Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.

Friends, I can’t believe it, but Lent is almost here. To me it feels like Christmas was just yesterday, but in truth, Ash Wednesday is only 10 days away. Our reading from Matthew this morning is pointing us towards Lent, in a sense it is preparing us for Lent.  This lesson is part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus lays out for the crowds what God values, what God demands of us, and what God’s Kingdom looks like. It is a tough passage. Let’s look more closely.

You’ve been told that murder is wrong, Jesus says. You’ve been told that adultery is wrong. God told Moses as much and Moses made murder and adultery two of the ten commandments. But Moses did not go far enough, Jesus tells the crowd. Not only is it wrong to murder a brother or sister; it is just as wrong to be angry with them, to insult them. Not only is it wrong to commit adultery; it is equally as wrong to have lust in your heart. Further, Jesus goes on to say, you’ve been told that a man can divorce his wife on a whim because she is his property. But she is not someone’s property, she is not an object to be owned, she is a beloved child of God and to treat her as anything else is to commit adultery and violate the sanctity of your marriage. Finally, Jesus says, you have been told that you should never swear a false oath in God’s name. But really you shouldn’t use God’s name to swear anything, rather you should be a person of integrity where a simple yes or no is sufficient, a person whose word is their bond.

What Jesus is telling the crowd this morning is that in the Kingdom of God it is not enough to avoid the external wrongs of murder, adultery, divorce, and making false oaths. The Kingdom demands that we purge ourselves of internal wrongs. The Kingdom demands that we confront the anger, greed, lust, arrogance, and prejudice in our hearts. [1]  In the Kingdom of God, not only must our actions change, but our hearts must change as well.

Not only must our actions change, but our hearts must change as well. That is a tall order. Jesus asks a lot of us. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Christianity is a comfortable religion, or an easy one. It isn’t. For those of us who would follow Jesus, the Christian faith makes demands on us that seem almost impossible. Confronting these demands is what Jesus means when he says that we must pick up our crosses and follow him. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “When Jesus bids a man come and follow him, he bids him come and die.” Friends, this means the only way to change our hearts is to die to self, the only way to save our lives is to lose them in Christ, the only way to choose life, as Moses commands us today in Deuteronomy, is to give our lives away. The Christian faith is not about making God a part of our life, it is about making our lives a part of God.

Some time ago there was a tee shirt going around that I thought was perfect. I’m not much of a tee shirt guy, especially at this age, but I wanted one of these. It was a religious tee shirt, but it didn’t say “Jesus Saves”, “John 3:16” or anything like that. It simply said, “Christian Under Construction.” I think that’s about perfect. For me, that says it all. That’s what I am. I’m a Christian under construction. I imagine many of you are as well. What Jesus teaches us; what Jesus asks of us is difficult. Changing our actions, much less changing our hearts, is the work of a lifetime and I know that I am far from being the person God wants me to be. When I read our lesson for today, when I hear what Jesus commands, the best I can say, and perhaps you feel this way, is that I am a work in progress, I am a Christian under construction.

During my 16 years serving a wonderful parish in Richmond, we were very proud of the fact that every week we hosted something like twelve different AA, NA, or AL-ANON meetings in the basement of the church. If you don’t know much about these groups, Alcoholics Anonymous and the various programs that grew out of AA are incredible. On many an occasion I have been blessed to attend an AA or NA meeting in support of a friend and each time it seemed clear to me that these people meeting in the basement were better at being the church than we were sitting in the pews upstairs.

The great writer Frederick Buechner once said this about AA, “ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS is the name of a group of men and women who acknowledge that addiction to alcohol is ruining their lives. Their purpose in coming together is to give it up and help others do the same. They realize they can’t pull this off by themselves. They believe they need each other, and they believe they need God. The ones who aren’t so sure about God speak instead of their Higher Power.

When they first start talking at a meeting, they introduce themselves by saying, “I am John. I am an alcoholic,” “I am Mary. I am an alcoholic,” to which the rest of the group answers each time in unison, “Hi, John,” “Hi, Mary.” They are apt to end with the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer. Apart from that they have no ritual. They have no hierarchy. They have no dues or budget. They do not advertise or proselytize. . .

Nobody lectures them, and they do not lecture each other. They simply tell their own stories with the candor that anonymity makes possible. They tell where they went wrong and how day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another—to be available at any hour of day or night if the need arises. There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.”[2]

Isn’t that what the church is supposed to be? Sinners Anonymous, the place where Christians under construction gather to support each other, to keep each other honest. The place where we admit that we are powerless over sin, that we can’t make it on our own, that we need God, and we need each other. “I can will what is right but I cannot do it,” is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

I don’t know how popular it would be, but maybe on Sunday morning before someone reads a lesson, preaches a sermon, or leads a prayer, rather than saying, “a reading from the book of Deuteronomy,” or “Let us pray,” we ought to start with, “Hi, I’m Randy and I’m a sinner,” and everyone would answer with, “Hi Randy.”

I mean, let’s face it. When Jesus says that we must change our hearts as well as our actions, I must admit that I am no more capable of doing that on my own than the alcoholic is capable of giving up drinking all by themselves. AA teaches that the first step to sobriety is for the alcoholic to admit that they are powerless over alcohol. As we head into Lent, perhaps we ought to admit that by ourselves we are powerless over sin and our only hope is to turn our lives over to God. Because we can’t let go of any of our anger, lust, pride, greed, you name it, without God. We can’t grow without God’s grace, and we need to be in community with others who are just like us and who hold us accountable.

Friends, the journey of faith is the journey of realizing that because we are sinners, no matter how hard we try, we cannot save ourselves. And just the way the alcoholic will never not be an alcoholic, we will never not be sinners. But more importantly, the journey of faith is learning to trust in God’s power to save us and to place our lives in God’s hands. Therefore brothers, sisters, and siblings, when you confess your sins in just a few minutes be honest with yourself about who and what you are and know that in spite of your sins you loved and forgiven. When you pass the peace with the person sitting next to you, know that it is okay to admit that you are a Christian under construction. And when you approach God’s table today reaching with your hands to receive the body and blood of our Lord, know that God’s power is working in you doing infinitely more than you can ask or imagine. Amen.

[1] Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2007, pp. 122-123.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark.


The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith