Sermon 02/16/2020: Endless Choices

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Sermon by Jason Gerlach on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37

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To begin, a few details about a middle-school sleepover that took place in the early 1990s with a church friend named Tony. My mother dropped me off and, immediately, Tony and I ran to the outdoor basketball hoop. As functionally an only child, I relished each opportunity to play one-on-one basketball against a peer. Throughout the game I practiced my Iverson crossover, which provided either an open jump shot or, if I kept my dribble, a reverse layup. The game lasted until one of us scored twenty-one points. I’m not sure who won. Afterward, he invited me to his bedroom, saying, “I’ve got something to show you.” Secure in his bedroom Tony pulled out the picture of a Playboy centerfold. He unfolded it. I had never seen a picture like it before. I remember feeling scared and ashamed. But, also, intrigued. After a few moments I told him I felt uncomfortable. So, together we decided that we’d discard the photo. We ripped it into pieces, placing the shredded picture into a brown paper bag. With the bag in hand we snuck out of the house and ran to the nearby barn. Inside the barn were large cylinder grain bins. We located an empty one, opened the lid, and threw the paper bag inside of it.

We spent the rest of the evening playing basketball indoors at the Nerf net above the kitchen door. We watched a movie. We talked. Eventually we fell asleep.

In the morning, we went down to the nearby stream, selected a stick, threw it into the water, and then spent a few hours trying to keep it from running ashore. We were certain that if we could guide it through the stream it would end up in the Chiques Creek. And, if successful, the stick would eventually float into the Chesapeake Bay, and, then, into the Atlantic Ocean. For some reason we viewed this as a major accomplishment. We felt a sense of pride when the stick reached the Chiques Creek and floated out of view.

As we walked back toward Tony’s house conversation drifted but, eventually we questioned why we’d ripped up the picture of the centerfold. We took off running toward the barn, located the grain bin, retrieved the paper bag, and set the pieces on the ground, flipping them so that they displayed the image, piecing them together like a puzzle. As the picture took its form Tony suggested that we adhere the pieces together utilizing Scotch tape. He ran off to retrieve Scotch tape from his house, leaving me alone with the picture. During the time alone I realized both the power of pornography and how lust could control me. Tony eventually returned with Scotch tape. As we taped the pieces together I again shared my discomfort. He agreed, stating, “It’s not like you can see anything anyway since we tore it into pieces.” We discarded it a second time and returned to the basketball court until my mom arrived to take me home.

This morning’s passage in Matthew, if understood literally, claims that in that moment Tony and I committed adultery. Correct? Which leads me to ask the following questions: is lust as bad as adultery? Is anger as bad as murder? Should I throw away my eye when it leads me astray?  Should I cut off my hand when it causes me to err? And, is there even value in selectively choosing which parts have caused the harm? Are we not holistic beings? These types of questions go on and on. They quickly become overwhelming. So, in the end, are parts of this passage to be understood literally or, rather, metaphorically? If so, which parts signify metaphors?

The verses from Matthew come from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which begins in chapter five and continues through the end of chapter seven. Notice the opening and closing comments that bookend these chapters: They begin, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain….” Three chapters later, they conclude by stating, “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him….” So, it’s important to recognize that the Sermon on the Mount had an impact. People listened. People appreciated what Jesus taught and wanted more of it. The amount of followers flourished because of the things he shared with them while on the mountain.

So, too, it’s important for us to wrestle with how these verses which, sound like judgment, compare to the larger narrative of God’s offer of forgiveness. How is it that hard-hitting verses about anger, lust, and honesty were appreciated by the people who listened to him on the mountaintop? And, why did the people want more after hearing them?

In recent years the Church (our church included) has taken necessary steps to open up conversations about sexuality (ie., the discernment process leading up to becoming a Welcoming church; Safe Church policy; Circle of Grace curriculum) but, by and large, the Church has outsourced conversation about sex and sexuality to families. Only rarely are the subjects of pornography, lust and adultery addressed in the church despite technological advances that have increased the possibilities of access; despite how they impact us at every age and along the gender spectrum.

On a lighter note, it was around the same time as the sleepover at Tony’s house that I was struggling with an aspect of life in my parents’ home: mealtime. I hated when my mom served baked potatoes. And, to me, it felt like we ate baked potatoes often. At meal time, I’d sit down to an empty plate. Instead of a centerpiece there’d be a plate of butter and the salt & pepper shakers prominently located, within reach. My dad would recite the same prayer before supper, “Father, in heaven, thank you for this food and for the hands that have prepared it.” Then my mother would gather the baked potatoes from the oven. She’d place a steaming potato in the middle of my empty plate and I knew the rest of the night would be dreadful. I knew that I’d still be at the table long after my parents had finished their food, cleaned the dishes, and moved to the family room to watch the weather channel and the nightly news broadcast. I COULDN’T get the baked potato down. It had no flavor. I’d push it around my plate. I cut it into smaller pieces. I’d slather it with more butter. I’d sprinkle it with more salt & pepper. Correction: I’d COVER it with salt & pepper. The word ‘sprinkle’ doesn’t adequately describe how vigorously I’d shake the seasoning. With every minute I delayed eating the potato it became colder and, thus, worse. As the potato cooled the whole problem compounded. Under my breath, I’d mumble words in anger.  I’d wonder why I had been left alone to suffer.

I know how this story makes me seem: awful, stubborn and childish. As well as a whole host of other things. My hatred for baked potatoes extended even to the Mr. Potato Head I was gifted one year. I never played with him. I stuffed all his excessories away, leaving without a smile to haunt me or beady eyes to stare in my direction, and hid him away.

