Aug. 6: “…Yet My Life is Preserved”

The sermon enjoyed a better reception than I expected.  Could it be I kept it to 12 minutes?  

Romans 9:1-5 ; Genesis 32:22-32

We began by recognizing and respecting our bodies as a blessing and an integral gift to seeking God. And then we recognized our individual self, our personal concerns, and set them before God in prayer. This is right and good. God warmly cares about each one of us, wishing that each of us thrive and enjoy our created life.

I wouldn’t want to stop there, however. We’re not really God’s church and kingdom if we don’t go beyond our personal concerns. I was reminded of this by a former student of mine who, I was delighted to learn, is now going on to pastoral ministry. And it is always humbling to learn something from a former student. In a seminary article she made this observation about churches like ours, that are mostly white and middle-class: “[These churches] that I have encountered view the role of the pastor to be one of comfort and taking care of members. With this view of the pastoral role, faith becomes a mostly personal endeavor and a personal affair. Not only is the prophetic voice lost, but the pastor’s individual voice can also be lost.” Amen, Judith. She wants our churches to go beyond personal faith concerns to address the issues that shape our common world, especially racism. I humbly agree with my former student. I do hope that she will discover pastoral care to be a beautiful part of ministry, one that ultimately deals with the same humanity as does the church’s witness on social issues. About the latter I have more to say, but I am saving that for my blog.

But according to our bulletin (which is a sneaky way of saying “according to me,” because I pretty much wrote the bulletin), we have moved on from the Self segment and are now in the Spirit segment of our service. In this segment we rise above our personal concerns and, primarily through the mysterious reality we call God’s Word and reflection on it, we seek to attain a unity of mind. Paul tells the Corinthians, “You should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” And later he adds, “We have the mind of Christ.” If we can have a unity of mind and purpose based on a transcendent union with Christ, then when we actually enact being a community, being God’s people and kingdom, which is what we do in the last segment of worship, our work together will be vitalizing, conflict-free, and really potent.

Now unity of mind doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything or think perfectly alike. Being the Body of Christ means learning to love and honor our natural diversity. I certainly don’t mean we all should think like ME. I get really tired of my own mind. But part of our life together involves striving to be mindful together about following God in our world today. It’s typically my job to lead this, but we can’t really attain Spirit, unity of mind, unless you keep me true, like my former student Judith just kept me true. So starting today, I’m going to try to not run all over the place during fellowship hour, but plant myself at one table to listen to any thoughts you have on the sermon or service, including this kooky experiment in four-parts. Come sit down with me and share freely. My list of virtues is short, but I do take criticism very well.

Also this August, I want to focus on Old Testament texts. I’ll say more on that as the month goes, and more on Paul’s continuing attempt in Romans to come to terms with the Judaism he was raised on. I know we all love to read the New Testament. It’s an excellent witness to our faith when it was fresh and young and vital. But guess what: it isn’t that anymore. We are much more like the ancient Israelites of the second temple period, or maybe even those living in exile and captivity, than like the early Christians of Acts or Paul’s churches. Like the writers and compilers of the Old Testament, we live our faith in the wake of a long and tired struggle with corruption and flagging energy, and we often have a hard time understanding who God is in the midst of all this. While usually the New Testament speaks as if everything has been made so clear and final through the light of Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Old Testament often compels us to be honest about our own questions and puzzlement about God.

Take today’s reading about Jacob’s all-night struggle with whoever that was. Having heard it, even though it may be a familiar story, are any of you left with the illusion that the meaning and moral of this story is simple and clear? That’s what a lot of people would like to expect from the Bible, and from the preacher: a simple, clear message to help us keep on keepin’ on. The only clear message I imagine any of us got so far is, “Don’t eat that thigh muscle that is on top of the hip socket.” If you are satisfied with that carving tip, you may stop listening to the rest of the sermon.

The story is utterly perplexing to us, especially in English and with no context. I could unleash a mountain of scholarship on you and explain the three or more puns involved in the story. If you love puns, then Genesis is your book. This story alone draws on a pun between Jabbok and the word “to wrestle” and well as “Jacob;” a second pun between the name “Israel,” introduced here, and the word from “striving;” and a third pun between Peniel (or was it Penuel?) and the phrase, “face of God.” Of course, those puns only work in Hebrew, and they just aren’t as fun when you translate them.

There’s also so much to be said about the context and setting of this story. Jacob is re-entering the land promised him by God. On the way out to start his family, he had his famous dream vision of the ladder to God (nicely alluded to in our Anthem). On the way back, he is under a dire threat that everything he has gained—his wives and children, his wealth and flocks, his father’s blessing which he stole from his brother (and who knew such a thing could be stolen?)—all this and his very life might perish at the hands of his angry, red and furry brother Esau (who in this story symbolizes the nation Esau or Edom, Israel’s neighbors who are kin but often hostile.) This story brings us to another dramatic climax in the Genesis story, like the one I left off with in June, when God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. As in that story, today it looks again like the whole promise and plan of God might not come to pass. The promise of prosperity and descendants, given originally to Abraham but also as a promise to “all the nations,” including us, looks like it might go belly up after all, for Jacob and everything he has might be destroyed. This time the culprit will not be a God who bafflingly decides that all of the sudden he wants a sacrifice, but Jacob’s own trickery coming back to haunt him. Esau is understandably furious.

I think there’s a profound point standing behind this sibling rivalry. Israel as a nation, though chosen by God and charged to be holy and unique, was in many ways just another nation, living by all the tricks and machinations that nations use to get one up on their neighbors. Each of our churches is also, in many respects, just another human organization, seeking to compete for attention and resources, like any organization. Why do we, in our lowly, ordinary humanity, deserve to think of ourselves as chosen and blessed by God, as an incarnation of God’s very kingdom? I think Jacob is wondering, as we might also wonder, why he deserves to inherit such a blessing—why not Esau, or anyone else. And we are close to Jacob’s plight in another way, for we also are well aware, now more than ever, that our two churches might not live forever. Will the inheritance be passed on?

Like Abraham in his trial when called to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob shows that he is willing to put everything on the line for God. He has already sent a big portion of his flocks and wealth ahead as a gift to Esau, hoping it will appease him. Then in our passage he sends his wives and his children across the Jabbok river. He is left alone. Alone the uncertainty of his life’s outcome. With no family to distract him or to help him pretend there is no crisis.   Alone in not knowing what God has in store for him.

Then the story gets really weird, but as weird as it gets, amid all those puns that don’t work for us, the amazing thing is that we still feel like we are at the brink of a great and compelling mystery. A man appears and wrestles with Jacob. Or was it a man? It also seems to have been an angel of God—or was it God in person, this stranger who refused to give his name? Stranger still, Jacob seems to get the better of the man / God, who, like a vampire, seems to be desperate to leave before sunrise, and begs Jacob to let him go. Jacob doesn’t let the man / God go until he blessed him, making Jacob a serial blessings-stealer. Then the man/ God renames him, saying “You shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob himself gets in the last pun, this time on the name Peniel, which he riffs on by saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” He says this because it was thought that God was so holy, and so incomprehensibly beyond us mere mortals, that were we to see God directly, face to face, God would blow our minds.

It’s all very strange. But maybe that’s just what we need a little dose of. We get in the habit of trying to make church very normal. And so we emphasize the normal good things that we do as a church: some will say we encourage fellowship and instill good values, others will say we serve those in need and those who are neglected and rejected. All of this is good. Who would object to any of that? But perhaps we’ve made ourselves so normal, so commonsensical, that neither we nor anyone outside can remember a compelling reason to come to church and attend to the “Spirit” section of worship, especially when folks can find fellowship, values, and social justice outside of the church if they want to.

But where else can you strive with God, and overcome God? What a bafflingly fresh way to think about what we do here. We usually talk about how God has blessed us and given us so much, and didn’t even hold back God’s own son, but gave him up for our sakes. God just gives and gives, and we respond with thanks. But I think this weird Jacob story is showing us the underbelly of our religion. We take from God. We appropriate God as our own. We do claim God is present with us, do we not? Implying that God is more present here than elsewhere? And that we are particularly blessed? and we exert ourselves, not without some wounds, in our struggle to overcome God and claim this blessing. Who is more guilty of this, more like Jacob, more perilously near to being a blessing-stealer, than I? Don’t I pretend to have God in my clutches, to have overcome the mysterious and unknowable one, when I supposedly tell you what God wants you to do? This also is faith; not just a grateful, obedient receiving from God that we know from Abraham, but a terrifying and audacious grappling with God.

And God lets this be done by Jacob. God lets us us get away with claiming his name and authority, and forcing a blessing from it. God even lets humanity wrestle him to the cross. Maybe if we let the Jacob story shock us into seeing what we are doing here in a new light, we will take church less for granted. We too will, like Jacob, be amazed that we have come this close, as close as sharing a meal, to the God whom man cannot see face to face, and yet our lives have been preserved.

 

 

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June 18, 2017: “Trinity Time”

Since our Children’s Sunday was last week, I moved Trinity Sunday to the 18th,  I felt like the sermon was a bit too busy.  The main point I set out to make is that the Trinity reconfigures our experience of time.  But based on the reading from 2 Cor., I went off on an interesting digression about grace as distinct from love.  I used the Genesis 1 reading as an enacted call to worship, connecting it to the elements of light, water, and flowers in our worship space.   

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

 

We are celebrating Trinity Sunday today. Immersing ourselves in the mystery of the Trinity will be quite a leap from the “Life for Others” sermon series during the seven weeks of Easter. There I emphasized that the essence of the Christian faith is simple and practical. If you can live for others, you can be a Christian; there are no great leaps of intellectual comprehension or belief required. That’s still true. But while I want to continue to emphasize that we welcome a flexible and diverse approach to belief in this church, this is an appropriate time to revel in the richness of traditional Christian faith. For on this Sunday we have just reached a milestone in our church year. Over the last six months our liturgical year has celebrated the presence and work of God in our own likeness as Jesus the Christ, and two weeks ago we celebrated the continuing work of Jesus Christ among the disciples in the form of the Holy Spirit, all according to the plan and all to the glory of God the source of all, the one we call Father. So after these six months, we are now in the position to survey and admire the totality of God’s works as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God in what have been called three persons, but we might also call these three dimensions of God’s one being. This is the Trinity, and already it sounds superfluously abstract and intellectually vain—a delight for theological nerds that is lacking in any practical importance. I think it’s a shame, but we are used to thinking about the Trinity as mostly pointless speculation about God’s eternal being, far removed from our everyday life in the here and now of time.

But I noticed that in each one of our readings today, words evocative of the Trinity show up in relation to time. The Trinity is hinted at in the very beginning of creation in Gen 1. It appears again at the very end of Paul’s contentious letter to the Second Corinthians. And the Trinity is invoked as Jesus sends his disciples out on their mission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, along with the promise that Jesus will be with us until the end of “the age.” So it seems that the Trinity is not just about the arcane truths of God in heaven; the Trinity ought to frame our whole relation to time, which means that the Trinity is all about here and now.

Now, I have labored hard to understand the Trinity; I’ve read many explanations of the Trinity; and I wrote one myself in an academic journal, which I think holds its own against the many others out there. [Story] This labor has helped me understand God, but also what we do here in church and what really matters about what we do. And it has even affected my understanding of the world all around me. And not just understand, but love God and the world better.

I’m pretty sure that clarifying the Trinity is not going to solve all our problems. But it is just possible that some of our confusion, lack of unity, lack of direction; some of our hesitance to really live into the Christian faith, comes from this dark cloud that forms in our mind whenever we hear the word, Trinity. “Oh yeah, I’m supposed to know about that, and I’m supposed to believe in it. But I don’t know how, so I’m just going to pretend it’s not too important for right now.” We can’t be sure how much that dark cloud is affecting us until we dispel it with the beautiful luminosity of God as a one in three.

That will take some time. It’s not a matter of a quick and easy formula. A good explanation of the Trinity leads you to the brink of what lies beyond comprehension. I can’t just define the Trinity for you, and you have it. Along the way to really understanding it, you also have to understand everything else afresh, now seeing it in light of the Trinity. After all, everything is created by God, right? And if God is three-in-one, then that will leave some kind of stamp on everything God made, including time—which we fancy can be adequately understood by a watch and a calendar app. But already in the very beginning of time, as Genesis 1 describes it, we see the Trinity present, or at least alluded to. The triune God is already there in the beginning of all things. We see this first when Genesis tells us that “a spirit from God swept over the face of the waters,” although the word “spirit” can also be translated as wind or breath. We never hear anything else about this spirit in chapter one. It’s mysterious. You get the sense that this windy Spirit is perhaps stirring up the water, “making waves,” quietly bringing about momentous change. But the Spirit is invisible; like the wind, you only feel and see it by its effects. And surely, God is also invisible, and we never see or completely understand God.

But God doesn’t just silently move and blow, God also speaks. “Let there be…” In most of the world’s creation stories, the gods form and shape something (that goes for Genesis 2 also), and sometimes the gods have to kill a beast in order to create. It’s so unusual in Genesis 1 that God creates so calmly and peacefully by speaking the Word. As it happens, the word, “Word,” is one of the key words that Christians use for the second person of the Trinity, also called the Son. John begins his Gospel by evoking Genesis 1: “In the beginning / was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The language is simple but the idea is very difficult: the Word was with God and was God. How’s that work? Welcome to the Trinity.

Now, what does it mean that part of the reality of God can be described as “Word?” A Word is simply anything God does or says, typically through a spokesman, that unlike the invisible movement of the Spirit, becomes a permanent marker by which we can recognize God, or identify an action as typical of God. A Word of God is repeatable, visible, and intelligible. A Word can take the form of a command, or a promise. It can be a saying of the prophets or a parable of Jesus. The Word can also be a song, or a ritual like our sacraments, which we repeat in order to better understand God and our relation to God.

But here in Genesis the primary Word is, “Let there be.” God is letting all this non-divine stuff come into being, all organized by the fundamental differences that make up our world, as between day and night, land and sea, and the great diversity of living creatures. God isn’t engineering all this stuff. Genesis doesn’t describe how God lets it all be. There shouldn’t be any problem saying that God lets the universe be by way of the scientific theory of the Big Bang, or that God lets the diverse array of creatures be / by way of evolution. God isn’t portrayed as a micromanager In Genesis. Just as one who lets be. And God doesn’t say so, but we are told that God saw that all of this diversity was good.

Now, what does it mean to let something be by pronouncement, while silently judging to oneself that it is good?   I think we call this “grace.” As in the reading we had from Second Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” In his closing Trinitarian benediction, Paul doesn’t start with the first person of the Trinity, the “Father,” but with the second person, “the Son,” the Word, whom he identifies as Lord Jesus Christ. And Paul associates grace with Jesus Christ, just as he associates love with the Father and communion or fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Now why, you might ask, does Paul associate grace with Jesus Christ and love with God the Father? Well, let’s keep in mind that all of these qualities belong to God. But Paul’s way of assigning a particular divine trait to each person of the Trinity can help us understand why there is a three-ness to God.   And the most visible and identifiable and repeatable characteristic of God, made known to us by the Word of Jesus Christ, is grace.

Grace, charis in Greek, means having favor toward someone or having a good disposition toward someone. In Paul’s use of the word especially in Romans, grace is something unearned from God, the result of a free gift. God’s good favor is something we don’t earn or deserve, something that isn’t obviously and self-evidently our right or our property. Paul mentions the “Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and then “The Love of God.” These are not quite the same. Parents know that they love their children. Spouses know of their own love for the other. But we all get angry and dismayed with even our dearest loved ones. And we all feel guilt and shame at what we do, or at least at our strange and uncontrollable inner thoughts. It isn’t always obvious in our anger and dismay that we love those most dear, and it isn’t always obvious that we should be loved by those most dear. That’s why it needs to be said. We need to say, and to hear, the words, “I love you.” Love needs to be a stated commitment, because what you are committing to is not yet mutually firm and fully in place. As true as this is in human relationships, it is much more true for God’s relationship to humanity. God tells the Israelites through Moses, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Neither part of that commitment was obvious; neither part could be taken for granted. Words both affirm what is not yet obvious, and make it possible for us to aim at fulfilling that commitment.

It is not obvious that the Israelites were God’s people; they never really fulfilled that promise, just as we, the New Israel, have yet to fulfill that promise. It is not obvious that human beings are created in the image of God, nor that we have a justifiable dominion over a planet that we are placing in peril. It is not obvious that we have some special favor or grace from God, a special calling or honor, when you consider the awful things we do or let happen. We need Jesus Christ to reveal this far-from-obvious grace to us. We need a Word of grace that we can perceive outside of us to this effect, assuring us of our favor with God. It needs to be objective and to come from outside of us, because we do not usually feel worthy of God’s favor; true enough. But also, in a way, we really are not worthy. We really are sinful, our world is a mess and all of us are tainted by and implicated in our messed up world, especially when we consider the absolute holiness and perfection of God. And Jesus Christ is this perfected Word of Grace from God, both assuring of God’s forgiveness and also embodying in himself a humanity that is truly faithful and just and loving, like we all should be. Jesus is the pride and joy of all humanity, which otherwise often has little to show for itself.

That is why Jesus is also our judge, the one who will come to judge the world. We’ve told ourselves “God is love” until those words barely have meaning any more, or at least they have long since ceased to pack a punch. That’s why, first of all, Jesus Christ is the grace of God, because through him we realize that God’s love is not our right or entitlement. Jesus Christ is grace, because he brings both the good news of God’s mercy as well as the awakening to our need for repentance. Christ Jesus remains ours and yet is distinct from us, one standing apart from us and taking our place.

Only through him and the grace Christ represents do we properly arrive at what Paul calls “the love of God,” or we might say, the love of the Father, the first person of the Trinity, the source and destiny of all. This deepest dimension of God’s being is, whether we realize it or not, invisible and incomprehensible to us. This is the God who told Moses, “You cannot see me face to face and live.” If we arrogantly assume we know exactly who and what God is, we will quickly end up with an idol, a little god of our own making who is indeed a false god, a golden calf. The God of love can also become our idol, a god created according to our need, an idol we make to give us assurance, rather than to be our Lord. Only when we know this incomprehensible God through the Word, through Jesus the Christ, crucified for the sin of the world and risen to bring the world reconciliation, can we know the love of God, without making that loving God into our idol—as if all if right with us and the world, it only needs a heavenly sheen of blessing. No. The world is God’s creation but it has all gone wrong; the Kingdom of God comes to turn our world upside down, and Jesus Christ will come again to judge the world. And yet: God has offered us peace and reconciliation in the midst of this quagmire, a world where children die unnecessarily every day and the world shrugs. This is a troubling paradox, this grace amidst our fallen world. Only a paradoxically triune God can hold together grace and love with a world so unworthy.

We are now in ordinary time, which covers the six months or so from Pentecost until the new liturgical year that begins with Advent. We’ve just finished hearing the story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension as our own story, the story that tells us the most important truths about ourselves and all humanity. And that time concluded with the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples, giving them the power to be the community that continues to testify to God in Jesus and that acts as the continuing presence of Christ and of his kingdom here on earth, while awaiting what is to come (that’s who we really are, folks). This has been Trinity story time, a story about the Son and the Spirit granting the world a participation in the glory of God the Source and End of all, beyond all time.   This is what time is for us: it comes from a past of timeless truth with the Word, continues into an open presence with the Spirit, and leads us into union with the Eternal God.

It is an open-ended story. 2000 years later, despite some fresh challenges, we still have everything in this room to be the Spirit-filled Kingdom in Christ’s name, participating in God’s eternal life here and now. The Bible is still our extraordinary window onto divine truths, even if we have to work a little to interpret its truths. Our sacraments are still effective in connecting us to our origin in Jesus as our Word of God. We don’t have to live one day after another, same old same old, until our allotted years come to an end. We can instead live each day in the drama of Trinity Time. Each day can begin with God the creator as its ultimate origin; each day can be made possible by the grace of Jesus the Christ, who has revived human life so that it can experience mercy and love amidst terror and heartache; and each day can bring us the feeling of the Spirit rippling across our depths, moving us by a power we don’t own but that we cannot deny. What a shame that we just got all the pieces of the Trinity in place for Trinity Time, right as summer is starting and most of us are about to scatter (including me). Don’t forget about the Trinity this summer. Repeat Paul’s nice benediction in your prayers every day. Let it sink in to you, let take you over, and it will bear you up and sweep you along like the perfect wave at the beach. Come summer’s end, I want Trinity Time to start here in earnest.

Easter: “Life for others, Victorious Over the Grave”

This distinguished our understanding of grace in contrast to that of some Christians hung up on guilt and penalties being paid–though I worried about putting other people down, perhaps by way of caricaturing, on a day of Christian unity.  But then I set the stage for the next six weeks of the Easter season, which will develop the theme of “life for others.” 

Scripture: Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

May the Good News of the Risen Christ be proclaimed from my lips and bring joy to all our ears. Amen.

The Christian faith is an Easter faith. Faith begins from and returns always to the Good News that Christ is risen from the dead. (Alleluia! Christ is risen!) We deepen the meaning of that good news when we retrace the steps of Jesus through the way of sorrows that led to the cross. Likewise, we deepen the meaning of the grace we receive from God when we retrace the steps of our wandering through the alienation and sin that would be all we have were it not for the grace of God. But all of this deepening into the sorrows and the alienation is valid only when viewed in retrospect from the vantage point of the empty tomb, the dawning realization by first the women and then the other disciples that Jesus Christ is alive in God and his word will endure forever.

It’s a simple point: Easter comes before the cross—but understandably, there is still so much confusion and misunderstanding about the odd order our faith takes. We can clarify this odd but true order by contrast with what goes wrong when Christians get the order of things backwards. Some Christians get it in their head that God was so uncontrollably angry with sin that He (I think they would only say He) had to have a sacrifice to appease his wrath. No act of mere human repentance could suffice to appease God, so the one to pay the penalty had to be very valuable indeed—equivalent to God himself. That is, only God’s own son could pay enough to God the Father to mollify God, to settle God down, so that now God could love us again. / Now there may be a grain of truth in all that, but it’s been understood in a rather childish way, as if God is at odds with God’s own being. As if the grace we came to know through Jesus Christ wasn’t who God was from the very beginning, from all eternity. As if God changes in the year AD 30 from being mad to loving, the way a cross lover does when you give him his favorite bourbon and a backrub. (“There, there.”) I don’t think we want to say that God couldn’t be a God of grace until Jesus bore the cross.   That sounds weird. But this view is not as remote as I make it out to be. In our own Red Hymnal, “I will Sing of My Redeemer” has this line: I will sing of my redeemer and his wondrous love to me, on the cruel cross he suffered from the curse to set me free.” (God’s curse?) “I will tell the wondrous story how, my lost estate to save, in his boundless love and mercy He the ransom freely gave.” Ransom? To whom? To God? Was Jesus paying God (off) on our behalf? It’s left vague in the hymn, but you can see how someone would arrive at a conclusion that might create confusion.

Likewise, some Christians (perhaps the same ones) get it in their head that you can’t have faith, you can’t be saved, unless you become convinced that you personally are a miserable sinner. Nothing you do is any good, it all just makes God so wrathful. So first you have to hit rock bottom and confess that you are a no-good sinner, and then God will accept your contrition and show you mercy. (I’m not making this up, so it should sound familiar to some of you.) Now, that’s just wrong on several counts. First of all, it makes God’s mercy the reward for my contrition and humility, as if—once again—God is wrathful and angry until I win God over with all my self-abasement and tears. No: God’s grace comes before my penance parade. And God’s grace works in us before we hit rock bottom. And as real as sin is, we don’t cease being God’s good creation. And those outside of the Christian faith likewise receive grace from God, at least the grace of creation; I don’t think God has nothing for them but wrath and damnation. (Consider the words of Peter that we just heard: “In every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him.”) I suspect that some Christians like to demand that we feel guilty and shameful because of our sin, before we can experience God’s mercy and love, because they want to control us by manipulating our emotions. You may be surprised to find out that the NT nowhere enjoins Christians to feel guilty. Yet that’s what it’s all about for some. That, and perhaps they want Christians to feel superior to all those non-Christians because we are going to heaven and they are going to the other place—thus they say that God only loves people who confess themselves to be total sinners and rely solely on Jesus Christ.

So away with all that; you won’t hear that stuff from me, or in our liturgy or song. Because the Christian faith is an Easter faith. We only understand the cross and venerate it because we have encountered the risen Christ and know ourselves to belong to him. We only feel sorrow for sin—both our personal sin and that of the whole world—because we first have known and trusted ourselves and the whole world to a God of infinite grace. We do hear God say “no,” but only because we first heard God’s yes to the whole world, and believe that God has never intended and never will let us go, even when we stray. If you flip all that around and reverse the order, you can very easily make the Christian faith into its exact opposite: a self-righteous, moralistic, judgmental path of works righteousness.

So let me be very clear, since, because of the backwards theology of some Christians, you might think that the Christian faith is self-righteous, moralistic, and judgmental. This day, Easter Sunday, is the basis and beginning for everything we believe and do. We believe that because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, God has embraced the whole world and everyone in it in Christ, no matter how badly the world rebels against God, even desiring to put God to death. When you put it that way, Easter should make us catch our breath [gasp] at the depth of divine love for the world. And that love of God is not just a warm feeling—the hapless sentiment of an unrequited lover. God’s love comes in full power. The power of God’s love overcomes all the world’s death-dealing power. No stone, however massive, can stand in the way of God’s power of life. This day of the Lord, this Easter Sunday which is not just a day but the eternal foundation of the cosmos, is not about you, and whether you are going to be a bad boy or a good girl. It’s not about us paltry human beings, and about keeping us in line or about getting us to give more money or to have more good deeds to show for ourselves. This day isn’t even about Jesus of Nazareth. This day, and in essence, our Christian faith, sis about God’s power of life and grace and love. Jesus of Nazareth was a righteous man who was unjustly killed. That much of it is a terrible tragedy. But Jesus didn’t resurrect himself. Did you hear Peter say: “God raised him on the third day.” God raised Jesus up; the Spirit and power of God raised Jesus up, demonstrating that truly this was the righteous Son of God who lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit forever. Easter Sunday is all about God, and because of Easter we know that God is our invisible father (or mother), as well as the Son we have come to know in person, and the Holy Spirit who remains with us. Because, we now know and believe in God’s power of life, and we know that Jesus is God’s son who lives forever, we know we can never be separated from him, and that God has the Spirit power to give us life in Christ Jesus. Easter is not about us, but we can now see—and this is the very basis of our faith—what Jesus told Mary: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” We can now see—not because of our own efforts and piety; until we see and believe we are at best just like Mary: confused, hapless, and pathetic. But we know by our resurrection faith that we share the same relationship to God that Jesus did and does. /

