October 10

Five Things are Ultimate

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 17: 11-19
2 Timothy 2:8-15

Five things are ultimate in this life: that we be just, that we become whole, that we learn to love, that we present ourselves for judgment, and that we be grateful for all this. Justice, wholeness, love, an identity that means something, and gratitude to the creator: would it not be simpler if there were only one thing that is ultimate in defining our lives? Alas, that is not the case. Our religious life becomes skewed if we leave out any one of these ultimate things, and it becomes desperately skewed if we focus only on one to the exclusion of the rest.

Jesus was a teacher of justice and righteousness: remember the Sermon on the Mount where he said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Some people, however, reduce Christianity to the moral project, turning it into a complex set of moral injunctions defining a way of life. The liberal church has sometimes reduced Christianity to only the social gospel, leaving all the rest aside because it seem selfish, or superstitious, or too hard. Morality, especially social morality, is ultimately important, that without which heaven is closed. But it is not the only ultimate.

Jesus was also a healer, with specialties in dermatology, as in our Gospel for today, gynecology for the woman with the flow of blood, ophthalmology for dealing with blindness, ear, nose and throat for dealing with the deaf and dumb, orthopedics for healing cripples, crisis intervention for those on the brink of death, and most especially psychiatry for casting out internal demons that destroy the wholeness of the soul as well as body. Who of us has not been ultimately concerned for the healing of body or soul? Jesus knew that the healing of body and soul go together, as we have rediscovered in modern science after centuries of thinking them separate. Sometimes the religious life has been reduced to the quest for wholeness, however, and without justice, love, the reconciliation of life’s meaning, and unconditioned gratitude for the whole darkling plain of existence, the search for wholeness can turn into a selfish spiritual individualism.

Justice, wholeness–Jesus was the guru of love, of course. He said the Great Commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength and one’s neighbor as oneself. According to John’s Gospel, he gave his disciples a new commandment, namely to love one another as he had loved them, that is with the special kind of love that Jesus had. Moreover, he said that we should love even our enemies, and this is not to suggest that our love will turn them into friends—we should love them when they remain enemies. Love is an extraordinary power. Those with flawed justice still can be great lovers, as can those whose own lives are broken and who do not achieve much in life, or whose supposed gratitude for existence is shot-through with dark patches of cynicism. But sometimes the religious emphasis on love is an excuse to sit it out when justice calls, to leave our broken lives unhealed, to hide from who we really are, and to refuse to face the failures and the suffering for which we are supposed to be grateful. Without the other ultimates, Christian love can become sentimentality.

Justice, wholeness, love–for much of the Christian tradition, the chief significance of Jesus is that he allows us to come to God as redeemed sinners. Our text from 2 Timothy says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” This would be no problem if we were not sinners. Jesus is presented as the atonement of our sins, a theme especially important to St. Paul. No matter how righteous we try to be, we still fail at justice. No matter how much we invest in our own wholeness and make serious progress, we still are broken. No matter how fervently we strive to love, we still are imperfect in love. No matter how much we achieve in life, we fall short. No matter how grateful we are for our very existence, we cannot help wishing we had been born richer, smarter, better looking, and surrounded by a more supportive cast of characters. Therefore we would be ashamed to present ourselves before God as the mere facts of who we are. This shame leads to estrangement, estrangement to self-hate, and self-hate to a demonic negativity that further corrupts our justice, breaks our wholeness, infects our loves with viral bitterness, and turns gratitude to resentment. Failure to accept ourselves begets demons that ruin everything. So deep is sin that redemption is costly, and the Christian tradition says this cost is paid by God himself in the person of Jesus who is of the family of God. I don’t know how you sit with all those bloody symbols of atonement and redemption. But if they do not grip us somehow we cannot acknowledge the abysmal difficulty of finding ultimate meaning for a life with as much failure as we in fact bear.

Justice, wholeness, love, meaningfulness–now we can sense something of the manifold hurdles to be leapt in the race for unconditional gratitude for existence. Not only is the harsh cosmos unscaled to human affairs, not only are most people indifferent or hostile to us in their own self-interests, not only does our biology wear out and life leave us, but at best we attain to a life where our continued injustice, brokenness, compromised loves, and failed identity are simply accepted and left in place. We are commissioned to go on with life as if those faults did not hold us back. Gratitude for existence is easy when skies are blue. But skies are often dark, and underfoot is the fiery pit, and the way to the other shore is a gossamer path of hope spun out of signals of God’s unconditional love. God’s love is the unbounded, infinite, and arbitrary fecundity of creation, oblivious as to morals, indifferent as to whether we are whole or broken, so massive as to trivialize our own loves, and accepting of all we are, the good, the bad, and the indifferent! But how do we know this divine love? What signals do we have that God’s creation should buoy us up on cresting waves of joy throughout the glorious storms of life?

One of the mysteries in all religions is that there is something ecstatically charismatic in their founders and founding stories. Buddha and Confucius were good teachers but there was something about their persons that transformed the teachings into authority with the power to restore justice, promote wholeness, cultivate compassion, and give meaning. Moses was reputed to shine so brightly after Sinai that he had to wear a veil so as not to blind the people. And Jesus was lovely beyond compare. Perhaps not in his actual lifetime, but enough then that his memory was so transformed that for subsequent generations he was the loveliest imaginable, most attractive, most erotically charged signal of God’s overwhelming unconditional creative and accepting love. More than a teacher of righteousness, healer, lover, and redeemer, Jesus was and is for us an erotic sign who can arouse us to an ecstatic, unmeasured, passionate gratitude toward God despite it all. Like Jesus we can be transfigured. We can chant:

Grow us, God, in Jesus’ image,
Icon of Your loveliness:
Radiant in his fetching visage,
Rousing us to holy lust.
Stimulate our loving ardor,
Change our greed to love’s fire-hue.
Feed us passion’s excess, for we’re
Loveliest when loving You.

