Matthew 5:21-24, 27-30, 33-37, I Corinthians 2:1-9, Ecclesiasticus 15:11-20
Just a few short weeks ago, New Years resolutions were in the forefront of our consciousness, but now, barely six weeks into the new year, most of them are long forgotten. Two-and-a-half weeks from now, Lent will begin, another occasion that invites us to make a resolution, to change our behavior in some way. And by the time Easter arrives, about the same length of time from Ash Wednesday as we are now from the beginning of the year, a good many of those resolutions will have fallen by the wayside as well. We’re talking about habits here, trying to make the practice of a virtue or the avoidance of a vice something we do automatically, without thinking about it each time.
It’s hard to do. Bad habits are exceedingly difficult to break and good habits are exceedingly difficult to form. For some time it has been part of my spiritual rule of life to make my confession before Christmas and Easter each year. The event itself is always liberating and uplifting, but preparing for it can be depressing, because the content of my confession doesn’t generally change much from one time to the next. The list of things I have done that I ought not to have done, and things I have left undone that I ought to have done, stays pretty much the same. For instance, I don’t know if there’s a week that has gone by that I have not said or done something out of anger. Angry feelings are not sinful, but angry behavior is. You may sometimes catch a glimpse of that anger, but probably not, because I reserve most of it for those in this world whom I love most dearly and spend the most time with, principally my dear wife. Of course, by the grace of God, my expression of anger has its limits; I don’t, for example, get physically violent. Others are not as controlled as I am. There are in this world, as you know, men who beat their wives and teenagers who join gangs and take part in drive-by shootings and revenge killings. These things we have laws against and try to control, because society has a stake in the safety of its members. But they are, at the root, expressions of anger.
Now I am not laying one of my besetting sins before you in an attempt to be lurid or to call attention to myself, because I’m not at all unique. You also have your besetting sins. They may not be the same as mine, but you have them. Most of you are old enough to remember 1976, when Jimmy Carter ran for president the first time, and gave a bit of publicity to the sin of lust, when he confessed to an interviewer that he sometimes had lust in his heart for women other than his wife. He was ridiculed to a great degree for that admission, but only by hypocrites, because he spoke for millions of others who do, in fact, entertain and nourish lust in their hearts, a good percentage of whom allow those lustful thoughts to become lustful actions. The latest statistics, I guess, indicate that Americans commit adultery, actually, a little less frequently than had been supposed, but even those who are “technically” faithful do smaller things that injure marriages and harm families, and we have the divorce statistics to prove it. In our enlightened age, of course, most states no longer have actual laws against adultery. But we certainly have a mountain of books and seminars and videos and counseling hours devoted to preventing or healing the damage that we inflict on marriages by the things we say and do.
Anger, lust … as long as we’re making a list, let’s not forget plain old dishonesty. There is a group that actually conducted tests in various cities by leaving wallets and purses and luggage unattended, but secretly observed, in public places. A good percentage of the items were returned intact, and that was considered good news! Still, however, more of the items were stolen than were returned, which does not say much, I’m afraid, for the moral values of our society. We really do not trust each other, and for good reason: we’re not generally trustworthy. In order to have any kind of functioning society, we have to have lawyers and contracts and audits and the right to sue and, of course, police departments.
Laws against murder and robbery and theft and spousal abuse and fraud and forgery and false advertising, not to mention books and videos and seminars aimed at strengthening human relationships, are good and necessary things. They protect the innocent by sheltering them from some of the consequences of anger and lust and dishonesty. But do they really address the problem? Do they really address the problem, or do they merely treat symptoms? If I have a headache, I can take a strong pain reliever to make me feel better. But if my headache is caused by a brain tumor, what have I accomplished? If a see that a wall in my house has a crack in it, I can plaster and paint over the crack, but if the crack is caused by a foundation that is settling, what have I accomplished? Treating symptoms while ignoring the cause of the symptoms is bad medicine and bad home maintenance, and, as it turns out, bad spiritual practice. Jesus warns us today against getting into that kind of bad habit.
On the surface, what he has to say seems unduly exaggerated. Jesus suggests that if I call one of my fellow members of the church a “fool”, I am violating the spirit of the commandment against murder as surely as if I stab him through the heart. It does seem a little far-fetched to us. We reason that the act of making a sarcastic retort to a colleague at work has a much different consequence than the act of walking into the office with an automatic rifle and shooting everybody. But what Jesus is saying is that both of those acts, although they bear very different fruit, spring from the same root. They are symptomatically very different, but they are signs of the same disease.
