Monday, October 17, 2016

Lust Versus Pure In Heart

Here is my sermon from yesterday. The text was Matthew 5:27-30:

When Moses came down off the mountain with the Ten Commandments, he said to the Israelites, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is I talked God down from 30 rules to only ten, and the people got really excited about that. But the bad news is, Moses said, that adultery is still one of them.

Perhaps, appropriately enough, today we continue in our series on the Seven Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes looking at the deadly sin of lust against Jesus’ statement that blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.  When Donna, who is our office administrator, sawthis week’s topic she said to me, so after everything that happened last week, you’re going to be talking about lust? Who says that God doesn’t have a sense of humor? Maybe God does, or perhaps no matter when we were talking about this issue there would have been something taking place in the news that would point out not only the dangers of lust, but also the hypocrisy that we have when it comes down to the issues that surround lust.  Because while we as Americans have tremendous hang-ups on the issues of sex and sexuality, we also simultaneously are surrounded by it.  Not because it’s being pushed down our throats by uncaring advertisers and pop culture makers, but because they are doing that because it works and will either get them more sales or at least more eyeballs, and thus more money. Lust is a major part of our culture, because lust is about a lot more than just sex because we can lust for lots of different things.

As I have said before, the seven deadly sins are about the extreme of things beyond normality. So for example, wrath is the extreme of anger, or greed is the extreme of needing things to survive, and so lust is the extreme of some natural desires and needs. Thus we can lust after money, we can lust after power, we can lust after greatness, we can lust after cars and possessions, we can lust after experiences, and, of course, we can lust after other people. But before we get into the negative aspects of lust, and what it means to be pure in heart, is lust always a bad thing? Or we might ask, is it always deadly? And the answer is not always, but it’s tricky, and it depends on what we mean. The Greek word used in the passage we heard from the sermon on the mount today can be translated as lust, as a desire for another person, but in Luke at the last supper Jesus says “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (Lk 22:15) The translation eagerly desired, is that same Greek word, so it’s as if Jesus is saying I have lusted for this moment. Now that is quite different from lusting for someone else, but does give us another possible way of looking at this. We might also ask, while Jesus says that it’s wrong to lust after another woman, and I’m going to extend it out and say that it also includes men, is it therefore wrong to lust after your spouse? It think it depends.

There is a Jewish interpretation, known as a Mishnah, of Abraham lying and saying that his wife Sarah was his sister so that he wouldn’t be killed by the ruler and Sarah taken into his court. Not one of the best stories about Abraham that we find, and a rather strange one, but in one of the times it happens, and it does happen more than once, Sarah is a really old woman, she is said to be 90 in fact, and so the question was asked why the ruler would take an old woman into his harem, as that doesn’t seem likely as, no offense intended here, but few people lust after 90-year-old. And so the rabbis puzzled over this and said it must be because Abraham was so in love with Sarah, and so devoted to her, thought she was so beautiful, maybe even still lusted for her, that he saw her as if she was still the young girl he had originally married, and so because he saw her that way that others in turn also saw her that way.  We might say that is the positive side of this issue.

But that is not the lust that Jesus is talking about here, nor is it the lust we normally talk about.  The lust we are talking about is a strong desire to take and possess something or someone else. When we talked about greed last week, I said that the problem with greed is that it takes the thing we are greedy for, normally money, but it can be many things, and turns what should be a means to something else, some desired end, and it turns that item into the end itself.  In some ways, lust does exactly the opposite. It takes someone else, who should be an end in themselves, and turns them into a means that we then use to achieve some end desirable for us, normally our own pleasure. If pride is an inordinate self-regard, then lust is about a total disregard of others.

That’s why Jesus says that this is so destructive, and why it’s a sin is because it destroys the relationships we have with others because we never truly see them as others. It dehumanizes and degrades the other person, the object of our lust. It is true objectification.  We see others as tools; as a means to achieve our own ends and purposes. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and I bet none of you thought you were going to be hearing about Kant in worship, but Kant said that we are to always see others as ends in themselves. Because when we see everyone else as an end, then we cannot treat them as objects to be used for our own ends which will fundamentally change all of our relationships. Another way to look at this is by using what has become known as Kant’s categorical imperative, which says that we should live our lives as if every act were a universal law. That is if we do this what would happen if everyone else did it to? Would it be for the good, or would it be bad, or perhaps even evil? If it’s a good then it’s something we should do, and if everyone did it it would be bad, then we shouldn’t do it.