It wasn’t until years later that I had a change of heart because of a new concept… the potato bar. When I learned that it was acceptable to slather a potato in cheese, broccoli, bacon bits and sour cream, then, baked potatoes finally made sense. For the first time they had flavor. They were now bearable to eat. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate baked potatoes but, it took flavor, a lot of it, for me to get to that point.

We’ve become dependent on flavor, haven’t we? It’s a selling point in any grocery store aisle.  Differences in flavor lend to new varieties, increased options, and, ultimately, more financial revenue.  All around us are cheap, convenient, subsidized foods that seem like the real stuff but leave us unhealthy.  Most of those foods are loaded with flavor. Other foods are loaded with artificial flavoring and preservatives yet taste horrible… like plain baked potatoes. Some foods have been processed to death.

Sometimes the same thing can be said about our decision-making. How do we taste the reality we hunger for when all we have eaten is filler and a chemist’s tricks on our taste buds? We must learn to taste again. We must be educated anew about real stuff, learning again what causes our health to suffer so that we can make informed choices. When Jesus says that anger is as bad as murder and lust as bad as adultery, he is delivering a flavor education that teaches the difference between fresh, locally produced fruits and artificial flavoring. In essence, Jesus is asking me to reconsider my reliance on fats and lipids, which don’t contribute to my health, which I choose to slather over the plain baked potato right in front of me. 

In the Netflix show Ugly Delicious chef David Chang explores questions that are currently being addressed within the culinary arts. Questions like: Why is that Italian food has long been considered great (and thus expensive) compared to Korean food for instance?  He also addresses questions like: Does anyone own barbeque? Or, is it okay to reinvent dumplings? The second season of Ugly Delicious will drop in March. I’m not a foodie but throughout the first season (rated TV-MA for language) I was captivated by how chef David Chang spoke about cultural appropriation, explaining, “…if someone wants to make Korean food, great. Doesn’t mean they have to be Korean. It’s making a dish and using it in a way that’s going to be respectful of both cultures you’re trying to fuse together that’s important.” In one episode he uses shrimp and crawfish as the vehicle to talk about change, respect and tradition by noting that chefs in New Orleans continue to cook these foods as they have done so for centuries. Food, history and lineage are all tied up together. Recently, in contrast, Houston chefs have begun cooking shrimp and crawfish with new recipes. New Orleans needs to carry on their beautiful tradition but Houston doesn’t. Houston can do whatever it wants.

Through the show Ugly Delicious, his podcast episodes, and his popular restaurants David Chang is inviting everyone into questions of cultural appropriation pertaining to food, history and the fusing of cultures long viewed as separate.

Now, consider God’s commands in the book of Deuteronomy. At that time Israel’s most recent memories, habits, and formation were within the Pharaoh’s land. Pharaoh not only used the people of Israel as chattel but, also woven into the fabric of society was deep-seated fear of Pharaoh, particularly around the scarcity of resources such as food and power, resources that must be procured from sometimes begrudging and seemingly inconsistent gods. The people of Israel lived there, enslaved not only in body but also in mind and habit to the idolatries of Egypt and its rule. Deuteronomy explains how to re-habituate the people of Israel away from such enslavement of body and soul toward a new way. The prescribed practices touch not only on intimate spaces such as how to trust YHWH in their eating or sexual life, but also how to treat those they may be tempted to despise or fear as potential competitors.

In Deuteronomy, YHWH acknowledges that living through times of restraint and indulgence tries the patience of human beings; thus, YHWH beckons them to remember that YHWH has made them for a deeply — not cheaply — joyful life. In essence, YHWH pleads with the people to: “Keep the faith, hold fast, walk a long way in my direction.”

YHWH’s pleading can best be described as a clarion call. A shrill reminder. A message loud and clear, reminding people of the ways that make for a good and full life.

And what could be more graceful than to be offered concrete ways of living against a world that often mocks such discipline. For humans are embodied beings whose patterns of daily living either disentangle us or reinforce chains of fear and self-centeredness.

And, in Matthew, Jesus calls out to anyone listening to form habits that prevent unhealthy living. The clarion call here is to attend to your thoughts and words; pursue truthful relationships with others. The new community Jesus is bringing into being pursues these characteristics:

— overcoming anger through reconciliation

— keeping lust in check through discipline

— honoring marriage through lifelong fidelity

— choosing simple and honest language

Are these characteristics too idealistic? Are they possible?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is inviting everyone into questions of cultural appropriation pertaining to Old Testament scripture, history and the fusing of concepts long viewed as separate. The larger point, it seems, is that by doing more than required, Jesus is inviting forth a new community; Jesus is inviting the disciples to bear witness to another reality. “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you.” That’s cultural appropriation. “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you.” That’s providing a reminder, a clarion call, about what’s been asked of followers of Jesus. Or, that’s the practice of fusing what was with something new.

We’re faced with choices on a daily basis. Endless choices about everything from what we place before our eyes to the foods and seasoning we select for nourishment. Choices pertaining to whether or not to follow Christ’s teaching. Will we approach one another honestly or prop up an image of ourselves that makes us look better, that makes us look good? Will we give to others our true selves or something artificially constructed? Will we offer others the honest answer or the preserved image?

Daily, we’re faced with decisions that’ll bring about greater life, or death.  Amidst each of these choices God pleads for us to choose life.


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