Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
One November morning two years ago, I sat in that chapel with about a dozen of you. Some of you were crying. Others looked lost. I know I felt almost nothing other than a deep and gnawing fear—fear for our country, fear for myself, fear for my daughter and the life she would face if we left the Paris Climate Accords and the rule of law. Never before did I feel, as a pastor, that it was my responsibility to hold something after an election. But some of those faces that day I will never forget, nor some of those tears.
I think I realize now that some of those tears came from the experience of sexual assault, and seeing a man who brags about assault suddenly become the most powerful man in the world. And over the past few days, I cannot say how this city has seemed to grow absolutely still, now that another man credibly accused of sexual assault stands on the brink of a lifetime appointment to one of the most powerful offices in the world. Yesterday I went to a birthday party in Central Park, and I took Frances for a walk so she would fall asleep. I like to eavesdrop when I walk, but every single conversation I could grasp concerned one thing: the hearings for the nominee to the Supreme Court. I have received calls from some of you, telling me about your own experiences of assault, and of how the horrible memories have suddenly come back to you, emotions that you thought you had under control returning with vengeance, or by stealth, to send your life into a tailspin. The whole country is in a tailspin—from hurricanes in the east, to fires in the west, and opioid overdoses everywhere between. The whole world is in a tailspin—from the reemergence of fascism in Europe to the inability of whales to procreate because their water is too warm, we are in trouble. We are in trouble, and the tools we have at hand may not be adequate for the crises in front of us. I said two Novembers ago that I could not promise you that everything was going to be ok. I can’t promise any such thing today, either. My best guess is that the nominee will sit on the Supreme Court, and all the tools we need will be that much farther from our hands.
And so here we are today. Here we are, to hear a word of hope. And what does Jesus have to say? “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
We often think of sin as deeds—things we do that are not part of our normal way of doing things. Sometimes you hear preachers speak of them as mistakes, as if we didn’t quite mean to sin, as if we it were uncharacteristic of us to do it. Nobody’s perfect, you might hear. We all come up short every now and again, but the we that comes up short isn’t the regular us. Deep down everyone is pretty good. If that were the case, then I guess it would make sense to tone down what Jesus says, to say he is simply emphasizing to make the point. Mistakes were made. Jesus forgives. No one has to lose a hand, or a foot, or an eye.
But sinning is not making a mistake. A mistake is buying whole milk instead of 2% because you were talking to your mom on the phone. A mistake is billing the wrong client because you were tired. Our sins are precisely what we intended them to be: slander, murder, assault. Those are not mistakes. They come from our hearts, inflamed by desire or subdued by shame. When we talk about sin, we should be clear we’re talking more about a state of things than deeds or actions. We say in our standard confession and forgiveness liturgy that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves—this is honest and true. Sin is the void at the edge of all our actions. Sin is the rust on our moral fiber, eating away and weakening. It is part of our breath and our every thought. We can speak of particular sins only as instances of this state of affairs. We live in a paradox, in which all that God has made is good, but all that God has made is fallen. A sinner is like a trapped animal, with the cruel iron teeth of the trap digging deeper and deeper into his body. So Jesus, you might say, tells us that it is better to chew off parts of our bodies than suffer the fate of an trapped animal, starvation, dehydration, and the approach of the man who set the trap.
When I saw the nominee to the court speak, I heard the voice of a man who had never once considered that he might not be deserving of whatever he wanted. He and his accuser came from the same area of D.C. His father and her father are members of the same country club. They went to elite prep schools. They went to elite colleges. They are wealthy, far wealthier than the average American. Every pore of his body oozed privilege, every word disdain at the possibility that he might not be the good, decent, hard-working man he believes himself to be. Mistakes may have been made, but responsibility—nowhere to be seen.
I wish I could say that Jesus is not speaking hyperbolically, but if I said that, I could not do justice to the whirlwind of injustice and evil surrounding us. The entitlement on display, the lies spouted, the snarling senators, the screams of women asking any man in power to look, finally to look, at their suffering and their pain, to show them that their pain matters—wouldn’t it be better for us to cut off this entitlement, this weakness parading as masculinity, this sin of using women as gratification for our sins and denying them their voice when they speak out about it. Far better to enter the kingdom of heaven humbled and compassionate than to enter with the good reputation among the boys.
In all that has happened, in our anger and shock, we forget the person who has truly suffered in all of this, Dr. Ford. Instead of sneers, she came trembling and furtive. Instead of shouts and derision, she came with humility, even at times giving the man she accused the benefit of the doubt. Dr. Ford gave us an example of extreme moral courage, especially because she had put away anger and sought the truth. I fear that in our anger—justified and righteous—we will forget her example and the risk she took to come forward. She came from the same environment as the man she accused, the same country club circles, but she cut herself away from it. And, the other heroes, the women who confronted Jeff Flake in the elevator, challenging him to look at them, pleading with him hold their pain. This is also humility, and courage, to speak of their own suffering. I’m not sure if they really expected him to do anything—how could you? But they spoke the truth and made him hear, and it may have been that extra ounce of noise that changed his heart.
Whether it will ultimately matter we do not know. They reminded me of how James today ends his letter: “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Speaking the truth often takes the form of something like this: you need to cut off your hand. You need to pluck out your eye. You need to saw off your foot. You need to have a different understanding of what it means to be a man, a human being in this world. Give up what you had imagined.
And there is one more Christian response to this maelstrom. We cannot be satisfied with hatred or revenge. Only love can overcome hate, only light can overcome darkness. Christ overcame death by embracing death, and Christ offers forgiveness to everyone. If we want to see things change, we have to cut ourselves off from hate. Hate breeds violence and destruction, but love builds up, and forgiveness makes that building strong. There are so many people I want to hate, but hating them makes me who they are. Rather, let the Holy Spirit come and salt us with the fire of God’s love, which will burn sin away, and bring us peace.
The Reverend John Flack