Sunday, February 13, 2011

Here to Plant Trees

Sunday, February 13, 2011:
A Meditation on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:21-26


Gandhi used to say that if more Christians took the Sermon on the Mount seriously, really seriously, the world wouldn’t need any other religions.  Imagine that.  Gandhi.  Reading the Sermon on the Mount.  Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers.  Give to the one who begs from you.  Every time.  If he strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  This is Jesus at his radical best, at his most demanding, Jesus as provocateur and teacher.  Take this stuff seriously, this Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus will rock your world.  Nothing will be the same.

But what in the world are we going to do with this morning’s piece of it?  This bit about anger and insults and even a toss-off—a seemingly innocent toss-off—like “You fool”?  Clearly, Jesus is messing with us; Jesus is turning things upside down, so we’ll see them in a different way.  But how?  What’s the point? 

“You’ve heard that ‘whoever murders is liable to judgment,’” he says.  And we get that part.  “But I’m saying something else,” he says.  “If you’re angry, just angry with a brother or a sister, you’re in the same kind of trouble.  And if you insult somebody, just an insult, you’re on the path to ruin.  And if you get irritated, just irritated enough to toss off a ‘You fool’ at somebody, well then, you’re in a whole mess of trouble.”  OK, let’s be honest.  He says, “If you get just irritated enough to toss off a ‘You fool,’ it’s going to get you a first class ticket to hell.”  If that doesn’t get your attention!  Now he’s messing with us, for sure.  Challenging assumptions.  Searching our souls.  But why?  What’s this all about? 

Well, on the surface of things, maybe it’s pretty obvious.  Anger is invasive, anger is corrosive, and anger sucks the spirit out of us like nothing else.  And Jesus wants us to show some humility around that—to recognize the hard, angry edges within each one of us and develop some self-awareness around this stuff.  Sometimes we’re better at diagnosing the other guy’s anger, the other guy’s limitations; and we’re much less aware of our own bitterness.  How it corrodes relationships and compromises prayer.  How it leaps, unexamined, into action and strangles the Holy Spirit.  It’s a universal affliction.  Very few of us escape it.  And like I say, Jesus wants us to show some humility around that.  And I guess that’s the obvious part.

For example, just for example.

I’m driving into work on Thursday.  And you should know it’s not far: it’s all of five or six city blocks from home to here.  And I’m pulling out of our driveway and into the little street where we live; and a kid on a skateboard comes flying out of nowhere; and he’s wearing some kind of an iPod; and he slides by just as I’m pulling out; and I just miss him.  I mean: I just miss him.  “You crazy stooge,” I mutter under my breath.  And he blissfully whizzes off down the street.

And that’s how my day begins.  Thursday.  And I haven’t gone two blocks farther when a guy in a sports car roars through a stop sign—I mean, right through a stop sign—and I slam my car’s squeaky brakes.  And you know how it is when you slam the squeaky brakes; and your heart races like it might run right out of your chest; and all the books in the back seat are flying all over the place.  And the guy in the sports car is tooling off down the street like nothing ever happened.  “You idiot!” I say out loud this time, with more than a little mustard.  “You idiot!”

Well, you’ll be relieved to know that I negotiate the three remaining blocks without further incident.  But you see where this is going, right?  I mean, all I’m doing is driving to work.  It’s not like I live in a warzone or anything.  It’s just a sleepy little suburban neighborhood.  And in just five or six city blocks, all this stuff gets stirred up.  I’m watching the guy in the sports car roar off and I’m saying: “You idiot!” 

“But here’s the thing,” Jesus says.  “Here’s the thing: If you say, ‘You idiot,’ just ‘You idiot,’ you’re in deep, deep trouble.  You’re already making choices that will puff up your pride and harden your heart and strangle your spirit.”  Friends, it’s not even nine o’clock on a Thursday morning.  And Jesus is telling me I’m going to hell.  I’m thinking to myself: “Great.  Really, really great.”


But that gets me thinking about hell.  Which I don’t very much.  And maybe that’s Jesus’ point.  He’s got my attention now.  Got me thinking about hell.  My own pride.  My hardened heart.

So I wonder.  I wonder how many of us have read Dante’s Divine Comedy.  It’s been decades since my one college class on the 13th century Italian epic.   And I have to be honest with you: when I was 20 years old, I didn’t get it.  Not even close.  That wild journey deep into Hell, then up the mountain called Purgatory and finally into Paradise.  When I was 20, I didn’t have much use for Hell.  And Purgatory?   I had absolutely no clue.  So far as I know, Protestants don’t do Purgatory.  It all seemed so “Middle Ages.”

But that was then, as they say.  A lot of things change in 28 years.  And now I see something in the Divine Comedy about the inevitability of spiritual struggle, mine and yours; something about the stunning sweep of divine grace—which I so dearly need.  I guess I’m kind of a convert where Dante’s concerned.  It turns out the old 13th century bard has a lot to say.

