, early on in Luther’s life, the Roman Catholic priesthood were insisting that church services be in Latin, and that the Bible be translated only into Latin. Their insistence on this was how they controlled access to God - after all, only priests could read Latin. Regular people couldn’t read or understand it, and so they relied on the priests to tell them what the Bible said and they went to church so that the priests could perform the proper rituals - in Latin - that would guarantee forgiveness of sins and establish their relationship with God. Prior to Luther’s reformation, priests in the medieval Roman Catholic church insisted that there was only one way to develop a relationship with God.

But, thanks be to God, we celebrate on Reformation Sunday that God does not actually demand religious conformity. God does not insist on only one way of developing a relationship with God. In fact, we see God resisting these ideas. In our first reading, we hear Jeremiah proclaiming that God, in fact, is putting God’s covenant in the hearts of the Israelites, so that they no longer are bound by the rules of the priests in the Temple. God’s very own actions speak against the demand for exclusive worship at the Temple, and God resists the demand for only one way of relating to God.
And in the letter to the Romans, Paul is very clear to emphasize that the Christians in Rome are free to worship as they wish - the Gentile Christians are not bound to worship as the Jewish Christians do. Gentile Christians can have a relationship with God that is not based on Jewish requirements - their relationship is “apart from the law,” as Paul says. Their relationship with God is determined by God, and not by human interpretations of God’s words to another people.
And Luther, dear Luther, reformed the church when he proclaimed that God did not need the priesthood in order to develop relationships with Christians. Luther insisted that the Bible and the services be in local languages, so that people could interpret the Bible for themselves, and participate in worship on their own, and develop relationships with God that weren’t mediated by someone else. Luther’s insistence that individuals are free to develop relationships with God completely apart from the priesthood is at the core of our Reformation celebrations, and something that we Lutherans continue to hold dear. God resists, and we protest, any attempt to force religious conformity and any argument that says that there is only one way in which people can have a relationship with God. Go, Luther.

But. But before we launch into a rousing version of The Church’s One Foundation, it’s important to take a minute and see if we really are living out this message of religious freedom that we are so quick to claim. Because Christians, like everyone else, sometimes (often) have a gap between what we say and what we do, and when we don’t recognize that, we fall into it. Paul, for instance, despite his insistence that Christians are freed from Jewish practice to develop their own relationship with God, nevertheless was pretty clear that the only way to a relationship with God was through Christ. And Paul was insistent that everyone becomes followers of Jesus. Those who didn’t would live lives of ruin and misery. (That’s from verse 16, right before our reading starts.) But Paul is ignoring his own words that it is God who develops relationships with people - God is the one who brings people to God, in God’s own way. We are not supposed to judge another’s relationship to God, and we are definitely not supposed to judge the path they take to get there. In fact, we all know individuals who live incredible lives of good deeds and selflessness and who are deeply spiritual, but who aren’t Lutheran. Or even Christian. These people have deep relationships with God that exist outside of the church. Do we judge them? Do we insist that they must relate to God in the boundaries of the church, do we insist on religious conformity and that there is only one way to have a relationship with God?
Again, we have to look at that gap between what we proclaim - religious freedom - and what we do. The writer of the Gospel of John frequently fell into that gap when it came to the Jews. John was constantly bashing Jews, and constantly arguing that they should repent of their ways and follow Jesus. He frequently implies that Jews should worship God through Jesus - that they should convert to Christianity - ignoring that Jews actually already have their very own solid relationship with God. John insisted that the only way to a relationship with God was through Jesus, completely ignoring that Jesus himself related to God as the Jewish God - the God of Abraham and Isaac, and that Jesus himself never called his followers to abandon their Jewish faith.
Even this very Sunday - Reformation Sunday - can be a time when we fall into that gap between proclaiming freedom from religious conformity and pushing for it. All too often, Reformation Sunday, in the Lutheran church, become a day of Catholic-bashing. We can get a little too carried away proclaiming how awful those Roman Catholics were, and continue to be, with their priests and their Latin and their strict rules about baptism and communion. And we forget what we proclaim - that everyone is free to worship God in their own way - that they are free to develop their own relationship with God - even if that way is Roman Catholic. The truth is that God frees us to practice our religion in whatever way brings us closer to God, whether that way is Lutheran, Roman Catholic, or something else.
This truth of the Reformation needs to be celebrated more often than just once a year. Because we so easily forget it. We start insisting that there is only one way to worship, or only one way to have a service. We insist that only members can come to Communion, or that only Christian families can baptize their babies. We insist that Communion can only be celebrated one way, or that only pastors can preach. Even pastors forget this. We insist that only certain people can be leaders in the church, or we insist that parishioners agree with us on every theological issue. We demand religious conformity, and we establish requirements about what kinds of relationships with God are acceptable.

