Birds of Paradise

Session Date: 
Sunday, April 2, 2017
Bible Text: 
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 12: 17-21


Fifth Sunday in Lent

My friend Mark often wore a T-Shirt that succinctly stated one of our culture’s famous dictums: “I don’t get mad, I get even!” It’s one of our great temptations, isn’t it? To keep score in life, always fighting for balance in life on that basis.

It’s like the Saturday afternoon last fall when Tony was working the cash register at the department store. He asked the shopper if she would be using her Macy’s charge. As she fished in her purse for her wallet, Tony noticed she had a television remote in the bag. “Do you always carry your TV remote?” “No,” she replied, “but my husband refused to come shopping with me and I figured this was the best way I could get back at him.”

Centuries ago, as Leonardo DaVinci set out to paint his “Last Supper,” he had a terrible argument with another painter. He was so bitter and angry that he determined to use the painter’s face for Judas. 

Deep down, it probably would not surprise anyone, most of us know someone we would like to get even with. Someone has done something to us, and we have allowed it to fester. The desire for revenge is like a deep itch somewhere right down inside

In an old Brother Juniper cartoon, the monk is visiting a zoo with two young boys. They are looking at a caged bird. The bird, a crowlike creature, is scraggily, scantily feathered and downcast. The plaque on the cage reads “Bird of Paradise.” Looking at the sign, Brother Juniper says, “I don’t think he quite made it.”

In another cartoon, this from The New Yorker, the picture shows a large city library. On the wall is a sign declaring “Shut the hell up!” A man passing by comments to his wife, “Everybody’s on edge these days.” It’s as if our old dry bones got up, and instead of dancing, simply rattle at each other.

In a sense, that’s our story, we didn’t quite make it and we’re on edge because of that fact. We began in Eden, in Paradise, the image of God within us. But somehow, along the way, we turn from the image of God, and the image dims. We have flown the coop of Paradise. The wholeness of creation, for us, and for the world, has become fragmented and divided. So we struggle with God, and with ourselves.

At times the struggle is so constant, that we cannot even begin to imagine a life without it. In the Harry Potter stories, the dark lord is so evil that he is known as “he who must not be named.” In our post 9/11 world, it often seems as if “peace” is the name that cannot be spoken. 

That’s where we find ourselves: Get Even! Still, we open scripture:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

“Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody.”

How in the world is that supposed to happen? These are difficult times. Terrorists attack with devastating results. Nation upon nation can wreck havoc on each other. Daily living is a constant grind and threat. We want to settle scores, personal and national. Yet Paul rules out revenge, and Jesus claims us as peaceworkers. Go figure!

First know this, Paul does not mean “going soft on evil.” Saying you shouldn’t take revenge isn’t saying that evil isn’t real, doesn’t hurt or doesn’t matter. Evil is real. Evil does hurt, and it does matter. The question is what are we going to do about it? 

The answer, look to what God did about it. At the center of our faith story stands the story, that when human evil reached its height, God came and took the weight upon Godself in the crucifixion. God opened the way for creation of a new world. 

Revenge keeps evil in circulation. Whether it is in your family, or your neighborhood or the Middle East, the culture of revenge, unless broken, is never-ending. Both sides will always be able to ‘justify’ further atrocities by reference to those they themselves have suffered. 

So into the volatile mix of this world, Jesus sends us, his followers, his disciples. He tells us to be peacemakers, his children. It is not easy. We must start with our own lives. If we are to be Christ’s peacemakers, we must guard against a spirit of vengeance in response to the brokenness and evil we experience. 

It is not about being ‘peacekeepers’ in the conflicts of family and the world. It is not wearing tie-dye t-shirts proclaiming “Peace, man!” Rather it is actively seeking out ways to turn another toward peace. Forgiving the person who has wronged us, meeting the stranger halfway, negotiating for the benefit of all, not just “our side.” 

Again, the model is God’s Son on the cross. To a corrupt world God gave not wrath, not revenge, but God’s own Son. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted on peace, “the forgiveness of sins still remains the sole ground of peace.” So it is that forgiveness is the key to peace. We must actively work to forgive others to forge peace.

The ancient mystic Pelagius noted this: “A society in which people only avoided certain actions, but never did anything good, would be utterly dead; it would be like a valley of dry bones which the prophet describes. A society can only live if people love and serve one another. So when you are aware of hatred in your heart, do not simply suppress it, but transform it into love. When you desire to commit a malicious act, do not simply stop yourself; transform that act into a generous one.” 

In his classic “The Cost of Discipleship,” which is a commentary on The Sermon on The Mount, Bonhoeffer continued his comments on this Beatitude: Jesus “disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others. They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce all self-assertion, and quietly suffer in the face of hatred and wrong. In so doing they overcome evil with good, and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate.”

Which brings us back to Leonardo. As we gather around this table, and contemplate that great painting of “the” table. It is worth noting what happened after the master finished Judas’ face with that of his enemy. Everyone recognized the face, even celebrating the revenge it depicted. Yet when DaVinci began his work on the face of Christ, he hit a stumbling block. Try as he might, he could not get it as he felt it should be. Something was baffling him, frustrating him and causing him to stumble. 

Finally it dawned on him that what was holding him back was the face of Judas. He painted out the face of Judas, and then was able to resume work on the Christ. When DaVinci moved past his desire for revenge, he was able to finish his work. 

 A Vietnamese-French Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, said it well: “People say walking on water is a miracle. But to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle.”

© 2017 Gordon B. Mapes III, all rights reserved