June 28, 2021
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
1 Thessalonians 5:15-28
Today we close out our series on Paul’s first Epistle, First Thessalonians. We’ve talked in this series about the way Paul connected the hope of their faith to everyday issues like living with gratitude, facing suffering, having healthy relationships, sexual ethics, grief, and criticism.
In the closing verses we just heard it sounds like Paul has swept together all the scraps of his wisdom which he hasn’t mentioned yet. Listen again to some of these statements:
• Be joyful always
• Pray without ceasing
• Give thanks in all circumstances
• Don’t quench the spirit
• Hold onto the good
• Avoid evil
These all seem random, but when you read this passage carefully you notice that these statements follow a piece of advice which seems to tie these together. Paul says in verse 15: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” You wonder if Paul watched people who had been wronged and became obsessed with getting even and it was causing them to lose their joy, and lessen their gratitude, and their ability to pray and experience God’s presence, and to hold onto the good in life.
Paul could be addressing us today couldn’t he?
There’s a story about a man who was bitten by a dog but waited a long time before going to see a doctor. By the time he did the doctor informed him he had rabies but there was nothing that could be done. The doctor left him alone to process this. When he returned the man was writing on a piece of paper. The doctor asked, “Are you making a will?” “No,” said the man, “I’m making a list of everyone I’m going to bite.”
Well there’s a lot of biting going on in our world isn’t there? Just look at incidents of road rage and airplane rage. A University of Maryland study shows 60% of shootings are acts of revenge. The Journal of American Psychology conducted a three-year study of people who had experienced wrongs ranging from being robbed to someone not returning an item they borrowed. They found the majority of these people spent hours a day plotting their revenge.
The trouble is when we become consumed with getting even we allow the cost we’ve already paid to get even greater.
I start last Sunday’s sermon with an Abe Lincoln story, and here’s another one. When Lincoln was a lawyer he had an experience that shaped his political life. A man came to him one day to hire him because of a debt someone refused to pay the man. He was owed $2.50. Remember, this was the 1840’s. So Lincoln agreed and told him that his fee is $10, payment up front. So the man gave Lincoln $10. Lincoln took half of it, $5, and went to the person who owed the money. He said, “I’ll give you $5 if you go pay your debt.” The person agree and went to Lincoln’s client and paid the $2.50. So the man who owed the money made 2.50. Lincoln ended up making 5.00, and the first man who got his 2.50 back, paid $10 to do so. And what befuddled Lincoln was that he was now happy.
That influenced Lincoln. He realized when we become consumed with getting even, we lose touch with the bigger price we end up paying.
This is what Paul must have seen in his day. People wanting to get even at those who hurt them, and it was costing them. They were losing their joy and celebration and connection to God. And if hope has any practical, everyday value for living it definitely does when it comes to this issue. And this is a good way to close our series because I want us to consider some examples from the life and teachings of Jesus that help us not be eaten up with feelings of revenge. How does our faith in Christ help us when we want to get even?
Let’s start with this thought:
Choose to believe people who hurt us don’t know better. No healthy person is born to hurt. Typically when people cheat or act selfishly or thoughtlessly toward others its because of their insecurity or fear or lack of receiving compassion themselves. Most of them time when we hurt others its because we’ve been hurt. Hurting people hurt people.
SO down south we have this expression we say about someone when they have done something hurtful to us. We say, “Bless their heart.” We don’t call them a lowdown, dirty, rotten, so-and so. That’s what we mean, but instead we smile and say, “Bless their heart.” Try it right now…
The good thing about doing that is you focus on blessing not offense. If someone hurts us, or is rude to us, or takes advantage of us, it says something about their need. And an important question to ask ourselves us: Will we help them by hurting them?
Think of the example of Jesus. Wrongly tried and crucified. He hangs on the cross and to make matters worse, religious leaders start taunting him. They say things like, “He saved others, why can’t he save himself. Some savior he is!” But what does Jesus do? He says, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Jesus prays that for people who are killing him. He focuses not on what they deserve but what they obviously need.