So hopefully we understand by now something of what Easter faith means and what it doesn’t mean. It means that, whatever our little accomplishments and virtues, or however lacking we are in virtues and accomplishments, God’s love has the power of life. But that doesn’t make this Easter faith any easier or more accessible for some of us, including me. The Christian faith, I have said, begins and returns always to this day that lives forever, this Easter day, and to what God did on this day by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. This day is not even about the man, Jesus of Nazareth, I said. But you might very well think to yourself, “It would be easier for me if it was about Jesus of Nazareth. I can appreciate his preaching and good deeds, the love that he showed to all.” (Never mind whether Jesus was really all that loving or whether his love was of a sort very strange to us.) “But I don’t know,” you might continue, “what to make of God raising Jesus from the dead. And then he appears in strange ways—walking through doors and then eating fish with them, as we’ll read about in the coming weeks—and then this raised body ascends, just floats up to heaven, apparently. I’d rather just believe in Jesus of Nazareth.”

As the kids say nowadays, I feel you. Easter faith may indeed be the foundation of Christian faith, but it is a big pill to swallow. It doesn’t make it altogether easier if I reassure you that the stories of the appearance of the risen Christ are clearly intended to be symbolic and mysterious. You’ll still ask me: Isn’t there an easier place to begin?

That’s what I am going to spend the next six Sundays of Easter exploring. Granted that it all goes back to the resurrection of Christ Jesus and proceeds from a confession in him. But what does being a Christian mean and look like for us, apart from getting into the difficult to conceive events of that first Easter morning? I have an answer for you. It’s an easy answer. It’s an answer you can get on board with. It doesn’t require that you explain and affirm what exactly happened with Jesus’ body or any of that, but I think I can eventually bring us back to the events of that Easter morning as recounted by the gospels and show why they still matter. …Ready?

“Life for others.” That’s what being a Christian is all about. That is the shape of life that we pledge ourselves to in this community. “Life for others.” Being a Christian does not primarily mean believing in something, affirming something, especially affirming something even if it flies in the face of science and reason and evidence. Because the most important doctrines or beliefs in Christianity are mysteries—meaning you never fully understand them. Above all, you never understand God, say what you will about God. So these beliefs in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ and justification by faith make for a confusing foundation for describing what it means to be a Christian. Moreover, being a Christian is not all in your head; it’s not a mind thing. So instead, let’s say that being a Christian means that life takes on a certain kind of shape for you. And that shape is being for others.

I can easily spend seven weeks teasing out what that means and what that life looks like. But for this week, let’s just put the matter very starkly: would you rather live in a world where everyone lives for me and mine? Or would you rather live in a world where everyone lives for others? Did you ever say to yourself, what if everyone were just nice to one another? That is in essence what I am talking about: being for others. That sounds so simple, and so attractive on a superficial level. There are still many hard questions to ask. If the answer was just, let’s all be nice to one another, then we wouldn’t need God to come down and die on a cross and then the whole resurrection thing. But essential it is simple. And the essence of Easter goes deeper and higher than just: wouldn’t it be good if we all were this and that way? The essence of Easter is this: God is life for others. The risen Christ is life for others, victorious over the grave. That’s why Jesus can say: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” because God is life for others. Those were not the last words of the risen Christ. But before he explains the rest to us, he invites us to partake of this life for others.

 

First in Advent (3/5): “Unplug for the Free Gift”

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 ; Romans 5:12-19

We had a good crowd on Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of Lent–literally! And thanks to our children for marking the bulletins with ashes from our Ash Wednesday service. In that service, everyone present received a dried palm leaf from last year’s Palm Sunday. We all meditated on that palm leaf, and mentally inscribed something we want to lay down during Lent—whether it is a practice or habit or wound that we want to be healed. We collected the leaves, burned them, and crushed them together. So we are all sharing in each other’s repentance. That last part—the sharing of all our repentance in one mass of ashes—was for me crucial to the whole thing.

Lent involves a turning inward, as I said last week. From Christmas to Easter, our attention is focused on the story of Jesus and how his story defines our story. But halfway between Christmas and Easter, we turn inward to examine ourselves. That is critical: at some point, we need to deal with our own concrete story and reality and seek to draw closer to God. But how do we do this? Do we just start talking about ourselves? That won’t necessarily prompt us to repent. We might think that our story is not all so bad, that we’ve done some good things and maybe some not so good, but all in all we don’t have much to repent for. Without the richness of the biblical stories, without all those stories about human beings trying to obey the infinitely righteous God, I’d probably think that I’m a mostly decent guy. I’m not a criminal. I’m not sponging off anybody.

And that’s fair enough. Evangelical Christians sometimes talk as if everyone who is not a born again Christian must be really sinful, even if that murky, sinful self is well concealed in one’s secret heart. That, however, is not my experience of myself, nor of my friends who live very good lives without religious faith, thank you very much.

Something else is going on in the biblical story, that I fear our evangelical cousins don’t get. I don’t think the Bible is actually teaching that all non-believers are vile sinners. Notice a sentence from the Romans reading. Paul first says, “Death spread to all because all have sinned—sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned, [sin doesn’t count], where there is no Law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.”

Now, there is a lot going on in this passage—so much that I would love to try to explain, and some things I’m not sure I would want to agree with. But briefly, when Paul says that “sin is not reckoned where there is no Law,” I think he means this: people generally do a mix of good and bad things. But God through Moses presented the Law to the people of Israel, and the Law means that now we measure ourselves against a standard of absolute purity and perfection, namely, God, which before we never had to worry about. If you and I were to compare our actions, we’d probably look roughly equal (except when we see the speck in our brother’s eye while ignoring the log in our own). But seen next to God’s holy and all-seeing perfection, before whom every shadow of our secret intentions and every deed left undone become apparent, our goodness seems to melt away. Indeed, we might seem to really deserve death, which is what I think Paul means. That’s often the reaction of Old Testament figures who came face to face with God, like Isaiah or Jacob—they wanted to die.