Jesus also suggests that entertaining lust in one’s heart is tantamount to violating the commandment against adultery. Again, that strikes us as a little bit over-dramatic. But Jesus’s point, I believe, is that when we take that moment of appreciation of another person’s attractiveness, and savor it and nurture it and allow it to turn into lustful contemplation, we are indulging the same sin that also expresses itself in full, though inappropriate, sexual union. Different fruit—but the same root. Different symptom—same disease.
Jesus also tells us that a casual deceit,—I’m not, after all, “under oath”, I haven’t “sworn by” anything—a “little white lie” is as morally significant as felony securities fraud that bilks thousands of retired people out of their life savings. Once again, it seems exaggerated, but Jesus is trying to get us to see that the two acts are branches of the same tree. One is, to be sure, a mere twig, and the other a massive limb, but the difference is one of degree, not of kind. Different branches—same tree. Different fruit—same root. Different symptoms—same disease.
Laws and contracts and marriage seminars treat symptoms, but they don’t reach the underlying disease. My main problem as a human being who wants to be in a right relationship with my Maker and Judge, is not located in the things I do. Sins, in the plural, are among the things I do. I have said things in anger, I have entertained lust in my heart, I have told lies. But this is not where my problem lies. The things I do, the sins I commit, are the symptom, not the disease. My problem lies not in what I do, but in who I am.
Who I am is: a sinner. That’s my disease. I am not a sinner because I commit sins; I commit sins because I’m a sinner. It is not inconceivable to me that, over the course of my lifetime, I could make restitution and atonement for some of the particular sins I have committed in my 62 years. I can take care of the symptoms. But I could never, in a million lifetimes, do anything about the disease, about the fact that I am a sinner. And unless the disease is treated, I’ll just keep on sinning, long after the batteries in the Eveready bunny have run out of energy.
I am helpless to treat the disease. For that, I need the Great Physician. I need Jesus. The whole of the Christian life is about facing this fact and taking the cure. That’s what the sacraments are about. That’s what Bible study is about. That’s what preaching is about. That’s what our ministry to one another is about. That’s what weddings and funerals are about. It’s all about saying, “Lord God, I am a sinner and I am powerless to do anything about it. In your mercy, come and save me. Show me those things in my life, even those good things in my life, that are separating me from you, and give me the courage to seek you above all else. If it is something as close to me as my right eye or my right arm, give me the strength to pluck it out or chop it off. Let nothing come between my soul and your love.”
When we can pray this prayer, consciously or sub-consciously, every day, we are giving our consent for the treatment of the disease. Those of you who’ve ever had surgery know that before they wheel you into the operating room and put you under, you have to sign a whole bunch of consent forms. Jesus, the great physician, requires our ongoing consent for him to continue treating the disease of Sin. That constant movement of consent-giving is what constitutes growth toward spiritual maturity.
As we heard in today’s epistle reading, St Paul had to take the Corinthian church to task for their complacency in this department, for their lack of spiritual maturity. You should be a the point where I’m giving you solid food, he tells them, but I have to treat you like small children and give you milk instead. I’m afraid that St Paul, were he addressing the “Jacksonvillians” or the “Springfieldians” rather than the Corinthians, might, nevertheless, have the same message. My friends, we—as a diocesan community of communities, as a national church, as a communion of churches—have got to shake out of our lethargy. Most of the churches in this diocese feel good when 50% of our active members show up for Sunday worship, but that’s horrible! It should be 150%.
But Sunday attendance is itself only a minimum. Real spiritual maturity, authentic consent for the treatment of the disease rather than just the symptoms, includes regular “continuing education” in the things of the Lord. The days of Christian education being over when one is confirmed are long gone. You need to be in a class or a study group or some other form of regular disciplined instruction until your mortal body assumes room temperature. You also need to be engaged in daily, disciplined, personal prayer. You also need to be involved, as your talents and abilities indicate, in ministries of service within the church and in the world. Sunday worship, study, personal prayer, and ministry—this is the diet that the Great Physician prescribes for what ails us. Anything less is merely treating symptoms.
I can’t think of a better note on which to conclude than the bracing, straight-talking words of “Yeshua ben Sirach”, the Greek-speaking Jew who wrote the apocryphal book called Ecclesiasticus, from which we heard today: “[God] has placed before you fire and water: stretch our your hand for whichever you wish. Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him. “ To merely treat the symptoms is to choose death. Jesus invites us to treat the disease, and choose life.