SVOTS seminarian delivers sermon at 2012 Festival of Young Preachers

“I can’t imagine paradise without you!”[1]
The Author of the Law instructs his disciples (Matt 5:17–20)

Jason Ketz delivering his sermon

People love to follow rules! Right from the start — from our youth up, we have followed rules. Even as kids, we seemed to thrive on rules. We would even make games out of rule following. Did any of you play follow the leader? The whole point of the game is to follow rules, and kids love it!

As adults, we take rule following to the extreme. We have laws to protect people, customs to protect the status quo, and sometimes we have rules ‘just because.’ One set of customs told us each what to wear today. A slightly broader ordinance told us we had to wear some clothing. Etiquette tells us not to slurp our soup at lunch. And those of us who drive are familiar with a whole book of traffic laws.

These laws and rules and customs support our culture. Like the wooden frame of a house being constructed, law is the framework of our society. The rules outline how we all live together, how we all agree to interact with each other.

God gave the Law to Israel for this very reason. The Law of Moses brings God’s children together as one culture — one people. Authority, purity, sacred places and sacred spaces, tithes and sacrifice — all of these commands, all of these precepts outline how a society lives together in God’s presence. And the Law is the framework of God’s covenant — God’s promise to remember us, and our promise to remember God.

We believe this, but at some point, we forget our place. We focus in on the promise — on God’s blessings as rewards for our obedience. We try to earn these blessings, to earn God’s love and approval through our willingness to follow his commands. But the moment we think we understand how to earn blessings, we become the judges. We become the administrators of the law, and we interpret the law to best serve our purposes. And other people become a threat to our blessings. Suddenly, we’re no longer neighbors, but adversaries. The rules and laws no longer unite us, but divide us. Now we’re not working together. We’re competing against each other.

We play with laws and ordinances, and even with commandments and traditions like a poker game. Constantly trading cards, betting and raising, bluffing and calling each other’s bluff, exploiting the rules to our advantage. Making sure that we get the rewards, even at somebody else’s expense.

Does anybody remember the company Enron?  The most hated company of the last decade. They used their authority to hijack the power grid. They blackmailed state governments with rolling blackouts, taking taxpayer money in return. And they spent their employees’ pensions on their personal riches, until the whole company buckled under the greed of just a handful of executives who were drunk with authority.

Ponzi schemes, fraud, mafias and drug lords. With the wave of a pen or the click of a trigger, any of us can take a law we all agree on — a law meant to help us interact — we take that law and use it competitively. We use it to our advantage.

God’s covenant is not a private agreement. The Law of Moses promises eternal life to all humanity. It’s our way to paradise, and it’s available to everybody. We know this. We believe this, and still we figure out ways to abuse and exploit the ordinances of our Lord. Just as Enron used the power grid, we try to use God’s promise of paradise to our advantage, and to our neighbor’s disadvantage. When we imagine ourselves in heaven, we each have somebody who is not in that dream. All too easily, we can imagine paradise without somebody.

What a horrible thing to say, right? That we could imagine paradise without a person?! And yet we do so constantly.  Sure, we don’t set out to think these evil thoughts. We set out to help people. We know that God forgives sinners, and that God loves everybody, so we just want people to change, to repent. To be saved.

Because we know that all people will be judged by God. And as students of the word, and students of the law, we know the law by which we are judged. We have heard the commandments — all of God’s “do’s and don’ts.” From Moses and the Prophets and Jesus and Paul. We know that we cannot relax them. Today’s text tells us this. So we have to make people understand — we have to help people, get them to somehow hear the same law we’re hearing. And oh, do we know how to manipulate people with this idea of sin.

Sexuality is one of those enduring examples of church authority. Our way of “helping the lost sheep.” Whether its preference or promiscuity, we comment on the disparity between what we see in the world and what we read in the scriptures. Some of us preach. Some of us write. Some of us pastor, and some of us keep our mouths shut and do the judging in our hearts and in our minds. But every one of us has rendered a judgment against another human being.

Our Lord has come today to knock us off our little thrones of judgment, because we’ve got it all wrong. Christ cannot imagine paradise without us. He can’t imagine paradise without us, so he doesn’t want us imagining paradise without each other. Because we are not the judge.

Our Lord meets us today in the midst of our legal competition, in the midst of our wicked card game of rules and customs and rewards and punishments. Christ takes Moses’ seat on the mountain, takes his place as the law-giver — and he gathers us all around for another familiar game of cards. And this time he’s the dealer.

There is only one round of cards being dealt, and the stakes are very high.  Christ tells us all that “not one iota of the law will pass away” (Matt 5:18). We like to judge by the law, so the Author of the law can show us how it’s done.  Jesus offers a radically intense reading of the commandments. “You have heard in the law…dot dot dot… but I tell you even more” (Matt 5:21f, 27f, 33f).  He teaches us that hating our neighbor is the same as murder (vv 21–6). He tells us that looking lustfully at another person is the same as adultery (vv 27–32). The Law structures and governs and judges not only our actions, but also our emotions and our thoughts.