But that’s not how God works. Jeremiah and Paul and Luther and Jesus himself remind us that we are free. We are free to develop our own relationship with God, in the manner that is most meaningful for us. Why? Because, as Luther reminded us, God is the one at work in these relationships. God, not us, is the one developing the relationship with you. This is not the work of Paul, or John, or even Luther. Jeremiah was right - God is the one who put God’s covenant in your heart, God is the one who sent the Holy Spirit to you in baptism. God is the one who calls you to God, and God is the one who moves you to worship. Your relationship is the work of God, not of humans.
As it turns out, John was right, too - the Truth will make you free - Jesus proclaims that you are free to develop your own relationship with God, just as Jesus did, either inside or outside the institution. Paul was right - you are free to develop your own religious practices because you are made righteous through God’s work, and not your own. And Luther was right - you are free to worship God without going through the pastor, or through the congregation, or through the denomination. (Of course, the congregation of believers is a really great place to be supported in that relationship, but you don’t have to go to church to have a relationship with God.)

What we celebrate today is that God has freed you to develop your own relationship with God, however you want - either in the church or out of it, through traditional means or contemporary ones. You are free to relate to God as a Father or as a Mother, free to be Catholic or Lutheran or something else entirely. You are free to agree with your pastor or to disagree. What we celebrate today is that you are freed from the need to conform, through the work of Jesus Christ. Your relationship with God is as unique as you are, and it is called into being and nurtured by God, who calls all people to love and freedom. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sun, October 19, 2014 - When Relationships Come to an End

Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

About a year ago, the pastor of the church in California where my children and I attended retired. Pastor Sara had been with the congregation about ten years, and we had been there for the last five, and she left to move to Arizona to spend more time with her grandchildren. It was a big moment in the life of that congregation. Ten years is a long time to spend in a parish, and Pastor Sara was an integral part of that church’s identity. The congregation was glad that she was able to spend more time with her grandchildren, and she had certainly worked hard and earned her retirement, but her leaving was still a huge adjustment for everyone.
It was a huge adjustment for me, personally. Pastor Sara was my children’s first pastor. She was their first conduit to a Christian relationship with God, and she was their first church-ly embodiment of the grace of Christ. Through Pastor Sara, my children learned that church - the body of Christ - is a safe and welcoming place, and that God loves them without any judgement or conditions. I myself really liked Pastor Sara, and even though I was a pastor myself and studying a PhD in theology, I learned so much from her about grace. She was my pastor. But primarily, she was my children’s pastor, and her leaving was hard on me because of my kids. I still talk about us “losing” her. Of course, she didn’t die. We didn’t lose her. 
  But isn’t it interesting that when a pastor leaves a congregation, when there is a major transition of this kind, that we sometimes we think of it kind of like a death. After all, there is actual loss. First off, there is the loss of the relationship between the pastor and the congregation. When a pastor leaves, that relationship comes to an end. It’s no longer alive - it’s not a day-to-day thing anymore. This is a big thing to have to get used to. In California, the congregation’s formal relationship with Pastor Sara came to an end. We lost that relationship. Just like when a great-grandparent in a family dies, the relationship of that person to the family-at-large ends. It’s significant.
And on top of the rather large loss of the relationship of the pastor and the congregation, there is also the smaller losses of all the individual relationships that the pastor had with individuals in the congregation. Because of course, each member of the congregation has their own relationship with the pastor. Each of my children had their own relationship with Pastor Sara, just as she and I had our own relationship. Each member in a family has their own particular relationship with the grandparent or great-grandparent who died. And each of these relationships comes to an end when the pastor moves on. The loss of one’s individual relationship with a pastor isn’t on the scale of losing the relationship between the congregation and the pastor, but that doesn’t mean it feels any smaller. Sometimes, an individual’s relationship with their pastor is much deeper than the congregation’s, and the loss can be felt more deeply, too. So, in a way, a pastor leaving a congregation is a bit similar to an important family member passing away. A particular set of relationships comes to an end, and a process of adjusting to a new way of living begins. 