So, one lesson to draw from all this is that people who do not believe in God don’t have to worry about measuring themselves against this absolute standard of God’s righteous purity. I don’t blame them for seeing themselves as a mix of good and bad, but certainly not sinners. Because, as Paul says, “Sin is not reckoned [present tense, so still today] when there is no law.” Those who do not measure themselves against God’s holiness should not properly be counted sinners.

Yet if anyone were to compare himself to God’s holy standard, that person would see himself or herself as a sinner. So “all have sinned,” as Paul says, but only those who know God’s law would recognize it as sin. Paul says that sin and death exercised dominion over all, “even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.” Meaning, not everyone deliberately disobeys God as Adam supposedly did. Yet all are sinners. When you compare even sins that aren’t deliberate against God’s absolute standard of perfection, they measure up as sin nonetheless. Take any amount and compare it to infinity, and all those amounts will look equally far infinity. So, as long as we imagine God as the Law Giver who demands absolute perfection, we see ourselves as deserving death—or at least, deserving no reward and nothing of lasting and eternal worth. And Paul thinks that the Law takes us only this far—to a God demanding perfection. Now, I don’t think Paul means that everyone in the Old Testament cowered before God’s righteous perfection. Obviously, Abraham did not. So I think he’s talking about a way that any believer of God can misinterpret the Law to demand perfect fulfillment. And even more confusingly, Paul doesn’t mean that this misinterpretation of the Law is completely wrong. God is perfect and holy, and we cannot simply ignore this fact.

But Paul adds, “Adam…is a type of the one who was to come.” Adam—the word means “a human being” in Hebrew—is for Paul a symbol of all humanity found wanting when measured by God’s perfection. That symbol of Adam is a type of Jesus Christ. That is, Adam, or fallen humanity, only makes sense as the anti-type, the opposite of Christ, who represents for Paul the “free gift” of God’s grace. And the symbolic Adam and Christ are not balanced and equal: Christ outweighs Adam, overwhelms Adam, so that God’s righteous judgment can only be seen as secondary and inferior to God’s grace. So while Adam symbolizes all humanity judged and found sinners, Jesus Christ (whatever he was historically) symbolizes all humanity embraced by God with love and accepted as righteous and just. Jesus Christ was faithful and obedient even to death on behalf of us all; thus it is that “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” This in essence is what we celebrated at Christmas: in Jesus God embraces all humanity, even the whole cosmos, in love. Christ overwhelms Adam, supersedes Adam: “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.”

So, let’s sum up thus far. We who believe in God through Jesus Christ understand ourselves primarily as members of the whole humanity which has been received as just and loveable to God by virtue of the graced life of Jesus Christ. But it is still true, even if not as true, that if we consider our own life and goodness, we are also members of the humanity of Adam, the humanity that in every way and universally lives and dies in imperfection or sin, which sometimes looks very mild, and sometimes looks Satanic in its degree of evil. But considered as a type of Christ, considered as the opposite of Jesus, we are all in the same boat of fallen humanity. Now we shouldn’t expect non-Christians to see themselves or us in terms of this graced but fallen humanity. And we may not always have to see ourselves and others that way; a courtroom judge, while sitting on the bench, has little choice but to find some guilty and some innocent. But the story of Jesus and Adam is the primary story of our humanity.

It is this story that enables us to love ourselves and one another, and even or especially our enemy—to live fundamentally directed by love, even while we take very seriously how all humanity is in solidarity in falling short of God’s perfection. We and the world are seriously screwed up. Some just go along, others deliberately and knowingly reject the good out of a grandiose desire to be God, as Paul says, “like the transgression of Adam.” Wherever we are on this spectrum, this is our humanity. We are all Adam, something you and I accept because we are all, even more truly, Jesus Christ.

But that is not the story that we hear every day. Every day we are bombarded with a whole bunch of non-Christian or anti-Christian stories. They never come out and say: “The following program will present you with an anti-Christian story. Christians may want to consider reading the Bible instead.” And these stories aren’t all bad. Some non-Christian stories are incredibly illuminating, fun, and true. Life is so rich; let’s not expect the Gospel story to exhaust the richness of human experience. And we shouldn’t blame non-Christians for sharing with us their sometimes wonderful and sometimes pathetically empty stories. We and not they have been called to make this gospel story into not our only source of truth, but the very heart of what is true for us.

But all these other stories do get in the way of our gospel story. Most of them do not try to supplant the gospel. But they in effect crowd out the gospel story, especially because they come with the backing of very powerful institutions: our whole capitalist free market, our whole media apparatus, and our whole institution of government—and more besides. There is much diversity and nuance among the stories of these and other institutions, but I think we can posit a common factor among them all: they all tell us that we are free, we are in charge; and all the stuff being offered to us by the salespeople, the talking heads, and our governing representatives is just here for us to use for our benefit. They like to assure us: “It’s all about you.” / You’ll never hear me say from this pulpit, “It’s all about you.” Never: “I’m just here to give you want you want.” Never: “I’m just doing what the people want me to do.” Only in this church will you hear: “It’s all about God.” And because God has embraced humanity in Jesus Christ, it’s all about you too, but it’s also about everyone else—all of us in a solidarity of grace amid sin: “Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”

And anything, however innocently, that crowds out this story for us is diabolical. It is the Tempter. And their stories amount to a lie, whatever their truth is. We are not free as they assure us that we are. We are not really in charge. Isn’t that what the serpent said to Eve? He asks her, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” He empowers Eve to think of herself as in charge, as free. So she starts speaking for God, and you’ll notice that she changes what God said a bit. Soon the serpent has the human beings (that’s us) really taking charge, willfully making themselves judges of the good and evil of all things. And that’s how we get the whole matter of the Law that we talked about above: we take upon ourselves to see things as absolutely good or evil, something only God can do, something God has always only been able to do by the union of grace and justice in Jesus Christ, eternally begotten from the bosom of God.

The serpent is a dealer. He makes us a deal we cannot resist. If you’ll just take charge enough to do something that will really put you in charge, you will be like a little god. And then the world will revolve around you. The free market serpent tells us, You can shop until you drop, searching for ultimate fulfillment in that elusive perfect purchase. The media serpent tells us, You can choose whatever you want to be true, and we’ll bend and accommodate what is true to suit your fancy. And the government serpent says, Don’t worry about what is good for all, or good for the least of these; you just tell us what is good for you and we’ll make it happen. These systems do some good; they work up to a point. They will never bring us the Kingdom of God. More likely, when you make a deal with the devil, and maybe “if you fall down and worship” Satan, you will be promised “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” but in the end you, a little god at the center of the world, will die in your sins.   This is not real freedom. Indeed, the story of temptation—Adam’s or ours or Jesus’—is not about how we are going to use our freedom. It is all based on a false image of what freedom is—me being in charge in God’s place, which is exactly what Jesus refuses in Satan’s temptations.

