I remember being puzzled when I was 13 about the closing lines of Romans read today. The part that says, "Vengeance is God’s, if your enemies are hungry feed them, if they are thirsty give them something to drink, for by helping them you will be heaping burning coals on their heads." Now, envisioning this as a 13-year-old, it sounded like vengeance to me. What a way to get back at people. And it’s okay with God. Burning them up, destroying them with kindness: Ah, how devious, how delicious! Denying their power over me with my own kind of deceit. Sort of the classic passive-aggressiveness that is best served up by teenagers. But even in my raging hormones, I knew I was twisting the passage and distorting its full meaning. I was putting my often vengeful adolescent spin on it. I knew in the back of my mind God was not asking me to destroy my enemies nor to destroy the meaning of the Scriptures.
This passage came back to me in 2002 while reading a New York Times article. There was a quote by a White House aide to George W. Bush himself, who said with much hubris and much self-serving adolescent glee, "We are in charge, we are an empire now, and while we create our reality and while you’re trying to deal with that reality we’ll create another, and while you’re thinking about that, we’ll create another and another and another reality."
Since 9/11, it seems that this Scripture (Romans 12:19: "Do not take revenge my friends") we’ve heard today has been relegated to the back alleys of our government’s memory. For the past eight years we’ve had an administration that says it has an evangelical and "moral recovery" agenda, but it has produced and thrived on fear and power, embracing a killing war on terror, and making more innocent victims in Afghanistan and Iraq—more have been killed there than in the terrible destruction of 9/11.
We have been thriving on fear and it seems that drives us towards military solutions. Today’s reality, one created by the polities and policies of our government, I feel is more reflected in Isaiah 59:
The way of peace they do not know and there is no justice in their peace. The roads they have made crooked, no one who walks in them knows peace, therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We wait for light and lo there is darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope along a wall groping like those who have no eyes. We all growl like bears. Like doves we all moan mournfully. We wait for justice but there is none, for salvation but it is far from us. Talking oppression and revolt. Conceiving lying words and uttering them from the heart. Justice is turned back and righteousness stands at a distance. For truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking and whoever turns from evil is despoiled.
Is that not the society we live in? Where even questioning our government is seen as unpatriotic? Missiles, landmines, suicide bombers—these are the burning coals we have heaped today. The bloodlust between Hamas and Israel. The Sudanese government and that of Darfur, the bloodlust we see in Pakistan and India and Afghanistan. Between Sunni, Shi’a, and Hindu; between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. These lusts are the burning coals of today. The violence towards women and children, the lack of care for our environment and Earth—these are coals too. Our apathy, our racism, our sexism, our homophobia are burning coals. Greed, deceit, bigotry, ignorance, oppression, and injustice, and even our denial of ourselves being able to meet our necessities and work for economic development around the planet. Sitting back as a society has led to pandemics, generational poverty, and despair. And these, brothers and sisters, create terror and terrorists. They create coals, but these coals rest on our heads. Because they are destroying all of us.
All of our lives are interwoven. We live in a tapestry of life. What happens to one affects the other, even when we deny it. We are connected, we are woven in this life and we cannot remove the coals destroying us unless we do it together. A priest of our church, Sam Portaro, writes, "When we all are attuned to our gifts, our interests, and our abilities, and we are in conversation with our communities, we begin to understand that which is asked of us. When we combine with the strength of others, we will have enough." My brothers and sisters, what is being asked of us in this moment in time is to stop heaping coals on ourselves, on each other, on our brothers and sisters on this planet, our island home.
We need to join with our enemies, we need to be with them—real and imagined—to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to journey and abide and care for each other. All of us must do this and ultimately must work for justice, must thirst for it as we do for water on a hot summer’s day, must hunger for peace as we hunger at the smell of apple pie cooking.
To thirst for God’s justice means first of all that justice is not our definition of fairness and judgment. God’s justice is mercy bonded with compassion. It is the water needed for life; it attends to the basic human dignity that we all carry as the image of God. Justice is like the water from which God created life. It is as essential and elemental as any ingredient of life, and without it we pant and are parched and are only dust. No life on this planet can exist without water, nothing can take root or grow or thrive—and neither can human beings without the water of justice because without it there can not and will not be peace. Martin Luther King Jr., who we celebrate this weekend, said, "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice. The waters of justice, they can extinguish the flames of violence and they can move us, the waters of justice, from monologue to dialogue. We must be porters of the water of justice and prisoners of the hope of peace."