So what does this process of adjustment look like? Well, you may have heard of the five stages of grief that people go through when someone dies, and I think these are more widely applicable to the feelings that people experience during any kind of loss. From things as trivial as losing your glove in the parking lot to as major as losing someone you love. The feelings are: depression and anxiety - where we acknowledge that we will never be the same without that person, and where we wonder, and sometimes worry, about how we will carry on without them. This feeling can be particularly intense for congregations who had a very strong pastor and who feel like their identity was really dependent on that pastor. If a congregation is struggling, they might worry whether losing their pastor will cause them to decline even further. 
Then there’s the feeling of bargaining: wondering if maybe we did something that caused the person to leave and promising not to do it again. Some congregations wonder whether they weren’t supportive enough of their pastor, or if certain individuals drove the pastor away.
Then, there’s feelings of anger: sometimes when we lose someone, we feel angry. Either angry at them - how could they leave us like this? Or angry at other people - how could they have let this pastor go? Or even angry at themselves - why didn’t I do more to keep them here?
The process of adjusting to a pastor leaving can also involve feelings of denial: we’ll be fine! We’ll just get through this interim period and find a new pastor and everything will go back to the way it was! Let’s just get past all these other feelings and get on with it!
And, of course, there are also feelings of acceptance and sometimes even relief: it was the pastor’s time to go, and we’re thankful for the relationship we had with them when they were here, and now we’re going to move on to new things.
Now, these aren’t “stages” of adjusting to loss that we travel through one at a time. That’s often what’s put out there, but it’s not true. All of these feelings come and go, back and forth, at different times. Sometimes some of the feelings are stronger and last longer than others - for me, feelings of depression and anxiety were the strongest when our pastor left - how will my children ever find a new pastor who means so much to them? They’ll never find another church community like that one and they’ll leave the church forever. Sometimes some of the feelings are short and hardly felt at all - I never really had any feelings of bargaining when Pastor Sara retired. Of course, in a congregation where there are so many relationships that come to an end when a pastor leaves, there will also be many feelings, all at the same time. Some people might feel angry while others might feel acceptance while others might feel denial. My children never felt anger about their pastor leaving, or denial, although other people did. Even a single person can experience several of these feelings at the same time.

But these feelings are a normal part of adjusting to the loss of a relationship. Some of these feelings actually figure very strongly into the background of our readings from today. In both the first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures and the gospel reading from Matthew, the writers are struggling intensely with a significant lost relationship. In Isaiah, the land of Israel was invaded by Babylon, and the Israelites were forcibly removed from the land and relocated to Babylon. The first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and with it, their primary means of relating to God. The people of Israel were struggling with that loss, and feelings of depression and bargaining were huge at that time, and profoundly shape the book of Isaiah. In the Gospel of Matthew, the Christians of Matthew’s community were struggling with the loss of their relationship with their Jewish brothers and sisters. At the place and time of the writing of Matthew, Jews were excluding non-Jewish Christians from worship. Matthew’s community felt that loss very deeply, and the feelings that the writer of Matthew felt were primarily those of anger. Accusing the Pharisees of plotting, calling them malicious, and hypocrites, that’s Matthew reacting out of feelings of deep anger. What he writes isn’t particularly Christian, but his feelings are normal reactions to loss.