All of the chips are in now, and we’re starting to see that we have a lousy hand of cards for this final round. As Christ has now explained the law of Moses, it’s impossible to follow! Game over, the house wins. Every one of us — all human beings will fall short under this law. Woe to us, scribes and Pharisees. None of us will be blameless in a judgment. None of us will be righteous by following the letter of the law. In fact, he tells us “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will not get into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).

But suddenly this isn’t the same sleazy backroom poker game we know and love. Something more is going on here. Christ unexpectedly unites himself with — well, with the losers.  He blesses those who can’t follow the laws, who struggle with rules, who aren’t the most competitive. The outcasts, the downtrodden, the hurtin’ people. Christ unites himself to these people, because they are his creation. They are his chosen people. Long ago he promised to remember them all, and today he honors this promise. Our Lord remembers those we would just as soon forget. And he blesses them (Matt 5:3–12). He can’t imagine paradise without them.

Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who are persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Christ cares about his children. He can’t imagine paradise without any of us.

And if the people that we would just as soon forget are an image of our Lord…well that’s bad news for our exclusive ideas of heaven. Now, if we imagine paradise without each other, we’re imagining paradise without Christ. And paradise without the messiah — well, there’s another name for that place.

But instead of beating us at our own game of judgment, our Lord does something completely unexpected. He lays down his hand of cards and walks away from the game table. He reveals the law in a new light. This new righteousness our Lord speaks of. He’s not saying try harder, be craftier, or hang in there. He’s telling us to stop playing this silly game.

Today Christ instructs us to love each other, because he loves us. This is the great law of the law-giver; the great lesson given by the teacher. He teaches us on the mountain, and he shows us on the cross. “I can’t imagine paradise without you.” And when we return on Easter Sunday to hear to hear Jesus’ second sermon on the mount — we witness the resurrection — the perfect display of Love. The Father’s love for his Son, and our Lord’s love for his creation.

Love is action and love is a gift freely given. Throughout his ministry, Christ shows us how to give this gift of love to each other. Every time he healed a person or cast out a demon, or fed a group of people, he brought them back into his community. He singlehandedly dissolved all of the exclusion we had mistakenly created. He tears down our walls, he breaks our defenses. He takes our rules and our laws and our customs that divide us, that make us unique, and he unites us once again as his creation.

Christ waits for all of us in paradise — in the resurrection. And as we journey through life in hope of the resurrection, we help each other along the way. And we help each other through God’s blessings.

Because God’s blessings are gifts, not rewards. And we are stewards of these gifts, not recipients. As stewards, we share our blessings with others — with the least of the brethren (cf. Matt 25:31–46). Those hurting people that our Lord has recently blessed, the ones who have nobody else to look after them.

And what better place to start caring for each other, to start helping each other, to start loving each other than through basic needs. One of the great fathers of the church said, “to a hungry person, God is a loaf of bread.” As we give of our possessions, our time and our talents to those who need them, we offer hope. We offer hope in God’s promise. Hope in paradise. Hope in the Resurrection. Hope in our Lord. Every time one of us gives a coat and a cup of soup to a homeless person, both people suddenly understand Christ’s love. The scales fall out of our eyes, and we realize something. We realize that we can no longer imagine paradise without this other person. These loving interactions with each other are glimpses into the kingdom. The fiery red sky before the brilliant sunrise.

Fr. Sergius Halvorsen, Assistant Professor of Homiletics at St. Vladimir's, served as Jason's mentor.

Our Lord’s great lesson is that we love each other. We give to those in need. We offer our strengths and our blessings to those who need them. But the least of Christ’s brethren, the weaker brother or sister — they not only live somewhere else, in shelters or slums. In fact, they are not even outside of this room. There is no “they” but only “we.”

So as we pause for a moment from our busyness, from our anxiety, from our theology — as we stop playing poker with all our rules and customs and expectations, we encounter our Lord. We encounter our Lord as we pause to ask the person sitting beside us how they’re doing today. Or maybe even “what’s your name?” We encounter Christ the moment we honestly say to one another “I can’t imagine paradise without you.”

Christ gives us each other to prepare us for the kingdom of heaven, through our love for one another. As we care for each other, little by little, and day by day, we come to understand the depth of Christ’s love. Today he has opened his law to us once again. Today he has renewed the covenant, and today he has invited us to his heavenly kingdom. Today we rejoice, because Christ has said to us all “I can’t imagine paradise without you.” AMEN

Jason Ketz (SVOTS ’12) is a third year seminarian at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. You can read more about his experience at the 2012 Festival of Young Preachers here.

[1] This message was inspired by the lives and counsels of Elder Joseph and his contemporaries, all of whom were ascetics in Greece in the 20th century. See H. Middleton, Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives and Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece. (Thessalonica: Protecting Veil Press, 2003), p. 123 and throughout.

Author: Synaxis

Synaxis is a blog of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.