St. Michael & All Angels, Portland, Oregon, 12 February, 2017
We are arrows in the quiver of God, shot forth to arc towards justice, mercy, peace, and love. The arc of the universe does not bend itself towards justice. We bend it. We are the universe into which God in Christ enters, and it is our lives, our choice to persistently love one another, to make the beloved community present every day and in every place, that bends the arc of the universe towards justice.
Nothing belies this conviction faster than five minutes on Facebook, or thirty-seconds reading the comments section of any article on virtually any topic. Our world appears violent, unjust, and full of changes that threaten our jobs, and jeopardize the safety of our families. Our fear, often fear motivated out of concern for those we love, is easily manipulated, turning us against, strangers, those who are different, anyone we perceive as a threat.
So when Jesus says that anger is not so different than murder, that objectifying another person in your mind is not so far from non-committal sex, we may only hesitantly agree. What we hope is that really only the big ones matter. After all, most of us probably haven’t murdered someone recently. But I bet many of us, have fairly recently engaged in some name-calling, Even using the word “fool.” Frankly, for some of us, that might be the most benign term we have used in the past few months. How many of us haven’t snapped at a loved one in the last week? We want to think that name calling, irritation, our private moments of lustful daydreaming, the casual promise we make with no intent to keep, are small things, banal, unthinking moments that don’t really matter in the greater scheme of things.
Yet I think we are aware that small things really do matter. Only a few weeks ago I listened to a state department employee noting that despite recent executive decisions with which many department employees disagree, most of the career bureaucrats will stay and do their jobs. After all, they worked hard to get this job, they are deeply dedicated to it, and frankly, it is food on the table, a roof over their heads, school for their children. As she described that at best some may choose to obstruct policies with which they disagree by engaging in some classic bureaucratic slowdowns, a little warning alarm started to go off in the back of my mind. That alarm started clanging loudly when 109 people traveling to the U.S. were “temporarily inconvenienced” because we are afraid of who they might be. Federal employees went to work, and just doing their job, they handcuffed a possible 5-year-old security risk, and detained a woman for twenty hours without food. This week, in the name of our national safety, ICE raids swept up immigrants all over the nation regardless of their criminal record, apparently targeting Sanctuary cities like our own. Once again, here in Portland, , all in the line of duty. Not one of these people went to work and thought: I am going to do something terrible to another person today. They just went to work to do their jobs.
Hannah Arendt, a brilliant 20th-century Jewish political theorist called this out with the phrase, “the banality of evil.” Sent by The New Yorker to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, she was astonished that this man, who created a shockingly efficient system of railways, stations, guards and camps, delivering with clocklike precisions jewish bodies to labor and die, serving as Hitler’s architect for the “final solution,” didn’t seem very horrific. What astonished Arendt was how ready he was to simply not think about how his job was to implement genocide. Arendt argued that evil is not dramatic and exciting, but often starts with boring, every-day, unthinking, uncritical actions that by themselves seem harmless.
When Jesus says that anger results in the judgement just like murder, or that name calling puts us on a path straight to that place that those listening to Jesus knew as the valley of ben Hinnom, Gehenna in Greek, “hell” in this English translation, he was not declaring God’s judgment on humanity, but holding up a mirror. The valley of ben Hinnom may have been an ancient site of human sacrifice, a perfectly horrific image for the consequences of seemingly little things. Small acts of verbal, emotional, and social violence that can, without check, destroy relationships, and put us on a path to horrific, creation-destroying violence.
Today, Jesus confronts us with the reality that small things matter, and says that the only response is to identify whatever it is in us that is at the root of our anger, our dishonesty, our betrayal, and get rid of it. He uses the strongest possible language: it would be better to be without a part of our body than to contribute to the sacrifice of yet another person, to use our fear to justify yet again violence towards another, to normalize it in the name of safety for our families, our friends, our nation.
But Jesus’ reaction isn’t simply about stopping our descent into destructive behaviors, but about redirecting us towards what it is to be human beings. When we sin, we miss the mark of what it is to be a human being created in God’s image. There is not a single reference to sin in scripture that is not also a call to change direction, to correct our course, to re-aim so that we can hit our mark. We are created in the image of a God who is love, and so we are created to love. Every reference to sin and the pain and death to which it leads is also, always, a call to choose life. Moses, concluding his farewell speech to his people, calls them recommit themselves to God, to “choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Every prophet says the same thing, over and over again: Stop your injustice, and instead, love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and body, love your neighbor as yourself; choose life by doing justice and loving mercy. Jesus stands in this same prophet line when he reminds us that blessedness and joyful are the peacemakers, the comforters, those that hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice.
Just as small things get us of track, small things get us back on track. A kind word, a promise kept, a patient deep breath. We gather together on Sundays and celebrate a liturgy that sets before us our call to become persons of peace and justice, mercy and love, and teaches us how to get there. Every liturgy, after the sermon, we pray for all those we have been called to love, including our enemies. Every liturgy gives us an opportunity to acknowledge the ways we have failed to love. We set aside a time to identify and grieve those moments of anger, disrespect, and objectification, known, and unknown to us, things we have done and left undone. The liturgy we celebrate together gives each one of us the time and space to examine our conscience, to reflect on the reality of how we have treated one another, to acknowledge that we have missed our mark. Then, the presider stands and reminds us that in God, we are forgiven.
The liturgy then gives us the opportunity to do exactly the thing that we have been offered, to take Jesus at his word: before we offer our gifts of time, talent, bread and wine, we are to put them down and make amends with those around us. The Peace is an ancient practice where kisses of forgiveness were exchanged between community members. It is a beautiful acknowledgment that, in community, we will in all likelihood offend, dismiss, and hurt one another, but that in our life together we recognize our failure, and make every effort to grant and receive mercy, to forgive. In the Peace we can make our amends so that together, we can choose life. Every liturgy gives us a moment to reconcile, do exchange peace rather than violence.
But the liturgy does not stop there, because sin and forgiveness are not the beginning and end of our lives in God. Someone once told me that the most important thing I can preach is that we are forgiven. But that is only true if the most important thing about us is that we are sinners. Forgiveness is a necessary part of the journey, but not actually our goal. If it were the end, our celebration together would end at confession and forgiveness. But it doesn’t end there. Instead, we bring forward the fruits of our labor, money, bread and wine, everyday common items, set them on a table in our midst, and together invite the Spirit to transform them and us into the body and blood of Christ in the world. That is our mark, that is our target, the goal and the life for which we were created: to work together in God’s universe, to be “little Christs” in the world, to bend our lives towards justice, mercy, peace and love as God’s beloved community.