6 Epiphany A—2/12/17
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (Sirach 15:15-20); Psalm 119:1-8;
Pr. Scott Kramer
Clyde Ford is a retired chiropractor and psychotherapist who lives in Bellingham; he’s also African-American. In yesterday’s Seattle Times Clyde Ford tells the story of a lunch meeting he had one day in a small local café. As he and his luncheon companion were enjoying their conversation, without warning a woman outside the coffeehouse beat on the window, shot her middle finger into the air and hollered the N-word at him for all to hear.
Well, the café’s owners called the police, who found the woman and arrested her. A police officer came inside the café to take a statement from Mr. Ford and his lunch companion who, by the way, was also a person of color, and told them that the woman showed signs of mental illness. According to the officer, here’s what the woman said: Now that Obama is no longer president there’s nothing wrong with what I did.
Good people, moral citizens, upstanding Christian folk need this woman. We need mentally ill people. We need criminals. We need bad guys. If they didn’t exist we’d have to invent them because how else can we measure our own goodness except by comparing ourselves to people we have decided are bad, or if not bad, at least worse than we are?
The story that Clyde Ford tells seems pretty cut and dried: The woman showed signs of mental illness. The officer did his job. End of story. But Clyde Ford is a trained mental health professional and he says it’s not that simple. Psychiatrists and psychotherapists have long noticed, he says, that mentally ill people commonly proclaim what the rest of society believes but won’t say out loud. Ford says, The national mood today more freely admits bigotry, intolerance and racism with a shrug: “There’s nothing wrong with what I did.” Could it be that the disturbed woman in the story may be different from many “normal” people only in that she is more openly honest about what she believes? We know how this works, right? People with no filter blurt out what others believe but don’t dare to speak–children, for example! “Mommy, is this the lady you said is a jerk?”
How else can we measure our goodness except to look down on people we think of as less than we are? In today’s reading from Matthew Jesus answers the question: “You could start by measuring yourselves not against each other but by God’s standards,” he says: You have heard it said, “You shall not murder.” But I say to you, murder and anger are the same thing. You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you, Anyone who has impure thoughts has already committed adultery. You have heard it said, “You shall not swear falsely.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all.
With only a few words Jesus levels the playing field. There is no difference, he implies, between “good guys” and “bad guys.” The ways of God so far exceed the ability of any human being to meet those standards that the differences among all human beings in terms of moral behavior are insignificant.
Now, just because Jesus says it doesn’t mean we believe it! In yesterday’s paper, for example, was the story of a local man in jail who tried to have both his wife and his four year-old daughter killed so he could collect on their life insurance policies. You’re telling me, pastor, that such a thing is no different from anger? I don’t think so!
But, oh, what a tangled web we weave. There we go again, comparing ourselves to someone else instead of looking inside our own hearts to see where we fail to practice the law of God—the law of love!
The name Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is not in the news today as it was when he was alive. Solzhenitsyn was a Russian dissident poet and author who spent almost ten years in jail because of his outspokenness against the Soviet system. He was no friend of American capitalism, either.
You might expect someone who had suffered under an oppressive regime as Solzhenitsyn did to have a firm belief that the world is made up of “good guys” and “bad guys.” But Solzhenitsyn believed otherwise. The line dividing good and evil, Solzhenitsyn writes in “Gulag Archipelago,” cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Which is exactly what Jesus teaches! If your right eye causes you to sin, he says, tear it out and throw it away…and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. Is this merely exaggeration? Or, is he checking to see if we’re paying attention? Friends, when did your eyes ever cause you to sin? When did your hands ever cause you to sin? Our hands and eyes are not the problem! It’s our hearts and minds that are the problem; it’s our hearts and minds that are in need of transformation!
Are you not merely human? St. Paul scolds the Christians in Corinth. This quarreling and jealously–what you need is a spiritual brain transplant, replacing your merely human mind with the mind of Christ. What you really need, Paul says, is a spiritual heart transplant, replacing your merely human heart with the heart of Christ, the heart of God’s love for all people.
It’s not about hands and eyes; it’s about hearts and minds! That’s the radical surgery that’s needed, and that’s what at our best might drive us to our knees seeking God’s help, knowing that we can’t do it ourselves.
St. Paul writes to the Corinthian church, using the language of milk vs. solid food. To feed on a milk diet is to remain attached to the idea of our own goodness and rightness—that’s baby food! To feed on solid food means to recognize the common humanity of all people, to recognize our own darkness, and to work on opening our own hearts to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
“You have heard it said…” Jesus taught. Dear friends in Christ, What have you heard said? What have you been trained and retrained over and over to believe? You have heard it said that white is better than black, or yellow, or red, or brown. You have heard it said!–if not in words, then through attitudes and actions. You have heard it said that American is better than non-American, that native-born is better than immigrant or refugee. You have heard it said that straight is better than gay, that rich is better than poor, that male is better than female. You have heard many things said over the course of your life.
And Jesus replies, But I say to you… Much of what we’ve heard said has nothing to do with Christ’s love, but many of these things have become so deeply rooted in our hearts and minds that they take on almost religious power in our lives–did I say “almost”? Whatever takes on religious power in our lives, according to our scriptures, becomes a false god. “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish.” (Deut. 30:17-18) Nationalism. Racism. Sexism. All these are false gods because they represent not God’s love but love of self.
“You have heard it said, but I say to you…” In the eyes of God there is no better or worse. There is only love or no love. And God has given us the terrible, awesome power every moment of every day to choose. Listen again to our reading from Sirach: If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. God has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.
Which is another way of proclaiming the Good News we hear every week: To choose love is to choose life! Dear friends in Christ…choose love. Choose life!