Not Dying, But Growing

This week’s sermon is on Matthew 5:13-20.

My name is Barrett and I am a Recovering Fundamentalist.

When I was a teenager and young adult, I became part of a religious subculture that prided itself on the virtue of absolute certainty. The Bible, so they thought, was meant to be taken literally and contained the answer to any question one could ask, regardless of the subject. Their interpretation of the Bible, so they told us, was the one-and-for-all absolutely correct interpretation. Anyone who questioned or disagreed with their understanding of the faith was surely a heretic, deceived by Satan, and bound to face divine punishment.

I bought into this ideology for a while. It was comforting, as a young person growing up in a large and complicated world, to have absolute certainty about what was true and right. It felt safe to be able to appeal to a trusted authority whenever I felt confused or conflicted about a situation I was facing. Whatever happened, I thought, I could comfort myself with the knowledge that I had held fast to the infallible standard of truth and morality, revealed from the very mouth of God.

But life, it seems, has a funny way of messing with your sense of certainty. When I grew up and went away to college and later seminary, I began to be exposed to facts about the world that called my certainty into question. It began slowly, as I learned things about science and other cultures. I saw incontrovertible evidence that the universe is more than six thousand years old and human beings had developed gradually from other forms of life. I met Christians who disagreed with my interpretation of the faith and learned about other religious traditions, but quickly discovered that these were not hell-bound heretics, but wonderful people who live good lives and just so happen to see things a little bit differently from me. Later, I learned that the Bible is not a monolithic book but a complicated library of many voices, all having a conversation about what matters most in life. Finally, I came to the conclusion that I had been wrong about many of the ideas that I had held onto so tightly. I realized that my comfortable and comforting certainty was actually quite harmful to myself and others.

On that day, I realized, I had begun to experience my first crisis of faith. I felt lost, betrayed, and forsaken. I wondered, “If I could be so wrong about one part of my faith, then who’s to say that the rest of it isn’t total bologna as well? Am I still a Christian? Do I even believe in God anymore?” These were live questions for me and the consequences felt very real. My faith had sustained me through all kinds of trials and tribulations, but now it felt like that faith was dying.

Have you ever found yourself in a mental or emotional place like this? Maybe, like me, it happened when you found yourself questioning the religious or political beliefs you had grown up espousing. Maybe, for you, it happened when a role or relationship, by which you had identified yourself, suddenly ended. Empty-nesters, divorcees, and retirees will all know what I am talking about here. As humans, we naturally identify with the most significant roles and relationships in our lives. Whenever we meet new people, we ask them about their job, spouse, or kids. We ask them where they grew up and what sports teams they root for. As we get to know them, we might learn more about their political and religious affiliations. As humans, we mix all these things together and say, “That’s who they are.” We might even mix them together for ourselves, look in the mirror, and say, “This is who I am.” So, it makes sense that, when one or more of these arbitrary categories is changed or challenged, our felt sense of identity begins to unravel. We take a second look in that mirror and ask, “Who am I, anyway?”

This state of affairs, while difficult, presents us with the most pregnant opportunity for spiritual growth that we may ever have.

The Christian Church, in its first century of existence, found itself in exactly that kind of situation. Matthew’s gospel, as you heard me say in last week’s sermon, was written with the explicit intent of demonstrating Christianity’s continuity with traditional Jewish religion. This is important, because Jesus never intended to found a new religion. He only ever thought of himself as a good Jewish boy, just as Martin Luther only ever thought of himself as a good Catholic (not a Protestant) and John Wesley only ever thought of himself as a good Anglican (not a Methodist). Jesus was Jewish. All of his Apostles were Jewish. So, it made sense, then, that the early Christian movement thought of itself as a Jewish movement. But then a few significant things happened that called their Jewish identity into question.

First of all, the early Church began accepting Gentiles (i.e. people of non-Jewish origin) into their membership without expecting them to convert to Judaism and observe Torah. This caused no small amount of controversy among the first Christians. Much of this fight is delineated in the pages of the New Testament. The Church was nearly split in half by this fight. Ss. Peter and Paul can be seen wrestling with the issue in their Epistles and in the book of Acts. But, as we know from history, the Church eventually decided to come down on the side of grace and inclusion. They could not deny the presence of the Spirit’s work among the Gentiles and they believed that their God was big enough to wrap those divine arms around the whole world.