For example—and this is right on topic—Dante imagines two very different human attitudes / toward suffering.  There’s the kind of suffering going on in Purgatory and the kind of suffering going on in Hell.  Now it might seem like I’m going a little woo-woo on you here; but hang in there.  It’s just a poem.  We’ll be OK.  You see, for Dante, Purgatory and Hell are not so much life-after-death stations as they are these two different attitudes toward suffering in this life.  Suffering in this life.

Think about Job in the Hebrew Bible.  Job—ripped apart by illness, riddled mad by grief and loss.  And early on, Job just can’t take it anymore; and he chooses to curse the day of his birth, just curse his own existence, up and down.  That’s Dante’s Hell.  Taking all that pain—human pain, physical pain, psychic pain—and turning it like a bludgeon on yourself.  Cursing your life, your birth, your breath.  Of course, what happens for Job is that he ends up just wallowing in it, wallowing in the pain, the suffering.  All the more.  That’s Dante’s Hell.

And then there’s James and John in the Christian story.  Things aren’t going well for the disciples in Samaria; and they’re not received and appreciated and cherished as they want to be.  And James and John urge Jesus to call down all kinds of mayhem, destruction on their adversaries, those miserable Samaritan hosts.  That impulse—to judge others, to condemn those we don’t understand, to strike back—that impulse too is Hell.  To take our disappointments, our wounded egos, and turn these things like fire hoses on our enemies. 

It’s really all about metaphor, isn’t it?  Dante’s a poet; Jesus, too.  And what they’re doing is using Hell to describe what happens to us when we turn our suffering, our disappointment into weapons, weapons we use against others, sometimes against ourselves, even against God.  It’s really all about metaphor.  And the Hell we create here on earth.


But the good news, the really good news is that we have a choice.  We have a choice as to how we bear the inevitable disappointments, how we bear the so-very-human suffering that comes along the way.  Not just to Job.  Not just to James and John and Jesus.  But to every one of us: you and me, every one of us. 

The Prophet Mohammed—peace and blessings be upon him—once said: “Even if you know that the world will end tomorrow, plant a tree.”  Think about that.  “Even if you know that the world will end tomorrow, plant a tree.”   We have a choice.  We can plant trees.  We can open our hearts to God’s grace—even and especially in the midst of our suffering.  You see, God’s made this promise—to every one of us—to hold us through the pain; to bear us through the suffering.  And because of that promise, even though the world seems to be ending, even though our lives seem to be breaking, we can plant trees.  We can make a choice.  We can choose life.

So Dante uses Purgatory to describe the mountain where souls choose to embrace suffering, to learn from suffering, even to accept suffering as some part of life’s inevitable flow.  It takes a lot of faith—and it’s not easy.  But Purgatory goes somewhere.  Purgatory has a future.  Purgatory has trees.  And Hell doesn’t.

Think about what’s happened in Egypt these last three weeks.  The choices of millions to protest peacefully, to turn history in a new direction nonviolently.  They might easily have taken all that pain, all that injustice and channeled it into cynicism and violence and cruelty.  But remarkably, amazingly, the Egyptian people—millions of them—have planted seeds together, imagined a future together.  Suffering’s inevitable.  But rage is not.

Think about Mother Teresa in Calcutta, Teresa whose doubts we now know were extreme and painful for years and years.  Think about the ways she channeled all that pain into compassionate service, into tender care for the very poorest in the streets.  Remarkably, amazingly, she planted seeds, seeds of hope, seeds of love.  You see, suffering’s inevitable.  But cruelty is not.

And think about Jesus, Jesus nailed to the empire’s terrible cross on a hill outside the city.  He might have cursed his life.  He might have cursed everything about the terrible world of religious hypocrisy and human greed.  But think about it.  Think about the way Jesus reached out to the criminals on either side.  Think about the way he reached out to his mother and his friends.  Think about the way he called on God to forgive even the executioners, even his worst enemies.  Remarkably, amazingly, even on the cross, Jesus practiced what he preached.  He loved and forgave.  And though his world was ending, he planted a tree.


So here’s the test, I think.  The Jesus test.  The Mohammed test.  The Sermon on the Mount test.  Am I going to curse every driver who runs a stop sign?  Am I going to harden my heart against every disappointment, every injustice that comes my way?  Or am I going to plant trees—like the Egyptians in Cairo this week, like Mother Teresa in Calcutta, like Jesus on the lonely hillside? 

Because—I’m inclined to think this is the test Jesus has in mind in this puzzling little stretch of the Sermon on the Mount.  It really has less to do with anger than how we deal with disappointment.  It has less to do with the occasional “You fool!”—and more to do with accepting suffering, embracing suffering and turning all that pain into compassion and love.  It’s going to feel like the world is ending.  It’s going to feel like that a lot.  But the good news is—the other side of every ending is a stunning new beginning.  The good news is—you and I are here to plant trees.