Some years after writing Thessalonians Paul wrote Romans, and in that letter he offers this powerful thought: “The Spirit of Him, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you…” (Romans 8:11) Think about that. The Spirit inside of Jesus that gave him the ability to say, “Father forgive them…” is inside of us. He gives us the same ability.
So letting go of wrongs done to us begins with recognizing that when people hurt us they don’t know better.
But, of course, that’s not always enough to help us let go of a wrong. So we also have to…
Place our Hurt in God’s Hands
The next time you have been hurt by another person, put words to your feelings. Think about everything the experience is causing you to feel and think, and then cup your hands together as if holding all of those feelings. And imagine God’s cupped hands in front of yours. And you pour what’s in your hands into God’s. This is not some therapeutic act. It’s an act of faith, because we trust that God knows best. God will handle things. God will work it out.
Paul said this in Romans: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
Here’s the thing: we experience fewer regrets when we show grace than taking revenge. The chance we will do something that causes further hurt is much more likely when we try to get even. And God always gives us a choice how to respond.
There’s a story about Berlin, Germany in the days shortly after the Berlin Wall was erected. Hostilities flared when truckloads of stinking garbage were dumped over the wall from East Berlin into West Berlin. Many residents complained to the mayor demanding that they take revenge, but instead the mayor called for a unique response. He asked the people to pick as many flowers as they could and then gather at the wall where the garbage came from. So they did, and shortly after people on the other side of the wall experienced this avalanche of beautiful flowers coming over, they sent up a banner that read, “We each give what we have.”
“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.” (Luke 6:45)
Remember Our Need for Grace
It’s been shown that the majority of people we harbor feelings of revenge toward have no clue that we do. The people we are mad at and want to get even with don’t even realize we feel that way. Now if that’s true, how many people out there could have the same feelings about us? Could there be people whom we have offended or hurt and they obsess over our getting what’s coming to us? And we don’t even know it.
Jesus taught about this when he warned people about judging others. He said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)
We have all offended and causes hurt to other people. And we usually get more obsessed with fairness and justice and people who wronged us getting what’s coming to them when we forget how much we need grace. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves a question: Do I want to live in a fair world or a good world? Sometimes you can have both but sometimes you have to decide between the two, because fairness isn’t going to lead to goodness.
Some of you may remember this story about my freshman year in college. I worked as a student assistant pastor at two small churches about 45 minutes from campus and every Friday I would get in my 1971 Ford Gran Torino and head off to these churches and then come back on Sunday night.
Well, one Sunday night I was driving back and a brake drum cracked. I made it back to campus but couldn’t drive it until getting it repaired. There was a guy on my dorm floor who I knew worked as a mechanic. I didn’t have much to do with him because he was a little while and I was in a somewhat self-righteous phase. But, desperate times call for desperate measures, so I asked if he had any suggestions. He said, “Sure. Go to a junk yard,” and then told a specific one nearby. He knew the excite size brake drum to get. He said, “I’ve got my tools with me. Get that drum and I’ll put it on.”
So one cold, winter afternoon, he jacked my car up and spent quite a bit of time repairing my car. I said, “How much do I owe you?” He said, “Nothing. That’s what dorm mates do for each other.”
Now, fast forward a few months. I came back to school on a Sunday night and could tell the moment I entered the dorm that there had been a wild party that weekend. I got to my room and found that my favorite hat that usually sat on my bed post had been destroyed. I was tired, in a bad mood, and I just sounded off to my roommate. But I sounded off loud enough for others to hear. Truth is I was probably jealous that they were taking it easy on the weekend and partying and I was working. Anyway I talked about how they should respect people’s property better and quit just thinking of themselves and on and on.
A moment later mechanic-party guy steps into my room. He said, “Hey, I’m the one who messed up your hat. I’m sorry,” and threw some money on my bed and said, “That ought to pay for it.” Then as he walked out he looked at the money and said, “You know, that’s about what I make per hour as a mechanic.”
We all have unpaid debts. When we stay fresh with our need for grace it helps us to be more gracious, and living in grace is what leads to a good life. We have been forgiven not just to feel forgiven, but to help us forgive. So I want to lead us in a closing prayer experience…