I wonder how many of you remember the Peanuts comic strip with Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Pigpen and Snoopy? In one of my favourite’s, Charlie Brown, a very good boy with a wonderfully guilty conscience, is looking deeply worried, and the caption reads: “There is nothing heavier than a great potential!”
There’s been a great potential these last few weeks with Chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew. It is the main teaching document in this book, Starting with the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor,” it goes on to talk about aspirations, and ethics and grace and sin and principals and practice and prayer. It is such an astonishing document. And I thought that it would be wonderful to do a three, four, even five part sermon on all this, bringing it together, a worthy task which is totally beyond me.
Because I forgot something that often happens; when I looked at the Gospel again, it had gotten bigger! And what I thought I understood, the tentative answer, series of answers, simply led on to larger questions, a surplus of meanings, crises of opportunities, dangerous blessings. That’s the living truth of the Gospel of Jesus, God meeting us in the midst of human being, can comes so close, get so big, ask so much, can lead us to look at our life in the world in so many new ways, where we feel like we are lost, and finally, like Jacob, say, “Lord you were here (found me here) and I did not know it”. So, like Jacob, we rock together some sort of memorable meaning, wrestle it for a blessing, try to make some sense of it, and limp on in a world that seems both bigger and finer than what we had found before.
For “There’s nothing heavier than a big potential”.
Let me tell you a story. In 1977, when I was 31, while on a long retreat with the Anglican Benedictine monastic Order of the Holy Cross in Santa Barbara, California, I had an experience of God believing in me. It changed the equation a bit and my life a lot. I had spent a lot of energy believing in God: said the right prayers, read the right books, went to church most Sundays, worked in the youth group, read lessons, filled out the forms, saw the movie, got the t-shirt. I thought I had bought the whole package. But I found I the time on that mountain monastery above Santa Barbara that it was more about God believing in me, enabling God to live in me, embodying, emboldening me to find my lostness in God, be found in God, to be the body of Christ, to be the good news of God in the world. and that Good News wasn’t real easy to take.
For “There’s nothing heavier than a big potential”.
Today’s Gospel packs some heavy punches. Don’t be angry, don’t look with lust, don’t swear by anything outside or inside of yourself, And “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” and what’s that about?
There is a group called the Jesus Seminar, and one interesting thing they put out is this. If the Gospels have some lines by Jesus that are mysterious, demanding, not easily understood, even offensive, than it is highly likely that Jesus said exactly that. So what is Jesus saying here, where do we stand with this, how can we respond in our lives.
Let me take another detour here.
Four and a half years after the time in Santa Barbara I ended up studying at a seminary in Berkeley, California, and decided I needed to have a new spiritual director. A Jesuit who was a brilliant teacher agreed to meet me for an hour monthly to sit with the questions and confusions and comforts and callings that were a part of my life with God, and he asked me if I had a particular question to start. “Where does God stop?”
He said that God didn’t stop: and that made me want to stop for a good while.
For “There’s nothing heavier than a big potential.”
And I had been thinking that I’d work on my life with God, all my spirituality, and that would affect the rest of my life in a good way. That this work would flow onto other aspects of my life with friends, money, power, sex; the other realities of my whole life. But if “God didn’t stop”; where did that leave “me”?
The 12th century mystic Meister Eckart wrote that we should be so poor, as in blessed are the poor, that we should have no room reserved for God, giving God the whole thing. And it seemed to me that this might be inconvenient. Back in my lost youth I was planning to have a good place for God, maybe build a chapel next to the the guest house, “Come by sometime, any weekend, I’ve just the place for you”. And God is saying “Here I come! Here, now, always!” Wait.
Maybe the good news is that God wants to come to live with us in the very middle of our lives, with all the mess of money, sex, power, anger, found there; God is willing to live there?
So there’s indeed nothing heavier than a big potential.
One more detour:
One thing that always amazes me in the Bible is the summary of the law where Jesus says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. But there’s a problem there: for if we “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all our mind,” what is left over in order to “love our neighbour as yourself? Didn’t we give it all away on part one, where do we get the love to do part two? Do you see the problem here?
It doesn’t make sense unless it’s all one love, unless we are to let the love we give to God (that God gives to us) be the same love we offer to everyone; even the love in which we encounter and honour ourselves, as gifts to God, as gifts from God. If this is true: then there is just one love, one light, one life.
In a lovely book, Pilgrims Inn” by Elizabeth Goudge, which I read for the first time when I was about 16, a woman walking in the woods has a realisation of the connectedness of life and the compassion Grace can awaken:
“Quite suddenly you felt like your life was not an isolated thing, but one that existed in all other lives, as all other lives existed within yours. There wasn’t anything anywhere to which you could say, “We don’t need each other”
We need each other for we are all one body, the body of Christ.
And in that larger truth we see Jesus’ ferocious words on plucking out the offensive eye, cutting off the over-reaching hand, finds a different context, makes a different sense. For if we think we are separate, if we try to be our own body, our own little centre of the universe, if we are bound by our own flesh, than we need to do some rigourous remodelling, cut stuff off, add things on, get back to renovating the chapel and the guest house.
But if we are called to be the body of Christ. to offer ourselves as a reasonable living and holy sacrifice, heart, soul, mind; than we can’t cut ourselves up, we can’t cut ourselves off, we are all already one body, gifted in love as the body of Christ. And everything can look difference from here.
In the end, there is nothing lovelier than a great potential!
St Augustine wrote: “Behold what you are; become what you receive.” We are here to receive a gift. God is in love with us,believes in us, and wants to live with us, in us, through us, in the middle of our lives. And this is the Good news in Christ.