The following is a sermon delivered on Sunday, February 16, 2014 at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, KY. Thanks to Derek Penwell, our senior minister, for extending the invitation to me to preach, and to everyone in attendance for your attention and your kind remarks.
I think it is safe to say that most of you here today come to this church because God is stirring your heart towards a view of following Jesus that centers on grace, love, and acceptance rather than condemnation and judgment. Certainly that is why I am here. I keep on coming back because of the Jesus who says that loving God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself, are the whole of the Law and the Prophets. So today’s Gospel lesson, from the Sermon on the Mount, may sound jarring to us. It does to me. This is not sweetness-and-light Jesus. This is law-and-order Jesus. This is “tough on crime” Jesus. Here we have the Jesus who warns us against the fires of hell, the Jesus who tells us to cut out our eyes and cut off our hands and throw them away if they cause us to sin, the one who rails against divorce and adultery. This passage evokes for me the Southern Baptist revival preachers of my childhood, who gloried in warning us against the panoply of things that would land us in the lake of fire for eternity, and– I will be honest– it makes me squirm in my seat, just like I always did at revival time. This is the Jesus I pretend not to know at the party when he starts to get on his high horse.
I struggle with this Jesus. I suspect many of you do too. I find, though, that when Jesus, or anyone else, makes me struggle like this, I have something to learn from them that I need to acknowledge. It may not be apparent at first what that something is; it may not be what either of us thinks it is. But the lesson is there, and in the struggle over it we both find ourselves on the way to someplace we need to go, if we will just trust in it and not break away from it.
Now, in Protestant Christianity there are many who would like to interrupt my sermon at this point to make hay about the notion of “taking scripture literally.” Perhaps it is a coincidence, or perhaps it isn’t, that many of those who make the most of “taking scripture literally” deploy the notion in the service of bolstering what they deem to be the “tough on crime” messages: that God prepares a place of everlasting torment for some of us, and that sending some of his beloved creatures there is to the greater glory; that we are all sinners but “those people” (wink wink, you know who they are) are worse sinners than others; that we just can’t let women preach; that we have to keep those awful queer folk out of church. “The Bible” says so, after all. So they say, anyway.
It would seem like this passage from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount would be theological red meat for this view of Jesus and scripture. On its face the message we hear today is tough– very tough. We hear in no uncertain terms that all sorts of things are forbidden to us, and that doing them merits us a one-way ticket to the lake of fire– although, in fairness, what the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which I read earlier translates as “hell” is really “Gehenna,” a valley on the edge of the Old City of Jerusalem, not some ethereal afterlife domicile of the damned.
Still, it would be very tempting to leave the matter there, with all the adulterers and divorcees writhing on Jerusalem’s everlasting tire fire, except that the totality of what Jesus is recommending, taken with sheer literality, is so outlandish that pretty much no one, not even the most devoted “Biblical literalist,” has ever really done what he is suggesting. I do not know of any “Bible-believing” church in which people gouge out their own eyes or cut off their own hands in the service of Biblical fidelity. (Perhaps such a church has existed in the long history of the faith, but I cannot imagine that it held many adherents for very long.) Even devotees of “taking the Bible literally” have to concede that Jesus is after something deeper than what lies on the literal surface of his words. Our only other option would be to turn the church into a butcher shop, and that seems…, well, counterintuitive, to put it mildly.
So. What is Jesus after? I think that Jesus is pointing us here towards an idea about “the Law” that Paul, the first theologian of the church, developed at greater length in his letters. The idea, briefly put, is this: The Law, in virtue of its function of setting boundaries around what is permitted and what is not, brings about the very conditions of its own transgression. Here’s what I mean: Before a law exists making some conduct unlawful, there is no such thing as breaking the law with respect to it. There is quite simply no law there to break. When the law exists, though, only then is there such a thing as breaking it. To paraphrase the philosopher Hegel: Creating a lawful boundary involves at the same time creating a space on the other side of it, and even (or especially) when we recognize that boundary as a boundary and self-consciously dwell within it, we simultaneously occupy that space on the other side virtually in thought. While we tell ourselves that we are staying within the boundaries set for us, we are really declaring mastery over those boundaries by assigning those boundaries to ourselves, and hence stepping over them.
