Sunday, June 1, 2014

What You Preach

What You Preach
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 1, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 5: 21-48

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

I selected this morning a large selection from the sermon on the mount. I wanted to get at preaching. . . the idea of "practicing what you preach" whether you can, whether you must, what it means, what you choose to preach, and all that, to give you a little bit of a window into the kinds of things I think about and why, and to get a start into all of this, I thought that going to the original might just be a good way to start, at least it puts some of this, some of what we do together every week into perspective. This is Jesus the preacher. . . in the most famous sermon of all time:
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. 
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [1]

So yeah, that's it, be perfect. . . God is perfect, Jesus is perfect. . . go and do likewise, and I will, too. . . Sermon over. . .  why go on? Isn't this what we should preach? Go and be perfect. . . and if that is the message we are going for, I wonder why people have problems with practicing what we preach. . . right? . . . perfection is a tall order. And look at the perfection that Jesus is talking about, not just perfection of actions. . . but perfection of intentions. . . of thoughts, because the moment that you start feeling good because you didn't hit someone, Jesus brings up the idea that you shouldn't have even thought about hitting them, the impulse to hit, the desire to hit, even the anger that caused such desire is too much. Even something small like that breaks the perfection. He says it's not just about not committing adultery, but not even lusting after another. . . and don't swear, let your word stand on its own. . . Imagine how honest that would be. . . to not even have your word questioned by anyone, or even if it was questioned to have enough faith, confidence, chutzpah, whatever the word is, to not feel the need to swear, but just to let it lie. . . it's more impressive than you think, and then last but certainly not least to love your enemies, that simple eye for an eye justice is not what perfection is all about, but no rather the soul crunching, pit of your gut, revenge denying, pride sucking, forgiveness that is involved in actually having to love, not tolerate, not deal with, not ignore, but to actually love your enemies. That's not just perfection, it's radical perfection. . . so yeah, Jesus preached it, I should preach it, then I should practice it in my own life. . . ha ha.
That is what we want, isn't it from people who are speaking? Celebrities, news media types, pundits, politicians, and preachers. We want perfection. If we are going to listen, if we are going to give the time of our ears, we expect people to practice and preach the same thing, but how do you do it in this case when it's about perfection? You basically have two choices: You can either preach less than perfection, or you can own your hypocrisy. . . which would you prefer? I'm not sure either. I've been wrestling with this all week, and really for the last five years or so. . . because I am far from perfect. . . maybe that is partly why I have ran so far from the Sermon on the Mount. But things are lost when perfection, when ideals, when truth is not spoken in fear of not living up to it. How else would things change?
I can think of some of the great speakers of the past, and the leaders of the past. . . people that have made some of the memorable statements about life in the world, statements that are definitely true. . . statements that the world needed to hear. . . statements that were necessary and perfect, but it turned out that their speakers were not so perfect. Does that make the statement any less true? Is Martin Luther King's dream about America any less real, necessary, and true because there are allegations of marital infidelity that surround him. . . what about JFK, he's another one, with possible adulterous weaknesses, but did that make his promise to put a man on the moon any less real, when he asked, not what our country can do for us, but what we could do for our country, was it any less moving? Is it still a self evident truth that all men are created equal, even though Thomas Jefferson, himself, was a slave holder? Yeah. . . sometimes the message must be said even if the messenger is less than perfect. . . but that is a slippery slope because hypocrisy is a horrible thing.
People will certainly try to use the weaknesses of the messenger to attack the message. They did it to all three of the ones I've mentioned. . . It also happens so much with Christianity, too. How often do you hear people in today's world saying they don't want to go to church because churches are filled with hypocrites. . . I don't want to be judged, and I certainly don't want to be judged by people who have planks in their own eyes, or live in glass houses. Yes Jesus had trouble with hypocrites, too. So many times throughout the Bible he calls out the leaders, especially the religious leaders of his time for being hypocrites. It happens again and again and again. And there is real danger for hypocrisy when you are called to say things like Jesus says, and then expect to live up to them. It's hard.
But the dangers of hypocrisy aren't just being called out on it and losing credibility for yourself.  There are times throughout history, especially church history, when the preaching of the message got to be about the wrong things. . . it became about the messengers and not the message, and things fell apart, and it all revolved around hypocrisy, and corrupting the message for our own ends, either fearing the challenge, and saying what was easy and popular, doable, and neat, or about fearing becoming a hypocrite, not able to practice what is so vehemently preached. It happens.  In the middle of the 1300's in Florence there was a great plague. The bubonic plague ravaged different parts of Europe at different times, but Florence was the pinnacle of Christendom. It had artists and painters and writers, and it was one of those great cosmopolitan and Noble cities. And the clergy rose to great heights of power and prestige. Their message was well loved, well received. It was one of tangible salvation, earthly prosperity, and all of that good stuff. The prosperity of the city was obviously tied to God's favor. The people's richness and abundance was due completely to God's love and their piety. . . but then comes the plague. You can read about it in Boccaccio's introduction to The Decameron, and if you do you will read about a devastating disease, detailed descriptions of what the disease was about, how it started, how it spread, the symptoms, the progression of those symptoms, all quite disgusting and scary, but what is  most disgusting is the behavior and reaction of the people. These great people, these noble exemplars of Christian goodness, this great Medieval "City on a Hill" falls apart when the times get hard. People turn inward, they revert to the old Roman pagan philosophies of