NBC Sports must have been playing with us when they decided to alternate showing the ice skating team competition and slope style snowboarding. It’s like channel surfing between Lawrence Welk and MTV. I watched at least 10 hours of ice skating in the last week (not because I was forced to do so – Jeanne watched Celtics games with me, so I think it is only fair I join in her favorite sport.)
One important thing I have picked up is the value of the technical aspects vs. the style. The 15 years old Russian sensation Julia Lipnitskaia is a picture of intensity, as her mother messages her ear lobes to keep her calm, she looks like a prizefighter ready to go into the ring pummel someone. Every little twist and turn is precise, and the slightest error can throw things off. Ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White have been skating together since they were 8, and were thinking about music for 2014 Olympics 3 years ago. I love to listen to Johnny Weir as commentator. When a couple made a small error in their program, we hear his sudden intake of breath, and he says “Oh, they bobbled that twizzle.” So when commentators talked about “joyous” routines and skaters like U.S. comer Gracie Gold described all the “fun” she was having, I don’t quite believe them. Skaters smiles are tighter than their outfits. They are smiling while doing triple jumps timed with orchestra music. They will smile after falling and dislocating a hip, and get up and finish their routine. I think the ice dancers are tougher than the hockey players. Skating is a beautiful but very intense sport for people that will put in years for their 2 minutes short program.
If you want fun, that is all happening on the slope-style ski course, which is made up of skiing downhill with lots of jumps and flips in the air. After the medals are announced they all tackle each other and roll around in a dog pile. On the gold medal run in slope style, the announcer says, “Next is Sage Kotsenburg, a long-shot for a medal, who is known for his unusual style, though he is weak on the technical side. He’s in the gate-and he is chewing gum.” Then he does something unprecedented called a cab double-cork 1260 ‘Holy Crail.’ which seems humanly impossible. What is truly amazing is that he had never tried this before the Olympics. He called his brother, Blaze, 10 minutes before the jump, and said he wanted to try something new he called a backside 1620 Japan. To which Blaze said, ““Really? Send it, I guess. Might as well. You’re at the Olympics.” So he does it and wins a gold medal.
When asked about the run, Kotsenburg is still chewing his gum, and says. “I’ve never even tried the trick I tried on the bottom jump. I pulled it out of the bag. I landed, I was like, ‘What just happened?’ I blacked out in the air.” You can’t imagine an ice skater chewing gum or ever pulling something spontaneous “out of the bag.”
So I wonder what Jesus would prefer to watch at the Olympics. Is he more of a figure skating, precision beauty years in the making aficionado, or a fan of the chill, laugh and chew gum in the face of sudden death crowd of slope style? Religion has some of both styles. There are legalists who love the technical of religion and spend hours and years understanding and appreciating the law, who take a disciplined approach to faith and strive for the perfection of no slips or bobbled twizzles in their moral life, so that a the end God may hang the gold medal around their neck. And then there are the mystical ecstatics, who go for all the style points, who know the laws, but are absorbed in the rapture of life, at one with the mountain, tumbling through the air to the music in their own head rather than trying to time their jumps to the orchestra.
This helped me sort through some the seeming harshness of today’s reading, where I think Jesus sees the beauty and passion of both sides. The technicals of religion matter to a point. You have to learn the structure first, but true faith also has to achieve a style, and realize that much of life can’t be reduced to law and perfect technicals, but that our inner attitudes and style counts. Let’s look at the text.
I like to call this section of Matthew “The Pirate Ship Sermon.” Imagine if we take the command too seriously to pluck out our eye or cut off our hand if they cause us to sin. Our congregation would look like Blackbeard’s crew, with eye patches, peg legs and hooks for hands. Those outside the church would see us as a cult of self-mutilation. While this would be an absurd religion, at least the effects of our sins would be visible on the outside, rather than buried deep within. A preacher could more easily see the struggles of the congregation (hey sorry about your hand!) rather than having them buried underneath our Sunday clothes and Sabbath smiles designed to conceal what we really think and feel.
Jesus often unmasked the dangers of outward piety that tries to cover inward spiritual deformity, much like the injured ice dancer’s smile. Sometimes we hide our spiritual failings so well, that even we can no longer see the evidence. Jesus notes that we can feel content if we avoid the obvious big sins of the Ten Commandments, like murder, adultery and divorce. As long as we don’t kill anyone, sleep with someone outside of marriage or have our marriage fail altogether, we are still a good person and on the way to heaven. (Since I am divorced and remarried I will never make the spiritual Olympics by these standards because I failed the technical program. But one fall does not make the skater. One of the best performances of the Olympics of Jeremy Abbott, who fell forward, smashed his hip on the ice. After lying on the rink for a few second he got up and finished his program, and the crowd went wild. No medals of course, but what a gutsy performance.
You want to know the best way to keep all the 10 commandments? Lock yourself in a closet. Don’t give yourself the opportunity to fail. Don’t fall in love. Protect yourself and avoid all mistakes and you can obey all 10 commandments. You will never do the spiritual equivalent of a cab double cork 1260 just obeying the technicals. Style points in religion come from loving well. We love well when it flows from an inward spirit, from our truest core. You can’t practice that, or simply read the rule book, you have to overcome fear and find your passion.
I think that is what Jesus is getting at here in this tough part of the Sermon on the Mount. We have to deal with ourselves beyond the technical part of religion, and look at our spiritual core. Jesus said that if we are angry with our friend and do not deal with it, we are already harboring the attitudes that lead to murder. If we look around with lust or greed, our foot is on the path. But how do we know we are doing this?
Self-righteousness is often the first sign we are ignoring our inner self. When we find ourselves looking down on the murders, adulterers or even people who are poor, we are separating ourselves not only from them but from our own inner turmoil. Anyone can find someone worse than themselves to look down upon, in order to feel better about themselves. I have worked with former murderers and drug dealers in the homeless shelter. The murderer looks down on the child molester, and the drug dealer says at least they did not sell to kids. The alcoholic says at least I did not smoke crack. Looking down on the bigger sinner will not lift us up. We must deal with ourselves.
Our shadow is so deeply buried to keep us from facing our inner pain. The best way I know to examine ourselves is to pay attention to what we judge the most in others. Whatever annoys or angers us the most in others is often what we most dislike in ourselves, and yet we do not recognize it or want to deal with it.