Now as the descendant of slaves, I don’t have to tell you that I don’t feel comfortable being a porter or a prisoner. It brings to mind the role and status of the disenfranchised, the powerless, the outcast. But if I don’t embrace these roles—the porter and the prisoner—then I am powerless to change and transform myself and the world around me. Jesus challenges me with the paradox of a king who could be a victor, yet who came on a donkey to identify with the lowly. That is the paradox for those of us who love to think of our free will and our democracy. God is calling us to be porters of the water of justice, and prisoners of the hope of peace. God calls us to be like him who was a suffering servant who, humble and without an army, brought release to all, that we might be captive to God’s vision of peace in this world.
Our ultimate allegiance is not to the tremendous power of our political and military might, but to the incredible power of God’s love and grace. Daily we struggle and we long for a peaceful and just world, a world in which God’s mercy and justice is triumphant, but we live in the reality of evil in this world and the power of fear. But we cannot be porters of justice and prisoners of peace if we are not captive to hope. Many feel that we don’t have a choice, we feel victimized, what can we do? Why should we care? But we do have a choice and we must care. The people of the United States can recognize that being a superpower does not give us a license to act unilaterally or to allow our shortsightedness to be grounded in our policies. As Sam Portaro said, "We cannot be confused and dazzled by our own brilliance. Literally stupefied by ourselves."
We must be porters of justice, relieving world debt, redistributing our investments and revising our economic development policies, especially for the infrastructure of the developing world. We have to look where we put our time, our energy, and our treasure—not just individually, but corporately as a global community. We must work at providing technology, applying new medical procedures and breakthroughs for those for whom there is no hope of surviving basic illnesses such as diarrhea. Every minute a child dies of diarrhea in this world, and yet we need only about 40 cents to prevent it. We need to look to ourselves as we look to others. We need to be more generous to this Earth instead of stripping it of its beauty, making the Earth a victim of our materialism. Only those who are open to being porters of justice and prisoners of peace in a world so given to the dangers of political and social fatalism can see how God is here and God is at work in us. All of us have a choice in this life. We can see ourselves only as victims or we can see ourselves in a world where God is at work, building an alternative kingdom. We can join with God building a world of porters of justice or prisoners of peace that we might be captive to hope. You see, captives of hope are people who believe that there is no end to God’s love and embrace.
You can put up all your rules and regulations, society and church, but you can’t confine God. Captives of hope believe we must believe in the resurrection in the face of terminal illnesses or in the face of unwanted separations. Captives of hope believe in working for justice in the spirit of political priorities for the world’s commonwealth. Captives of hope, porters and prisoners of Jesus, we must be those who are willing to engage with the enterprise of living into the world of God’s justice and mutual respect. As Psalm 85, the theme of my life, says, "Mercy in God, Mercy and Truth have met together, Justice and Peace have kissed each other." This world is thirsty for justice. The world is hungry for peace. And the world must have justice so there will be peace—and, my brothers and sisters, the angels can’t do it for us. The work is ours. We are the hands, the agents of God. Again, my friend Sam said, "Following Jesus, we must preach by living as if the Gospels were a reality. We must live as if the Kingdom of God is the victory of Christ over the world." And that is as real as the closing Dow Jones Industrial average. It is as real as our morning commute. We must be an icon and a vocation for all those who are searching in this world. We must be compelled to see what we might be and to live it.
Finally my dear mentor and friend, the late Walter Dennis, who was Bishop Suffragan in New York, said "that is what we are to be about if we are the followers of Jesus, we must bring about justice if there is to be peace." And he said in his farewell sermon, "This means that there is no issue, no creature, no institution, no action that is beyond the reach and concern of our ministry. There is no forbidden work, there is no corner of existence, no matter how degraded or neglected, in which you may not venture.
There is no person however beleaguered or possessed you may not befriend or represent. There is no cause, no matter how vain or stupid, that you may not witness to peace. There is no risk, however costly or imprudent, that you may not undertake. That is the Gospel," Walter said. "That was the Gospel when I started my ministry and will be when you finish yours. That will be the Gospel when all theologians have completed their scholarly task. That will be the Gospel when all new fads are spent. That will be the Gospel when every social activist has completed their task. That will be the Gospel when every interfaith dialogue has drawn up its final resolution. That will be the Gospel when every rally and political demonstration for justice and peace has succeeded in their goal. That will be the Gospel when every task force has accomplished its goals and every axe has been ground. And that will be the Gospel when everyone is finished marching to many different drums."
My brothers and sisters, it is time that we do and love kindness, that we do and love justice. We must do and love these things, for only then can we walk humbly with our God.