“Confirm Thy Soul In Self-Control”
Scripture readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
May the words of my mouth & the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our rock and our redeemer, Amen.
Isn’t it impressive to see some little plant growing in the crack of a sidewalk? Or maybe you’ve driven by a rock quarry and noticed trees growing on tiny ledges in the midst of sheer rock? Plants inspire us with their determination to live and grow. Some of them, exposed to wind and harsh conditions, get twisted and re-shaped by hardships, but live many years. That is the way the Japanese art of bonsai or small trees was born. The Japanese are moved by the survival, age and beauty of such trees, and they grow trees to imitate them. Four bonsai trees are here today.
Like plants, we too are survivors. We are in awe when we hear stories of our fellow humans surviving in prison camps or natural disasters, or cave and mountain climbing accidents, or a harsh and radical medical treatment. We wonder if our own drive to survive is that strong – and it usually is.
But good life in all the fullness, growth and maturity God intends is not just about survival. It’s also about being shaped, and bearing fruit. It involves choices and limits that are fitting for our lives. The good news is that God has put in place what we need to grow and mature if we’ll only use it. Just as plants have water and sunlight, we have food and shelter and families, and some rules that God has given about how to live well.
Over a life time we learn many lessons about what we really need to live lives that please God. And our needs change as we mature.
This is Bert: Like Bert, when we’re young we grow fast. Bert had an attack of aphids I was slow to diagnose and treat. You can’t see aphids with your eyes, only their results. Aphids are like bad thoughts; you only see their results. But Bert just kept growing anyway. In fact, he was originally in a small pot and he grew a root system so dense it was in danger of choking him, but he just kept growing anyway.
Then consider Gum Drop: As we get older, in our teenage years we’re more like her. Gum Drop doesn’t look at all like when I got her. I’ve been helping her try on different identities. That’s what teenagers do. One day Gum Drop wants to lean backward dramatically and imagine she’s a rock star performing.
But just by showing her other side as the front, she could instead be a detective, leaning forward as if studying something. Rock star. Detective. Rock star. She tried a big pot, now she likes a small pot. My job is just to keep her in rain water and high quality soil while we figure out the shape her life will take – which side is her main side.
Isadora: Older still, we’re like Isadora. When I got Isadora she’d been growing long branches in every direction to find some sunlight. But some branches had to go so that others could grow enough leaves. And now she has a very pleasing shape. This is like a young adult who has chosen a mate, a vocational path, and knows that embracing one thing can mean letting go of another. Choices have been made. This is the shape of her good life.
And then there’s Fringe Flower (“Lorpetalum chinensis” in Latin). Sooner or later we’re all like this Fringe Flower plant. I didn’t give her a nickname because I was afraid she wouldn’t survive. You see, she is wounded here at the trunk. My first year with her she dropped all leaves and flowers. But with steady tender care, she bounced back. And in the summers she puts out lovely pink flowers shaped like bottle cleaning brushes. Somehow, she sneaks enough nutrition past this wound and out her branches to the leaves and flowers. And this wound just makes her more astonishing, more beautiful, more of a testimony to the gift of life.
These plants, and the connections between them and our lives, relate to today’s Corinthians reading. We human beings in our spiritual lives like in our physical ones have to progress from milk to solid food, from the easy path to the life of choices and limitations. And whatever path we choose, and whoever taught us that path, we mustn’t forget that we are God’s, that no choices we make will be truly beautiful and fruitful if not in line with God’s desire for our growth.
Every human being and every new generation has to learn about this. This was the challenge that led to our Hebrew Bible text today telling people to stay focused on loving God and gratitude for God’s care in our lives. A generation had grown up between life in Egypt and the time of entering into the new land that the Hebrews were entering. The young ones needed to know about what happens when you wander from God’s ways. They had to be told about making choices that embrace true life.
We can blow it, and not grow healthily, so we have to really want to align ourselves with God in order to resist the choices that are less healthy for us.
This is why in our Matthew passage Jesus lays out some strong cautions for us. The disorders in our lives can get started with what we start to long for, before we even act. If we really love God and want to have morally, physically and socially healthy lives, we have to watch for those moments in life when we start down the wrong path.
To make his points about the degree of concentration it may take to stay on the best paths, Jesus indulges in exaggeration. Middle Easterners even today are very good at exaggeration. It is a way of expressing oneself that grabs attention and brings a point home in a way that is almost comical. In one textbook it’s called “Oriental hyperbole,” but that’s not a great term because…
We do it too! Suppose we’re at a Mexican restaurant and I say to you, “I’ve eaten here before and I’m warning you, don’t eat that green sauce, it will blow your head off.” Well, if it blows your head off, how is it that I’m able to talk to you about it? My head is still here! I’ve exaggerated to get your attention about the bad effects of taking the green sauce path instead of another sauce path.
My husband Stephen used to teach piano lessons to children. If a kid was showing a tendency that needed to be stopped, like not fingering well, Stephen would say something like “Get that right or I’ll throw you out of the window.” They would laugh because they knew he wouldn’t throw them out the window. But they heard his message – you’ll never play the piano well if you don’t listen to this instruction!
And so Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” Your right eye is going to blow your head off! Your right eye is going to get you thrown out of the window! I’ll bet his audience snorted with laughter even as they absorbed his profound meaning. What is he really saying? He’s saying there is a lot in life that will lead you away from your truest and best love, your love of God. And before you know it, you’ll not really be living, you’ll really be dying.
True happiness lies in this direction of careful choices, of knowing God’s will for you. Psalm 119 laid that out for us: “Happy are those who keep God’s decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.” The rules are not there to make us miserable. They are there to make us more happy, and even more beautiful, like these trees.
The author of the hymn “America the Beautiful” understood this. In one of the verses, Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America, America, God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” Souls need self-control. And liberty is nurtured by laws that set limits on liberty.
Knowing the better path is not always easy or perhaps even possible for us. Many times in life we want to please God and choose life but it's not as clear as we'd like. We don't have God's perfect understanding. We wrestle in our consciences about whether to stay in a relationship, or a career, whether to put someone we love in a care facility, which new priest will be the one for us, or something really big like how to avoid climate change disasters so that life’s needs are met into the future, not just for us but for people who live in very vulnerable places. You name it, there’s always some decision or pathway that may not be perfectly clear.
There is grace, however. Think about the promise of the Fringe Flower tree. Injuries, even self-inflicted injuries, won’t keep us from being a thing of beauty and potential in God’s eyes. God will not withdraw the sunlight of love nor the water of met needs. We can still bear fruit. Our flaws can be part of what shows the beauty and power of God in our lives.
The monk Thomas Merton, always examining his conscience, reached something like this same conclusion. I’ll close with his now famous prayer accepting God’s grace even when we don’t know the path:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
The Rev. Marian McClure Taylor, guest preacher
St. James Episcopal Church, Shelbyville KY
February 16, 2014