All that is highfalutin language for a thing we all experienced as kids. Surely this happened to you: Mom or Dad or some other authority figure says, “Stay out of that room!” or “Don’t open that drawer!” and then what happens? Yep– suddenly that room or that drawer becomes the most interesting thing in the universe. The mind fills up with visions of what must be behind that parental prohibition that is so important: something obviously great, or terrible, or both. Then, there is but one option: We have to know what is in there, or else let our wild imagination fill the blank. We have to test the boundary. We have to see how firm the boundary is, to know whether there is some way to purchase minimal compliance with it while still getting what we now so desperately want.
(For the parent in this situation, there is risk, too– a risk I have learned all too well now that I have a child. Perhaps there are good, principled reasons for putting the boundary in place. Not all boundaries are bad. Once the boundary is in place, though, maintaining it in the face of resistance threatens to make maintaining the boundary more about maintaining our parental authority rather than about the principled reasons for instituting the boundary in the first place. It sometimes becomes less a matter of “What is in there is bad for you” and more a matter of “Don’t go in there because I said so!”)
This phenomenon is not, of course, just a peculiarity of Christian theology or of naive childhood. If you have ever had any contact with what the corporate world calls “compliance departments,” you know exactly what I mean. If corporations are people (corporations are people, my friend, or so I heard), then their attitude towards law and regulation is every bit as calculating and scheming as that of the toddler who desperately longs to gorge himself in the cookie jar. “What is the bare minimum we have to do to comply with the Clean Air Act? The Affordable Care Act? with bank regulations?” Coming up with creative ways to secure technical compliance with, but substantive transgression of, laws and regulations is, to some people, not only a way to gain a competitive advantage, but their solemn duty as good Americans.
Laws and boundaries have a purpose. They coordinate our relationships with one another. Sometimes boundaries are vital to life: boundaries that keep abusers apart from those they seek to abuse, for example. The danger of boundaries that take on the force of law, however, is that they turn our relationships with one another into relationships with the law. They can turn our focus from “How should I treat you, my fellow human being?” to “How can I comply with the law?”
What is Jesus trying to say to this law-and-boundary-obsessed state of mind? I think he is trying to remind us that, in the case of God, the purpose of the Law for us is not to invite us into a struggle in which we seek to master the law. It is not to give us a convenient checklist of things to do so that we can feel like we are just good enough as we are and go on to Sunday lunch with a clear conscience. It is instead an invitation to come face to face with who I am, with who we are, and to allow God to transform us together. The vision of the Law Jesus provides us in the Sermon on the Mount is, if anything, so impossibly strict as to be beyond the reach of anybody’s ability to comply. The roots of the non-compliance lie inscrutably deep in the human heart, at the very wellsprings of our willpower. I mean, really: Who hasn’t at some point looked at another with desire, however fleetingly? Who hasn’t come before God harboring some resentment against another? Before the Law as Jesus understands it, there is absolutely no hope that you will ever come before it and justify yourself. Who could come clean before its judgment seat with both eyes, both hands, intact? What good is it to be perfect if at the end all you are is a perfect pile of severed limbs?
What are you supposed to do, then? Just this: stop trying. You heard me: Stop trying. Stop trying to be perfect. Stop pretending like you have the willpower to justify yourself and your existence, to outdo everyone else who ever lived, including God. After all, what did Jesus say in last week’s lesson? How soon we forget. You are salt and light. You, right there, just as you are: Not as you might be if you would just stop playing poker in the fellowship hall, or say fewer swear words, or lose weight, or pay off your credit cards, or earn more money. No. As you are, full stop. This doesn’t mean that we are supposed to forget about God and the Law, or that we shouldn’t try to do better. It is, rather, to allow our struggle with those things, our awareness that we have fallen short of them, to remind us who we are, and to help us grow with God’s help into more than we could ever imagine. That is why the Law exists, and that is why Jesus came to fulfill it. Jesus, and the Law, are trying to point you towards something much more important than unwavering compliance with some standard of perfection. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus pointing, arm outstretched, towards something greater than the impossible standard of perfect compliance. He points towards that something greater, and yet so often all we manage to do is stare uncomprehending at the tip of his finger, like the family dog.