So how do we, as Christians, live with all these feelings and engage - constructively - in this process of adjustment? Well, obviously that’s going to be something that - in this congregation - we will work through together over the coming months. But, as Christians, the most important thing to remember now and down the road is that God is with us in these times of loss and transition, and that God promises, as God always has, to bring new life. God is present in the midst of all the feelings being processed, God is part of this experience of transition. Amidst the feelings of depression and anxiety, God sends hope. When the Israelites felt abandoned in Babylon, God sent King Cyrus to lead them back to Israel. Amidst the feelings of bargaining and repentance, God promises forgiveness. Amidst the feelings of anger, God is present and promises peaceful resolution. When the writer of Matthew felt intense anger, God was present in those feelings and sent the Holy Spirit to bring reconciliation between Christians and Jews today. And amidst the feelings of denial, God is present in the wish to return to the way things were and then sends the Holy Spirit to reassure us that we are a Pentecost church and that change is a sign of new life. 
My children and I will always be in the process of adjusting to life without Pastor Sara. We developed new relationships with the pastor who came after her, as did the congregation, and there will be further feelings of loss and adjustments when she, too, goes. The same is true of this congregation, as well, and of every congregation whose pastor has ever left. 
The Christian life is founded on the experience of loss. As Christians, we don’t deny that death - of people or of relationships - is a reality. We accept that all things come to an end. We are a people of Good Friday. But just as importantly, the Christian life is founded on the experience of resurrection and new life. Endings are a necessary part of the process of new beginnings, and as previous relationships die, new ones develop. We are equally a people of Easter Sunday. God’s gift to us is in the bringing together of these two things - Good Friday and Easter Sunday. As we remember and celebrate in the Sunday Feast, Christ has died. Christ is risen, and Christ comes again. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

October 5, 2014 - The Joy of the Law

Exodus 20:1-21 - Lutheran Church of the Cross, Calgary

In less than two weeks from now, people from the Jewish faith will celebrate the religious holiday of Simchat Torah. There’s not really any comparable holiday in the Christian faith. It celebrates God giving the Torah - the first five books of the Bible, including - in particular - the Ten Commandments - to Moses on Mount Sinai. On Simchat Torah, Jews gather together, joyfully and with excitement, to dance around the Torah scrolls, because in Judaism, Torah - the Law - is considered one of the blessings of God.
Now, those of us raised solidly in the Lutheran tradition might understandably find this a bit odd. Most of us were taught that the Law of God, including these rather intimidating Ten Commandments, are not really something that we would celebrate. They are the LAW, they are the things that demonstrate how far we fall short of what God wants us to be doing. Those of us who went through Lutheran confirmation class might remember Luther’s Small Catechism. Luther took the Ten Commandments and expanded on what they meant, attaching to each “You shall not” a “You shall do.” For instance, “You shall not murder” becomes “You shall help your neighbour in every bodily need,” so that if your neighbour goes hungry or doesn’t have mitts when it snows, you are murdering her if you do not help. “You shall not steal” becomes, for Luther, a rule that you must “help your neighbour to protect and improve their property and business.” If you see someone breaking into their car and don’t scare the burglar away, and the contents of the car are stolen, according to Luther, you have broken the commandment to not steal. The Ten Commandments are strict guidelines that we must not break. If we do, we can expect to experience God’s full punishment. The idea of celebrating these commandments just seems... odd.
As Lutherans, and as Christians in general, we tend to look down on those who make too much of the law. Legalists, we call them. We bring up stories of Jesus and the Pharisees, and talk about how Jesus came to set aside the Law, which made the Pharisees - who were Jewish - mad. Even Paul in our first reading says it, “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” We make the transition very easily from Law to legalism to Pharisees to death. The passage in the reading that I read that really resonates with this type of thinking says it clearly, “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of the parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” If I break one of God’s laws, not only will I be punished, but my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, and even my great-great-grandchildren, too.

