PROPERS: 6 EPIPHANY, YEAR A
TEXT: MATTHEW 5:21-37
PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY, PENSACOLA, ON SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2020.
ONE SENTENCE: The Christian faith is more complicated – and more gracious – than binary choices.
I grew up an Ole Miss fan. There, I said it.
But that is not who I am. Though, it is who I was.
I have told friends for years that part of my spiritual awakening was being healed of football. And, boy, did I need it.
In years past, I would be a basket case on football weekends. I still say to this day – with tongue planted firmly in cheek – that the darkest day in my life was October 17, 1970.
That was the day that my undefeated, fourth-ranked, beloved Ole Miss Rebels – with Heisman Trophy candidate Archie Manning at the helm – were defeated by Southern Mississippi at Hemingway Stadium in Oxford. Little Willie Heidelburg, scatback from Southern and, ironically, the only black player on the field, scored touchdowns on two double-reverses to lead the Golden Eagles to a 30-14 victory.
No, I don’t remember those specifics…
It was downhill from there. Legendary Coach John Vaught had a heart attack that week. Archie Manning broke his arm the next week. It did not bode well for the future.
Through my years at Ole Miss, our football team was awful. And I was miserable. The misery continued afterwards – in the years following.
\ If Nora was here today she would verify what am anxious wretch I was. On weekends when Ole Miss played football, I was wound tight as a tick. When we lost – which was frequently – I would be sullen the entire weekend.
My viewpoint of life and college football was binary, dualistic – Ole Miss was good, everything else was not good. Binary. Either/or.
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You know it. Sadly, our culture has become binary, too. Either you’re fur us or agin’ us.
It is seen most clearly in our politics. And in social media, too. Lines are being drawn. You are on one side or the other. There is no in-between.
We’ve seen it in the church in the last two decades. Thankfully, we have largely emerged from that chapter. We have grown more tolerant of one another – by and large.
Culture is another thing, though. We see the divisions daily. They are exemplified by the television channels we watch. The fabric of society is stretched, and it is about to be torn asunder. There is a demand for winners and losers – a zero-sum game.
What does the church have to say? What does the gospel have to say?
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Going back to the early roots of the church, we come across one of the first heresies – Gnosticism. It was characterized by the definition of its name – secret knowledge. One of its other tendencies was a focus on dualism – something was either all good or all bad.
Gnostics saw matter – flesh and the world -- as evil, and spirit as good. Christians saw creation as good, but as corrupted. Hence, the Incarnation – Christ coming in human form to redeem creation. The Gnostics saw our embodiment itself as evil, and that the essential spirit represented the sole good present in creation.
For example, the Gnostics saw the pursuit of the spiritual quest to be far superior to Christian ministry, such as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, comforting the grieving, and other ministries to which Jesus calls us. The binary contention was this: the inner was good; the outer, not so.
In reality, the truth can be found in both/and and not in either/or.
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To put the matter in a secular context, I would quote the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
That was an important lesson I had to learn. My passion for Ole Miss football was the petri dish for my spiritual transformation. I came, by a gift of grace, to see life as more complex – more in shades of grey than in all black and white. And that did not make things simpler. In fact, life became more complicated.
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The faithful people of Jesus’ day, if they wished, were free to follow the details of the Law – the black and white specifics of Torah, the ancient law of Moses. In broad strokes, it was very clear. There was little doubt about major issues. The Law was authoritative. It was to be followed faithfully.
But, there was some thought beyond that fundamental approach. As an example, the Pharisees were experts in the Law. And they were focused on applying it to every aspect of life. They, too, saw that there were grey areas – areas of doubt, areas of confusion, areas of dispute – which needed to be addressed.
There were various avenues for interpreting Torah. They included Peshat, Remez, Drush, and Sod.
Jesus seeks to be clear about the complexity of God’s Law in today’s gospel. If there is a supposition that Jesus released us from the demands of the Law, these words will disabuse us from that mistaken notion.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
And he goes on. He does not let us off the hook. Keep in mind that this passage is within the Sermon on the Mount, and comes only a few verses after the Beatitudes – the words of comfort for common men and women, like you and I, who listened to him that day.
His words remind us, as Scott Peck wrote in his book, The Road Less Traveled, that Life is difficult. It iscomplex and resists the temptation to place everything in a box, or see all of life as black or white.
Jesus is telling us: The heart is the core of our lives. It discloses our motivations. A heart that is hard, will deal with complex matters in a firm, brittle way. A heart that is both spirit and flesh will see issues and people with nuance, grace, and gentleness.
Our lives are not characterized by simple, binary choices, but call us to a spirit-filled approach to people and to circumstances.