Now Jesus takes this idea of lust and pushes it certainly beyond the bounds of what those who originally heard it would have thought, and perhaps beyond the bounds of where we would like to take it, because Jesus says “everyone who looks at a woman with lust in their heart has already committed adultery.”  Jesus is not just talking about actions, but also about intentions. He is saying that thoughts and words do matter, because first thoughts and words can lead to actions. There are a thousand little yeses that come before any physical act of adultery, and each of those is a transgression. But secondly, Jesus is telling us that what takes place in our heart reveals who we truly are. He is saying to us that locker room talk is inappropriate because it reveals something about us inwardly and what we think of others. Jesus is saying you can’t say “It was just words, I didn’t do anything so therefore it’s all okay, or I’m not as bad as people who actually did a physical act.” Jesus says that’s not the way it works, because the thought, the words lead to the actions and more importantly reveal the character of the person. They show us who we are.  Later in Matthew Jesus well tell the disciples that what goes into a person, that is what they eat, does not defile them, but that it is what comes out of them that defiles. Because “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart... For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.

It’s not just what we do but also what we think and what we say. Do we see others as beloved in and of themselves, or do we see them as just another object for our consumption, for our use? Jesus wants to deal with the causes of our actions, not the symptoms. In lusting after another person we are creating a relationship in our head, again a very self-serving relationship, but relationships don’t exist in our heads, they exist in reality with real people. But if we have self-serving relationships in our heads, then we are more likely to have them, and to live them out in reality, thus causing destructive and broken relationships.

But Jesus does one other crucial turn in his statement about lust, and that is that he changes the onus away from women and towards the men. In the ancient world, just as today, women are the ones who often get the blame and the shame that goes along with lust leading to sexual or physical violence. It’s the old, “well did you see what she was wearing? She was asking for it.” That’s why it should not be shocking that when the Pharisees bring a woman who is caught in adultery to Jesus that that the man is also not brought, because women were seen to have greater culpability for causing the act. But to quote from New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine, who is also an orthodox Jew, “By collapsing the distinction between thought and action, this extension of the law of adultery to include lust suggests that no one should be regarded as a sex object. The burden here is placed on the man: Women are not seen as responsible for enticing men into sexual misadventures.”  The act is blamed on the original thought, which was to look at another person with lust, to look at them as an object and therefore not only to break relationship, but to also reveal what is in their heart.

Now when we are talking about the heart, it is not about the reddish thing in the middle of our chest that pumps blood around and doesn’t look anything like hearts as we typically draw them.  The heart being referred to here is our self, or in the best sense our truest self, remembering Jesus saying that what comes out of the mouth comes from our heart. It is who we are. And notice that Jesus does not say “blessed are the pure of mind,” which maybe how we would say it today, and certainly what we think it means, after all we say things like “he has a dirty mind,” or “get your mind out of the gutter,” because we see the mind, the brain, as controlling who we are. But there is something much more that is being talked about here when we think about the heart and who we are.  In his book on the Beatitudes, Rev. James Howell, a United Methodist Pastor from North Carolina, talks about his niece who has Downs Syndrome. He says that in a family of people with Ph.D.’s that her mind is not as brilliant as theirs, but that when it comes to her heart she has them all beat because her heart is brilliant. Her heart, the way she approaches the world and the way she approaches people, is brilliant because it is pure. She does not seem encumbered by all the things that we have that get in our way. She approaches the world as a child does, with a child’s innocence. Perhaps it is because of that purity that Jesus tells us that unless we change and become like children then we will never enter the Kingdom of God.