Did you know that Luther suffered from depression and anxiety? He truly believed that awful things were going to be happen at any moment, and that the devil was really hunting him down. Not symbolically, but really. If you’ve ever suffered from clinical depression or anxiety - and I have - then Luther’s theology and what we believe in the Lutheran church will feel very familiar. The sense that no matter how hard you try, you will never be as good as you should be. The sense that something terrible is lurking around the corner. The panic when something you do goes wrong and everything feels as if it’s about to fall apart. Combine this with the Ten Commandments, and for some people it’s overwhelming. I didn’t give food to the food bank this month, and now underprivileged children in Calgary will go hungry, and I am breaking the commandment not to kill. I found someone’s credit card on the ground in the CTrain parking lot and I didn’t pick it up and report it to the police, and I just broke the commandment to not steal.
Thinking of the Law as punishment and as an indicator of all our failings is exhausting. It makes us harder on ourselves than we need to be - I am not responsible for feeding all of the children in Calgary, and I actually tucked the credit card into the side of the door next to the car where I found it. But I still feel like I didn’t do enough. We become afraid to really truly believe in God’s grace - we have a hard time telling ourselves that it’s okay, or that our actions are good enough. We think of God’s punishment on the third and fourth generations and we want to hide - to deny our sins, like children do when caught in a lie. Because, of course, we seldom like to confess publicly how awful we think we are, and then we do what psychologists call “projecting,” and we project our failures onto others. We become harder on others. We judge others in order to make ourselves feel better. We accuse others of not caring enough, or of not trying hard enough. We blame others for setting up standards that we can’t reach. For instance, we judge the Jews and Pharisees as legalists. We feel resentful towards God’s law.

Well, Luther was able, by the grace of God, to treat his depression and anxiety by turning to the grace given in Christ. He didn’t have medication available to him, like we do now, and towards the end of his life his anxiety turned into paranoia and anti-Semitism, but he still proclaimed grace as the balance to God’s overwhelming and punishing Law.
Which is wonderful. The more grace the better! But Luther wasn’t quite right in his understanding of the Law. (I know! Did I just say that?!?) Luther, coming to the Law through Paul, thought that the Law was oppressive. But that is not how Jews in Jesus’ time, or even today, saw it. That is now how Jesus himself understood God’s law. For one thing, we have the Gospel of Matthew saying that Jesus said, “I come not to abolish the law but to uphold it.” Jesus was Jewish, and like the Jews of his time, he was formed by the Law - by Torah - and by Jewish attitudes towards the Law. And these attitudes are that Torah and the Ten Commandments are a sign of God’s enduring covenant with God’s people. To contrast with the verse that says God will punish the third and fourth generations, we have what immediately follows, “I the Lord your God am ... showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Forget punishment for my great-great-grandchildren if I break a commandment, the thousandth generation after me will receive God’s love if I keep just one! A thousand generations covers about twenty thousand years. That means that if any of your ancestors - grandparents, great-grandparents, anybody in your family going back twenty thousand years - ever loved God and kept the commandments - and there’s got to be at least one person in your family - then you are assured of God’s love for you today. The Ten Commandments are a sign of God’s everlasting commitment - nothing will ever prevent God from staying in relationship with God’s people. Torah and the Ten Commandments are signs of what we Christians like to call grace - God’s promise to never abandon us. Like I said, the more grace, the better!
So, what do we do about Paul, then? I don’t want you to think I’ve forgotten about him. Paul... well, Paul is a challenge for Christians. And in the last twenty years the Christian understanding of Paul has undergone some pretty drastic revisions, due in large part to the input of Jewish scholars teaching us about the Jewish relationship to the Law. And so our understanding of Paul has gone from thinking of him as Luther did - a Jew who rejected the Law and converted to Christianity to proclaim Christ - to thinking of him a little more complexly, as a Jew who continued for his entire life to love the law and who believed that Jews would always be the chosen people of God, but who proclaimed Christ to non-Jews. Gentile Christians - what the first Christians called those who followed Christ but didn’t start out as Jewish (because most of them did) - didn’t think of themselves as being part of the Jewish people, or of being part of God’s covenant with Abraham and Moses, and so they didn’t consider themselves to be part of the community of God’s love. So Paul proclaimed to them that they were loved through Christ. The Jews get God’s grace through Torah - Christians get God’s grace through Jesus. The more grace the better!
But that doesn’t mean that for Christians, the Law is oppressive. For Jews, and for Jesus, and since we call ourselves followers of Jesus, for us, too, the Torah - the Law and the Ten Commandments - are a source of comfort and joy and grace. They are something to celebrate, because they tell us how to respond to God’s great gift of love. God loves us, and to say thanks, we do what we can to follow the law. We celebrate God’s grace by doing what God asks us to: God loves you. To say thank you, don’t kill anyone. 
In fact, contrary to what Luther feared, it is not that difficult to keep the Ten Commandments. Taken at face value, we don’t actually worship false idols, we generally don’t murder, or steal, or bear false witness (lie about other people in court.) All of you here in church are keeping the Sabbath day holy. Some of the commandments we could use some work on, but by and large we are doing what God has asked us to do. Actually, as Jesus pointed out, and I’ll call Paul back in again, to fulfill the commandments, we have only to love. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “‘You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” Paul takes this from Leviticus, from Torah, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And he continues, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” So. God loves us, and in return, we love others. This is something we can do. We can love. Not the least because Christ loves us, and not the least because God’s Holy Spirit comes to us empowering us to love. 