life, some becoming stoic, thinking that living moderately will help them forward, others living it up as the world around them crumbles, some wearing blinders and walking around with flowers to their noses to ignore the sights and cover up the smells of death all around them. . . others fleeing, running away to the countryside to save their selves, and he talks of husbands leaving wives, wives leaving husbands, friends abandoning friends, and even children being left to die by their parents, leaving the kids behind to run for safety in the countryside. . . there were many neighbors living in the city of Florence, but no Christian Love, no love thy neighbor, and to be quite frank, if Christian love does not hold up in those hard times, how real is it for one, and what good is it, really? If we can't love through the hard times what good is it? Christian love is real, and needs to be real, we need it, but how easy do we settle for imposters, of both varieties, preaching less than perfection, easy piety,  because they are afraid of hypocrisy, or on the other hand leading people astray and corrupting the message by preaching one thing and doing the other.
What happened in Florence is very similar to what has happened here, and the predicament we find ourselves in our churches, and that is that the message survived, but the church did not. I have a historical theory, and one that I am absolutely convinced of, that one of the precursors to the Reformation is the plague. The preaching that was going on, the practices that were going on, the cheap piety that was being sold as righteousness, the claiming to be good that was going on, all of that could have just lasted and lasted, but it didn't because people's eyes were opened to it because at the time when the world needed the church it wasn't there, and everyone noticed. But God was there. . . the message was there. . . Christ was still there. . . there just became a separation of church and God. . . and so the ground was ripe for Reform, for new churches, for major change.
Are we there now is a big question? If you look at today's world there is a great need for the Christian message. There is a great need for loving our neighbors as ourselves, there is a tremendous need for people to say it. . . but there is a separation. I'm not sure the complete cause, well yeah I am, it's human nature and sin, but I'm not sure where the point of new divergence took place, but somehow we are on a path that is very wrong, with active shooters, and polarized politics, and no faith in institutions, and lying, hypocrisy rampid, and church, the church institution is caught up in it all too. Have we become like the Florentine clergy, preaching a world and a gospel that is comfortable to us, one that we can fit into, lest we become hypocrites, or has our hypocrisy taken front stage, where we just accept it as the way it is. . . It is funny that those two things, lessening of standards and rises in hypocrisy seem to go together. I posed them as the two choices earlier, but there is more to it.
The problem is in the dichotomy. . . and I've found this very often to be the case. . . it is what is missing in the question I've posed, and the two situations I've offered as solutions. And it is a simple thing. . . a thing that is shown in the Florence example, and one that rings true in our own day and age. . . It is not about the person preaching. . . . It is about the message, and if you are worrying about being a hypocrite, then you are worrying about yourself. . . and the message gets lost, corrupted, etc. . . I say it's not about the person preaching, it is, but not as the voice of it, but as a listener. There is no separation from the two, you are preaching, not about yourself, but to yourself, not because you have attained perfection and you want to share that perfection with the world, but because you are striving towards it. Thomas Jefferson was speaking about the dream of liberty, Martin Luther King was speaking about the dream of the dividing lines between the races coming down, and JFK was talking about the moon, not because he lived there, but because he wanted to get there. . . They may not live up to the perfection, but they wish to, they wish to strive towards it because they recognize it as good.
I think it is what I do, when I preach about love. . . rather than the individual details. Love is the big picture, the umbrella to which all the rest falls under. Focusing on less than love can lead us into the weeds of hyprocrisy, because less than love is almost doable. Easy piety and cheap righteousness can be pitfalls of such ideas. Rules are doable, you can check off at the end of the day. . . you can look at  yourself having not hit anyone and say  you are a good person, you can not get divorced, you can not commit adultery, you can do a number of things and then start to throw those stones of judgment at others, but Jesus says no, be perfect. . . love is perfection. . . and it cannot be perfected. . . because by definition it is never done. . . it is always something to strive towards, outside of yourself, reaching, stretching, doing more and more, being more and more. . . and to preach this message, is one that transcends things like hypocrisy because it lives beyond it, worrying not about labels, but about people, about your neighbor, about loving them, and about loving God.
I mentioned at one other point how I love Kevin Costner movies, and I'm not embarrassed to say so. One of the best is his golf movie Tin Cup, a less than perfect driving range golf pro makes an epic quest towards qualifying for and competing in the U.S. Open. At one point he is talking about the golf swing. He says it in a poem
The critical opening phrase of this poem will always be the grip. Which the hands unite to form a single unit by the simple overlap of the little finger. Lowly and slowly the clubhead is led back. Pulled into position not by the hands, but by the body which turns away from the target shifting weight to the right side without shifting balance. Tempo is everything; perfection unobtainable as the body coils down at the top of the swing. There's a slight hesitation. A little nod to the gods.
Dr. Molly Griswold: A, a nod to the gods?
Roy 'Tin Cup' McAvoy: Yeah, to the gods. That he is fallible. That perfection is unobtainable.

Perfection unattainable, that he is fallible. . . that is the key. . . it is humility. . . look back over the Sermon on the Mount, and see how much of it is about humility. . . humility is the beginning of love, it says that this is not about me. It is the beginning of love. . . something we can all learn a little bit better. . . It's funny the Greek word for Perfection is Teleios--it's a word connected to purpose, connected to the father, connected to coming of age, connected to it all coming together, perfectly. . .the kingdom of heaven, built on love, perfection unattainable except in God. . .the father is perfect, we are not, but yet we have been forgiven so that we can strive. . . we are loved, so that we can love. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 5:21-48). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.