Blessing and Curse
3 Pentecost Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28; Matthew 7:21-29
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Many of you know that at least two of our members are running for public office. In light of what’s taken place in the last couple of months in the presidential campaign, I’ve suggested that they might want to reconsider their affiliation with St. Michael’s, given that all my sermons are available online.
It was the passage we heard this morning from Deuteronomy that got Barak Obama’s former pastor, The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, in such hot water. In his sermon on this text, he went right over the top; it was broadcast over and over in sound bytes as “God damn America!”
I thought the sermon was going along just fine until that moment. He was saying that if you follow this passage from Deuteronomy, God doesn’t bless everything that any person, or any nation does. In it, Moses says that God will bless what is consistent with God’s will, and condemn what is contradictory to God’s will. “See, I am setting before you a blessing and a curse; the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God…and the curse, if you…turn from the way I am commanding you today.”
Jesus repeats this theme in the gospel for today. He says “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.” Those who call upon God’s name may or may not be connected to God.
But those who act upon Jesus’ words, those who live according to God’s ways, do live in God. They are wise; they have a solid foundation, having built their spiritual house on solid rock. They will survive the storms of life. Those who are foolish, who do not act on his words will find that, when the storms come, the houses they have built upon sand will crumble and fall. Jesus, like Moses before him, sets before us blessing and curse, and it is our choice.
Christians have often looked at these kinds of passages in ultimate terms of reward and punishment. If you are obedient to God’s laws and the teachings of the Bible, you’ll get the reward of heaven. If you are disobedient, you’ll get the punishment of hell. One of many problems with this approach is that we end up thinking that we are saved by our works – we earn our way into God’s favor. St. Paul was very clear that this isn’t our way. We will always fall short of the glory of God, but God loves us in our imperfection – always calling us to a higher life, to be sure, but still accepting us as we are. We don’t have to earn God’s love. It just is.
So how can we understand these texts, when Moses says that God will bless those who obey and curse those who don’t, when Jesus says that only those who do the will of his Father will enter the kingdom of heaven?
This may come as no surprise to you, but the one area of my ordination exams that I had to retake was ethics. So I’m not terribly educated in this field. But I think I’ve learned that I’m pretty much what some call a Consequentialist when it comes to ethics. Just like we tell our children, there are consequences when it comes to behavior. That’s different from reward and punishment. Consequences are the natural result that come from our actions.
When a child breaks a window, a consequentialist won’t punish with a spanking; they have the child work to earn enough money so that they can pay for the window to be replaced. When a teenager drives a car for awhile in a responsible manner, a consequentialist says “Now you are obviously ready to stay out later, to drive longer distances.”
Our relationship with God is similar. But the consequences happen naturally, rather than being decided upon and imposed case by case. If we hate others, we will be unhappy and isolated. If we love, we will experience joy and harmony.
I don’t think that at the end of our life, God weighs all our life’s actions and finds them tipping the scales towards heaven or hell. Instead, if we live in a way that is helpful and healthy, we will experience God’s blessings; we will dwell even now in the kingdom of heaven. If we live in a way that is self-centered and destructive, we will be, in a sense, cursed; we will be disconnected from God. It is a law of the universe.
For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is about a way of living in this life that extends into the next life. It is a quality of life that has to do with connection to God, and it is characterized by joy, compassion, and peace. This morning’s gospel, in fact, is directly preceded by one of Jesus’ clearest teachings on the qualities of the kingdom of heaven. He has just given the Sermon on the Mount in the previous chapters.
How blessed are the meek, the pure in heart, the merciful, the peacemakers. If you have something against your brother, be reconciled to him. Do not exact an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; if anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer them the other cheek as well. Do not hate your enemy; love them, forgive them. Don’t make a show of your religion; connect with God in the secrecy of your heart. Don’t try to serve God and wealth, and don’t worry about your food or your clothing, or even about tomorrow. God will provide. Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find.
This is what Jesus referred to immediately afterwards when he said that everyone who acts on these words will have built their spiritual house on solid rock, and will enter, even now, into that quality of life he called the kingdom of heaven. When we seek to be humble and kind, merciful and forgiving, trusting and seeking, we will have the foundation that we need when the storms of life come. We will experience peace of mind, harmony with others, and the love of God. We will find that God will provide us what we need. It’s not a question of reward and punishment, just a natural consequence. This is how I understand God’s judgment.
All of this rests upon the premise that the universe is made this way. All of creation, including our very lives, is made up of the molecular energy of love and goodness. The Spirit infuses all, and so when we live in harmony with God, when we follow Jesus’ teachings, we live in harmony with all creation. The teachings of the Bible, the laws of God, the wisdom of all authentic religious traditions – they all offer us a vision of how to live in harmony with God, creation, and one another. They all show us the path of life, the way things are made to work.
Years ago, Woody Allen made a movie called “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” based on one of his favorite moral quandaries. A man hires a hit man to kill his lover, who has threatened to tell his wife about their affair. Afterwards, nothing happens. He isn’t caught, he suffers no remorse, and he prospers financially. Poor Woody is horrified, looking into the camera and asking “What kind of perversely unjust universe do we inhabit?”
My sense is that in real life, our actions do result in consequences, either material, emotional or spiritual. Evil produces curse, and good produces blessing. Living according to Jesus’ teachings, we enter the kingdom of God. Disobeying God’s will, we enter some other kind of kingdom.
If we pay attention to the teachings of our scriptures at all, there’s no great mystery about what the will of God is, or what the teachings of Jesus are. The Sermon on the Mount makes it pretty clear. The mystery, of course, is how do we live into God’s will, given that we, as humans, are so complex and conflicted? That’s the subject of most of my other sermons. But sometimes, including today, we need to remember that it is a simple matter of choice.
Shall we head in the direction of humility, mercy, reconciliation, and trust? Shall we take a step in the direction of the kingdom of heaven, now, as best we can? Whether we do or not, there will be consequences. God sets before us this day, and every day, blessing and curse. Jesus sets before us the option to be wise or foolish builders. Which shall you choose today?