The water is bluer than the sky, and the sand looks as if it has been dusted with snow. It’s late winter and the living is easy in southwest Florida. How lucky we are to be spending a few days in Naples, Florida. The plan is that this bit of R & R will get me ready for Lent at Calvary! All I can say is “so far, so good!”
But my thoughts this morning are with you back at Calvary. Yesterday I preached a sermon based on a portion of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Someone wrote me following the service that it was “fire and brimstone Stallings style.” Though I got her point, it made me squirm. If you have not heard it and would like to, click here. (A guy can hope!)
Rather brutally honest, as I expect Jesus often was, the passage is not for sissies. It holds forth high expectations for our behavior with regard to one another—from our most intimate interactions to our broader social and legal connections. In fact, those who compile the lectionary are brilliant in placing this passage so near to the start of Lent, a time when the church asks us to get quiet enough to conduct for ourselves a moral inventory. (The exhortation read on Ash Wednesday does not expressly forbid taking others’ moral inventory, but take it from me: each of us has enough on his/her own plate to not worry about others!)
My reflection for you this morning after the brimstone sermon inevitably requires clarity about a couple of things. I am a Universalist, which is to say that I believe that all of us make it into the fullness of God eventually. Whatever, wherever, if ever heaven is, in the end, heaven is for all of God’s children or none of us. Don’t ask me to explain how that works: I take it on faith; and the fact that many disagree with me, some vehemently, is OK with me. I may be wrong.
But that doesn’t mean that I do not believe in hell. I not only believe in it; I have taken up residence in it on more than one occasion and sometimes for good long stretches. It is that hell about which my sermon warned yesterday—a warning that was as much for me as it was for anybody else!
The Sermon on the Mount is chock full of life lessons from Jesus about how to live in the presence of God, aka, choosing not to live in hell but opting to live in the presence of God right now. Such living is not the reward of good behavior but the result of understanding life’s order as ordained by God. The admonitions are pretty clear: be reconciled with one another whether or not you ever convince the other that he/she is wrong, tell the truth and mean it when you say it, be sexually responsible by living in fidelity, and when marrying presume that it’s for life and act otherwise only when life in the marriage is unhealthy and unsustainable.
Now nothing is as easy or straightforward as a few well-chosen words suggest, but here is the take home point for me: Jesus was always more concerned with life now than life in the by and by. He seemed to believe and teach that loving actions now are within our scope as we are “becoming Christians,” not just after some cataclysmic ending when all are made righteous. The flip side is that we can if we want to, and sadly we often do, choose to live in hell right now in this part of eternity.
Our Hebrew lesson for yesterday in words attributed to Moses, written six or seven centuries before Jesus, laid out the same choice for us: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you.”
Do we opt for life or do we opt for death? Well, in truth it depends on the day you ask us! We do both, but the eternal good news of Christ is that we are being called more and more toward life, toward the union for which the heart of God longs!
Amen, my brother. Beautifully said, and when you get tired of fighting for parking space amongst the Bentleys and Maseratis of Naples, come North a bit to Clearwater ... there's always a welcome for you here with us!
and, there's always plenty of convenient parking on Wash Ave....
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