Promises To Keep

November 15, 2020


The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Keeping Our Promises”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 7:21-23

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.” To say that Nietzsche was not a big fan of Christianity or any religion for that matter is a gross understatement. His is a rare, unapologetic critique. And for this reason we must listen to him.
If I were to venture a rationale for his claim about the ugly and bad it would be this: within the writings of the Apostle Paul there is a persistent claim that the world is ruined and full of sin; more directly, in Paul’s own words humankind has been “given over to degrading passions” and “debased in mind” and “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.” This is a picture of us that is ugly and bad. Nietzsche suggests: we have made a world based on this very dark view.
To be fair, Jesus spoke of “darkness” and “evil,” but at the same time he also referred to us as “light.” Although similar, I have come to believe, how Jesus described and spoke to people about being human is not the same as how the Apostle Paul did. And the difference between these two is very important.
If we read the passage from Matthew today with Paul’s version of humankind, then the dismissal of Jesus, “depart from me for I never knew you,” makes sense given how degraded we are, debased, and filled with evil. Yet, if we do this, if we read this harsh teaching of Jesus from Paul’s point of view, what Nietzsche was criticizing, then we are far from Jesus. Long way of saying, to hear Jesus today, we need to turn a deaf ear to the Apostle Paul.
If we do this, we will hear this: if you do acts of power, if you prophesy, if you cast out demons in Jesus’ name, but you fail to bring good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to gather the outcast and the discarded, then Jesus will say, “I don’t know you because you haven’t met me, for I am among the least.”
Again, we can read this teaching of Jesus and say, “a lot of folks are going to be disappointed because of our wickedness; “we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; or, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness.” This is the deep legacy of Paul, the “Christian resolve”. We can listen to this dismissal and say, “sounds about right.” No one is worthy.
Before I move on here, I want to be really clear with you what I am suggesting. I am saying to you that you can read Jesus wrong if you read him through the ugly and bad version of humankind. We will take Jesus’ word of judgement in the wrong direction, take it too far, if we follow the ugly and bad view of humankind offered by the Apostle Paul.
We don’t want to be and certainly are reluctant to admit, but we are a judgmental lot; it is a deep vein in Christian thought and religious practice. This judgement comes from the idea that we are all rotten to the core and deserving of judgement. This idea runs so deep in us, we might not even know it is there. On a different day we could explore why and how this came about and how different it is from the teachings of Jesus, but for right now just keep it in mind, be aware: this judgement is in us, shapes our views, and according to Nietzsche makes our world an unattractive place.
Many, many years ago I was reading minutes of a congregation’s session from the 1830s. The clerk of this session did something remarkable: he wrote out the correspondence he received in the minutes. So instead of saying, “received a letter from Mrs. Smith” he wrote out the entire letter from Mrs. Smith. [This is gold.] I was reading moments in the life of the church almost 200 years ago as if they were happening.
One letter stays with me. A woman was being barred from the church. It had come to the attention of the elders she no longer believed in hell. She was falling under the sway of Universal Unitarianism. To protect the church from this heresy, the heretic was to be expelled, banned, shunned. The heretical woman wrote a letter to the session asking for mercy, but not for herself.
She asked the elders not to judge the women of the church who choose not to hate her or reject her. She asked that her friends not be punished for treating her with kindness. Her words were filled with grace and compassion. She would leave, she promised, but please don’t judge her friends for her sins, she said.
I don’t have any proof of what transpired in terms of her friends, but as the minutes moved forward and I found case after case of members being discarded for similar beliefs, I am cautious to say she swayed the elders that day.
This is what I mean by a deep vein of judgement. We might not discard a universal/unitarian today, in fact only a 1/3 of Presbyterians still believe in hell at all. We might not discard folks for this belief, but we have the deep vein of judgement. We may not be tempted to discard people because of a theological differences anymore, but we do offer folks the door.
