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“YES, WE CAN”
A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, February 13, 2011
Here’s a quiz for you this morning. If you get the answer right, I’ll give you a pass and you don’t have to listen to the rest of this homily. What comprises over 10 per cent of the entire book of Matthew? What includes three full chapters – 111 verses? What is it about this that Luke found so compelling that he also chose to include it in his Gospel? And, when it ends, the crowd, rather than being turned off, were “amazed”? Got it yet?
I suppose I could wait till the end of the homily to tell you, ensuring you’d have to listen to it anyway, but that would be cheesy. Here’s a hint: it’s been called “the greatest sermon ever delivered,” even though most biblical scholars say that it’s a collection of Jesus’ sayings rather than a sermon per se. In it, Jesus radicalizes the Law by demanding good intentions as well as good actions. It’s called “The Sermon on the Mount.”
Many people give it benign neglect. That is, they hear the words and understand the concepts, but find Jesus’ ethical demands impossible. “You have heard it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” Yikes!
But wait! Jesus isn’t finished. “Again, anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” In the 5th century, Augustine insists that a Jew told him that “raca,” the word Jesus uses for “fool,” isn’t even a word at all, but an interjection. Something like, “puh.” It’s a measure of contempt. Something like, “Get out of here, you idiot, you’re wasting my time.” I just want to tell you that I haven’t been guilty of that one…in the last ten minutes or so.
Jesus is concerned with crimes of the heart. Later on in Matthew he tells us, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Out of curiosity, I did a word study on the Greek verb, KRI-now, “to judge.” The results weren’t what I expected. We think of judging others in spectacular, apocalyptic terms. But Jesus didn’t. No – his admonition against judging others means only that we shouldn’t criticize someone else’s behavior with the object of changing that person. That’s all.
In 1880, James Garfield was elected president of the United States. After only six months in office, however, he was shot in the back. He never lost consciousness. At the hospital, the doctor probed the wound with his little finger to seek the bullet. He couldn’t find it. So he tried a silver-tipped probe. He still couldn’t locate the bullet. So they took Garfield back to Washington, D.C., where teams of doctors tried to locate the bullet, probing the wound over and over.
In desperation, they asked Alexander Graham Bell, who was working on a little device called the telephone, to see if he could locate the metal inside the president’s body. He came, he sought, he failed, just like the rest. The president hung in there through July, through August, but in September he finally died. He didn’t die from the gunshot wound, however. He died from infection. The repeated probing – which the physicians thought would help him, eventually killed him.
And so it is with judging. We all want to change each other – to probe our spouses, to probe our children, to probe those we work with. We probe and probe and probe (all for the other’s well-being, of course). And then we’re shocked when our relationships die of infection.
In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents are buried
side by side beneath a slab of smooth granite.
Then, all day, I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.
It’s important to note that Jesus does not expect us to behave well towards each other for behavior’s sake. There’s a reason for it. It has to do with the nature of reality. It has to do with where God is. If we actually knew that we were interacting with God when we interacted with others, maybe our attitude would change.
All this, of course, sounds impossible to actually do – don’t harbor anger, don’t lust after women, don’t diss, don’t judge. Sounds like some utopian scheme for the Kingdom of God on earth. But the fact is – and this is something supported by the very promises we make in baptism and confirmation – we can do these things. We can seek first the Kingdom of God. We can forgive seventy times seven. We can turn the other cheek. We can take care of our widows and orphans. Yes, we can.
And Jesus himself doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting. Nor do we have a God who, under the threats of hellfire and damnation, makes us do things. Process theologians say that God’s modus operandi is to leave well enough alone. Instead of grabbing us by the scruff of the neck and making us do things, God offers us what they call “lures.” These lures are possible courses of action which, if taken, help us to become more than we are.
God doesn’t coerce. God persuades. And God never gives up, never ceases to offer us His lures. This means, of course, that God has to put up with the result. Most of the time we either don’t recognize – or choose not to act upon – these lures. Which means that God suffers. It’s the price of our freedom.
Scientist and theologian John Haught suggests that this self-emptying of God’s prerogatives can be observed in the evolutionary process. As theologian Jurgen Moltmann has repeatedly speculated, it is a humble self-withdrawal on God's part that allows the cosmos to stand forth on its own and then to evolve as a relatively autonomous reality distinct from its creative ground.
What higher honor can God give His creation than to allow it the dignity of its own freedom? In this sense, creation and its evolutionary unfolding would be less the consequence of a rigid divine "plan" than of God's humble and loving "letting be." God, in other words, is not a micro-manager.
Fred Craddock tells the story of how he and his wife once met a minister who had no arms. It was at Chautauqua. This minister was telling Fred of his experience of learning to put on his own clothes. He said his mother always dressed him, and he’d gotten to be a pretty big boy. One day she put his clothes in the middle of the floor and said, “Dress yourself.”
He said, “I can’t dress myself, I don’t have….”
She said, “You’ll just have to dress yourself,” and left the room.
He said, “I kicked, I screamed, I yelled, ‘You don’t love me anymore!’” Finally, he realized that, if he were to get any clothes on, he’d have to get them on himself. After hours of struggle, he actually got some of them on.
He said, “It wasn’t until later that I knew my mother was in the next room, crying.”