At what does Jesus point, then? It seems to me that he is pointing us away from ourselves and whatever struggles we are having with God and the Law and towards a right relationship with one another. Before the things we do to earn individual favor with God have any value, we are called to right relationship with our brothers and sisters. If you are before the altar and someone has something against you, nothing you do before God at that altar is going to fix that. Your tithes and offerings, however lavish, will not buy you loving relationships with others. Your brick walls cannot hide the injustice of your relationships with those around you. Your gilded crosses and your steeples will not keep out your inhumanity– my inhumanity, the callousness of our indifference, the depth of our exploitation of other people and of the natural world.
Greater and more wondrous a creation than any law, even the whole of the law itself, is the human being sitting in the pew next to you right now. Greater than any law is the person freezing in the street. Greater than any law is the queer or trans* youth thrown out of their house without a place to stay, the migrant shunted from country to country and scapegoated for all of society’s ills. Who among you can honestly say that you have been reconciled to all of those, not just to a few tokens who you keep around so you can feel “tolerant” and “broad-minded”? I sure can’t. Reconcile yourself to all of those, Jesus seems to be saying, and maybe then we can talk to the celestial compliance department about how much is just enough of a gift to leave on the altar for you to feel good about yourself.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and God has given us power– more power, indeed, than we usually acknowledge, perhaps more than we really want. We lack the power to outfox God and make ourselves perfect. Our power is different. Part of that power is the power to say “yes” and “no” to others. Our identity, our bonds, the world in which we live is brought about by those things and those people to which we say “yes” and “no.” Our “yes” and “no” require no other oath, Jesus tells us; to think so is to listen to the “evil one.” They stand without support from the sky above or the earth below or the throne of the sovereign. Whether we take the step to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters starts with our ability to say “yes” to that reconciliation, as terrifying and as threatening as it may appear. It doesn’t end there, but it has to start there. And we have to own what those yeses and no’s mean: They mean nothing less than our creating, or not creating, the world God intends for us, one in which we are going to live in a world with our fellow beings, all our fellow beings, or attempt to slip away behind walls of privileged avoidance in which we pick and choose who we shall recognize.
The author Lydia Millet has a short essay about the movie Star Wars called “Becoming Darth Vader.” Many people have spilled a lot of ink about Star Wars, but Millet’s essay is perhaps the most trenchant thing about it I have ever read, because she shows what the figure of Darth Vader really has to teach us. She writes:
It seems to me sometimes that I am surrounded by Vaders. The Vaders are the ones who do not wear their hearts on their sleeves, who protect themselves from exposure. They do not display themselves in all their weakness to disarm would-be detractors, adopt a deceptively submissive pose to fool fearsome opponents. They do not broadcast their flaws, do not reach out to others by seeking and embracing a communion of weakness, of understandable frailty. (Many is the friend I have made this way, when we saw, in the turn of an instant, talking, that we knew each other best not through our successes but through our failures and our wry awareness of them.) Vaders do not make inappropriate remarks at dinner parties, let down their guard in drunken moments to reveal the wanting soul within. The Vaders are too smart for that, and they know which side their bread is buttered on.
The Vaders know about masks. They use them well.
And of course, the strongest of the Vaders rule the world.
Today we have the power to decide who it is we shall be. Are we going to be Vaders, hiding behind masks of impassivity, saying “no” to others, speaking only of our imagined successes through our metallic throatboxes, ruling the world in the service of Empire, but then– dying like Vader: as Millet writes, “ravaged and half eaten-up by machine,” “bound up in the tragedy of our own silence”? Or are we going to say yes? Yes to God, yes to the other people with whom we share this city, this country, this planet?
The opportunity to start saying that “yes” is literally as close to you as the people in this room.