February 12, 2017 Sermon

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12, 2017, Lectionary

The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector – Scripture: Matthew 5:21-37

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30

Accountable, no place to hide


Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to heal us in mind, body, and spirit through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen. 


WASHINGTON, Feb 7 Reuters reported – “Burning passions over Donald Trump’s presidency are taking a personal toll on both sides of the political divide. For Gayle McCormick, it is particularly wrenching: she has separated from her husband of 22 years. The retired California prison guard, a self-described ‘Democrat leaning toward socialist,’ was stunned when her husband casually mentioned during a lunch with friends last year that he planned to vote for Trump – a revelation she described as a ‘deal breaker.’

‘It totally undid me that he could vote for Trump,’ said McCormick, 73, who had not thought of leaving the conservative Republican before but felt ‘betrayed’ by his support for Trump. ‘I felt like I had been fooling myself,’ she said. ‘It opened up areas between us I had not faced before. I realized how far I had gone in my life to accept things I would have never accepted when I was younger.’


Three months after the most divisive election in modern U.S. politics fractured families and upended relationships, a number of Americans say the emotional wounds are as raw as ever and show few signs of healing. Sixteen percent of respondents to the Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll said they have stopped talking to a family member or friend because of the election.  Overall, 13 percent of respondents said they had ended a relationship with a family member or close friend over the election.

‘Once people found out I had voted for Trump the stuff started flying,’ said William Lomey, 64, a retired cop in Philadelphia who no longer speaks with a friend he grew up with after they clashed on Facebook over the election. ‘I questioned him on a few things, he didn’t like it, he blew up and left me a nasty message and we haven’t talked since.’

Sue Koren, 57, a Clinton supporter in Dayton, Ohio, said she can barely speak to her two Trump-backing sons and has unfriended ‘maybe about 50’ people on Facebook who support the president. ‘Life is not what it was before the election,’ she said. ‘It’s my anger, my frustration, my disbelief. They think our current president is a hero and I think he’s a nut.’


George Ingmire, 48, a radio documentary producer in New Orleans, said he broke off a close relationship with an uncle who had helped him through his father’s suicide because of his uncle’s fervent support for Trump. ‘We had some back and forth and it just got really deep, really ugly,’ Ingmire said. ‘I don’t see this ever being fixed.’”

For those of you on Facebook, you surely have noticed the gastric expulsion of acrimony and mean-spiritedness that has regularly erupted since the November election.  Of course, Facebook is just one medium where the vitriol has risen to inflammatory heights.  Newspapers, magazines, and television all have something to say that is inciting and divisive.  Will it ever end?


Though I have held back from getting into the fray on Facebook, I have been tempted to post one little excerpt from John 8:3-10: “The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; [. . .] they said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 They said this to test him; [. . .] Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ [. . .] 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; 10 [. . .] Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’”


I have not cited this particular scripture because it addresses the adulterous heart (in the words of former President Jimmy Carter, “I have lusted in my heart”); rather, the scripture is a clarion call to self-honesty for each of us.  Did you notice who it was that first felt convicted by Jesus’ words, who first owned up to their less than pristine hearts?  It was the older guys, was it not?  “When they heard it (what Jesus had said), they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders.”  The elders, the older guys, had lived with that fickle, unpredictable, untamable organ called the heart long enough to know that self-deception was inadmissible.


Acknowledging the fickleness of the human heart, acknowledging our readiness to throne stones, especially at this juncture in our national political history, we would rather not hear Jesus’ words this morning from Matthew’s gospel.  They indict all of us, young and old, good and bad (whatever that may mean).  We would just as soon not hear what He has to say. I was surprised to discover that in the more than sixteen years that I have been preaching, never once has it been on today’s gospel.  Have I avoided it, “No?”  I preach from the lectionary, prescribed by the church.  Perhaps, the church itself would just as soon not hear Jesus’ words from this morning’s gospel.

In today’s gospel, Jesus lifts the veil from our hiding places of self-justification, perhaps even self-delusion, calling us to be accountable leaving us with no place to hide.  The words He uses sting, getting under our skin, making us squirm.  Indeed, we cannot hide.  Listen again to some of His specifics.

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.


28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (No, this does not exclude women from the same accountability).


34 Do not swear at all. [. . .] 37 Anything more than this comes from the evil one.”  Lest we gloss that over, the evil one is the devil, Satan.

Can anyone of us here this morning exempt ourselves from even one of these prohibitions, serious prohibitions—the violation of which, Jesus tells us, bears serious consequences like the hell of fire?  The mirror Jesus compels us to look into goes deeper than the white lie, fudging on one’s income taxes, or the paltry five percent tip left at a restaurant.  He does compel us. Sooner or later we will have to see ourselves for what we are, as the older guys testified in the case of the woman caught in adultery.  Jesus knows the human heart all too well.  Is He reading our minds?   Sure, He is God, but can He really read our thoughts?  Have you seen this recent news release?


“Mark Zuckerberg’s dream of gadgets that let humans read each other’s thoughts and communicate with brain waves may be moving closer to reality. A secretive hardware research division that Facebook created last year is developing ‘brain-computer interface’ technology that sounds a lot like the mind reading and telepathy of science fiction movies.


Several recent job postings listed by Facebook’s Building 8 group describe a hardware project involving ‘neuroimaging’ and ‘electrophysiological data’ to create a ‘communications platform of the future.’ Facebook declined to elaborate on the job listings, but a 2015 comment from CEO Zuckerberg suggests that the company could indeed be working on some kind of brain-controlled, telepathic communication device. ‘One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology,’ Zuckerberg said during a June 2015 Q&A. ‘You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like.’”  (BI, Alex Heath, 1-11-17)

If that gives us the willies, well, know that at this moment God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit know our every thought, desire and feeling.  The sad state of our lack of righteousness is surely exposed.  We are naked.  What are we to do?


