(We transferred to a new website earlier this year, and sermons dated before that transfer did not get moved. This sermon of Bryan's was requested by so many people that I needed to bring it over to the new site! Please find it below, out of order by date but entirely in order in all other respects. KW+)
So how is everyone feeling about following Jesus right now?
Is anyone remembering a particular moment
of anger this week?
Or maybe a stray lustful thought
that might be paving your way to Gehenna?
Is anyone thinking about which hand or eye
is going to have to go
so that you can get our ticket to heaven punched?
Jesus is particularly stark today,
hard-edged, almost unreasonable:
No anger? No lust? None at all?
As the vestry reflected on this uncompromising passage,
one of the evening’s inspired theologians, Carolyn Eby,
pointed out that we really mean it
when we say Jesus was fully human,
clearly subject to bad moods and bad days.
with this passage being a case in point.
As a pastor,
I worry about how passages like this one
are heard by the people
whose experience they directly address:
I wonder, for example,
how those of us who have experienced a divorce
or the difficult end of an important relationship
feel as we hear Jesus condemn “divorce” in such stark terms.
Even if we delve into the differences
between divorce then and now,
or explore what Jesus might have meant,
or even the impact divorce had on women in particular
in that male-centered culture,
this teaching has caused many people a great deal of pain.
Then there’s the teaching about “cutting off”
some part of yourself to enter the reign of God.
As a gay person,
the idea that I should exclude some unacceptable part of myself
from my religious life has been unhelpful to say the least.
I wonder if many of us have struggled somehow
with the idea that something unacceptable about us
must be “excluded” or “cut off”
if we are to be “real” disciples of Jesus.
I know that one of the reasons I am an Episcopalian
is our church’s willingness to sit
with the gray areas of life.
This either-or, black-and-white, uncompromising Jesus
frankly doesn’t seem very Episcopalian,
and no matter how I dig into this passage,
I find myself struggling to make use of it.
So instead of digging deeper, of seeking its riches,
I decided to watch the Olympics instead.
I’ve been struck by how finely tuned,
how single-minded and focused,
these athletes are about their disciplines,
how their bodies have been shaped
by their devotion to their sport.
The long track skaters seem to be all legs:
The Dutch have these strikingly enormous thighs,
the product of their thousands of meters on the track.
Then there are the cross-country skiers of the “skiathalon,”
an event that looks to me like a carefully designed form
of winter alpine torture,
30 kilometers of running with skis on.
The skiers are like machines built only for this,
just muscle and bone pushed to their absolute limits.
Then there was the Swiss downhill skier,
a woman who finally won her gold medal
after nine knee surgeries.
Or the Japanese ice skater
who every day spends two hours
practicing his school figures
—the most basic shapes of skating—
and that’s before he starts on the astonishing jumps and spins
that he manages to land on the knife edge
attached to his foot.
And then there are my favorites:
The slope-stylers, half-pipers, and mogul riders,
the surfers of the Olympic Games,
who manage to answer most of Bob Costas’ questions
with variations on the word “awesome.”
And they are, all of them, awesome.
I wonder how these Olympians
might hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel.
I have a feeling that the either-ors and black-and-whites
probably make a lot of sense to them.
I don’t think it’s possible to do a YOLO 1060
on an ice-covered 22-foot halfpipe
by saying, “Well, maybe I’ll make it.”
It’s “yes, yes” or “no, no”—there’s no waffling.
No skater ever manages a quadruple lutz
followed by a triple toe loop
to land one-footed on a knife blade
by switching coaches or changing choreography
or wondering if she’d rather play golf instead.
It does not seem an exaggeration to say you have to be
faithfully, unbreakably married to the rink.
I didn’t notice enormous biceps on those Dutch skaters;
clearly some parts of their bodies,
while not exactly amputated,
don’t get the same kind of attention
as the legs that win gold.
When I think that way about this gospel and those athletes,
I realize that I’ve been thinking only negatively
about Jesus’ teaching today.
I don’t think these athletes see their hours of practice,
their unbending dedication,
their discipline of their bodies,
as some kind of chore,
as if they are giving up some important part of themselves.
In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the opposite:
It is by their discipline, their dedication,
that they are becoming more and more themselves,
ever more a skater, a jumper, a half piper, a hockey player,
ever more Shaun White or Shani Davis or Gracie Gold—
ever more the selves they are created to be.
I wonder what it would be like if we could see this passage,
this uncompromising teaching of Jesus,
as an encouragement to say “yes, yes”
to who and what God has created us to be,
as an invitation to practice our particular “disciplines” of life
in ways that continually expand
the gifts God has given each of us,
to stretch our hearts and our spirits to Olympic size.
What would it be like to wed ourselves
so completely to God’s call in us,
that to do otherwise would be adultery against ourselves,
a denial of who we are?
Perhaps Jesus is not asking us
to cut off some “unacceptable” part of ourselves,
but simply to let go of whatever is preventing us
from becoming the images of God that only we can be.
In our creation and in our baptism,
we have all been set on the path to “gold,”
and even better,
we each have unique place prepared for us on the podium,
a place only we can take.
And Jesus is inviting us to lean in ever more strongly,
ever more faithfully, ever more boldly,
into who we really are
as the friends and partners of God.
Imagine the possibilities when we accept that invitation.
As the half-pipers might say it:
Dude, that would be awesome.