Do What You Want
preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
16, 2014; 6 Epiphany, Year A
Revised Common Lectionary
(Matthew 5:21-37) Jesus
said, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You
shall not murder'; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say
to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to
judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the
council; and if you say, `You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. So
when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother
or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and
go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your
gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court
with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the
guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get
out until you have paid the last penny.
heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that
everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her
in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it
away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body
to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off
and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for
your whole body to go into hell.
also said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of
divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the
ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a
divorced woman commits adultery.
you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not swear
falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you,
Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the
earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the
great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white
or black. Let your word be `Yes, Yes' or `No, No'; anything more than this
comes from the evil one.
But I say to you that
if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment… I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman
with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out
and throw it away. And if you say, “You
fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.
I remember reading this kind of stuff in my adolescence and
feeling pretty hopeless. I once imagined
a plot line for a short story I might write.
The main character would be someone, not unlike me, who was earnest,
respectful toward the authority of scripture, wanting to measure up. But upon encountering this kind of moralizing
instruction, throws in the towel, saying, It’s
impossible. I’ve already looked at
enough women and called enough people “You fool!” that I’ve got my reservation
in the hell fires. What’s the point?
So the character decides just to do whatever he wants to
do. For a while, he lives a somewhat
raunchy life, trying out all the things he had formerly abstained from. But he finds those pleasures passing,
ultimately unfulfilling. They carry
their own set of stresses and regrets.
Actually, he finds what gives him the most satisfaction is
doing things for other people. Being
helpful. And having friendships that
have some substance and depth. Also,
having fun with others. And working with
his hands. Pondering wondrous things. Letting himself off the hook when he fails,
and starting over fresh again. And so, eventually
in the story, this character, by doing what he most truly wants, finds he’s living
a life of virtue. And it’s a good life.
Thomas Keating has some helpful things to say about living
the good life. He says it involves “a
strong ego… and a defined self-identity.
…Psychological strength is based on self-acceptance of our weaknesses as
well as a healthy self-esteem, which is the firm conviction of our basic
“In the Christian perspective, strength is another word for
virtue. …It is the capacity to act from
the center of our being, rather than acting from our emotional reactions to
“Spiritual strength is the capacity to respond to events
from the center of compassion and genuine concern, to relate to people where
they are, and to accept ourselves and our weaknesses in the confidence that God
will help us to sift through our weaknesses and let go of behaviors that are
obstacles to relating to truth, to other people, ourselves, and ultimate
“[T]he virtues… moderate the excesses of our human nature,
balance our individual good with social good, balance our esteem for ourselves
with our esteem for the rights and needs of others, and heighten our
accountability to God.” [i]
Here’s a story that might put some flesh on those
bones. It’s by a guy named Joseph
When my wife, Beth,
and I moved from the suburbs to a warehouse loft in the center of a large city,
Beth embraced every aspect of urban life -- even the sirens, the parking
problems, and the car alarms at night. The homeless people made me nervous, but
Beth learned their names. The only neighbors who bothered her were the guys who
ran the tattoo parlor across the street. They got into traffic-stopping fights,
harassed women on the sidewalk, and intimidated men. They were the reason Beth
didn’t walk on that side of the street. For two years she glared out our window
at the row of men sitting in front of the shop and fantasized about shooting
out their tires.
Then one day she called me at work to tell me she was getting a tattoo. She’d
never wanted a tattoo before and had even taken pride in being one of the few
people in our group of friends with no body art. Though surprised, I said
"okay". Later she called me back and announced, “I did it.”
When I got home, Beth excitedly showed me the delicately inscribed words “Love
thy neighbor” on her wrist. She explained how she’d marched across the street
and gone into the tattoo parlor. The walls were covered with drawings of
skulls, bloody knives, naked women, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Manuel, the
proprietor, was working on somebody’s backside. Beth introduced herself as
his neighbor and asked if she could watch. He said sure.
After a while, she went outside and sat in front to study the world from their
perspective. The guy next to her asked what she was getting done.
“‘Love thy neighbor,’ ” she muttered.
“Why?” he asked.
“Well, you guys are my neighbors, and I’m having trouble loving you. You kind
of scare me — you know, with the fights that break out over here and all.”
He ushered her back into the shop and announced, with complete sincerity,
“Manuel, dude, we’re scaring our neighbors! We got to stop fighting.”
Manuel was defensive — until Beth explained that she didn’t want to change him;
she just wanted to get this tattoo.
Manuel showed her a picture in a magazine of “Love thy neighbor” tattooed on a
man’s inner forearm — with bloody knives in the background.
“Not exactly,” said Beth.
After they’d settled on a design, Manuel began to do his art on her wrist. Then
he stopped. “How do you spell thy?” he asked shyly. “I didn’t go to school.”
The other tattoo artist piped in, “Dude, it’s not because you didn’t go to
school. It’s because you don’t read the Bible!”
From then on Beth would wave to the tattoo artists as if they were old pals.
The music from across the street was not so grating to her nerves. No more
fights broke out. The sidewalk felt safe.
Four months later, Beth took our car in for an oil change and saw Manuel
talking to the repairman behind the counter.
As she began to remind him who she was, he stepped forward and gave her a warm
hug. “Hey,” he said to his friend behind the counter, “this is my neighbor, the
one I was telling you about.”
Returning to Thomas Keating:
“Spiritual strength is the capacity to respond to events from the center
of compassion and genuine concern, to relate to people where they are, and to
accept ourselves and our weaknesses in the confidence that God will help us to
sift through our weaknesses.”
That seems like another way of repeating Jesus’ summary of
all of the commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with
all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “Love
your neighbor as yourself.”
Our deepest desire is to love and be loved. Our deepest delight is loving and being
loved. Right action is usually doing
what you most deeply desire.
Maybe St. Augustine said it most succinctly: "Love God, and do what you will."
Mary NurrieStearns, Exploring Pride,
Strength, and Humility: An Interview
with Thomas Keating
Joe Slevcove, Love Thy Neighvor
posted on the website KindSpring
Borrowed from my friend the Rev. Ed Wills.
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.
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