Sermon delivered August 7, 2007
Ever been treated poorly? Co-workers don't respect you? Boss criticizes too much? Spouse doesn't appreciate you? People slander you by telling rumors and falsehoods? Discriminated against because of your faith and beliefs?
St. Paul the Apostle endured almost all of these things and worse. He was imprisoned, physically abused and punished for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This new Faith was directly at odds with the established pagan beliefs and rituals in Roman society. It challenged the man-made idols and silly beliefs in natural phenomena as manifestations of the divine. In today's Epistle Reading from the 10th Sunday of Matthew, 1 Corinthians 4:9-16, St. Paul identifies and names his new-found low-standing in society. He says that as apostles we are last, condemned to death, a spectacle (v.9), fools, weak, dishonored (v.10), reviled, persecuted (v.12), defamed, filth of the world, off-scouring of all things (v.13). Have you been made to feel like a fool, dishonored, defamed, and persecuted? What St. Paul experienced was so severe that it caused physical consequences of hunger, thirst, being poorly clothed, beaten and homeless (v.11).
How do we respond to this negative behavior? Somewhat instinctively we often return the same. You say something bad about me, I will say something bad about you. You say something hurtful to me, I'll say something hurtful to you. We may even escalate the affair to make our point. You hit me, I will smash you. Sadly, we know this occurs between children on the playgrounds and in the hallways of our schools. Some kids never grow up and it continues in the boardrooms and cafeterias of companies and corporations. Tragically, it also happens in pews and social halls of churches. Some of what St. Paul wrote in his letter was referring to Christians in Corinth.
How should we respond to this inappropriate, abusive and corrosive behavior? St. Paul gives us simple instructions in verse 12-13. He says "being reviled, we bless; being persecuted we endure; and being defamed, we entreat."
In these instructions, St. Paul is teaching what Christ Himself taught in Matthew 5:43-44 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' (Lev.19:18; Dt.23:3-6) But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who persecute you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you." St. Peter reinforces the teaching by saying, "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult but with blessing because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing" (1Peter 3:9). St. Paul also says, "Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else" (1Thessalonians 5:15). And quoting Proverbs, "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head" (Pr.25:21-22). Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:20-21).
In this last passage we understand that St. Paul's instructions on how to respond to revilement, persecution and defamation did not give implicit or tacit approval to this ungodly behavior. Rather, he shows how the cycle of inappropriate and disrespectful words and actions can be ended. If we return slander for slander, then the evil from the other person has overcome and infected us. Let's end the cycle of evil in our lives. Let's end it here in our parish community. Because people are free, because the devil is free to work in this world, we will never completely eliminate revilement, persecution and defamation. However, these horribly hurtful and divisive tools can be stopped at our doorstep, they can be turned away from our home. When you hear bad words about yourself or others, be patient, speak good words and remember to pray for all people. Amen.
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.