This love to which we are drawn in the ima
ge of Jesus is only glimpsed from the corner of the eye when looking at his righteousness, wholeness, love of others, and redemption of our lives. Jesus’ loveliness glazes back to ordinariness if looked at directly. Its image in us feeds on excessive passion in sometimes frightening ways that trivialize justice, wholeness, love of others, and personal redemption. In the gratitude it shapes we glimpse the transfigurations that Jesus and the mystics undergo and that we sometimes feel rumbling in our inner parts. The highest joys that religion enjoins are in this transfigured ecstasy, the fifth ultimate, true gratitude. Have you glimpsed it?

Now we cannot take too much excessive passion before lunch. Come back down to Earth and think about our Gospel for this morning. Jesus healed ten lepers and sent them off to the priest who could declare them clean, according to Levitical law. All ten were made whole, at least dermatologically. But one of them realized that more had happened than becoming whole and turned back in gratitude, praising God and thanking Jesus. He spiritually engaged two ultimates, wholeness and gratitude, and the latter is the more important. What was wrong with the other nine, with whom Jesus was provoked?

It was their demons, I think. Jesus said that what distinguished the grateful former leper from the others was his faith. What does faith mean here? All ten had faith that Jesus could cure them and cried to him for mercy. So it was not faith in the sense of belief in Jesus’ powers of healing. Rather it was a faith that already bordered on gratitude, that saw more in Jesus than his healing powers. It was a faith without the demons of self-hate and estrangement that corrupt the otherwise good things we do. Jesus’ healing of the nine lepers was incomplete, only skin deep, if you can take the pun. He should have cast out their demons. The grateful former-leper had no demons. Most of us are like the nine with demons of negativity and destruction.

By demons I don’t mean supernatural spirits of the first-century sort (though those are pretty good symbols for what I do mean) but rather the semi-organized tumbles of emotional forces that lead from shame to self-hate to destructiveness. Most of us have many pockets of such tumbling emotional forces. The demonic tumble is not limited to individuals. Recent headlines have called attention to the brutalization of gay and other sexual minorities in our righteous American society—last week a thirty year old gay man tortured for hours by nine homophobes for being gay, the week before a gay college student driven to suicide by his roommates’ mocking his sexuality on-line, numerous other suicides in the weeks preceding because of harassment of their sexuality. We remember Matthew Shepherd, beaten and hung on a fence to die alone because his murderers believed this is what you should do to gay people. That’s what it says in Leviticus 20:13. In just about every high school and junior high school in this country, gay boys, lesbian girls, and people of ambiguous sexual identity are taunted, beaten, and made to feel unworthy every day. They are made to feel ashamed, to hate themselves, and often to be self-destructive. The suicide rate among sexual minority teens is far above the average. But it is others who force those demons on them. A writer in the New York Times called the flaming homophobic bigotry in the churches and synagogues a “spiritual malpractice.” But it is worse: it is religious demonry of the highest order—unfounded shame about sex among good people turning to self-hate, projected onto those who are different in sexual identity, and transformed into legitimated persecution and destructiveness. There are demons in the houses of the holy—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and the rest—and the saints have not yet prevailed against them. Religious bigotry against sexual minorities, like ethnic bigotry and racism, is a leprous condition whose contagion spreads from sacred writings to doctrine to popular consciousness to the cell phones of the faithful that send out the demons of death and destruction. Would to God that we could exorcise our demons!

So I call your attention to five ultimates about which the Christian traditions learns from Jesus: justice, wholeness, love of others, redeemed meaningfulness of life, and joyous gratitude for the existence of it all. Together they define the rich complexity and intensity of the religious life in Christian form. They are problematic for us, however, because of our demons that turn ultimately important endeavors to negativity, distortion, and self-defeat. Much of religious life is struggling with those demons, a deeper brokenness than skin-deep leprosy. Warfare against demons is at the heart of our spiritual lives. Tom Troeger, a friend who has preached from this pulpit, and Carol Doran, a Boston musician who sometimes works at Boston University, wrote a hymn that is our battle-cry against demons, a drum-beat quick-step:

“Silence, frenzied, unclean spirit!” cried God’s healing Holy One.
“Cease your ranting! Flesh can’t bear it; flee as night before the sun.”
At Christ’s words the demon trembled, from its victim madly rushed,
While the crowd that was assembled stood in wonder, stunned and hushed.

Lord, the demons still are thriving in the gray cells of the mind:
Tyrant voices, shrill and driving, twisted thoughts that grip and bind,
Doubts that stir the heart to panic, fears distorting reason’s sight,
Guilt that makes our loving frantic, dreams that cloud the soul with fright.

Silence, Lord, the unclean spirit in our mind and in our heart;
Speak your word that when we hear it, all our demons shall depart.
Clear our thought and calm our feeling; still the fractured, warring soul.
By the power of your healing make us faithful, true, and whole.

May the power of God to overwhelm our shame with joy cast out our demons so that we might pursue justice, wholeness, love, meaning, and gratitude like athletes running the race of life with the pristine power that comes from touching ultimate things!


~The Reverend Dr. Robert Cummings Neville,
Dean of Marsh Chapel, 2003-2006

Leave a Reply