This decision put those early Christians at odds with their fellow Jews. The traditional religious leaders accused them of diluting ancient bloodlines and assimilating to pagan cultural norms, all in the name of Jesus, who they had branded as a heretic, anyway. Christians, then, were summarily excommunicated from Jewish circles of fellowship.

As all of this was happening, St. Matthew was writing his gospel. Christians, especially Jewish Christians, were asking themselves, “Who are we? We followed this Jesus because we believe he is the promised Messiah of the Jewish people, but now those same people have told us we don’t count as ‘real Jews’ anymore. What do we do now?” These are questions that Matthew kept in mind as he was writing the gospel that bears his name. He wanted to make the point to his fellow Jewish Christians that Jesus, as well as the movement he started, stands in continuity with Judaism and not in opposition to it.

The gospel passage we read this morning highlights this effort on Matthew’s part. In verse 17, Jesus says, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Torah or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” This verse captures the essence of Jesus’ attitude toward the religious tradition of his upbringing. Some of his opponents accused him of trying to destroy Jewish tradition; some antisemitic Christians throughout the centuries have sincerely wished he would do just that. But Jesus, in his usual way, manages to transcend both extremes by honoring his heritage and leading it forward, at the same time. In response to his opponents’ accusations of heresy, Jesus says to his followers, in verse 20, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

At first glance, this is a most shocking statement. The scribes were the most learned scholars of the Torah; the Pharisees were a populist group dedicated to strict observance of traditional morals and values. I like to call them, “The Upright Citizens’ Brigade.” These people were thought of as the paradigmatic examples of Jewish righteousness. How could anyone be more righteous than them? Jesus might just as well have said, “You need to be more Catholic than the Pope!”

And that, I think, is precisely the point. Jesus is ushering his followers into an experience that historians call a “paradigm shift.” He’s changing their point-of-view, at a fundamental level. He doesn’t want them to beat the scribes and Pharisees at their own game; he wants them to stop playing the game.

The kingdom of heaven, as you heard me say last week, is not some destination in the afterlife, but Jesus’ vision of the way this world ought to be. Jesus is saying, in effect, “In order to build the kind of world that we are trying to build here, you have to learn to think outside the boxes you’ve been given.”

To Jesus’ original listeners, this would have sounded like an impossible challenge, but to Matthew’s community of struggling Jewish Christians at the end of the first century, it would have felt like a breath of fresh air. Finally, as they heard these words from the mouth of their Savior, they could begin to form an identity of their own, with roots dug deep in traditional Judaism and branches stretching wide enough to give shade to the whole world. For the first time, perhaps, these Jewish Christians were beginning to get the notion that their faith was not dying, but growing.

That was the same notion I began to get on the far side of my journey away from Fundamentalism. To some in the communities of which I was formerly a part, I am now a heretic who has abandoned the faith once delivered to the saints. I no longer live with the comfortable certainty that my understanding of truth and righteousness is infallible for all time. Thanks to many wise mentors and the books they wrote, not least of which is The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, I am coming to believe in a God who is infinitely bigger and better than the narrow-minded bean-counter I had imagined before. My faith is learning to embrace doubt, not because it is dying, but because it is growing. When I look in the mirror today and ask, “Who am I, anyway?”, I can honestly answer, “I don’t know!” But this I believe: That faith is not about having all the right answers, but is able to thrive in the rich dark soil of doubt and failure; that I am not the first Christian to ponder these questions, because Jesus and the earliest Christians have laid them out for me; and that I am loved by a Love that will not let me go, today or ever.

How about you? What do you believe when the storms of life beach your ship of certainty on the far shores of doubt and failure? Who are you when the tattered rags of your roles and relationships are stripped away and you stand in broad daylight, wearing nothing but what the Good Lord gave you?

May we all come to rest in the uncomfortable silence after these questions. May we embrace the not-knowing and trust in mystery in which we live and move and have our being.