To help give you a better sense of what this purity looks like, the Greek word is katharoi and it means clean or unpolluted. It is from this word that we get the word cathartic. If we have a cathartic experience, it means that we have been purged of something, it’s been removed from us, it leaves us clean or different, the same way if you take a cathartic drug, it purges your system, you are left clean. The other way that purity can be approached is thinking of it as focused, or simple or single-mindedness. Think of a racehorse, or a working animal, that has blinders put on so they can’t look to the side, they can’t lose focus or direction as all they can see is what is in front of them. One focus, one purpose, one goal. Lust is something that keeps us from focusing on the one thing, so these two ideas are not all that far apart. In the story of Mary and Martha, found in Luke, Jesus comes to their house and while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, Martha, we are told, is distracted by her many tasks. When she asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her, Jesus responds “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ The theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote a text entitled
Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.  Purity of heart is to will one thing, and that is relationship with God.

But it’s more than just a relationship with God, because we are told that the pure in heart are not only blessed, but that they will see God. They will see God because that is all they are focused on, they are not distracted by the many things, and they more they focus on God the more they come to love God with all their heart, with all that they are. But they more they come to love God this way, what else happens? The more they also come to love their neighbor this way. Because the first laws of the ten commandments are about loving God, about not having any other god before God, that is not being distracted by other things which can become our god, and the others are about loving our neighbor as we wish to be loved. And while that includes not committing adultery, it also has those lists of things that we should not covet, which could be changed to things we should not lust over, not including our neighbor’s spouse but also their house, their belongings, or anything else. This lusting not only distracts us from the one true thing, but leads to our destruction and the breaking of relationships.

There was a study done by some economists at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia that sheds some light on this. The zip codes in Canada contain, on average, just 13 homes allowing for great data when it comes to things like winning the lottery and bankruptcy. In looking at people who had won less than $150,000 in the lottery what they found was that the rate of bankruptcy rate of the neighbors would increase by a little over 2% for each $1000 extra that was won through the lottery. Why? Because often the winners would go out and buy new things, or put an addition on the house, and so the neighbors would lust after those things too, my words not the researchers, and go out and do the same in order to keep up with the joneses, but would not have the money to actually keep up, and would therefore end up declaring bankruptcy. Bringing disruption and discord to their own lives, or to put it back with Jesus’ statement, leading them to a potential living hell.

Because when Jesus says we are subject to being thrown into hell, he’s not talking about the afterlife. The word translated as hell, is Gehenna, which is an actual place just outside of Jerusalem. It was said to have been the place where child sacrifices had taken place before, but at the time of Jesus it was a large trash heap, where bodies of humans and animals were sometimes dumped, and it was continually on fire, so you can image in the smell and its presence for the people. If you go down this path, Jesus is saying, if you choose to see others as mere objects to be used and abused, to be thrown away later like some trash, because lust is never about long-term relationships or commitments, but about quick fixes and then discarding them. Jesus is saying that you too will end up discarding your life, you will be dumped out with the trash because your life will eventually become trash, a living hell. And to emphasize the point he tells us to tear out the eye or cut off the hand that causes us to sin rather than to continue down the same path. This is strong hyperbole, which Jesus uses a lot to emphasize his points, but a strong warning of the danger, and perhaps of the magnitude of the sin. A sin that begins not with actions, but with thoughts, not even verbalized thoughts, but the thoughts themselves.

Relationships don’t exist in our heads, they only exist in reality, so stop trying to create them in your heads, because those destructive relationships will lead to destructive relationships in real life. Instead work on your relationships here and now and see others not as objects to be used and abused by us, not as objects merely around to give us pleasure, as a means to our ends. We are to see everyone as beloved children in and of themselves, as brothers and sisters, as to treat them as such, to treat them as we ourselves would want to be treated and to love them as we love ourselves. And to help us do that we are to focus on the one true thing, the most important thing, to love the Lord our God with all of heart, which means all that we are, and when we do that, when we put blinders on so that we don’t get distracted or pulled in many different ways, then we will not only come to know God, but because of that purity of heart we will come to see God, because nothing else will be distracting us. Our thoughts matter and our words matter, because those things reveal what’s in our hearts, they reveal who we are and they will eventually lead to actions which break relationship with others and most importantly with God Blessed are the pure in heart, Jesus says, because they know what the one true thing is, to love God and to love their neighbor, and they live that out, and they will see God. I know that it is so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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