“If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they’re thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Maybe it’s just me or maybe it’s human nature, but why is it that with this otherwise beautiful, inspiring piece of scripture, why is it that I jump right to the burning coals on the head? There’s even a part of me, if I’m honest, that takes a little bit of delight in the idea that if I do nice things for people I hate, my kindness is in fact heaping burning coals on their heads! If acts of kindness can satisfy that terrible desire for revenge, I’m in!
I’ve tried to uncover exactly what Paul was getting at here but I’m not fully satisfied with the explanations. He was directly quoting the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. In that context it may have meant that when you share with your enemy you are meeting their basic needs, in a sense you’re providing them with burning coals to cook with. It’s more likely a metaphor for judgment or shame, as in ‘leave the judgment of your enemies to God.’ I don’t know why Paul wrote it but I have a good idea why it avoided the slashing pen of the editor: because we love this stuff. They say that sex and violence sell. In the absence of those I guess burning coals will do.
There’s a book I like to go back to from time to time called What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? (Yeah, I pull it on the weeks when I’m feeling like my well is particularly dry.) One of it’s contributors says that a big problem with preaching today is when the preacher spends most of the sermon telling us all how bad it all is, story after story that paint pictures of doom and gloom. He says it’s really hard to dig ourselves out of that hole in the last few minutes of the sermon and we can end up leaving people feeling worse than when we began! It’s the burning coals that sell, that grab our attention but really my job here is about pointing to the subtle signs of hope, the glimpses of light through the cracks. That’s harder to do, especially because it doesn’t grab our attention.
Ninety five percent of this beautiful scripture implores us to do good, reminds us that we can be so very much for one another and I can’t help but begin with the burning coals.
A documentary about renowned television star Fred Rogers was released earlier this summer. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood had a television run of over thirty years. His presence was like a gentle whisper in a sea of obnoxious noise that was children’s television. He laced long spells of silence together with thoughtful words. In a dumping coals on the head of your enemy sort of world, Rogers’ life reverberated with Paul’s words from Romans: “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another…”
A journalist reviewing the documentary wrote that… “[its] power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.”
Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome and it doesn’t appear that there was anything particular the matter but somehow they needed to be reminded “oh yes, that’s how people can be;” reminded to “let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”
Just maybe, we need to be reminded too: “oh yes, that’s is how people can be.” It’s not a new story, just one that needs to be lifted up more than we realize. Fred Rogers, according to the fella who reviewed the documentary, “was drawing on a long moral tradition, that the last shall be first….Rogers was singing from a song sheet now lost, a song sheet that once joined conservative evangelicals and secular progressives. The song sheet may be stacked somewhere in a drawer in the national attic, ready for reuse once again.”
Oh yes, that’ s how people can be. It’s a song sewn into the hem of the very fabric of our being. “Let love be genuine. Live in harmony with one another. Don’t be haughty.” Pauls’ words resonate because deep down we know the music, we’ve played it before, sung our hearts out, we can sing this song again and for goodness sake tell others when we hear even just an echo of it.
The conversations I’ve been having lately, with you, in the pews, are landing often around questions of what really is the purpose of this place: what does it mean to be a Christian, what’s it look like, what’s the purpose of church, why come, what should I expect to receive her? What’s the core call of being a Christian, of living a Christ like life? Is it about practicing my way toward oneness with Christ? Is it about radical love for my neighbour? Is it about community? Sometimes I feel like I am fumbling in my answers. It’s all of that and more, it’s complicated, there isn’t one set path into the way of Christ, it’s complicated.
Part of being someone who goes to church is being someone who chooses to place oneself in a community that won’t let you forget the music of love, that keeps pointing out the whispers of “oh yes, that’s how people can be. Part of the journey in Christ is to be people like that. We can be like that to one another; from our encounters with the person in front of us to the way we make purchases in the stores. We can be people like that to one another in the policies we put into practice through the ballot we put in the election box.
Next Sunday we kick off the season, sort of welcome folks back from the rhythm of summer, inviting others to show up here on a bit more regular basis. We’ll be celebrating our decision to become a community affirming of all, especially the LGBTQ2 community. It’s a day when I want you to invite your neighbour, literally. I suppose if I’m going to ask you to invite your neighbour in this oh so secular city, I ought to have a reason. In many ways it comes back to “oh yes, people can be like that.” We tell a different story in this place, it’s an old story, a not very glamorous story; it has a melody that can easily go unheard in the buzz of our lives. Your neighbour belongs here because the more people who can remember how to sing this tune, the closer we come to the kingdom of God.
We tell stories in this place that everyone longs to hear. Stories like the one in the Globe and Mail yesterday that says a recent study has shown that Toronto and Vancouver are the most unhappy cities in Canada. Forget the fact that you can golf and ski in one day, forget the stories we tell ourselves about the beautiful mountains and delicious sushi, we are unhappy. Gary Mason, writing about the study, says it comes down to the fact that this city has lost its soul. It’s not a place, he says, “where important human connections are easily made.” He didn’t say this, but I will: when human connection gets lost, so too does our connection with the divine. We tell stories here of that connection.
Paul says “extend hospitality to strangers.” Oh yes, we can be a people like that: like Gary who lives next door to the church here. I don’t know if Gary has ever stepped foot in this building but when a couple of bold women from the congregation knocked on his door this week asking for some help to drill holes in the bottom of flower pots…. Well I saw it with my own eyes, Gary knee deep in our dirt, using power tools in the rain, because a neighbour asked for help. Of yes, we can be people like that.
Paul says “let love be genuine.” Oh yes, we can be a people like that: like the Sikh cab driver who rushed me here for a wedding yesterday, a wedding I almost missed for reasons I won’t go into! When I entered his cab he looked me in the eye through the rearview mirror and asked “How are doing today? Not very well,” I explained, I’m late for a wedding; they can’t begin without me! He dropped me at the door, quickly and safely and said “no need to pay, they’re waiting for you.” People can be like that. And when people are like that to you well of course you know I’m going to do everything in my power to return the kindness. When I track him down he’ll be getting a very generous tip. People can be like that.
World famous violinist Yo Yo Ma tells a story about being interviewed by Mr. Rogers. At one point in the interview Fred Rogers paused and looked him in the eye and said with the greatest of intention “It is so nice to see you and to be with you.” Ma said it scared the living day lights out of him.
Are we seeing one another? Are we relishing in the sheer gift of being with one another? Can we learn in this place to tell the stories of people daring to look one another in the eye with mutual affection? When I say your neighbour belongs here, I mean your neighbour deserves to hear a song of love and grace and forgiveness, your neighbour likely has something to teach us about that song.
It’s a subtle melody and sometimes it feels like the music is tucked away in the dusty attics of our lives but I truth the music is hemmed in the very fabric of our souls. Pauls’ words resonate because deep down we know the music, we’ve played it before, sung our hearts out, we can sing this song again and for goodness sake tell others when we hear even just an echo of it.
 “Preaching, an appeal to memory, By Fred B. Craddock in What’s the Matter with Preaching Today, ed Mike Graves, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2004.
 From the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor released 2018