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Who Has the Authority to Condemn Us?

Revelation 7: 13-17
Psalm 31: 1-5
Luke 12: 4-12

What you are afraid of? What can wake you up in the middle of the night, your heart pounding and your stomach tied in knots? What are the hot buttons in your soul that can turn a sunny day cloudy or a warm day cold? We all have switches like that: what flips your switch? What threatens to undermine your confidence, to unravel your professional demeanor?

I know you have answers to questions like these, because we all do. All of us. All these poised and capable people sitting all around you here tonight, every single one of them. We do a good job, all of us do a good job, at keeping these things hidden, so I'm not going to ask you to answer out loud. Simply attend for a moment to the pit of your stomach: what can tie your guts in a knot?

And while the pit of your stomach ponders an answer to that question, I'll tell you one of the things that completely terrifies me. Just one.

I'm terrified of getting up in front of groups. Simply terrified. I had speech difficulties as a child, something like a stammer. It erupted unexpectedly as late as college. When I was a child, people criticized me and made fun of me for this. They complained that I was hard to understand and they said my troubles were all my own fault: I could stop if only I would try. Nobody recovers fully from memories like that.

I say all this because admitting that you are afraid does not mean that your fears will necessarily cripple you. They don't. I now earn my living, in part, by getting up and talking in front of people. All fears do is extract a certain cost. Most of the time, most of us have no idea what the people around us are paying out, day after day after day, to face their fears and get on with life.

This is what Jesus is getting at when he berates the Pharisees and the lawyers in the scene immediately preceding today's gospel. He bitterly criticizes them for making a hard life harder, for adding to life's burdens rather than sharing them. As everybody knows, there are people out there who will indeed try to push your buttons or flip your switches--and send you to hell. Or at least forecast, with their almighty self-assurance, that you clearly don't have what it takes. Today's gospel concludes that scene: those are the people to be afraid of, Jesus cautions us. Not terrorists or drunk drivers or thugs in alleys. Look out for people who think they have the authority to condemn you.

Good social science would agree with Jesus: what most of us are most afraid of is one another. Human beings are social creatures. Our survival depends upon the people around us. We need community. We need to know that we are safe here, that we are wanted here, that we belong here. We need to know that we will not be shamed, humiliated, excluded, or ridiculed. And so we worry--more or less secretly, more or less on our own--about what other people think about us. We worry about where we stand in the group, and we worry that someone might realize we are worrying.

Fear is lonely stuff. Fear is very, very lonely. And Seabury, I observe, can be a lonely place. A remarkably lonely place full of remarkably lovely people. Remarkably lovely people. I wish you could more clearly see what kind and creative and interesting people you are, all of you--how deeply all of you yearn to live as Jesus taught us we should live. Look around: all these lonely people. Where do you all come from? Why don't you feel that you belong? Who are the Pharisees and lawyers that laid this burden on you?

The gospel for today talks about fear from beginning to end. I will tell you who to be afraid of, Jesus says. Be afraid, be very afraid of those who have the authority cast you into hell.

Jesus was a witty man. He was a master of rhetoric and the rhetorical resources of the Jewish literary tradition. Today's gospel is a Christian koan, I propose, a deeply paradoxical puzzle that designed to unravel commonplace thinking. So: who can condemn any of us to hell? The obvious answer, I suppose, is God himself. The Pharisees and the lawyers certainly thought so! And their line of thinking is nicely supported by the threat later in today's gospel that "he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." Furthermore, today's passage from Revelation suit that interpretation just fine. There's no doubt about it: today's readings are a set up for the classic hellfire and damnation sermon.

But hellfire and damnation theology falls into the witty trap Jesus sets. It does so because it fails the Mrs. Halloran test. You know that test, I'm sure--it's a central piece of serious systematic theology. [...] Well, maybe you have a slightly different name for it.

When I was a kid, Eileen Halloran was the nicest grownup in the whole neighborhood. I could show up at her side door, and I wouldn't have to say much. I'd smile, she would smile, that was enough. Mrs. Halloran had ten kids of her own, but she was always glad to see me. Her pantry had an inexhaustible supply of ham sandwiches. Real ham, cut off the bone. And sometimes chocolate cake. Homemade chocolate cake, with chocolate frosting--a big piece.

So here's the Mrs. Halloran test: God has to be at least as kind as the kindest person you know, at least as generous as the most generous person you have ever known. At least, because that which is created cannot exceed its Creator. And Mrs. Halloran would never throw anyone into hell.

Now, don't get me wrong: Mrs. Halloran was nobody's doormat. She was a ferociously strong matriarch; she kept those ten kids in line. But she also loved them even when they were drunk, or pregnant when they shouldn't be, or in any kind of trouble. Imagine: surviving at least ten pregnancies, then raising ten kids on a working man's salary in a small three bedroom house. But her power was rooted in love not violence; her strength in generosity not exclusion. And it's blaspheming against the Spirit, Jesus says, if you think God can't or won't live up to the standard set by the likes of Mrs. Halloran. So look out for the theologians of hellfire and damnation. And look out for anyone else who is that cocksure. They are the ones blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. The truth here, Jesus argues, is that love is mysterious stuff, and it's pointedly at odds with linear-minded self-righteousness.

See here! Jesus says. God keeps track of sparrows for heaven's sake! God counts every hair on your head--which is to say God knows how many are going grey and how many have disappeared altogether and how many truly bad hair days you have had in the last month. God knows, God cares, and, as the gospel says, "when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities"--or the bishop and the Examining Chaplains, or job interviews and performance reviews and, I don't know, parent-teacher conferences or Traffic Court--"do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say," because God is with you. Do not be anxious: God is with you, chocolate cake in hand. God understands what you can't say clearly on your own, and God will put the right words in your mouth. The Holy Spirit never stammers.

So this is a great gospel for Epiphany, or so it seems to me. God is with us. The loneliness and the fear that keeps us apart have been overcome--or they can be overcome--by the cosmic reality that is God with us, Emmanuel. Now as it happens, today's communion bread will still be bread. Ham sandwiches would be a problem for vegetarians, and chocolate cake--at least good chocolate cake--crumbles much too easily. Picture all those crumbs ground into this carpet!. Paula and I talked about it and we decided: let's just consecrate ordinary bread this evening.

Nonetheless, let us celebrate this Eucharist in thanksgiving for all the Mrs. Hallorans of this world, and all the good theology we learned in their kitchens. Let us be healed of our secret fears. Then let us go forth with chocolate cake in our souls and a warm welcome for all the lonely people waiting at the side doors of our hearts. All the lonely people, wherever they come from.

After all, "love one another" can also be translated, "be not afraid."

Who Has the Authority to Condemn Us?
Given at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, January 22, 2004.