Sunday, October 26, 2014

"This Week's Sermon: "Omnia Munda Mundis"

Luke 6:43-45

 43 “A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit, nor does a bad tree produce good fruit. 44 Each tree is known by its own fruit. People don’t gather figs from thorny plants, nor do they pick grapes from prickly bushes. 45 A good person produces good from the good treasury of the inner self, while an evil person produces evil from the evil treasury of the inner self. The inner self overflows with words that are spoken. (Common English Bible)

“The Sermon on the Mount’s Little Sibling: Luke’s Sermon on the Plain,” Week Five

The itinerant Quaker preacher wore many hats in his nascent colonial New England community: he was a traveler, a merchant, a scribe and notary, and perhaps one of the most consistently dedicated abolitionists the colonies had ever had.  Far more than merely content himself with the practice of preaching against slavery (which he did, often and at great length), he also lived out his principled opposition to enslavement: he refused to write and notarize last wills and testaments that bequeathed slaves as property.  When he would pay visits to slaveholders, he would insist on paying the slaveholder’s slaves for their care of him.  He even refused to use dishes made of precious metals or wear dyed fabrics as clothing under the (correct) belief that the procurement of these materials involved terrible treatment of the slaves performing the labor, including the exposure of the slaves to dangerous and potentially deadly poisons.

You might think that a man possessed of such fervent and zealous convictions would be a firebreather in expressing them: the type of raging, thundering blowhard preacher who thumps their Bible and pounds their pulpit.  And you would not be more wrong for thinking that.  Contemporaneous records from the late 1700s continually described him as a kind, soft-spoken gentleman of a soul who was able to use that gentle manner to convince Quaker slaveholders to liberate their captives.

Eventually, this devoted preacher would go to England to continue his cause of preaching against slavery.  There, though, he contracted smallpox almost immediately and died shortly thereafter, in 1772.  The Quaker minister John Woolman was two weeks shy of his 52nd birthday when he died.

But his pure-in-heart legacy lived on, because nearly four years later, on July 4, 1776, when a group of other fellows were gathered together to sign a document proclaiming that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the Religious Society of Friends—the Quakers, of whom Woolman was one—successfully voted to abolish slavery within their entire denomination.

Because, after all, a pure tree will never fail to yield pure fruit.

This is another new sermon series for the fall, and this series will take us all the way into November.  And there really is a simple reason behind how this sermon series got cooked up in the first place (beyond, you know, the inspiration and movement of the Holy Spirit, me throwing darts at the wall, the consulting of sheep entrails, that sort of thing).  Luke 6 contains some of the most blunt, point-blank ethical teachings of Jesus in any Gospel, but those teachings, nicknamed the Sermon on the Plain (can you guess why?), tend to be overshadowed by the magnum opus of Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which both parallels and dwarfs the Sermon on the Plain.  So, we’re spending these six weeks giving some much-needed attention to a sermon that often gets short shrift, even though it contains some of the most famous one-off ethical pronouncements Jesus offers, including “love your enemies,” “if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt as well,” and “judge not, and you will not be judged.”  My aim is to present all of these teachings to you in their context of an entire series of teachings, and so we set the scene, the backdrop for where this teaching happens: an otherwise thoroughly nondescript plain (hence the sermon’s title) where Jesus performed healing miracles on an untold number of people before He even began teaching.  Since then, though, the teaching began in earnest, with what we might call in the parlance a doozy: the whole “Woe are the rich,” “Woe are the filled,” and “Woe are the hungry” bit right after the beatitudes, and the lessons didn’t get any easier to swallow with subsequent instructions on giving even to those who steal from us and turning the other cheek to those who harm us, not judging other people, and refraining from hypocrisy.  And this week, we arrive at what all of these different instructions are meant to make us: the pure tree, the pure heart, which bears only pure fruit.

Purity is a funny word in Christianity these days—both funny ha-ha and funny weird.  It’s both Marx brothers funny and sad clown funny.  It’s funny because you have all sorts of movements in Christian purity culture to try to keep kids away from acting on their almighty raging hormones: there’s True Love Waits, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, purity balls, and many more—ask my younger sister who is here today, she’s an amateur expert on this phenomenon.

And I’m all for teaching kids seriously about the gravity and respect that sexual relationships demand of us, and of our need to partake in them in the context of monogamy.  I haven’t spoken about it at great length from the pulpit in part because there are other pressing issues I have felt called to address from a spiritual and moral perspective here, but also because of the words of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, in which he writes at one point, “(T)hough I have had to speak at some length here about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the center of Christian morality is not here.”