Take a look at the card in your bulletin entitled, “Lenten Disciplines: Unplug for the Free Gift.” Please put it in your purse or pocket to take it home. I won’t know who throws theirs in the recycling bin on the way out the door, but I’ll be a little annoyed when I find a bunch of them in their. These cards, one each week, are for you to take on some disciplines or practices of repentance for Lent. This first one has the broadest scope of all: I want you to experience unplugging from your dependency—your so-called freedom—in relation to the whole conglomerate of consumerism, media, and government—which after all, have gradually come to resemble each other more and more. We are never going to be free from this dependency; we can go off-grid, but that’s probably a luxury for the few. But we can take half an hour, or maybe a 10 minutes a day, temporarily finding a space free from the commercial-media-government conglomerate. And not just to claim our own personal off-grid freedom, which is not the freedom of the gospel anyway, a freedom denying our solidarity with Adam and Christ. But to take measure of how dependent we are, how mired in the serpent’s deals.

I first suggest ways to break away from our bound condition, so you can get some perspective on how bound we are over the course of a typical day. Then I invite you to contemplate nature, which gives without making a deal with us to put us at the center of the universe.

Before our unfortunate trespass into taking upon ourselves the judgment of all things according to good and evil—which, despite some of its dreadful effects, is what makes us human, makes us Adam—God put us in the garden to “till and keep it.” God didn’t even ask us, to begin with, to worship him. It’s a humble but beautiful vocation, as anyone who has ever tended a garden or taken care of animals can attest. And so, finally, I ask you on the card to think of three ways you can till and keep the world around you. Think about and plan to do those things during these 40 days, and beyond. Pray for God’s help in this. God alone, illuminating you by the gospel story, will make you no empty promises of god-like freedom, but will lead you into the way of life of the free gift, the only gift great enough for the whole human race to share in.

 

 

Feb 12: “Jesus’ Weird Commandments”

 

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5: 17-32

“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out an throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” This is a saying of Jesus that most Christians pass over quickly out of embarrassment. But that’s not my way, for better or worse. I refuse to ignore what makes me uncomfortable. The search for truth compels me to zoom in exactly where the truth seems most cloudy. So I want us to wrestle with this verse today.

And I think it is foolish to ignore such verses, because some people will not ignore them. 15-year-old me did not ignore this verse, when I was just discovering the Bible for myself. I zeroed in on this verse while I was in the hormone-induced throes of discovering sexual desire. We all will recall how at that age we experience changes to our body, but also our personality, that make everything feel out of control. It is so easy to feel powerlessly guilty in adolescence. And here was Jesus, piling it on me. “My goodness, I am committing adultery, and liable to hell fire for it.” Maybe you felt similar at the time. Maybe our youth today are experiencing this now, although knowing them as I do, I suspect that they are healthier and less neurotic than I was at their age.

I cannot ignore this verse, and I cannot affirm it, because it damaged me, abetting me in my own guilt to no good end. So I was impressed with how my friend Peter—also a pastor and very well schooled in biblical studies—dealt with this passage. He first noted that Matthew, the gospel’s writer, seems to be trying to play a game of one-upmanship with the synagogue down the street. You see, by the time the gospel was written, perhaps around 75-80, there was full-blown enmity between the early Jewish followers of Jesus and the Jewish communities that did not believe Jesus was the messiah. So Matthew is trying to show that the Christians are following the law one better than their Jewish cousins. That’s where those sentences from our reading were coming from, and they are found only in Matthew’s gospel: “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (the law and prophets)…. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” We’ll show you. So Peter thinks that these passages are more about Matthew’s contemporary rivalries than anything that should concern us.

But my friend Peter also wondered whether Jesus indeed could have said some of these things. We can never be completely sure what of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels actually came from Jesus. Historians often judge that the stranger the saying from Jesus, the more likely he actually said it. And so the saying about tearing your eye out if it causes you to lust is odd; one might conclude Matthew did not put it in there unless he had it on good authority. And while this passage is unique to Matthew, it reminds us of another very strange saying of Jesus from Matthew 19: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” Maybe Jesus really believed that it is better to mutilate yourself rather than commit the sin of lust. I doubt Jesus actually said this, myself; for this saying also is found only in Matthew. Matthew seems to have an issue with lust. But we should be prepared for the possibility that the original Jesus, the historical Jesus from Nazareth, could have had some very strange ideas that we would not want to preserve and follow. Although it makes us uncomfortable, we must remember that we worship the risen Christ, who above all is known in the mystery of the cross. Most of the teachings ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth are wonderful and revelatory, but some of what he thought might have been just human, and weird.

Meanwhile, Peter concluded that we shouldn’t worry about this passage. Christians don’t need to preserve the Jewish law anyway, he believes. He had just preached recently on Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Peter was content that Micah pretty much summed up all the law we need.

Fair enough. Jesus himself could sum up the law very simply: do unto other what you would have them do unto you. Or “Love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s not too hard to boil the law to something simple. Other Rabbis contemporary to Jesus were doing that too.

But I’m not satisfied with seeing our passage today as just a weird commandment that we can do without. We should at least hesitate before assuming that we can easily judge which of Jesus’ commandments we must listen to and which we can ignore. Indeed, I’m not convinced that giving commandments for his disciples is really what Jesus is up to in this passage. He does tell them to tear out their eye and cut off their hand to avoid sin, but it’s hard to believe Jesus meant this literally. And he does tell them to go reconcile with a brother or sister before you bring your gift to the altar. But otherwise we don’t see him giving commandments in this passage, at least. Instead, he is making his disciples think again about just what imperfection they are still committing even when they follow the letter of the law. “If you are angry with a brother or sister,” even though you don’t kill him or her, “you will liable to judgment.” Or: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust,” even if you never cheat on someone, “has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (I keep wanting to read that while doing my Jimmy Carter imitation, for those who remember that episode.) Or: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery.” Jesus could have just said: Thou shall not be angry; thou shall not lust; thou shall not divorce. He could have clearly given commandments like Moses’, but significantly more stringent. But that’s not what he is saying.

Do we really need commandments from Jesus? Are you genuinely in the dark about what actions are good and bad for Christians? I bet you already have a pretty good idea of what a truly Christian character looks like; we have some wonderful examples here in this congregation. We don’t need commandments to have a general sense of Christian virtue. Now sometimes, we genuinely don’t know what to do. There are very difficult questions of how to apply Christian love and justice, especially in the social or political sphere. But commandments from 2000 years ago are unlikely to settle those questions for us. So what is Jesus doing in our passage, if he is not giving us commands to obey, and we don’t really need them anyway? Let’s consider a few possibilities.

