by Daniel Harrell
An ancient Jewish legend, tailored after the Biblical story of Job, tells of a saintly rabbi who studied Torah all day long and never once set his eyes upon a woman. Satan, that devil, maddened by any exhibition of godliness, went before the Lord to request permission to test this Rabbi. Confident of the Rabbi’s steadfast devotion, the Lord told Satan to fire away. So the devil appeared before the Rabbi arrayed in her devilish best, shapely and seductive and irresistibly gorgeous. The Rabbi tried to turn away from this enticement, only to be cornered wherever he turned by her beguiling appearance. Alarmed by the lust that began to burn within, the Rabbi reached for his quills and gouged out his eyes, impressing both God and the Devil with his raw piety. Satan then left the Rabbi alone, satisfied that at least he’d be unable to read his Bible anymore.
Such a sordid tale would seems to be a ludicrous lesson in morality were it not for Jesus’ own words read this morning from Matthew’s gospel: “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.” If that were not extremity enough, Jesus goes on to add, “You’ve heard it said ‘Do not commit adultery?’ I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” For any who’d considered a little ogle here and there to be harmless, Jesus had shocking news. A lustful look counts as infidelity itself.
We continue this second Sunday with the notorious Seven Deadly Sins. Concerned over the complacency experienced in their congregations once Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, certain Christians—who came to be called monks—set up camp in the deserts of Egypt and Syria where they sought to fully follow the Lord with their whole heart. We learned last Sunday how monk means single focus, or literally, “one eye,” making you wonder how literally they treated Jesus’ teaching on sins of the eye.
The last time I preached on lust almost got me fired. The congregation was filled with mostly young, single adults that night, many of whom came to church to practice what I was preaching about. Increasingly liberated attitudes about sex and marriage, as well as the biological pressure of hormones, tempted churches to accommodate for the sake of cultural relevance and getting younger people in pews. I tried to hoe a meaningful middle road from some obscure Biblical text, but succeeded mostly in just making everybody mad: the liberals because I sounded too judgmental, the conservatives because I sounded too too loose. This is a posture I’ve perfected over the years.
The heat lust generates testifies to the power of sex lust distorts. Sex bonds two people as one flesh before God; represents the loving inter-relatedness of the Trinity as well as the relationship between Christ and His Church. Never a surrogate for relationship, but anchored within marriage to promises and practices of fidelity, safety, sacrifice and constancy—free from fear or insecurity or shame— sex is the ultimate act of giving all rather than getting some; devoted to the good of the other and not to the counterfeit good of self-gratification; its joy is a foretaste of the divine union between people and God, and thus holy and beautiful and worthy of honor. Sex carries immense creative capacity—it makes love and makes life—babies get born! So yes, it is safe to say sex is immensely powerful.
I think of just my first kiss. You may remember, it happened in sixth grade, there not being much else going on for kids in the my part of the South. Josie Fletcher invited a bunch of us over to her house for a little spin the bottle. She was a northerner. This being a wholesome church, I’m taking for granted most of you aren’t familiar with this old spicy, pubescent party game. I know I wasn’t. All I know is suddenly I was sitting in this circle of hyper kids, jacked up on candy bars, taking turns whirling a Coke bottle. Whenever it stopped, the spinner started smooching whomever the bottle pointed toward. It was totally disgusting. I tried to excuse myself (faking a nasal infection), but peer pressure made it abundantly clear that swapping salvia with a random classmate was my pathway to elementary school panache. So I gave in. When my turn came, I spun the bottle with all I had, hoping to override inertia and avoid the inevitable. The bottle stopped on Jennifer Blake. I could have done worse. Jennifer was cute. But she was also a seventh grader which meant that she knew stuff. She asked what kind of kiss I preferred. I thought, “What kind? I didn’t know there were kinds!” She offered two. Regular and then something of a more Parisian variety. Having learned interesting things about France from Social Studies class—I opted for the latter type but braced myself to be completely grossed out. Instead, I resurfaced from Jennifer’s French lesson all loopy. Sacre bleu!
Some will say sex has no place in church—especially on a Sunday with kids in the room. But silence only leaves others to set standards: Hollywood, comedians, Tinder and Tumblr. Our libido-beset society reduces sex down to the deed itself, casual and consensual, bereft of most emotional, relational and spiritual significance. Lust is its gateway—encouraged as entertainment and a normal stage of development not to be suppressed. Lust is not about love nor even really about sex. Lust requires only one person at its party. A sin of the eye, lust distorts what it sees, taking and twisting, deriving its energy from the goodness it perverts. Of the seven deadly sins, lust is the most secretive and least creative. It makes its home in the heart it hardens and the eye it occludes, a problem above the belt before it’s a problem below.
Lust limits its vision to surfaces and refuses to ever go deep. It objectifies and does not account for humans as whole persons. The apostle Paul once censured the Corinthians, “Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” His point was how we cannot divorce sex from its marital “one flesh” power any more than we can dissociate a person’s body from the person herself. As humans we are not partitioned parts or layers that you can treat independently. Philosopher Rebecca DeYoung reminds how when anxious or grieving, we lose our appetites and can’t sleep. Our bodies in turn affect our hearts and minds: when we can’t sleep we become irritable and easily distracted; after exercise, we feel better about ourselves and our circumstances. The link of body and soul applies to sex as God made it. Respecting yourself means respecting your body. And if you are to love your neighbor as yourself, that means extending respect to their body and whole person.