We could push back against what Jesus says, could we not?  We could say it is not what we think or feel, but what we do that counts.  From time to time, we all get angry, we all identify with Jimmy Carter, and we all swear whether we take the Lord’s name in vain or not. What is the big deal, we might be asking Jesus.  Besides, the problem is not with us.  It is the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They cause us to have these less than commendable thoughts and feelings.  The circumstancesneed to change—not us.

Those of you who are taking the current Wednesday morning study, “The Reason for God,” might have come across this statement of Timothy Keller in his book. Listen to what he has to say that addresses the question of where the change might occur or not.


“It ancient times it was understood that there was a transcendent moral order outside the self, built into the fabric of the universe.  If you violated the order there were consequences just as severe as if you violated physical reality by placing your hand in a fire.  The path of wisdom was to learn to live in conformity with this unyielding reality, developing qualities of character, such as humility, compassion, courage, discretion and loyalty.


Modernity (the era in which we now live) reversed this.  Ultimate reality was seen not so much as a supernatural order but as the natural world, and that was malleable.  Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality, we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires.  The ancients looked at an anxious person and prescribed spiritual character change.  Modernity talks instead about stress-management techniques.


The spirit of modernity, then gave us the responsibility to determine right or wrong.  Our new confidence that we can control the physical environment has spilled over so we now think we can reshape the metaphysical (moral) realm as well.  It seems to our minds unfair, therefore, that we should determine that it is all right to have sex outside of marriage and later discover that there is a God who is going to punish us for that.  We believe so deeply in our personal rights in this realm (of sexuality and otherwise) that the very idea of a divine Judgment Day seems impossible” (pp. 73, 74).


Assuming we don’t push back against what Jesus has said to us this morning, assuming we don’t trip to rationalize and self-justify, then what are we to do about our unruly, yes sinful hearts?  If we have tried, then we know it is not a matter of self-control or biting our tongues. It is about realizing that without God’s wisdom and guidance we are helpless.  So then, we realize our need for Him to help us in our weakness, but where do we go from there?  Understand that we are not talking about salvation here.  We covered that base last week when we realized that there is nothing we can do or not do that will save us.  It is strictly by God’s grace through Jesus that we are saved.  Where then do we go from here when it comes to our unruly, rebellious hearts?


Lindy Womack recently shared with me this quote from C.S. Lewis which she came across in her morning devotional.  “This is my endlessly recurrent temptation: to go down to that Sea (I believe St John of the Cross called God a sea) and there neither dive nor swim nor float, but only dabble and splash, careful not to get out of my depth and holding on to the lifeline which connects me with my things temporal (of this world).”


In a similar if not identical vein, Chuck Swindoll, the evangelical Christian pastor, author, educator, and radio preacher, offers this analogy with commentary. “I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a warm cup of milk, or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.”


Swindoll comments, “That’s it. Our inner ‘self’ doesn’t want to dump God entirely, just keep Him at a comfortable distance. Three dollars of Him is sufficient. A sack full, nothing more. Just enough to keep my guilt level below the threshold of pain, just enough to guarantee escape from eternal flames. But certainly not enough to make me nervous…to start pushing around my prejudices or nit-picking at my lifestyle. Enough is enough.”  (Charles R. Swindoll,Improving Your Serve, cited by Kendall Harmon)


Might Lewis and Swindoll have diagnosed the problem with and the solution for our hearts, why we are prone to get angry, lust, or swear?  Are our hearts that way because quite frankly we continue to dabble in the shallow end of God’s presence, indeed His love for us?  Are we so inclined to be angry, lustful, swearing and all those perverse permutations of the heart because we have chosen to snack on $3 dollars’ worth of McGod?  We drive through but never enter in to Him.


I think we know that the answer to the question is yes.  We would rather not go in too deep with God.  We would rather just have Him as a snack every now then, not realizing that in doing so we are left to struggle by ourselves with that curious, feral animal known as our feelings and desires.  They are indeed difficult to control if at all.

I had a little epiphany the other day.  I am on Facebook, as I mentioned, but I rarely post anything.  I just don’t want the squabble that might subsequently ensue.  I have noticed that friends of mine, whom I have known since high school, have not been so reluctant to post.  Many of their values are now a polar opposite to mine.  In the silence of my heart, I have taken issue with them and consequently have felt myself becoming alienated from them.  I realized, however, that these are long-held friends with whom I shared much.  Could I really suddenly after all these years jettison them?  No, I could not.  So, I determined to continue to love them in spite of our differences, (here’s the neat part) even feeling love for them after that decision. And you know what, that is what God, what Jesus would have us do.  Love our friend, who politically might have become our enemy.

In a few moments you will have the opportunity to come forward for healing.  I will say a short prayer and anoint you with oil.  Needless to say, it will not be me who heals you, but Jesus through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  You will recall that Jesus did not separate physical healing from psychological or spiritual healing, indeed suggesting that they may go hand in hand.  Remember when a paralyzed man was brought to Jesus and He said, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 24 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he said to the one who was paralyzed – ‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home’” (Luke 5:23, 24), and he did.


So when you come forward (I would prefer that you not if you don’t want or if you feel that you should because others are), when you come forward, not only bring to Jesus your pains and illness to be healed, but your heart, that source of so much difficulty as well.  Okay.  And, try not to worry about getting wet.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.