By Charleston D. Wilson
The fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel is one of the most riveting chapters in the whole Bible. The portion appointed for today is in the middle of the chapter that began with these words: “[Jesus] went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.”
Jesus then lays out the Beatitudes, which isn’t really an outlay of moral code, but is all about a declaration that no situation, no human condition — no matter how mournful or poor in spirit we are at any given moment — nothing can prevent us from being blessed and adored and loved in God’s eyes.
After the Beatitudes, Jesus pivots and tells his disciples that he didn’t come to undo the law, but that he is the fulfillment of the law — that he alone can satisfy what the law demands but could never provide.
The law, you see, isn’t the problem; it’s really like that overbearing aunt or godmother. She means well by constantly telling you what to do and think, but she can’t pull off for you what she demands of you. That’s the law in a nutshell.
Last week we also heard Jesus say: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” And that got their attention.
And today we have Jesus’ gripping — yes, terrifying — teaching on topics that are also in the James Patterson novel I’m reading — murder, lust, adultery, divorce, and oaths.
And, as if that’s not enough to take chapter five over the top, when the chapter comes back up in the lectionary cycle down the road, we will hear that it ends with Jesus telling his followers to love their enemies, before he closes out the chapter with these words: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In light of the whole of chapter five, I want to just ask one question today in this little homily: How can I really be OK when God looks at me? How can you — how can I, how can we — be OK in God’s eyes?
In other words, is there any way I can forget, even for 13 seconds, about when I was supposed to building the perfect pedigree when I wound up getting kicked out my first semester (can you believe attendance is more than a suggestion)?
So, I’m really channeling my inner Bee Gees from 1971. In the stress that is chapter five:
How can you mend this broken man?
How can a loser ever win?
That’s the question.
I’m asking this question because there are really two types of people: People who think they are perfect, or nearing perfection, and people who know they have nothing really impressive to offer.
Everyone you meet will turn out either to be a Judy or a Johnny. Judy Garland was the most tortured individual I’ve ever read about. Pedigree, perfection, and performance drove her crazy and sent her into the bottom of a pill bottle, where she ended up dead at 47. T.S. Eliot got it right: “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important, because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”
But some folks are more like Johnny, aren’t they? In what may be his best song, Johnny Cash promised in 1956 that he “kept a close watch on his heart.” He sang famously, “I walk the line.” But Johnny soon discovered that his resolve couldn’t really deliver.
In Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash, Richard Beck writes these crucial words: “Hell arrived for Johnny Cash in 1967, the darkest year of his life. Vivian finalized the divorce and Johnny’s addiction brought him to the brink of suicide.
But if the Gospel according to Johnny Cash is anything, it’s really not about our ability to walk the line. Johnny Cash couldn’t walk the line. Nor can you or I or anyone else. God walks the line for us. In the pit of hell, grace found Johnny Cash.
Have you ever paused long enough in the pit of your version of hell for God to find you?
I remember being a small child — maybe 4 or 5 years old — and getting separated from my mother at Parisian in Birmingham. Do you remember Parisian? Their flagship store was at the Galleria in Birmingham (it was huge). When they put on their big, annual sale, that was a holy day of obligation for my mother. She always took me with her, and I can still see all those blouses and dresses lined up for what looked like miles — rack after rack. It really felt like a maze, and I wasn’t even tall enough to see over the racks.
Somehow, I got separated from her, and I panicked. I could hear her calling my name, but every time she said my name, I tried to run toward the sound. But as I grew closer to the sound of her voice, I couldn’t connect with her because of the way the racks were laid out. I still remember how scary that felt. There I stood — a terrified, precocious little kid with nothing in my possession to get me where I wanted to be. She finally yelled out, “Just stand still!” And sure enough, she came and found me, because I could have never found her. Does that make sense? That’s how the gospel often works.
In his lesser known but perhaps greatest book, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, John Bunyan wrote these words:
One day as I was passing into the field, [and] this sentence fell upon my soul. … And with the eyes of my soul I saw Jesus at the Father’s right hand. “There,” I said, “is my righteousness!” I saw that it is not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness is Christ. Now my chains fell off indeed.
St. Paul was more direct than Bunyan: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
God truly requires perfection — perfect righteousness. So, how can I really be OK when God looks at me? Jesus.
The Rev. Charleston D. Wilson is rector of Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota, Florida.