Rev. Sarah Buteux
September 26, 2021
Proper year B
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
Roughly two hundred and eighty years ago, Jonathan Edwards preached not just his most famous sermon, but perhaps the most famous sermon ever heard on American soil. Which was? “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Yes, and it’s striking that most of you know that.
I mean, can anyone recall the title of last week’s sermon? Or the sermon from two weeks ago? Or the title of any sermon you’ve heard here over the last 9 years? Me either. And I chose the title for a bunch of them. But we all know about that sermon, whether we’ve read it or not, because that sermon left a mark.
Back in 1741, Edwards preached, “Sinners” to our congregation here in Northampton in July, and it went over so well that he preached it again down in Enfield a month later. And there is no doubt that his words had an impact.
Scholars point to this sermon as a key moment in “The Great Awakening,” a spiritual revival that burned through New England for 10 years. People were so traumatized by it that scores converted on the spot. As a result, Edwards got more and more invitations to preach and “Sinners” became one of his standards. It was kind of like the “Free bird” of the 1740’s.
And he did.
And it is awful. Awful in the truest sense of that term (1). I’m pretty sure I read the sermon in its entirety back in college, but it’s been a minute, so I sat down with it again this past week to see if it was as fiery and brimstoney as I remembered.
And the answer is… yes. Yes it is. It’s horrific. And the knowledge that, by all accounts, he preached it in a sort of quiet monotone, staring straight ahead at the church bell rope as if it were a hangman’s noose, only makes his words more chilling.
Have a listen:
“The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God…that keeps the arrow … from being made drunk with your blood. Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again,…are in the hands of an angry God….
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider …over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns …O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: … You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, …And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment.
He will not only hate you, but he will have you in the utmost contempt: no place shall be thought fit for you, but under his feet to be trodden down as the mire of the streets…. It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul…
Now … the axe is …laid at the root of the trees, that every tree which brings not forth good fruit, may be hewn down and cast into the fire. Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.”
Although it needs to be said that this sermon was not typical for Edwards, I think it’s fair to say that when he wanted to, he had the ability to scare the living sin out of people. His words were most certainly effective, as evidenced by history, but were they acceptable in the sight of God, our rock and our redeemer?
Is this the gospel; the good news that God doesn’t just hate you, God abhors you! Yet, somehow belief in Christ can still save you?
Gosh, I hope not. But it doesn’t really matter what I think or want or hope for. What matters is what Jesus said and taught, and I think his words in our reading for today, as harsh and hellish as they sound at first, are actually an antidote to Edward’s take on the good news.
In order to understand today’s reading, you need to know that it’s been a rough few days for Jesus and his merry men. Jesus has been talking non-stop about his future suffering and death at the hands of the powers that be, and the disciples have been pushing back.
They don’t just want Jesus to claim his power and triumph over those who would hurt him, they want some of that power for themselves. Only it’s not working.
While Jesus is off with Peter, James, and John, a few of them try to cast a demon out of a little boy and fail. They argue amongst themselves about who is the greatest and Jesus has to remind them that their goal should not be to gain power for the sake of power, but to use whatever power they have in service to others.
After which they come across a guy who actually is serving others by successfully casting out demons by the power of Jesus’ name, and what do you they do?
Do they (a): give thanks for the healing in their midst? (b): recognize this miracle as a sign of God’s kingdom breaking through? (c): embrace this new man as a potential disciple, hoist him on their shoulders, and bring him home to Jesus or (d): none of the above?
D! They tell him to stop healing others in the name of Jesus because he’s not one of them and then run to tell Jesus how well they put that guy in his place.
I can’t begin to imagine how irritated Jesus must be by this point in the story.
His disciples, for all their good intentions, seem determined to miss the point. So Jesus sets them straight in no uncertain terms.
First, “whoever is not against us is for us,” says Jesus. Contrary to religious people throughout the ages, Jesus has no interest in forming a club with insiders and outsiders. This isn’t about believers vs. unbelievers, people who profess to follow Christ vs. those poor sinners who have never heard of him.
This is really just about getting out of people’s way so they can do the next right thing. It would seem that Jesus cares more about what we do – that is, how we treat one another – than what we believe.
“Truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “whoever gives you a cup of water – just a cup of water – to drink because you bear (my) name … will by no means lose the reward.” Notice that the ones who give the water are not the believers in this scenario – the disciples are – and yet the givers “will by no means lose the reward.”
Why? Because heaven is like Virginia, it’s for lovers.
Heaven, as my father-in-law used to say, “isn’t a reward for being good, heaven is what it feels like to be good.”
Kindness is its own reward.
All the way to heaven is heaven.
The gospel isn’t the good news that you can go to heaven when you die but the even better news that you can bring heaven to earth right now by how you live.
It’s really that simple, but these knuckleheads keep trying to make it complicated.
