Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 12, 2017
Homily: Matthew 5:21-37, Sirach 15:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Preacher: Rev. John M. Hayes
This is not a feel-good gospel. And I would betray my calling if I tried to spin it into a gentle reminder to be good. You know: ‘what Jesus really meant’..?
On the other hand I grew up around Jewish folks and they are much given to hyperbole: exaggeration to create emphasis. When my friend Ira heard his gentle mothers call: “You better get in here now or I’m going to kill you”, we all understood homicide was not on offer. The streets of Queens were not littered with dead Jewish kids who regretfully took too long getting home for supper.
To note the hyperbole talk is not to water down and domesticate Jesus’ message. I think we’re on safe ground saying Jesus is dead serious about sin but he isn’t really recommending loping off offending limbs or gauging out wandering eyes. Down through the centuries, Christians understood this.
We might wish some of the same kind of understanding of Jesus’ references to hell. Truth be told I cannot remember the last time I heard a sermon about hell. Not in the progressive Catholic and Episcopal I went to. Many of us are of an age when talk of hell fire and eternal damnation got your attention and often.
In college I read in James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man the chapter where the Jesuit rector of his prep school preaches:
“Hell has enlarged its soul and opened its mouth without any limits – words taken, my dear little brothers in Christ Jesus, from the book of Isaias, fifth chapter, fourteenth verse. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The preacher took a chainless watch from a pocket within his soutane and, having considered its dial for a moment in silence, placed it silently before him on the table.
He began to speak in a quiet tone. — Consider finally that the torment of this infernal prison is increased by the company of the damned themselves. Evil company on earth is so noxious that the plants, as if by instinct, withdraw from the company of whatsoever is deadly or hurtful to them. In hell all laws are overturned – there is no thought of family or country, of ties, of relationships. The damned howl and scream at one another, their torture and rage intensified by the presence of beings tortured and raging like themselves. All sense of humanity is forgotten. The yells of the suffering sinners fill the remotest corners of the vast abyss. The mouths of the damned are full of blasphemies against God and of hatred for their fellow sufferers and of curses against those souls which were their accomplices in sin. In olden times it was the custom to punish the parricide, the man who had raised his murderous hand against his father, by casting him into the depths of the sea in a sack in which were placed a cock, a monkey, and a serpent. The intention of those law-givers who framed such a law, which seems cruel in our times, was to punish the criminal by the company of hurtful and hateful beasts. But what is the fury of those dumb beasts compared with the fury of execration which bursts from the parched lips and aching throats of the damned in hell when they behold in their companions in misery those who aided and abetted them in sin, those whose words sowed the first seeds of evil thinking and evil living in their minds, those whose immodest suggestions led them on to sin, those whose eyes tempted and allured them from the path of virtue. They turn upon those accomplices and upbraid them and curse them. But they are helpless and hopeless: it is too late now for repentance.”
Sound familiar? Lovely stuff. Brought me right back to St. Clare’s School 1961, squirming through Father Dunnegan’s talks with the 8th grade boys.
The time is not long gone when this kind of frightening lore was standard fare in the pulpits of every Christian denomination. The message was simple and universal: Sin was serious business and God plays for keeps, so one would be wise to shape up while you have the chance. Hell’s fires await those who do not heed the call to repentance.
Fifty years later we have an opposite problem. Our twenty-first century sensitivities are allergic to any mention of sin and its consequences. I’ve heard it suggested that the Ten Commandments should be called the ten suggestions. In writing The Road to Character the NY Times columnist David Brooks said that he had a battle resisting his editor’s insistence that his Augustinian allusions to sin be reframed as “insensitivities”. The turn from old time religion to what many have called “therapeutic” religion – religion intended to make us feel better about ourselves, improve our self-esteem and maximize our potentials – is also problematic.
Sin is very much with us. I believe it was G K Chesterson who said that the only Christian dogma that was empirically verifiable was original sin.
When we hear today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel today we likely miss that this is Jesus continuing the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we heard the beatitudes: blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, and blessed are the merciful.
Now he turns to sin. Again and again Jesus frames his message: “you have heard it said…but I say” Jesus is not replacing the law, but intensifying the law. Surface compliance will not suffice. God demands a true change of the heart and mind. God wants authentic change all the way down, from the inside out. Not that God is some cruel tyrant that has to be appeased or else. God wants for us a change of mind and heart because God loves us and wants his creative action that is manifest in every human life to be fulfilled. God made us for himself and we turn away from God in so many ways.
Jesus wants us to see life as it really is, to see reality as God sees it: our lives are absolutely pure unmerited gift. This is true even when life is difficult and hard. Pure unmerited gift. And if our minds know the love that makes us and holds us in existence, our desires will change accordingly. If we know ourselves to be loved – loved senselessly, extravagantly, and eternally – then we want to love back. It is that simple. When we know ourselves to be loved by God, we love God and we love the other beloved creatures with whom we share this life.
Augustine called sin ‘disordered desire’. To be awake and conscious is to desire. Desire makes the world go round. We are made to desire what is good, true, and beautiful. Sin is the corruption of desire. Sin is looking for the good, looking for truth, looking for love in all the wrong places. Really looking for God in all the wrong places. “Our hearts are ever restless until they rest in thee.” We chase cheap substitutes and illusions for the good, for truth, for love, when the only real good, the only real truth, the only real love is eternally on offer. We need only turn to God. Grace brings us back to where we need to be, to where we truly thrive.
When we try to do life on our own selfish terms, it just doesn’t work. We blind ourselves to God, ignore God’s way, and create terrible chaos. We make misery for ourselves and for everyone around us. Our selfish ways and that misery that follows can and do become second nature. That is a life of sin. We get trapped in a blind alley of forgetfulness, where we do no longer know who we really are, who we belong to, and what our lives are for. That trap can very well be called hell and feel like eternal torment we cannot escape.
In our translation of Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks of “hell” and we imagine the medieval picture from Dante’s Inferno promoted by generations of morbid preachers and we think Jesus is speaking about some place of eternal torment for our sins. How many have wondered what kind of loving God would punish human beings eternally for their all too human failings?
This “hell” Jesus talks about, in the Greek is “gehenna” and it has nothing to do with Dante.
In Jesus’ time gehenna was a garbage dump outside Jerusalem well known to his listeners. I was a place where fires smoldered continuously. More than that his listeners knew well that “gehenna” was not just a garbage dump, but had in older times been the place of child sacrifice. Offering to Baal or whatever god, the sacrifice of the life of a first-born was pretty standard fare in ancient religion. That is idolatry: appeasing the powerful tyrant idol of imagination, imagining that the contingencies of life can be controlled even by cruel horrific ritual. This is religion of fear and control. The true God is the God of love.
When we turn from deepening relationship with God, when we give ourselves over to “disordered desire”, when we create and worship idols in place of God – money, sex, power, admiration, ambition – we are living in sin and we land ourselves in that smoldering garbage dump “gehenna” where the very gift of God that is most precious is destroyed.
When we do not live in deepening relationship with God, life becomes hell. Its how it is. It how life has always been. As the reading from Sirach this morning says: ‘Before each person are life and death, and whichever one choses will be given.”
May we all chose life, the only true life, the life of abundance that is life in God.