But increasingly, and despite the portent present in Lewis’s words, it seems that in Christianity, purity is being defined solely as sexual purity, as opposed to overall moral purity, the type of moral purity that I think Jesus is really talking about here.  Rather than approach our purity with the sort of holistic, encompassing mentality that Jesus demands, we have in fact made the center of morality around whether Jimmy and Jenny were caught sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.

So let’s instead posit that sexual purity is but one component of a great many that make up spiritual purity and go from there.  What is Jesus really demanding of us, then?  He’s saying that we can build up good within ourselves—the treasury of good—and from it, produce good fruit.  In other words, goodness begets more goodness.

Paul, in fact, echoes this very sentiment in his letter to Titus, where he says, in the Latin vulgate translation, “Omnia munda mundis,” which roughly translates as, “to the pure, all things are pure.”  In other words, if you have already built up this pure goodness in yourself, you are able to see as, and make, other things pure and purely good as well.

And in so many words, that is what it actually means to be Christian, to be religious, to believe in the God who sent us Christ: it is to strive to build up goodness within yourself so that you in turn can make more things good as well.  That’s the Christian life summed up in one sentence.  Or, in this case, in three Bible verses.

Which means that this lesson really does go in line with all the others we have covered so far in this series: and what I believe the overall theme of this series, and of this sermon by Jesus, really is: that the “how” of being a Christian, of being a Christ follower, is really quite simple for us to express, but incredibly difficult for us to actually do.  And I’m worried that in fear of that difficulty, we have tried to oversimplify what it actually means to be a Christian.

What do I mean by that?  Well…think of the tracts, the business cards—you’ve all probably been given one (or had one thrust into your hands) or seen one, that says, “three (or four, or five) steps to guarantee your entry into heaven,” and what follows is a belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God but then a series of rather arbitrary beliefs to have, even though, really, isn't Jesus supposed to be it?

And then—and I am not making this up—we take tally of the number of “salvations” we have achieved as, say, a small group or a household or even an entire church and brag about it, nevermind the fact salvation—the existence of being in a right relationship with God—is not something that can be achieved by a simple step plan.  This isn't a piece of Ikea furniture (okay, maybe assembly of that isn't so simple either, but the metaphor still holds water, right?).

Think about it: if we can get said almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, all that is seen and unseen, to grant us salvation based on a series of statements we claim and sinner’s prayers we pray, we’re basically manipulating God into giving us what we want.  Which doesn’t make that God very powerful, and to be totally honest, not really a God that I think is worth worshipping.

No, the God worth worshipping is the God who calls us to a salvation that has a higher degree of difficulty than that: the salvation that demands of us a choice, yes, a choice to choose God, but a choice that must be made every day when we get out of bed to continue to be that good person, to continue to be that good Christian, and to continue to grow in that identity.

That is what we have to want for ourselves, and it is so, so easy to stop wanting it, because there are so many other things the world tempts us with for us to want.  Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish father of existentialism and patron saint of snarky Christians everywhere, titled one of his philosophical treatises, “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.”  And that’s about where we’re at.  We are trying to will one thing: the growth of goodness in the world today.

But here’s the thing: it isn’t like we don’t know how.  It isn’t like we are being taught for the first time how to use a fork, or how to tie our shoes.  We’ve seen this done before, we’ve done this before ourselves, even.  We have the moral examples of people who have gone before us, people who have so devoted themselves to building up and then giving out of their goodness: the Martin Luther Kings, the Mother Teresas, the John Woolmans of the world that we don’t really have an excuse beyond, hey, we still suck at being Christian.

And perhaps that’s okay, at least to a point, but we only so long as we own it.  We have to be humble enough to know when we are not measuring up to the giants of our faith and to the consciences of our own hearts.  We have to know when the spiritual fruit we are bearing is less than pure and when the treasury of goodness within our souls is all but used up.

And then—and this is the hard part—Jesus is going to demand that we do something about it.  That’s what the previous four weeks were all about: that’s all stuff that we’re supposed to actually do, not just daydream about someday maybe doing.

So get out there and actually try turning the other cheek.  Try giving to someone who asks of you.  Try to will the one thing in your life: a treasury of goodness for God.  May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 26, 2014

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