February 12, 2017 • 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time • Leora Weitzman
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
At first hearing, this all sounds like an impossibly tall order. And Jesus sounds dismayingly harsh. And yet, I believe what we just heard is an invitation Home… to a way of being that is deeply natural and brings profound peace. It’s an invitation, as T.S. Eliot says, “through the unknown, remembered gate” … to the way we were once upon a time.
Once upon a time, before we learned to judge or use anyone or anything in God’s creation, we knew all as sacred and treated all accordingly.
We would not dream of telling a lie, and so there was no need to swear oaths using powerful names to compel belief.
We would not dream of abandoning someone, which was what divorce amounted to when only men could initiate it and women were property without rights or livelihoods.
We would not dream of insulting or calling each other, “You fool!”—an epithet that implies the other’s point of view is utterly worthless. We would remember each other’s sacredness and be curious about how things look through each other’s eyes.
“If your right eye causes you to sin…” If our favorite way of seeing things causes us to judge and dismiss, if it divides us, perhaps it is time for new eyes. Or if our favorite way of seeing includes the “lust” to use another for our own ends, instead of relating to each other with the respect due to an equal before God.
“If your right hand causes you to sin…” If our favorite way of doing things leaves no room for God, if we’ve forgotten that all doing is relating, and that relating is not controlling or using but listening, responding, caring. That “doing” is not true power. That true power comes only when we let go and let God work through us.
When we’ve forgotten all this, we are in hell without realizing it. Louise Erdrich comically describes “the white person’s hell” through the eyes of a lovable Ojibwe scoundrel who is wandering the afterlife and peeks through the keyhole of a giant warehouse: “It was worse than flames. They were all chained, hand and foot and even by the neck, to years and years of mail order catalogues… The words of the damned, thin and drained, rang in his ears all the way home. Look at that wall unit. What about this recliner? We could put up that home gym in the basement...” In this apocalyptic vision of the familiar, we are trapped seeing and doing everything through the right eye and right hand of ego and control. And living this way is hell. Jesus isn’t threatening us; he’s reminding us of this spiritual truth.
Through the eyes of ego and control, jealousy and competition make perfect sense. “I belong to Apollos.” “I belong to Paul.” “I’m with her.” “I alone can fix it.” Pretty soon we’re calling each other, “You fool!” and forgetting that the greatest danger to us comes not from each other but from what’s happening in ourselves.
Our shared worship here, our gifts at the altar, all the externals of religious observance and rule following, won’t save us. The scribes and Pharisees did as much. We are being called to an internal conversion.
And yet when we are in the mindset of ego and control, the idea of giving it up feels like suicide—or at least like cutting off our right hand and eye. What a foolish thing to do. Won’t it make us weak? It might kill us. This is why Paul and Jesus feed us paradoxes of foolishness that’s wise, weakness that’s strong, death that’s really life, people poor in spirit who are blessed.
Beyond these paradoxes, there are practices that train us for this internal conversion, that stretch our gripping fingers and loosen our judging eyes. It helps to unplug, or go up the mountain as Jesus did. Just for a moment, close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Let a thought come… and let it go, replacing it with Paul’s words, “God gives the growth.” Let another thought come… God gives the growth. And another thought… God gives the growth.
Be willing to be surprised by seeing something previously unnoticed. Gently open your eyes. Here’s one way I practice this. When I feel irritated with someone, I ask myself, “When am I like that? What do I feel like when I’m being like that?” This restores my compassion and my sense of shared experience, or communion, with that person.
It’s crucial to treat ourselves with compassion as well. Sometimes ourselves are the only people we still allow ourselves to mistreat. Yet saying, “You fool!” to ourselves is every bit as destructive as saying it to another, and it cuts us off from our own inner wisdom.
For instance, when I procrastinate or feel irritable, it’s often a signal that I’m tired. Beating myself up for it just breeds more procrastination and crabbiness. The inner wisdom is to listen to myself and rest; to let go my doing-ness and control, relax my “right hand,” and slow down.
We also relax our “right hand” by sharing what we have. We can offer a gift for that reason, rather than to try to buy salvation. We can give simply because our eyes see others’ needs as well as our own, and our sense of communal stewardship guides us to share just the right amount for us all to prosper.
Feeding our souls with beauty and reminders of spiritual truth is another useful practice. Music, poetry, art, nature all heal our aching spiritual eyes and hearts. So can our shared worship, even though it won’t buy us salvation. Just by choosing to be here this morning, you are taking one more step to nourish your inner conversion. Let yourself rest in that assurance. Let yourself rest here and, as St. Paul says, be fed, like a child.
Let these words of T.S. Eliot nourish you and take you “through the unknown, remembered gate” … to the way we were once upon a time and shall be again. Hear Eliot’s hint, echoing Julian of Norwich, that even our wanderings have a purpose. For Home is sweeter, more thoroughly known and loved, when we’ve been away. Once upon a time… which is always Now…
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always —
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
(one ties the above practices to Benedictine spirituality—simplicity, balance of prayer/beauty/nourishing the soul, work/sharing, study/seeing with new eyes/continual conversion of spirit, leisure/rest/self care…)