Sunday, February 13, 2011

How to Flourish

The following sermon was written by the Reverend Scott Walters of Christ Episcopal Church and is published here with his permission.

Most Friday afternoons I can be found puttering around on some project at our house, listening to a radio program called “Science Friday.” As I typed out that vivid snapshot of my exciting life, I suddenly realized why I don’t spend much time fending off paparazzi.

Oh, well. Anyway, I was doing my usual puttering and listening one Friday when the topic was Science and Morality. The springboard for the conversation was bestselling atheist Sam Harris’s new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. And about half way through the show I put down my tools and started dialing 1-800-989-TALK. I dialed and redialed over and over again, but each call was answered with a busy signal, a sound of rejection that felt more personal each time I called. But I kept on dialing, certain that one of my calls would slip in between some biology teacher in Atlanta and the retired mail carrier from Dubuque.

But I just couldn’t get through. And oh how I wanted to set Sam Harris straight. Nothing seemed to help. Not even pacing from the kitchen to the front door and back 12 or 13 times while I dialed. Finally, the show ended, my hopes were dashed, and the blood began to return to the knuckles of my left hand as I slowly loosened its death grip on the phone. My heart rate returned to normal, abdominal muscles unclenched, and I went back to my project, which wasn’t any more likely to be completed than the one I’d started the Friday before, but it did help with the relaxation process.

What frustrated me about the conversation on the radio wasn’t Mr. Harris’s main point, which was that people can conceive a moral framework without being religious. He insists that people don’t need religion to agree on what contributes to something he called “human flourishing”, and their actions can be judged as moral or immoral accordingly. I kind of think he’s right.

But what got my blood boiling is that he never really addressed why it is that people’s blood gets to boiling and what to do about it. Put another way, Sam Harris didn’t acknowledge that there’s a difference between knowing what flourishing is and actually flourishing. And as I stormed around in frustration and disgust, I wasn’t flourishing. But I wasn’t thrown into this state of non flourishment by mistakenly thinking that an unshaven 43 year old, stomping through the house on his day off with caulking on his hands, cursing into his phone is the perfect image of a flourishing human being. It’s just that in wanting to set Sam Harris straight, I was the one who couldn’t manage to flourish just then.

Knowing what flourishing looks like and actually flourishing in one’s life aren’t the same thing. And the real question is “What’s a person to do about it? How do we actually change? How do our lives actually come to flourish?”

The Sermon on the Mount is often regarded as the heart of Jesus’ moral teaching, the heart of his teaching about how God means for our lives to flourish, we might say. And Jesus’ moral teaching seems to be less about rules to live by than it is about discipleship, about taking up a way of life in the world that shapes who we are, shapes how we respond and react, shapes what and whom we love and hate.

And the setting for this so called sermon is described this way: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them…”

So the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t delivered to a large crowd or congregation of people. It was spoken to a handful of Jesus’ disciples. They went up the mountain to get away from the crowd. And Jesus was teaching his disciples a new way of seeing and a new way of being in the world. A world in which something called the ‘kingdom of heaven’ had come near.

He started his teaching with the beatitudes, which we read last week. Blessed are the poor in spirit and the meek and the merciful. There is a different ordering of things, a different definition of ‘blessedness’ in the kingdom of heaven, it seems. And the beginning of discipleship is looking at the world through Jesus’ strange lens in which the last are first, in which those who exalt themselves are put down and the lowly are exalted. The kingdom seems to be hidden in the most unlikely of places: our lives.

After the Beatitudes comes our gospel reading today. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says, “but don’t lose your flavor. You are the light of the world, but don’t let your light be hidden.”

So as Jesus begins to form his disciples he first teaches that what God values and prioritizes and blesses might be the precise opposite of what we’re taught to believe by this world. But the second thing he teaches is that the essence of who a person is, is what this world needs if we’re really going to see the kingdom of heaven break forth in our lives.
Jesus doesn’t say, “add a little spice to your life (moral spice, religious spice, whatever).” No, he doesn’t say add something. He says “Don’t lose the essence of who you are.” You are salt. Tend to your saltiness. You are light. Don’t let your light be covered up by hatred or lust or vengeance. Discipleship is about tending to who you were meant to be, tending to your truest nature.

And it’s also worth noting that salt is wonderful, but it’s not best eaten by the spoonful all by itself. Light is a wonderful gift, but staring at the sun is not a helpful practice. Salt and light are meant for other things. They’re meant to flavor and illuminate. They’re not enough in themselves. Neither are we.

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them…” What was really happening in the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus was making disciples and forming a community. A community meant for the formation of character and for the blessing of the world.

So what immediately follows what we read today is this: “‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister (or guy on the radio, some manuscripts read), you will be liable to judgment.”

Jesus was teaching his disciples that the Law was meant not simply to keep people from killing each other. It was meant to reach the parts of ourselves where our anger lives, the essence of our selves, our very saltiness if salt is what we are.

And what was Jesus’ image of how God forms the essential parts of our selves? It wasn’t a personal code of morality. It was a kingdom. A community of people under a different kind of authority with a godly set of priorities. In other words, I can’t become my truest self by myself. I need you. I need to be shaped and formed in a community of disciples that doesn’t assume that the way things are in this world is the way God means things to be. In fact, to look for the coming of the kingdom of heaven is to believe that the true nature of the world itself is yet to emerge. It’s to believe that a world in which greed and selfishness and independence are chief virtues is a world that doesn’t yet know its true nature. A world that is not quite itself.

When Jesus made disciples he didn’t just tell people how to act. He told them tend to the deepest parts of themselves, but to do so together. Because if we’re losing our saltiness, covering up our light, maybe we’re forgetting that we can’t get to the essence of who we are by ourselves. God has arranged our lives to find their meaning only as they flavor and illumine others, and as our lives are flavored and illumined by others. That’s why Jesus called people not into individual conversion but into discipleship, into community, into the mystery of his risen body, with all its wondrous variety of gifts.

So a guy throwing a tantrum at a voice on a radio is not God’s image of a flourishing human life. But the remedy Jesus gave us in the Sermon on the Mount was not a new system of morality for individuals. The remedy for my anger is you. The remedy for all of us is the community of Jesus’ disciples. A community of people who illuminate the kingdom of heaven for one another so that we can be transformed by God. And maybe it’s in our shared struggle to be disciples, to be people of the kingdom of heaven, that we are slowly delivered from the anger and greed and vengeance that empties the flavor and obscures the light that are the real essence of our lives. The very flavor and light that other people need to taste and see the kingdom of heaven as well. Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.