Tony Soprano vs Jesus of Nazareth
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 9th, 2021 1 JOHN 5:1-6
If you don’t like the way things are, just wait a few minutes, they’re bound to change. That is my nomination for the Proverb for Our Times Contest. (There isn’t a Proverb for our Times Contest, but if there were, that would be my nomination; and face it, it would have a good chance of winning.)
I feel like change is the only constant. The only dependable truth is that whatever we’re experiencing right now will morph into something different soon, and what that ‘something’ is, we can’t even predict. Take the way we watch TV, for example. I have evolved, if that is what has happened to me (I’m not sure it is), to the point where I simply cannot wait 7 days for the next episode of the show I’m watching. I can’t do to. I’ve got to watch the next episode now. Then I’ve got to have the next one straight after that, and then the next. The digital revolution means I want and expect to binge rather nibble and wait. My sister in Wales is watching a show that she is says is brilliant, she says Gelind, and I have to watch it; but I can’t. Not because it is not available in the US – it is – but it is on actual, proper, old-time TV and if I started to watch it, I’d have to wait a week for the next episode, and I’m just not able to do that. So, I told my sister I’d wait until the whole series is done and I’ll binge all of it over the space of a few nights. So, what TV shows have you binged this pandemic? Because if you were ever looking for an excuse to watch TV hour after hour, day after day, Covid gave you it on a silver platter.
For me it’s been the entire run of the Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. Now if you think there’s s a certain New Jersey gangster motif running through my pandemic viewing, you’re right. But it is, at least, balanced – one is in North Jersey, the other in the South. One is the Italian mob, the other the Irish. I’ve really had my horizons broadened in the last year. I’ve learned so much about our state and its history. I don’t know what it is about organized crime in New Jersey, but I find it totally compelling. I can’t get enough of it. So, now that I’ve finished the Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, somebody should really make another top-quality TV show about New Jersey organized crime.
And what I’ve learned most from these shows is – life is transactional, at least the lives created by the writers. Everything has a price, and nothing is done for free. All good deeds are rewarded, nearly always with money, and all bad deeds are punished – in a variety of creative ways. Life is a series of transactions. With money you can buy anything – including people. Every politician, college president, business-owner, school principal, lawyer, accountant, mistress, even priest can be bought – at the right price. And it is thoroughly depressing.
It reminds me of a song written by Janis Ian:
I went to see my sister. She was staying with a friend
who had turned into a preacher to save the world from sin.
He said, “First deny your body and then learn to submit;
pray to be made worthy and tithe your ten percent.”
I said, “Is this all there is Just the letter of the law?”
I went to see my neighbor, he’d been taken to a home
for the weak and the discarded who have no place to go.
He said, “Here I lack for nothing; I am fed and I am clothed
but at times I miss the freedom I used to know.”
I said, “Is this all there is when your usefulness is gone?”
Something’s wrong in heaven tonight. You can almost hear them cry.
Angels to the left and the right, saying, “What about the love?
What about the love? What about the love?”
Transactions or love?
Deals or love?
Rules or love?
Going through the motions or love?
Quid pro quo or love?
What’s in it for me or love?
Tony Soprano or Jesus of Nazareth?
We know what John thinks. He’s crystal clear in his First Letter, part of which we read just now. First John is one of the greatest love letters ever written. It’s only 105 verses long, but the word love turns up 46 times. God is love. God loves us first – no matter what – without any action on our part. And we respond to that initial gift by loving God and others in the same way we love ourselves.
This is now John puts it: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” There’s no transaction here. God loves us anyway – just out of sheer, undiluted passion. God doesn’t love us if we love in return. Human beings have the freedom to choose our response to God’s love, but even if we reject it, his love won’t stop. I love John’s last sentence. God’s commandments are not burdensome.