This year, if there had not been a pandemic, it was our hope to invite Rev. Berringer to return to Metuchen and preach at our Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan service. That was one of the reasons why we just had the series of zooms with him. It was a kind of “if we can’t do this, how about that?” I heard great things and I am so happy we could create a virtual reunion.
Inviting former pastors for the Kirkin’ is something I love to do. This is the right way to invite former clergy as the day is supposed to be a celebration of heritage. In my first church, though, I ran into a bit of hiccup. One of the pastor’s was reluctant to return because he believed people were still angry. This confused me as I came to the church more than twenty years after he left.
But he was right. The anger was real. There were still a small, handful of people who were upset. And there were reasons. He was the pastor from 1968-72. Just a bit of a turbulent time, shall we say. He was a Hungarian refugee, so he brought in a different culture as well as the scars of being driven from his home by the Soviets. And to make things fun for all concerned, his son smoked a fair amount of pot in the basement of the manse next door to the church. Needless to say, normal problems grew quite large, disagreements became deep scars, and there was animosity.
Each year I would invite this pastor to return and each year I would get a heartbreaking letter in response. In the last one he wrote, “I know there are people who are still angry with me, and I fear my coming would upset them. Please tell them I know it was my fault.”
It was a hard day in ministry when I conveyed this note to a parishioner and her response was in so many words, “he is still not welcome; I will leave the church if he comes.”
The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.
This is true; all too true. In our history, in our lives, in our past, and in our future, there will be ugly moments, bad behavior. We will discard people, hurt people, shun people, drive people away without mercy or compassion. This is true.
But this is also true: the ugly and the bad is the exception not the rule. I have been doing this pastor gig for many moons now and I can tell you the moments of ugliness and bad behavior are there, but they are the exception not the rule. The rule is patience and mercy and compassion.
What Jesus warned the crowd about, what happens to our resolve when there is no beauty, is real. People get full of themselves; they get deluded by power. We can do great things and at the same time treat people badly. Jesus says to the would-be Christian again and again, you find me with the least.
Imagine if the people said, we fed the hungry, we loved the outcast, we healed the broken. Can you imagine him saying, well, you didn’t believe the right doctrine, you are cast to the outer darkness? You clothed naked and freed the prisoner but you just didn’t have the right denominational affiliation. Nothing could be farther from Jesus, but this is exactly what happens when our religion turns bad and ugly.
This is true of the church, but it is also true of life. Right now we are being told that there is great bitterness and division, there is hatred and strife. And admittedly there is discord, but we don’t need to buy the narrative of hatred. There are people who hate others because they voted for Biden; there are people who hate others because they voted for Trump; there are people who hate. Absolutely! But we are being sold a bill of bad goods when we believe this hatred is everywhere and with everyone. This is a bad, ugly version of us.
In the coming weeks just about anything can happen. I am no longer able to say the world “impossible” and 2020 together. But here is the truth of the gospel. You follow Jesus, stay with him, keep with him on the path if you fulfill your promises.
Just last week you vowed promises of nurture and patience and love and compassion for baby Fiona. You promised: to be loving, to treat each other with love and thus provide an example and witness of how to live the Christian faith that is not ugly or bad. You promised.
You who are a deacon or an elder have promised to further the peace and unity of the church; you promised to work for the reconciliation of the world; and, you have promised to offer your intelligence, energy, imagination, and love. That’s the rule, not the exception.
When the voices start up again and they will, gaslighting all who will listen that we are bitter and filled with hate, remember this is an ugly and bad version of what is good and true and beautiful. Hatred is not how we live; bitterness is not who we are as a church, a community, a people even.
We are not this bad, ugly version of life.
Today we must resolve to make the world good, true, and beautiful. This is what Jesus taught his disciples and it is what we must resolve to live today. This is the promise we made in baptism and ordination. Goodness, truth, and beauty –  they will prevail; the light shines in the darkness but the darkness does not overcome it. We are not bitter people filled with hate. We are not the bad, ugly resolve.

Bible References

  • Isaiah 25:1 - 10
  • Matthew 7:21 - 23