Year A, Epiphany 6
February 12, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclination?” Or, put another way, “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.”
“Behaving according to human inclination…” That is not a compliment, is it? “Behaving according to human inclination…” No. It is saying that our human inclinations are not always something to follow.
It’s the little things. The little things. They add up. Here in south Eugene, like in any lower density residential area, do you know what the largest source of groundwater pollution is? “Non-point specific sources.” That means backyards. De-mosser from our roofs. Round-up leaching into streams one clump of dandelions at a time. Weed and feed four times a year according to Ortho-Scott’s directions. Like our economy, the biggest in the history of the world, is based on our little individual trips to the store. In all aspects of life, those little bits that we do add up. What that means is that it can start with you. The way things are right now, a lot rests on you. Change; things getting better; dissent and resistance; the revolution; salvation, all of it begins with you. It ends in us together, but it can begin in you, in your heart and your mind and your body. You, we have a lot of power in who we are and in what we do.
We are inundated with information; news, images, voices of power, and it is so distorted. What and how things are being said and how they are being interpreted and delivered to us… it is very hard to tell what is actually happening. Consider the R-G (and it’s a good paper)… if you know inside stories and then read the paper you can how many details and nuances are left out… I can’t imagine that what is actually happening in Washington is getting to us in a true form, at least not all of it. And message after message is appealing so directly to our “human inclinations.” Our fears. Our jealous sides. Our discomfort with difference, our resistance to change, our hesitation in accommodating the needs to others. Our desires of all sorts, right down to the all too common desire to see our enemies suffer. (Do not discount the power of that urge). And just the drama! Humans seem to be drawn to drama like a moth before a flame. And our President, that’s his business: drama. He hails from the entertainment, leisure and luxury real estate industries: hotels, golf courses, luxury residences, reality TV, casinos! Casinos! Talk about appealing to our most base inclinations. His incredible success has been in part due to his ability to know what people “really” want, and getting them to follow their human inclinations, even, maybe especially, when everything that you know as a decent and wholesome person is saying “open the other door.”
Religions developed, in part, as a response to the need that we have for help controlling ourselves. We need help putting the common good ahead of, or at least even with, our own good. What we believe and how we behave it seems are inseparable.
For us, we have the Law given by God to Moses and filtered, or refined in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. As we read last week, Jesus came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. Now I could preach a whole sermon on the nature of Law, but I’ll just leave it at this: law sets the lowest acceptable bar. “You can do everything up to this point, then it is in violation of the law.” But that bar, being human, is right where we go to. We are very good at figuring out what we can get away with. Like two kids in the back seat on a long drive. “Mom! Her hand is on my side of the car!” So you draw the line and how often will one of them lay their hand ON the line? Why? Because they can; it’s not against the rules. Like tax rates are set as the lowest amount you have to pay. Does anyone offer to pay more? How many rat hairs per ton of flour are allowed, or how much oil can leak from a pipeline, or how many traffic accidents before a recall is issued? We will usually sink to the standard we are required to meet, too often trying to get away with what we can; that’s why we have law. Chalk all that up in the original sin column.
Oh we do it right. Consider Joseph. The Law said that he could’ve, if not should’ve gotten rid of Mary. But he knew that that was not right. Legal? Sure. But since when did something being legal make it right? (Or something being illegal make it wrong?) It used to be legal to own people. It used to be illegal for women to vote. Laws change: right and wrong don’t.
The law sets the minimum, and we usually are satisfied with remaining at that minimum. Some of our human inclinations are not very flattering. Some are downright dangerous to ourselves and most other living beings. In this first ethical discourse in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching that we aren’t going to get to the Kingdom following the way of the lowest common denominator. We need to overcome come of our “natural inclinations.”
“You have heard that is was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’… But I say to that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement…”
Our human inclinations allow for violence. Like the Facebook kitty, all cute and cuddly with the caption “All day long I think about murder.” That’s a kitty’s nature. It’s ours’, too. We evolved as omnivores. We eat meat. Meat means killing. We are also social creatures. Society means conflicts happen and, like we see in a pack of dogs or a troop of chimpanzees, we too often seem to resort to violence to solve conflicts. We, most all of us, have violence in our hearts. But just because we have always done something, or that it is instinctual, or comes naturally (natural inclinations), that does not mean that it is right. That does not mean that we should keep on doing it. Hence the Law, thanks be to God. We agree that killing each other is wrong. The Law makes it safer for us all; it requires us to act better than our natural inclinations might lead us to act.