The Ten Commandments are, as they are for our Jewish brothers and sisters, and as they were for Jesus Christ in whose path we follow, a sign of God’s love for you and a sure promise of God’s everlasting commitment to you. You are here. You already worship the Lord our God. God has already blessed you, and is showing steadfast love to you, to your children, to your grandchildren, and to the thousandth generation that will come after you. God’s grace and love comes to us in so many ways, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sun, August 31, 2014 - Hate What is Evil

I want to talk about the second reading this morning, because I think it talks about a problem that we are dealing a lot with in the world today, and that is the problem of evil. Paul tells the church in Rome to “hate what is evil” and “do not repay anyone evil for evil,” and to be good to those who do evil to you in your life.
But what is evil? How do we identify those who are evil? Initially, I think it seems pretty simple. Evil people are those who commit violence. Those who murder, those who deliberately cause pain and suffering to others, those who attack first. Evil people are those who attack innocents - who abuse children, who attempt to wipe out entire ethnic communities. Evil people torture animals, traffic women, use forced child labour. Evil people cause the death of others who have done nothing wrong. 
In our Gospel, for instance, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew clearly thinks that the Jews were evil - that the elders and chief priests and scribes were evil for causing Jesus to undergo great suffering and be killed. What can be more evil than causing the death of God’s Son? In fact, for centuries, the Christian church has considered Jews to be evil - in the Middle Ages, priests would encourage Christians to hunt down Jews on Good Friday, burn down their houses, and kill them on Easter, sometimes by stoning them. Up until the middle of the twentieth century, it was perfectly acceptable for Christians to say that the Jews killed Jesus and that’s why the Jews in turn deserved to be run out of every country they ever tried to live. They were evil and we are to hate evil.
But I have questions about whether it is really that simple to answer the question of who is evil. Because while Christians thought the Jews were evil, Jews have thought that Christians were the evil ones. And can you blame them? If it is evil to kill innocent people, and to burn down their houses, and if it is evil to evict entire populations of people from your town, and to take over their businesses and steal their money, then Christians have, through the centuries, committed evil against Jews. Hate what is evil? We should be hating ourselves...
But again, it is not that simple. When Christians were first starting out as a community, we were persecuted by everybody - by Jews, by Romans, by pagans. Christians were the ones being killed, and were the ones having evil done to them. The Christian martyrs were thrown to the lions for their faith - adults and children alike. So how shall we identify who is evil?

