Jesus’ Hardest Words: Sermon for February 12, 2017

It’s good to be back in the pulpit this morning after being sidelined for the last couple of weeks. I’m grateful to Heidi Heath and Alex Simpson for stepping in to preach while I recovered from my concussion.

I’m particularly grateful because they both preached on the same larger subject that I’ll be talking about this morning, and so in a real way I’m just building on the foundation that they’ve already put in place over the past two weeks.

As timing would have it, these multiple voices came in the midst of one of the most significant and dense parts of the Bible. For a solid month the lectionary gives us Gospel readings from the Sermon on the Mount.

Now, Jesus was a interesting sort of teacher. Most of his big lessons came not from lectures or speeches, but from stories and from questions. Jesus was much more likely to teach something important by telling a parable, like the ones about the Prodigal Son, or the Sower and the Seed. Or, he would let the people figure out the truth for themselves by asking them questions and having them come to a conclusion.

sermon_on_the_mount

Carl Bloch’s painting, “Sermon on the Mount”

What he was unlikely to do was exactly what he does do here, and that is to effectively preach. And yet, one day he saw crowds gathering and he went to the top of a mountain, and he began to teach the people. Later Christians would call this the “sermon on the mount”, but I like to just think of it as “Jesus’s big sermon”. This was the time that he laid bare so much of what it would mean to follow him.

The passages that Heidi and Alex preached about are well known to us. They are calls for Christians to live as examples of God’s love in the world, and to take hope, even when it seems like the whole world is stacked against goodness and kindness.

But then, right after those words, comes this passage. And there’s a lot in this passage that makes me nervous. First, if you are angry with someone, says Jesus, you will be judged. Later, if you look at someone with lust in your heart, you are committing adultery. Or, if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out. Or, if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Or, if you marry a divorced woman, you are committing adultery. And in a lot of these, Jesus is talking about going to hell. Or finally, don’t swear. Just say, “yes or no”. Nothing more.

So, things don’t look so good for me here.

I mean, I’ve been angry before. To be honest, I think I had every right to be angry. And, frankly, I’ll be angry again. It might be righteous anger about some great social injustice, but it could just as easily be about someone cutting me off in the Starbucks drive-through.

And then there’s lust. Remember how Jimmy Carter once talked about lusting in his heart when he was president, and everyone laughed at him. Well, he was a good Baptist, and he was talking about this passage. Truth be told, we’ve probably all lusted at one time or another.

And then there’s this stuff about tearing out eyes and cutting off hands. My eyes cause me to judge others, or to envy them. And my hands…sometimes my hands are idol, and we can’t have that. Other times I’m so proud of the works of my hands that they cause me not to be humble. But, I plan on keeping both eyes and both hands because, frankly, I don’t think any of us would have hands or eyes if we followed this one.

There’s also this divorce passage. I’m not divorced, but I am married to a divorced woman. Does that mean I’m committing adultery? Do I need to go home this afternoon and say “sorry, honey…you’re on your own”?

And then there’s the swearing. I’ve sworn on legal paperwork, and I’ve sworn in far less legally-mandated ways. In other words, everything Jesus talks about here in this passage, I’ve done.

So, I don’t know about you, but reading these I feel pretty sure that I’m probably going to hell.

You too? See you there.

Now, to be honest, I don’t actually think I’m going to hell. I don’t think you are either, by the way. If you want my honest opinion, I’m not sure there is a hell. And if there is one, I think it is this: I think it is the absence of God. And because I believe God’s love and grace are stronger than anything we could ever do, I don’t think that God leaves any of us there.

But there was a time in my life when the thought of hell caused me real distress. I didn’t grow up in a church that damned people to hell. We were Christmas and Easter Presbyterians. But I did grow up in the South where the churches who preached a literal hell were all around, and they were very vocal.

I remember when I was six years old and a kid at the playground told me that if I had ever told a lie in my life I was going to hell. I have no idea what I could have lied about at age 6, but it probably involved taking extra cookies or something. No matter, I was damned.

And then there were those times when I was in high school, and the local megachurch talked about homosexuals and how they were going to hell if they didn’t change. And I knew they were talking about me. And I knew that there was no hope.

I think I may have started studying theology because I wanted to know that I wasn’t damned. Along the way, I came to believe that not only was I not damned, but I was loved beyond measure by a God who is full of grace. I came to see the fear-based churches that had proliferated in my hometown as a sort of anxious reaction to our own understanding of our humanity. We humans are imperfect beings, after all. How could God love us?

I confess, though, that when I read this passage my old fears come back. What if I’m not measuring up? What if I’m wrong? What if the way I’m living isn’t good enough.

What if I’m not perfect?

I’m not, of course. You probably aren’t either.