That is not good enough. That is one of Jesus’ lessons for us in the Sermon on the Mount. We are so much more than just our bodies. We are so much more than what we do. We can’t forget our bodies or dismiss them, but we are more than flesh and bone, we are also our minds and our spirits. Being embodied, our actions matter in that they directly impact others. Being mindful and spiritual, our inner lives also matter in that it affects our whole being and our relationship with God, really our ability to be in right relationship with anything. It alters who we are as much as how we are in the world. Believing, thinking, feeling… this influences behaving, just as it influences our “be-ing.” Our be-ing, is our presence, our existence, who we are in relation to God and everything. This is what Jesus is concerned with. This is what we need to be concerned with, too.
When we hold things in our hearts and minds, our whole being is affected, our whole selves orient on what we engage with. As a farmer, I used to walk around all the time thinking about tomatoes and composting systems, and chicken fencing. (The fox at our house is glad that we have not thought about fencing much this winter). Everything seemed to come back to that. My sermons when I worked at the monastery had an agrarian flavor to them because that was what I was handling inside. I shudder to think what my sermons would have been from when I led a Marine Corps tank platoon! We become what we do as much as we become what we think.
So while we may day-dream of throttling that lousy so-and-so in the SUV who cut you off, or any one of several high government officials, and of course we would never do it, but what Jesus is saying is that just thinking that way, the sin is already underway, it has already happened. Who you are has been changed even if there is no outward, embodied sin.
Sin is a very precise word here. Sin is being distant from God, and sinful things are things we do that separate us from God or that we do because we are separate from God. So when we are fantasizing about doing x, y, and z to A, B or C, while our bodies might not be leading us away from God, our hearts and minds are. It is not just about how we affect others, it is about how we are affected in relation to God and everything. We don’t have much control over anything, particularly outside of ourselves, that is a core lesson of Jesus Christ, but we do have some say about our inner lives. That is what He is teaching us this morning.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Sex is a better example than violence, because (thankfully) most of us have more sex than we do violence in our lives… and that is a very good thing. But as in all things, our “natural inclinations” can get the best of us, and what is a great gift, a blessing from God, becomes a source of sin and death. But again, it is not just what we do with our bodies, the posture of our minds and spirits also have deep implications.
We all have sexual thoughts that come into our minds, that is just true. It is our natural inclination and is not the problem. It is what we do with them, those thoughts, that is what Jesus is talking about here. Our thoughts go from just naturally occurring to lust when we engage them.
We are not our thoughts, just as we are not our feelings. They are part of us, absolutely, and good parts. But we don’t have much control over their coming, as anyone who does creative work knows. Thoughts just arrive sometimes. Sometimes they are invited. Sometimes they are sought after. Sometimes they just show up, unannounced, unbidden, unwelcome. What don’t have control over who shows up asking for dinner; we do have control over who is invited in. This is what Jesus is teaching.
You see an attractive person, or you have a memory of an experience, or you see the cover of a magazine in the grocery store line… a thought pops up in your mind. No worries, those magazine covers are meticulously designed to elicit those thoughts… So no worries, until you grab onto that thought and engage it and entertain it. You hold it, add to it, begin imagining, make it part of yourself. That is where the naturally occurring thought turns into lustful adultery in your mind. It is the same as having an violent internal reaction when you read of some terrible injustice done by our government. It becomes the sin when we choose to dwell on the violent fantasy rather than letting it pass through, letting it go. And that sin becomes part of us when we hold onto, chew on, swallow what we should not. We become what we expose ourselves to and engage.
We need to limit our exposure to moral hazards, limit how much licentious sex and violence we encounter, but just as much, we need to limit our exposure to things which inspire sloth, gluttony, avarice, the entirety of our shadow side. Watching the food channel all day will increase your desire for the pleasures of the table for their own sake. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” was avaristic pornography, encouraging us to dwell on thoughts of wealth or material gain. So is the Lottery. So limit your exposure to the darker side of our society and the thoughts won’t come as regularly, you will be taking less of it in, eating less of it, and it you will be less that, leaving room for much better things.
But the thoughts will still come! There is not much you can do about that, but there is a lot you can do to not engage them. Like, don’t engage them. Just leave them alone, look the other way internally (or externally; don’t read the cover of Cosmo if that is distracting). When I hear a confession, I hear what is being confessed, and if pushed I could remember it, but that is not for me to do, so it just stays there, cloaked in intentional, holy amnesia. We have an immense capacity to ignore things when we want to. We can love and be in relationship with folks only because we are able to ignore certain parts of them or certain things they do or have done. You can do it.
The world is difficult right now. Things need to change. We are all products of this society that has brought us to where we are. Right now, each of us has the capacity to change yourself in relation to everything going on. We need to be the change that we hope for the world, and it starts right here. It is the internal revolution that will endure. AMEN.