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Monday, February 20, 2017

I'll see you in hell

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 5:21-37.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

So that may be an alarming title for a sermon, but bear with me.  Jesus tells us that if we have hatred in our heart, we have already committed murder and if we have lust in our heart, we have already committed adultery, and we are liable to the fire of hell.

See you there.

I think it is fairly obvious that Jesus is speaking hyperbolically in this passage.  If we all followed his direction to start hacking off limbs if they caused us to sin, I think we would all be stumps at this point.  Sin, whether it be anger, lust, greed or whatever is simply part of the human condition, and we all have felt their pull, but it is actually what we do with and about that sin that defines us as people and as Christians.

Oddly enough, I think this passage has everything to do with community, even though Jesus doesn't mention in explicitly, once again bear with me.

When you ask a person in my age bracket (50 and under or so) what their religion is, how they practice their faith, their response is most likely something that has now become something of a cliche: "I'm more spiritual than religious".

More often than not, what this actually means is, "I like sleeping in on a Sunday", or "I don't want the responsibility that comes with being a member of a community".

My generation is extremely selfish.  We are not joiners, we don't like to commit, we don't like strings attached.  We are taught, although perhaps not in so many words, to be self-reliant, self-supporting, to stand on our own two feet.  The problem with this attitude is that it does very little to foster a sense of community, and it is to our detriment, because it is only within the context of a community that we really become human beings.

Let me put it this way: if you were born and raised in a box and never had any contact with any other human being, you would most likely never have to learn how to cope with anger or lust because you would never have felt them.  Other people are often the cause of or at least the sounding board for our own emotions.  If we were raised in a box and somehow managed to have emotions of some kind, we would have no idea how to regulate them.  Our communities, whether they be our families, our friends, our churches or our workplaces are therefore quite literally a training or proving ground in which we are able to practice, exercise and regulate our emotion.  Our communities teach us what is appropriate and inappropriate in terms of our emotional reactions.

When you join a community, there are always expectations: dues to pay, volunteer positions to fill, schedules to keep, behavioural norms to adhere to, etc.  I can't think of a single group or community that has no expectations whatsoever.  Churches are no different.  Many people, particularly in my age range, balk at those expectations, and fail to adhere to a community because they don't want to take on those expectations.

The other thing about my generation is that we are consumers.  If we don't like the minister or the yogi or the soccer coach or the painting instructor, we just find one we do like.  If we get into a disagreement with someone at our church, our yoga studio, our sports complex or our art class, we just leave.

The problem with this is that if we leave without resolving these problems, we deny ourselves of one of the greatest gifts of community, and that is reconciliation and forgiveness.

It has been said that anyone who thinks forgiveness is for the weak hasn't tried it.  It takes enormous strength to forgive someone, to be forgiven, to forgive oneself.  How could one do this without a community?  True, without a community there would likely be no sin to begin with, but then in what sense could be possibly embrace the fullness of our humanity?  Life in a box would be awfully boring.

I think the gifts of being in community far outweigh the drawbacks.  I think that anyone who deprives themselves of community is robbing themselves of the full bounty of what it means to be human, with all our strengths and weaknesses, all our failures and triumphs, all our joy and sorrow.  I for one am glad of the community that surrounds me and all the blessings and trials that brings.

Just be perfect, that's all

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 5:38-48.

In today's Gospel passage we are told to be perfect.  Oh, is that all?

Here's the thing about perfection: it is impossible to achieve, but if you set the bar low, you are going to come in low.  Set the bar high, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

How many of us could actually do what Jesus asks us to do today, though?  How many of us could, when struck, offer the other cheek as well?  How many of us could, when sued for our coat, toss in our cloak as well?

Not me most days, I can tell you that.  Our human impulse when struck is to strike back, whether this be literally or figuratively.  At best, Jesus Christ is asking us to be good-natured doormats.  At worst, he is asking us to be perfect, which is simply impossible.

And yet I think he is on to something.  I think Jesus said these words knowing they were impossible, knowing that we knew they would be impossible, but Jesus was and is always trying to show us a new way, new territories of the human spirit, ways of acting that are contrary to our human impulses because sometimes our human impulses are simply not good for us.

Ever gotten into a fight?  Someone hits you, you hit back.  Has the other person ever said, "Well, that was fair, now we're even, fight over"?  No.  Generally, you hit back, they grab a pool cue, you grab a bottle, they grab a chair, you grab a table, they pull a knife, you pull a gun, and the whole thing escalates until someone really gets hurt.

That, I think I am fair in saying, is what our human nature tells us to do.

While we cannot take this Gospel passage 100% literally because it sets the bar so high that we would constantly be failing, it does make it clear that Jesus is trying to show us a different way, a way that could make things better and change the world.

This passage is actually part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus speaks at great length about what the kingdom of God is actually like, who is actually blessed, and what it means to be a Godly person.  To cut a long story short, it is, respectively, nothing like what we think it is like, not the people we think and not what we have been doing.

I preached on this passage on the same Sunday as our annual Vestry meeting, and it was particularly apropos: our church, like so many others in North America, is experiencing difficulty, mostly of a financial nature.  The future is uncertain, and what we look like in a year from now will probably be very different that what we look like today.  It will need to be in order to continue providing ministry in our area.

This is why I issued a challenge to our incoming council: if you want, need or expect church to go on being the same thing it is, please reconsider your seat at the table.  If however you feel courageous enough to try new things, to listen hard to our communities and to the movement of the Spirit, then please pull up a chair.

Look, it would be scary as hell I think to turn the other cheek and risk the hammer falling a second time, but if the way you are is not working, well, it would be madness to keep doing that.  That goes for people, families, workplaces, churches, etc.

Jesus was and is always trying to draw us forward to new things, and new things are always uncertain.  But I have said it before and I will say it again, trying new things, taking risks, doing something different is how we find the life abundant that God wants us to live.

I hope and pray that we can all find that life this year.