Sunday, August 30, 2020

Thirteenth after Pentecost

Romans 12

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

No one wants to be regarded as a loose cannon on the deck.

But if you were a loose cannon on the deck, you would surely be aware that you are being summarized with a sailing idiom.  An idiom is a turn of phase with a particular meaning often unrelated to the words themselves.  In other words, you may be disruptive, or careless, of a breaker of norms, but only a “loose cannon” if you know the idiom.  Clearly, this idiom doesn’t hide its maritime origin.

Other idioms hide their nautical beginnings a little more carefully.  If you are learning the ropes, you know that you are acquiring knowledge unique to a disciple or a trade.  For the new sailor, your full-time job is literally learning the ropes, or determining the purpose of every sheet, halyard, or line. (Ironically, the first thing you learn is that there are no ropes on a boat, only sheets, halyards, and lines). Likewise, showing your true colours—giving people a sense of the real you—began as a nautical phrase.  Flags (your colours) were used to identify your country of origin, unless, of course, you were a pirate.  Pirates would fail to show their true colours, until they showed their true colours, and by that time it was too late.  

Sometimes we suspect that an idiom comes from the sea, but it’s not clear how.  Pipe down, as an example, is something you tell noisy children or neighbours, and it seems to come from the practice of blowing the bo’sun’s pipe at the end of the day.  You were literally piped down to your hammock.  There is evidence, however, that ‘pipe down’ became just another thing to shout at the crew, something my skipper does with some regularity.

Finally, I give you a favourite of mine, ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion.’  There’s no mystery that this is a nautical idiom, shipshape gives it away, but ‘Bristol fashion’ is a bit of a mystery.  Some argue that Bristol was a preeminent port that prided itself on its orderliness, while others have a more complex origin story.  Bristol is located on the River Avon, a tidal river, which in olden days meant that when the tide went out your boat would rest on its keel, often on an angle.  In Bristol, therefore, everything on board had to be fastened securely—Bristol fashion—or there would be a terrible mess.  

I share all of this because St. Paul shares an idiom with us, and the meaning is somewhat unclear.  Here it is:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

First, we should note that it’s actually a quote from Proverbs 25 (21-22), a fact that doesn’t make the meaning any clearer.  Gallons of ink have been spilled trying to make sense of this idiom, found in the context of not seeking revenge—while at the same time sounding like the precise sort of thing you might do to seek revenge.  So what does it mean?

One kind-hearted soul suggested that “heap burning coals on his head” was something you did for others if their homefire went out.  Since the ancient near-eastern practice was to carry burning coals on the head (in a suitable vessel, of course), the phrase simply described an act of neighbourliness.  Lovely, but unlikely.  I expect “heap burning coals on his head” sounds harsh, because it was meant to be harsh.

Another suggestion looks to Egyptian literature, in this case to suggest that “coals of fire” meant to change your mind, or have a change of heart.  Therefore, it would seem, that “heap burning coals on his head” was a way to expedite this change process, to help them along.  I think this is a little closer to the mark, since we are talking about transformation, but again we’re not quite there.  Again, “heap burning coals on his head” sounds rather unpleasant to me.

More convincing, to my mind, is the idea this is an analogy.  Being kind to your enemy will humiliate them, in the same way that heaping burning coals on their head would be a terrible humiliation.  Rather than repay evil with evil, why not repay with good.  This will disarm your enemy, leaving that about as unbalanced as getting the burning coal treatment.  

All of this, however, is jumping ahead.  The passage is about Christian living, an answer to the question “how then, shall we live?”  God has given us the gift of new life in Christ, and now we need to do something, respond somehow, and live differently.  How then, shall we live?

What Paul has assembled is an assortment of Old and New Testament quotes, bits of wisdom, law and Gospel.  There’s Amos 5, Proverbs 3, Lev 19 and Deut 32, and that direct quote from Proverbs 25 we’ve already exhausted.  Paul quotes Jesus (John 13, Mat 25, Luke 6, Mat 5) demonstrating this adherence to the Gospel and his familiarity with Jesus’ thought.  But there is more happening in this relationship than just effective quoting.  There seems to be another story, and I’m going to suggest it began the day Jesus heaped burning coals on Paul’s head.  Let me explain.

Before I do that, I have to tell you about one of my favourite paintings.  It’s here in the liturgy, Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus, found in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.  I would put heavy emphasis on the word found, since you have to search for it once you’re in the church.  You would expect that when your church has one of the most famous paintings in the world, you might put it someone visible, but that would be too obvious.  Instead it’s in a small side-chapel near the chancel, perpendicular to the viewer, and nearly impossible to see in its fullness (or get a proper photo).  Luckily, we have the internet, so we can see it in all its drama and glory.  

We see St. Paul unhorsed, at the second that he appears to hit the ground.  His arms are elevated, that familiar reflex as you fall, as his attendant looks on.  Beside him is his sword, his saints’ symbol, and the mode of his death (he was beheaded).  His eyes are closed, which seems a likely response to fall, but we soon learn that his eyes have been closed by the experience, and will not reopen until some time later.  Unspoken in the painting (but in the mind of the viewer) is the words spoken by Jesus in that moment, "Savle quid me perseveres?" (Saul, why do you persecute me?).  

Saul (pre-Paul) has done evil to Jesus and his followers, and was first among those who opposed Jesus and his way.  We see him on the edge of the crowd during the stoning of St. Stephen, and we know that he will confess more in his letters.  And how does Jesus repay this evil?  First, by loving him enough to see that he can become more than Saul—more than a persecutor of the church.  But more importantly, he repays Saul’s evil by destroying the life he was living, heaping the burning coals of destruction on his head, ending one life so another could begin.  

And Jesus expects no less of us.  Maybe we weren’t unhorsed, and maybe we didn’t have burning coals heaped on our heads, but the experience of new life in Christ is meant to be just as dramatic a turn-around from the way the world lives.  Maybe you can’t name a Saul-Paul moment, a dramatic rebirth at the bidding of Jesus the Christ, but the change is still there.  Day-by-day, our walk with Christ is meant to unhorse us, to open our eyes to new needs and new trouble, and new meaning.  Everyday is the opportunity for rebirth, a new baptism of forgiveness and love.

Paul became a loose cannon on the deck.  No longer Saul the persecutor, he became Paul the apostle, the teacher, the guide.  His message was about Christian living, how to live in the light of new life.  Love, share, and be hospitable, he said.  Live in harmony with others, laugh with the happy and cry with the sad, don’t imagine you’re better than others, and do not repay evil with evil.  It’s a vision of an alternate way of being, where you too can be a loose cannon on the deck.  Amen.


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