There was a really interesting study on mice that was published earlier this year. The study took a group of newborn mice, and exposed them to trauma. Basically, the newborn mice were dunked in ice cold water, and then not allowed to cuddle with their mothers afterwards. So, as was expected, these mice grew up exhibiting what we would call symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Depression, heightened aggression, anxiety, poor stress management. That is not the interesting part. The interesting part is that they took the sperm of the traumatized male mice, implanted it in mice that were raised in good conditions, and the mice that resulted from that breeding also exhibited depression, anxiety, and poor stress management. And when *those* mice bred, their offspring showed these same PTSD symptoms. The trauma visited on the original mice - the evil done to them - passed down through three generations. The aggression level of these mice was higher for three generations. Trauma and evil became encoded in the genetic material and passed down.
So how do we identify evil? How do we know who is evil? When a child’s parents are killed in a bombing, that child’s genetic material becomes encoded with evil. And that child grows up to be an adult and passes that genetic material on to his children. Who, because they are now victims of trauma, visit evil on those around them. Who pass it on to their children. Who grow and visit evil on others. When you think about the evil that is perpetrated on a national and individual scale, when you think about how that evil gets encoded in the genetic material passed on through the generations, how can we know who is evil? All of us have this genetic predisposition towards evil because all of us, at some point in our past, have parents or grandparents or great grandparents who have had evil done to them. We are trapped inside this system of evil. Are we to hate ourselves?
The reality is that evil encourages evil in response. Those who have evil done to them, revisit that evil on others in turn. How can we expect anything else? Survivors of child abuse go on to perpetuate that abuse on children once they themselves become adults. Hutu and Tutsi tribes kill each other because, well, they each killed the other first. Israel takes over Palestinian land and Palestine bombs Israel and Israel bombs them back and Palestine bombs them again. It is like talking to children who are fighting and trying to figure out who started it. Evil engenders further evil. The question is not who or what is evil. The question is how can we stop it?

Paul gives some good advice to the Romans. The first important thing is “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Given how encoded evil is in us, it is so important to ask for blessing first. Given that the persecutors include us, blessing is far more powerful than cursing. Shall we curse ourselves because we persecute others? Shall we curse others because they were first persecuted and that’s all they know to do? Only blessing can upend the cycle of evil and persecution. And when we understand that the evil people perpetuate comes from evil done to them, we are so much more inclined to ask for blessing for them than curses. When the football coach abuses his players because he was the victim of abuse as a child, can we say that evil started with him? Or do we see that evil was done to him and he is living out that evil in a new way? Should we curse him, or ask for blessing for him to release him from that cycle so he can step outside of the evil done to him, and outside of the evil he has done to others? When we see young Palestinians putting on bomber vests to attack Israeli buses, shall we curse them? When we see Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian children, shall we curse them? Will cursing make things better? Or will it only perpetuate the violence and trauma and visit evil on yet another generation, to be passed on to their children and their children? Only blessing can cut short the transmission of evil.
The second thing Paul says is, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Now Paul says that you should do these nice things because doing nice things to evil people “heaps burning coals on their heads” - it just rubs in how nice you are. But I think there is a better reason for feeding your hungry enemies. Because they are hungry. Because they have no food. Because somewhere, at some point in time, somebody took their food. We are to give something to drink to those who are thirsty. Why? Because they are thirsty. Because somewhere, at some point in time, somebody took their water. So shall we continue to visit evil on them, by reinforcing the trauma done to them in withholding food and water? Shall we continue to curse them, and in doing so curse their children and their grandchildren? Or shall we act against our genetic inheritance, and bless those who are as much victims of evil as we are? 

Evil is a tricky thing. Knowing why people do evil things is tricky. Knowing who is evil so that I can hate them, knowing who deserves to be cursed instead of blessed, is not easy. I no longer feel competent or qualified to make that call. The more I learn about people’s situations, the less certainty I have. Who started the evil first? Who suffers the most from it? We can’t be certain of this. But I am certain that God calls us to be people who refuse to inflict evil on others. I am certain that when Jesus was on the cross, he prayed that God would forgive the individuals who put him there. And I am certain, as Paul is, that God calls us to bless, not curse, and that God will overcome evil with good. Thanks be to God. Amen.