Like the Scribes and Pharisees, they put these stumbling blocks in front of themselves and each other so they can make the life of faith into a “holier than thou” sort of contest where they measure themselves against each other, shame those who fall behind, and shun those who don’t measure up all in their quest for the biggest piece of pie in the sky.
And I gotta tell you, I think that sort of thing gives Jesus a rash. To paraphrase Ann Lamott, it’s the kind of thinking that makes Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat bowl.
If that’s how we want to play the game, he’d rather we just tied a great millstone around our necks and threw ourselves into the sea, because we’re not helping ourselves or anybody else when we act that way and we’re certainly not becoming holier.
No, says Jesus. Listen, and listen good.
If the goal of faith were being the greatest or the best…
If your highest motivation is fear, the fear of looking foolish, being left behind or – even worse – the fear of being punished in hell for all eternity…
If all you really care about is yourself, your own personal salvation (the rest of the world be damned), then it would be better to cut off your hands, cut off your feet, pluck out your eyes or anything else that could cause you to sin or lose your golden ticket to to the great hereafter (2).
But that is not the goal. The life of faith isn’t just about you and what you need to do for the sake of yourself. It’s about you and what you can do for the sake of others.
Because here’s the thing: God knows that if you were to cut yourself off from any possibility of ever doing evil, chances are you would also cut yourself off from any possibility of ever doing good. And what use would you be then? You would be like salt that has lost its saltiness, still here but not really good for anything.
With apologies to Jonathan Edwards – or maybe not! – I believe that God knows the good and the evil we are capable of, and God loved us enough to take a chance on us anyway. God knows our every weakness and would rather we tried and failed then never tried at all.
While we were still sinners, Christ loved us enough to come to us. He lived with us. He died for us. And if that isn’t the act of an endlessly, unbelievably, unfathomably loving God, I don’t know what is.
At the end of the day or even this life, I don’t think God cares if we’re good enough so much as God cares that we are good to one another. And thankfully, as Jesus points out, a little salt goes a long way.
If even the smallest act of kindness, something as basic as offering a cup of cold water to a stranger, is pleasing in the sight of God, then it’s hard for me to imagine God staying angry at any one of us for all eternity no matter how badly we have failed. So friends, let us extend the same grace to one another.
I know with Todd leaving that there is some grief and angst in our church right now, and whenever we hurt it’s natural to want someone to blame or cut off because we don’t like what has happened. But let’s pause and take a cue from this story and realize that as disciples of Jesus, he wouldn’t want us to go there.
In a remarkable article he wrote for Patheos, David Henson acknowledges that Christians have a choice: retribution or grace, the way of the ax or the way of the cup. He admits that:
“both are completely orthodox positions. Both are represented by the historic faith. Both have strong support within the biblical narrative. So as with most theological questions, it comes down to who you think God really is and what God is really all about.”
My hope this morning is that you will think before you act or speak and ask yourself which God you are acting in accordance with: the God of the ax or the God of the cup.
“If we follow the way of the ax, (says David) centering our faith in the avoidance of punishment and sin, we are also basing it in the unspoken belief that we deserve to be punished. The philosophy of the ax believes that when something fails or goes wrong someone has to be blamed and someone has to pay. It holds to this retaliatory notion of a God that looks at us, demands perfection and, when we inevitably fall short, responds with punishment. (This is the God of Edward’s most famous sermon).
The way of the (cup), however, rests on the belief that God loves us, reaches out to us in relationship, and when we inevitably fall short … offers us not punishment but the cold water of life to revive us.
So we can spend our lives being exceptionally and unreasonably hard on ourselves, hacking away at our lives in hopes of avoiding sin and punishment. Or we can spend our lives by being extraordinarily and abundantly generous with each other and with ourselves.
We can look at the world around us, fractured by suffering and hate, and reach for the ax believing ourselves to be on a holy mission to eradicate sin, to shrink our worlds so that it is only us and those like us …Or we can reach for the cup … respond with generosity and grace… give life to others and in the process give life to ourselves (3).”
The way of the ax or the way of the cup.
Friends, we may be in Jonathan Edward’s church, but I don’t believe the way of the ax is needed or welcome here anymore. My favorite part of last week’s liturgy was the part where we acknowledged that over the course of a good long ministry, mistakes were inevitably made on both sides.
We forgave one another because we know that God forgives us. We extended the benefit of the doubt to one another because we trust that even if we stumbled along the way, every last one of us was acting in good faith.
We can and we will learn from our mistakes, not by shaming or blaming one another, cutting anyone off or cutting anyone out, but by offering a cool cup of grace and understanding to one another as we make our way together into the hands of a loving God. Amen? Amen.
- “worthy of respect or fear, striking with awe; causing dread,“
- Dallas Willard, ”Jesus the Logician” http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=39
- David R. Henson http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/09/the-way-of-cold-water-a-homily-on-the-hyperbole-of-heaven-and-hell-mark-938-50/