Lust falsifies in order to enhance its pleasure. Media and movies, cosmetics and commercials for beer, drugs or cars; diet cults and fitness programs, food and fun all rely lust to sell the lie the true happiness belongs only to the physically attractive. Our imaginations get hijacked, romance redefined by our screens and our phones, a photoshopped wonderland where no real, live human can compete. Because lust exaggerates, it inevitably disappoints and isolates. Like the glutton, the lecher is shamelessly self-absorbed and solitary—which is why lust is so often tied to pornography and the ultimate absurdity of lusting after lust.
Lust typically begins not as malice but as weakness—giving in to temptation for the sake of momentary release and chronic shame. Weary of running the hamster wheel of guilt and forgiveness, wanting to justify our choices instead, we lower standards. Scripture says that wherever sin abounds grace abounds all the more—nothing can separate us from the love of God—so have at it. But grace is more than mere remission of sin; it is invitation and incentive to do better. In the story of a woman caught in adultery, Jesus famously says to her accusers, “let him without sin cast the first stone;” but then turns to the woman and tells her “go and sin no more.”
In our pursuit of happiness, we so often settle for the quick and the easy, that wide path that leads to destruction, Jesus called it. “The road leading to life is narrow, hard and long,” he said, and not everyone finds it. I think of weddings where the gleaming groom looks as good as he’ll look for the rest of his life, awaiting a bride dressed like a princess, processing down the aisle as an adoring congregation stands in honor. The happy couple delights in what married people in the room recognize as blissful ignorance. True love is the outcome of marriage much more than its cause. Just behind the happy couple sit parents whose many years of sacrifice and commitment have made this day and these two lives possible. Their tired expressions of joy and relief belie the hardness and conflict of devotion, the tension of commitment and determination, all aspects of marriage that make it such a fierce and beautiful crucible of self-denial. We stand to honor the betrothed, but we should rather stand to honor these whose knots have remained so steadfastly tied.
The desert monks made their way to the wilderness not to flee from temptation as much as to face it. Living a good life required much more than merely not living a bad one. The desert was where Jesus confronted Satan and won. The pursuit of happiness must begin with the pursuit of goodness and truth, which Scripture teaches can only be fully found in Christ. To want goodness and truth is to want Jesus, and to want Jesus is to have him.
What the desert monks missed, however, later generations of monastics fixed by forming communities. The apostle Paul said, “better to marry than to burn with lust,” but marriage is not always an option. Not everybody gets married and not every marriage works as designed. But a good marriage, while always a union of two sinners, is also a union of two friends: an option available and necessary for us all. Friendship allows us to give and receive love in healthy and satisfying ways, rendering us less inclined to wander off looking for sham substitutes and quick fixes. Good friendships teach us to respect one another, to offer appropriate physical affection, to appreciate and care for others without looking for something in return, and to trust and be loyal and keep promises. Faithful relationships with others and with God can feed our need to love and be loved, and allow us to see through and despise the incomparably little that lust has to offer.
As I stand here and look out over this gathering (having looked at myself in the mirror already), and as I think of the images our culture and fantasies create for us regarding beauty and sexuality, I must be frank. Compared to movie stars, models or mannequins, none of us are very good-looking. No offense, but there are some of us who are borderline ugly. Yet there are millions of us real, flesh-and-blood, body and soul humans made in the image of God, young and old, short and tall, fat and skinny, ugly and few somewhat attractive who have loved or are in love or are capable of giving and receiving love, of opening ourselves up to others and enjoying deep, vulnerable and intimate friendship. Jesus detailed such relationships as a hundredfold return on our faith, brothers and sisters in Christ, an embracing company of friends we experience right now as church, the very people sitting this morning to your right and to your left, relationships forged over years, through thick and thin, joy and sorrow, rich and poor, for better or worse, which I’ve witnessed and experienced among us as real and constant and faithful and beautiful.
I attended the funeral of an old friend on Friday, a man who hired me for my first real minister job back in Boston, but who left that church soon afterwards to spend the past 30 years over at Wooddale. Fred McCormick, whom some of you knew and loved, had to be one of the kindest Christians ever to walk the earth. Leith Anderson, former pastor at Wooddale, knew Fred as a colleague most of those years. In a moving and masterful sermon—I totally understand why so many people attended Wooddale—Leith remembered Fred as one of two kinds of people, the “There You Are” kind over against the “Here I Am” kind. Take any social gathering and there are those who enter the room through the front door with a “Here I Am” point of view, that life is mostly all about me and my needs and my happiness and my delights and desires. Such perspective is fertile soil for every sin.
By contrast are those who enter the room by the side door, who say “there you are,” as they see others first, with humility and kindness and grace, a sort of self-denial considered odd by many and even psychologically suspect, but considered by Jesus as essential to being his follower. Jesus does his best work from the margins, his Spirit comes in through the side door, standing straight in a world of crooked walls, odd and distinctively, if disturbingly, different. God so loved the world that he came to save it, but not as a looker we would lust after, but as one with no beauty that we would desire him, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with grief.”
My friend Fred suffered a lot of grief in his life. When his cancer came back for the last time to take him, he got the bad news from his doctor who was also a friend, as was anybody who ever knew Fred. When Fred informed Leith of his doom, Leith said Fred sounded so distraught and discouraged. And yet what made Fred distraught was not his own dying. Fred felt distraught over his doctor who had to call with the bad news, which for Fred, of course, was not so terribly bad. Fred’s funeral was packed with more people than I see show up on Easter, a testimony to the life-giving power and beauty of friendship, to the church as the kingdom of God on earth, and to Jesus whose resurrection and grace defeats sorrow and the grave, now and forever. In the presence of such love no deadly sin stands a chance.