And here’s where I have one small point of agreement with those fundamentalist churches I used to know: we are indeed imperfect beings. We will sin. We will fall down. But unlike those fundamentalist churches, I don’t tell you this because I believe God is ready to throw us all into the fires of hell. I tell you this because God is ready to welcome us home.

The reality of life is that none of us is perfect. None of us will ever keep even one of the Ten Commandments perfectly, let alone all ten. All of us will disappoint ourselves, and one another. All of us will fail from time to time.

Jesus knew that. He knew that it was inevitable. But he also knew this: he knew that in God there is grace. God is willing to love us “as is”. More than that, God is delighted to love us like that. God may have high standards for us, ones that we try even still to reach, but God does not expect our perfection. God just expects us to keep trying.

And so, that’s much of how I understand the Christian life. There is a way that things should be. This world should be filled with love, kindness, and justice. Were we all perfect, it would be. And then there is the way that things actually are.

And so, it’s tempting in the face of that to throw up our hands and say “well, we will never get it right, so what’s the point”. But that’s exactly when we need God’s grace the most. That’s exactly when we need to hear God saying to us, “it’s okay…keep trying…I still love you”.

And so, we keep trying. And we stay in relationship with God and with one another. And, little by little, the world is transformed.

I used to try to do the right thing out of fear. I feared a God who I thought kept the fires of hell burning.

Now I try to do the right thing out of love, and out of gratitude for God’s grace.

I’m not sure if I’m any better at getting it right from time to time, but I can tell you this: I’m a whole lot more sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons. And I’m a whole lot more sure that God loves me, and that God loves us all. Even when we mess up. Maybe especially when we mess up. God is still there loving us through it. Amen?

Journey Through Lent: Second Sunday

Pro and anti-gay marriage equality advocates, New York State Capitol, summer 2011.

Pro and anti-gay marriage equality advocates, New York State Capitol, summer 2011.

One morning last summer I was working at my desk at the church. It was one of those days when pastoring felt so wonderfully fulfilling and joyful. I had been looking out at the forest behind the church, when suddenly I looked down and saw I had a voicemail on my phone.
 

When I played the message, I was immediately overwhelmed by the anger of the person speaking. A man from town, whom I had met briefly, had recently figured out that I, the pastor of the local church, was gay. He was calling to tell me his feelings about that fact. As his message went on, the venom kept spewing, punctuated only by slurred words. It was about ten in the morning, and I wondered whether he had turned to liquid courage (or liquid anger) in preparation for this phone call.

Curiously, unlike many of the other hateful messages I’d received before, he left me both his name and his phone number, and invited me to call back. I never did, which I sometimes regret. I don’t deliberately expose myself to the anger of hate-filled people, but on the other hand, how sad must one’s life be that you have to angrily call a person you barely know and berate them for who they are? He probably needed a pastor to talk to, but he probably wouldn’t have let me be one to him anyway.

Not taking on the anger of others has been an important part of my spiritual growth. There was a time when a message like this would have been painful. I would have dwelled on it, and let it dictate my mood for days. Now, though I can’t say the bigotry of others doesn’t affect me, I no longer let it control my emotions. I’ll admit that I felt some anger at the man who left the voice mail, but I also felt something much stronger. I felt compassion. And I wished for him that he would find peace; the kind of peace that keeps a person from being so angry at the world that they have to lash out at someone they barely know and don’t understand.

I often wonder what Jesus felt like when people spoke against him. Let’s be clear, neither I nor you are Jesus, but Jesus knew what it was like to be us. Jesus knew what it was like to be hated. He knew what it was like to be the object of anger. And he knew what it was like to be attacked for no good reason. He felt it in ways few of us ever will. But more importantly, he knew what it was to love anyway. He knew what it was to have grace anyway. He knew what it was to hear the worst of what the world thought of you, but to not let it dictate what came next.

In Lent I think about that a lot. I know that peace is possible. A voicemail like this one would have compelled me to a bottle of whiskey in the past. Years later, it’s a reminder that no matter what someone says to me, grace is bigger. I can’t control the anger of others. I can’t make them love me. I can’t make them accept me. But I can choose what I do next. To me, that’s a lot of what Lent is about. It’s seeing the journey that Christ took within himself, free from the judgements of the world outside. And it’s seeing how, in spite of all those things, he was still called to do one thing: to love. And love he did. Even when it cost him all he had known.

I want to be able to love like that. I’m nowhere close yet, but maybe I’m getting better. And in Lent that’s what I pray for: the ability to love others, even when it’s the last thing on earth I can imagine. I love that man who called me that day and said those hateful things. I can’t say I like him much; but I love him. And I love him enough to pray that maybe one day he’ll find enough peace in his heart to love people like me back. Maybe it will never happen for him. But I give thanks for what has happened in me.