The early and medieval church thought that Jesus’ strict words were part of the “counsels of perfection,” intended only to apply to monks and nuns who took on a special path of holiness. But we Protestants no longer recognize a spiritual elite distinct from us amateurs.

Speaking of Protestants, Martin Luther thought these strict commands of Jesus were a kind of exercise in breaking our will. We are supposed to flounder under the demand to never be angry, never lust, and so on, until we realize that we can never be perfect by our own efforts. Then our striving to prove ourselves worthy of God’s love collapses, and we throw ourselves solely on the mercy and grace of God. But I think that Luther’s interpretation of these sayings of Jesus seems unlikely: he’s saying that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said.

I don’t think Luther had it quite right. Like I said, I don’t think Jesus is giving us commands, exactly. Instead of saying, “do not lust,” he is prompting his disciples to consider what our actions look like under the gaze of the burning, absolutely righteous God. This is a dimension of God’s being that is very real, even though we’ve gotten accustomed to thinking of God as a big Softie. God loves us because we’re just so special and wonderful. Well, that dimension of God is real, too. But God’s love cannot stand without affirming the holiness, the justice, the righteousness of God, before whom even our best efforts look suspect and imperfect. And so Jesus is training his disciples to see our actions—even the perfectly permissible ones of being angry, lusting, divorcing—as still morally compromised and sinful.

So let’s think about what we can learn and take away from these strange, uncomfortable sayings. First: Jesus is taking commands and pushing them beyond the way they normally work. He is making commandments weird. Consider how we normally think of commandments in the Bible. We take them to be like a deal God makes with us. I’ll tell you what I expect, says God, and if you do it, I’ll reward you. If you fail, I’ll punish you. That’s exactly what we heard in Deuteronomy, and our open Psalm as well. We are comfortable with seeing God this way. We look for the commandment so we can know exactly what we need to do to get our reward. It’s like when a child during dinner asks how many bites he has to finish to get dessert. We want to make a deal with God, we want to enter into a contract. But the problem with any deal is, the me negotiating the deal is never really challenged or altered. I remain a sovereign negotiator, sitting across the table from God. But God doesn’t want to make a deal with us. Nor does God want us to cower and submit as if before a tyrant. God wants us to be joined in a bond of love. No one comes to love someone else by way of making a deal. Deals will only get you as far as prostitution.

So Jesus is telling us that, if we want to negotiate a deal with God in terms of commandments, if we want to make ourselves equal sovereigns with God—since you can only negotiate with someone if you are on the same level as that person—then we need to realize that God’s demands are absolute. So being angry merits eternal punishment; a casual glance is equivalent to adultery. If we want to negotiate, we’ll find that God doesn’t give us much leeway. Luther might be right: we need to approach God as the one who frees us by grace, not the one who drives a hard bargain.  [The commands were never meant to be a way for us to secure our personal relationship with God.   They were meant as a path to establish a holy people, and just community. ]

When we are freed from negotiating, freed from trying to establish our own deal with God, we are then ready to turn outward. God wants to direct us to our neighbor, especially the neighbor who is close but whom we have pushed far away, because he’s foreign or not one of us. That was the intent of the original commandments. They weren’t about proving myself worthy, but establishing justice within the community. But why has Christianity so constantly turned inward, as if God only cared about our secret thoughts and desires? Why have we been so obsessed with sexuality? We need to stop naval gazing into the murky realm of our secret desires and start paying more attention to how we treat one another every day, and to how our society treats God’s children. We are well on the way to causing wide spread human and natural calamity because of human effects on climate, and still many Christians sit in their rooms and fret about masturbation. We need to grow up and face the real impact of our actions. Our passage today is just about the only passage where Jesus expresses a concern about personal sexuality. If this passage causes you to stumble, to turn inward in anxiety over meaningless private struggles, then tear it out and throw it away. Better to lose one passage than to forfeit the kingdom that the whole Bible points to.

But if it won’t distract you too much, then take a moment—just a moment—to contemplate with the eyes of God’s burning perfection the nature of lust. What are we doing, when a guy lusts after a girl? “What’s the big deal,” the guyz will say. “I was just looking. Hey, I paid her a compliment, when I cat-called.” Or my favorite: “I don’t hate women; I love women. That’s why I tell people I’ve never met how hot I think they are.” No, you do hate women. You are making them an object of your desire; you are making them into your sport. You are making someone younger and smaller than you feel intimidated, or feel ashamed. You can’t deal with the fact that your vulnerability to desire makes you feel weak and out of control. So you strike back, trying to reduce her to your object. Not only is this lust adultery, it is akin to murder, to making someone an dead object rather than a living human being. God sees this.

And God sees how our entire consumer marketplace, which none of us can escape from, trades on lust. In hocking their products, our industries are constantly stimulating our appetites, training us to see the whole world, and all the human beings in it, as objects of desire. Women are sexualized wantonly by advertisements, of course; and more and more, so are beefcakes. Our consumerist society is cranking up lusts so we will want to buy lots of stuff, and then we’ll work hard to make the money we need to do so. This is the American way. It wouldn’t exist as it does without lust. And none of us is pure and clean.

And then we start to internalize this lustful gaze upon everything, the gaze that our advertisements model for us. We start to value ourselves as possible objects of lust. We feel empowered when we can inspire lust in others. So we obsess about our abs, or our killer stare, or we get all tarted up. (Ok, maybe that doesn’t apply to the seniors among us, but I can’t be certain.) We dehumanize ourselves, reflecting the dehumanization of our lusty system. And then we feel so disdainful to Amish, Muslim, and other cultures when they want nothing to do with all of this, when they resist it all with strict codes of modesty, which they typically make women bear the brunt of. Women bear the brunt one way or the other, it seems.

It’s not such a bad idea to take a minute to recognize all of this. Not that there is a commandment to follow and make it all better. That’s not the point of what Jesus is doing in equating lust with adultery or anger with murder. He is breaking us of the habit of thinking that my salvation is something I can choose and control by resolving to follow the rules. Our little choices to follow this or that command might do some good, or they might just make us feel self-righteous, but they will not bring about the topsy-turvy Kingdom of Heaven that we talked about a few weeks ago—where the meek inherit the earth and the righteous who are persecuted are blessed. We remain totally dependent on God to bring about this Kingdom, and if we are going to experience even a little bit of that Kingdom, we need to depend on each other also, allowing ourselves collectively to become an alternative culture, one where anger and lust begin to be banished, not by repression, but by the overwhelming positive power of human love and mutual regard. And above all, this alternative culture is where God’s grace is respected as our true lifeblood, what saves us from all the sin and disorder that we spend most of the time pretending not to see. Let us consecrate ourselves not to our own personal holiness, but toward living a life together, turned outward toward our neighbor and God’s Kingdom.