Fear and Trembling
This is the final sermon in the series, Out of Egypt. It is formatted for presentation, not the prevention of errors.
Exodus 20:2, 12-18
It’s funny to think how, on one hand, video games are so new, in that, even as just a concept, they have only really been around since the 1970s. And, yet, on the other hand, they are absolutely everywhere now. I seldom meet a person under fifty years old who doesn’t play any games.
That said, my wife, Christina, gets a lot of flack from our daughter, Katherine, for not playing any games on her phone. She acts like, “If you don’t play games, what’s the point of having a phone?”
I play with Katherine, but, to be completely honest, I was never very into video games, or, really, to be more honest, I was never any good at them. But, when I got to college, I was surrounded by people who had been playing their whole lives. As we made friends with each other, they’d want me to play with them. But, because I was so bad at them that I didn’t want to play. One day, though, I made a new friend who was insistent. I was going to come to play the newest, greatest video game – a fighting game – in his dorm after class.
At first, it went exactly as you would expect: I got destroyed. But after a couple of times playing, I realized that if I mashed all the buttons at once, something would happen and I would win. After I did this a few times, my new friend looked over at my controller to see what I was doing and said, “Hey, that’s not how it should work.” I’m sure that I said something snarky like, “Then they shouldn’t have made it work that way.” I had figured out a method that, maybe, shouldn’t work, but would work. I could win without having any experience or even playing the ‘right’ way. I had gamed the system in my favor and I won. But, it wasn’t long before my friend no longer wanted to play with me.
This is exactly how it worked with the group of Israelites who became the Pharisees. They had figured out ways to game the system in their favor, ways that they could mash all the buttons and become the most honored. They would hear the same command that we read – thou shalt not murder – and tag on a quick: “without good reason.” For, do they not basically murder Jesus when we get to the Gospels?
They hear the command: do not commit adultery and they work up enormous and complicated reasons why that when they do it, it isn’t adultery. When they do it, it’s not adultery because they have gamed the system so that they always win.
It’s kind of like when Nixon, after he was impeached, was interviewed by David Frost. Frost asked him, “Would you say that there are certain situations… where the president can decide that it’s in the best interests of the nation, and do something illegal?” And Nixon replied, “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” And a lot of people believed him and that interpretation of the law and still do.
Similarly, in the Church, (that is to say that it’s not just politicians) I have known a handful of pastors who believed that God had taken all that was sinful from them. And, as a result, when they were caught in an affair, or they lied to their congregations, or worse, they would say something very similar: “When the pastor does it, that means that it isn’t sinning.” As if the position, like the president, makes them immune to illegalities and immoralities.
Instead of being called to a higher standard, they think that theirs is the standard. Paul said, “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” That all breaks apart when we stop imitating Christ. This is what the Pharisees believed about themselves. “When we do it, we do it the right way, and, therefore, it’s not a sin.” They had talked themselves into being the ones to imitate – even as they broke the spirit of every command. They could mash all the buttons at once and win the game every time! But, soon, no one wanted to play.
But we know better. We know better because Jesus taught us better. Jesus sees us mashing the buttons of our lives, technically staying within the rules, coloring within the lines, but taking shortcuts to make sure that we win. And he says, “You think that you have it all figured out; think again.”
In other words, he says, “You have heard it said ____, but I say unto you ____….”
“You have heard it said, ‘Do not murder,’ but I say unto you ‘Do not be angry and call someone a fool.’”
“You have heard it said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I say unto you ‘Do not look at another person with lust.’”
“You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor,’ but I say unto you ‘Love your enemies.’”
Jesus shows us that when we think we have gamed the system enough to win, we haven’t actually even begun.
Peter Rollins is an Irish Christian philosopher who writes some of the most amazing books on theology and faith. Though I have to admit that he focuses so much on the parts of faith that we don’t understand, don’t know how to live, that it can be crippling. Because isn’t that the most important part of theology and faith? Isn’t the life that we live in God and for others the most important part? Like, when I say that God is good, that’s theology, and I’m saying some big things about the nature of the universe and creation, but what I’m really saying is, “This is why I serve God and why you could too. This is why I live my life the way that I do.”
Now, likewise, when I say that creation is broken, I’m making big theological claims, but if I don’t also make sure that you hear that Christ is working to redeem and make right all things, then I have failed in share with you a theology that asks you to live life for God. I have given you a good reason to give up, to see faith as an unattainable goal, given you a reason not to seek the change that God asks us to make. I have not given you the full picture if I give you the broken without the restoration if I give you the parts that we don’t understand without the parts that we do understand.
But, what Peter Rollins does that is amazing, at least to me, is found in a little book called The Orthodox Heretic. In its pages, he tries his hand at writing parables. Maybe it’s his way of trying to be more like Jesus, but he tries to find a way to share spiritual truth through tales, through stories, that speak to the human condition and the ways that God wants to make things right, sharing how God is trying to make things new.
He tells a little story that begins when Jesus says to the crowds, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go the second mile.” See, in those days, soldiers, centurions, could force any person they saw on the road to carry his pack for up to one mile, by law, no matter what that person was doing. They have to stop everything and be a pack mule for a mile. If the soldier made them carry it further, he could end up in trouble. But Jesus says to the crowds, make the offer of another mile.
So Rollins tells the story of a church in Jesus’ time that heard this message with great enthusiasm. They heard Jesus’ words and decided to make it into their mission. They would leave church on Sundays and go and find wandering soldiers, centurions, for whom they could offer to carry a pack two miles. They ended up making a lot of friends that way and many Roman lives were changed for the gospel in that way; many came to faith in Christ by the witness provided by this second mile. This second-mile practice became the defining feature of this church.
So Jesus hears about all that they are doing and decides to travel to see them and speak with them. The church is so excited that he’s coming. They plan to share stories of lives changed, introduce Jesus to their centurion brothers and their families – all who have been baptized and added to Jesus’ followers because of this teaching about the second-mile practice.
And, then, Jesus arrives. There is the hustle and bustle that happens any time an important guest comes to church, perhaps much like when the bishop has come here in the past. So Jesus has to quiet the crowd. He says them, “Friends, I have heard from many miles away, far and wide, of your faithfulness in always traveling the second mile. But I’m afraid that you have misheard me. I said three miles.”
This church thought that they had broken the code. They had the secret. They mashed all the buttons and they saw the results, the wins. But Jesus comes along and says, “I said three.” It’s a story from our time, but doesn’t it sound just like Jesus.
“You have heard it said…, but I say unto you.” Just when we think we have the rules down enough to feel good about ourselves and our own ability to “follow the rules,” Jesus says, “I meant three miles… if you look with lust in your heart… do not resist an evil person… give to the one who asks… love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
God is begging for us to go the third and the fourth and the fifth miles… and on and on… not just check the boxes of faith. Of course, “I believe the God the Father, creator of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, his only son….” Of course. But I believe that God is calling me beyond anything I can ever know, anything I could ever expect.
May we go out, living our lives for Christ Jesus, in fear and trembling for what we do not yet know, for the ways that Christ says that we still have miles and miles to go.