I didn’t always believe that. For many years I thought the Christian life was a joyless sack of crushing burdens. I spent years with a transactional God. God would demand obedience and I would try hard to give it. And if I succeeded, he’d love me and make my life smooth, and if I didn’t, I could expect to suffer – not that God would punish me, but that he’d let the painful consequences of my disobedience play out. Don’t do this, refrain from that, resist the urge, give things up. That’s what I believed. Don’t do the pleasant things you want to do. And those things you don’t want to do – good deeds, putting yourself out for others or for God, standing up for what’s rights at personal cost, going to church even – yes, those things, well do them. As I look back, I think my early Christian years were dominated by the unspoken belief that if there was some fun to be had, God must be against it, and if there was anything I’d find unpleasant, unattractive, or uninteresting then God would surely demand that. Very occasionally that blasphemy still slips unexpectedly into my soul with a ball and chain, clamp it firmly around my ankle, and drag me into melancholy. I say it is blasphemy because it is based on a belief about God that is false – a god who is a harsh taskmaster, a ruthless judge.
So, there I’d find myself in this prison of gloom, until John, in this epistle, strides, lamp in one hand, key in the other, with this liberating message. “God’s commandments are not burdensome.”
Yes, of course, following Christ involves self-denial and crosses. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” And those words of Jesus sting and seer and wound. Our egos are lacerated, our pride is scorched. Our self-interest is torn off the throne it has usurped and is put in its place. We get it. So, we assume that serving God is drudgery, obeying his commands is a burden. And John asks us to think hard: Is living life to please yourself really all it’s cracked up to be?
Does self-interest genuinely result in joy in my heart and peace in my mind?
Is throwing off all constraints of morality and ethics really the way to happiness?
Does turning your head away from the needs of others and the suffering of a broken world help you feel good about yourself?
The way of the cross is the path to crucifying our sinful natures, but it is also the road of Resurrection.
Taking up your cross is hard, but walking through life without it is harder.
Making room for worship is costly, but allowing life to squeeze it out of my schedule will put my life out of balance.
Praying can leave us cold, but not praying will leave us frozen.
Forgiving causes me pain, but refusing to forgive destroys me.
Admitting I am wrong stings, but insisting I am right will make me lonely.
Giving is tough, but hording is ruinous.
Repaying injury with kindness goes against my instinct for survival, but holding onto resentment is the suicide of my soul.
Keeping my mouth closed when I want to criticize, back-bite, or gossip is a Herculean task, but sharing my negativity poisons the air that I myself must breathe.
Following the way of Christ with your words, your mind, your hands, feet, and heart requires sacrifice, but following your own way is restlessness, discontent, and alienation.
Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” It’s not that there is no yoke and no burden, but they are easy and light, compared to life lived without Christ.
What is the key to transforming God’s commands from drudgery to joy, from burden to freedom? The answer lies in John’s dominant word – love. There are many motives for obeying God. Guilt is a powerful one. So too is duty. Fear is effective – that will make you do all sorts of things – good as well as evil. Another, less honorable, one in the wish to get something from God in return – that old transactional thing again – or if you want to be blunter – manipulation. As if we could manipulate God by being kind and holy. A fifth motive is self-loathing. That is always fun – I’ll follow Christ because I hate myself and it’ll be an opportunity to put myself down and get a weird sense of satisfaction. All of these motives will do the trick. They are effective motivators. That is, if you really want a life of joyless drudgery. If you want to be a resentful Christian, a covetous Christian, a restless, peaceless, joyless Christian, then I recommend that you obey God out of duty, guilt, self-loathing, fear, or because you want to manipulate God. Try them and let me know how they work for you. But if you want the life of Christian freedom and joy then, yes, we need to obey God’s commands, but do so with the greatest motive – love. Love for God and love for the people he made.
For all his wealth and power, Tony Soprano is deeply unhappy, and nothing can give him relief. For all his wealth and power Nucky Thompson dies from a bullet to the head on the Atlantic City boardwalk he once ruled in glory. Tragic antiheroes – whether they are on screen or in real life know there’s only so far that living by transactions will take you. What we need is love.