This is audio of a sermon I was privileged to preach this morning for Erlanger Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Erlanger, Kentucky.
This is adapted from a sermon I preached today at the hospital chapels in Lexington.
Imagine that you’re sitting in church on Sunday morning. The preacher has just got started—you’re not even checking your watch yet—and in walks a man carrying a bucket of peanuts. He plops down next to you and starts going to town, cracking open the peanuts, gobbling them up, and tossing the shells on the floor. When I imagine this, I envision turning my head 360 degrees—Exorcist style—to give him a seriously dirty look. I can even imagine mean old Chaplain Jeff pulling him aside and explaining to him what he’s doing wrong.
And what is he doing wrong? He’s not killing anybody, of course, but we have rules, after all. They may be unwritten—there’s no stone tablets explaining that church isn’t the Lonestar Steakhouse—but we have a certain way of doing things, and this man’s behavior is simply outside of the bounds of our rules.
Now imagine that he begins to share his story. He shares that his parents died when he was a child, that he got mixed up in drugs as a youngster, that it has really messed with his head. He shares that he’s lost and lonely, that his struggles make most people want to turn the other way, and that those who do bother to speak to him mostly just give him lectures about society’s rules that he can’t quite seem to understand. Then he shares that he hasn’t been in a church since he was a child and that he thought maybe, just maybe, he might find some people here who would accept him as he is, who might welcome him and in whose fellowship he might start to rebuild his life.
Well, in this—I promise—imaginary story, guess who now feels about three inches tall? Mean old Chaplain Jeff.
Jesus gives us a mighty tall order today (Matthew 5:38-48). “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If Jesus told me to sit at the piano until I figure out how to play the Hymn to Joy, I’d starve to death before I figured it out, because I haven’t touched a piano a day in my life. Yet I’d still knock that one out long before I began to live up to a call to be perfect if perfection is understood as following all the rules without any misstep.
Rules, laws play an important role in our lives. We often hear people speaking of us as a people of laws, a nation of laws. I’m sure they mean well when they say that, but I’d like to suggest that that’s not the case at all. I wear glasses, and my vision is so bad that I desperately need them. Without them, the world is a blur of unrecognizable colors and shadows. I’d be lost and maybe dead without them. There is a woundedness in my power of sight that my glasses help to correct, to guide me when I’m fixing to—maybe even literally—fall off a cliff. But my glasses don’t define me. They don’t make me who I am. I am a person with glasses, but I am not a person of glasses. In the same way, I’d offer that we are a people, a nation with laws, with rules that nudge us in the right direction when we’re liable to stray. But we are not a nation of laws.
Instead, as Christians, we are called to be a people of love. Rules, laws are valuable only insofar as they empower us to become just that. In themselves, they have about as much value as my glasses do when sitting unused on my night stand.
The heart of biblical law is love: love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18). Jesus in the biblical story did not come to abolish the law. He didn’t come to enforce the law, either, but to fulfill it by setting the example of complete, self-giving love. Perfection is not following all the rules for the sake of rules. The perfection advocated by Jesus is being authentic, being whole, being complete persons of integrity in ourselves and among each other. We find that wholeness, not in isolation, not by ourselves, looking out for what we think is in our own best interest, but by being in a relationship of gratitude, and of self-giving love with God, with ourselves, with our environment, and with one another.
If you’ve ever had the misfortune of stepping barefoot on a Lego building block, you know that there are few greater agonies known to man. That tiny, rectangular block has the power to send inexplicable shockwaves of devastation into the bare human foot. When foot meets Lego, the result is always Lego, 1, foot, 0. We suffer, and the Lego goes on about its business like nothing happened. The simple, obvious lesson is that people aren’t Legos.
Since we’re not Legos, we don’t grow just by adding pieces to ourselves. The great and beautiful mystery of this adventure we call human life is that we grow, we become more whole, more complete by giving away and sharing parts of ourselves with others.
Jesus calls us to offer ourselves to one another, to be built up and made perfect by celebrating the gift that is our life by becoming gift to others, by being people and a people that welcomes and cares for not only those we know, those we like, those who make us comfortable, but those who are different, those who are strangers, those who frighten us.
Rules, laws are there to guide us in our journey toward more perfect love, but there are merely pointers, merely signs along the way. They are not the destination. Laws cannot make us perfect, they cannot make us whole, and laws cannot be allowed to get in way of the Law, the call to be in loving harmony with all creation, with God, and with one another.
Of the four gospels, Matthew’s is the account of Jesus’ ministry that is the most inspired by the ancient Law of Moses, that values laws the most, that raises a cautious eyebrow at the more freedom-focused thought of the Apostle Paul, yet even there, in such a Torah-centered gospel, when Jesus encounters people focused on following the rules and overlooking the greater, divine Law of perfect love, he does not hesitate to say, “you have heard it said ‘so and so’—said in the Bible, no less—“but I say unto you, no. Love one another.”
This sentiment was beautifully encapsulated by St. Augustine long ago: “Inasmuch as love grows in you, in so much beauty grows; for love is itself the beauty of the soul. Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what you will.”
In our imaginary story of the man with the peanuts, mean old Chaplain Jeff may have been a stickler for the rules, but in being so I fell further from the perfection modeled by Jesus, while our poor, broken guest, reaching out in vulnerability, searching for meaning and love, was well on his way.
In honor of today’s Feast of the Epiphany, here’s “Frozen Pizza and Maury Povich,” a sermon I was privileged to preach on Epiphany, 2012 for the good people of Notre Dame Church in Clarendon Hills, Illinois. After the service, I hit the road to start my second semester of graduate seminary. A lot has changed since then, but my love and gratitude for the people who supported me back then has not.
As the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Assumption today, here’s a Marian-themed sermon I had occasion to preach at a May Crowning service at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in 2013.