Monday, February 17, 2014

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - February 16, 2014 (Matthew 5:21-37)

Typically every week at the end of the gospel lesson, I confidently and boldly conclude the reading by announcing, “The Gospel of the Lord.” “Gospel” means “good news,” so it’s like I’m saying “Yes. This (which I just read) is the good news of the Lord!” The congregation’s response is meant to echo that enthusiasm, even if we often just mouth it absent-mindedly because we’re so used to it: “Praise to you, O Christ!”

Every once in a while, however, we encounter a reading where I feel like replacing that confidence and boldness with the tone implied by a timid question mark: “Um…the gospel of the Lord?” And you, after listening to words from Jesus that don’t sound like a Sunday morning moment of sunshine and encouragement, might want to respond with an appropriate amount of trepidation: “Uh…praise to you, O Christ?”

I don’t know about you, but for me this morning is one of those occasions. The chunk of Jesus’ teachings presented to us in this morning’s gospel lesson are a bit much. There’s no healing miracle here, no story about Jesus bringing hope to the masses or touching the wearied life of some person in need of grace. There’s no neat parable with fun characters acting out a worthy lesson.  Instead, it is a set of teachings, one after another, very difficult to understand, and touching on topics that likely make all of us a little uncomfortable. So I find myself saying: is this really the gospel of the Lord?

"Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount" (Gustav Dore)
One of my colleagues calls this “Country Music Sunday, which, in my book, might make it a little easier to swallow. He calls it that because this lesson talks about “lyin’, cheatin’, and killin’.” Just add a pick-up truck, and you’ve got all the makings for a good country music song.

In all seriousness, while this gospel lesson does address some of the very same topics that some of the most authentic country music does, Jesus isn’t singing a song, and we know it. He’s preaching a sermon, and this morning we’ve actually caught him in the middle of an extended portion about the Jewish law code and how to interpret it, a teaching meant for his followers and a crowd that has gathered around him who are just beginning to figure out how Jesus and the message he brings fits into God’s kingdom. Do you ever wonder about how Jesus fits into things? Do you observe Jesus in the Bible stories and wonder just how exactly his life is good news?

Sin = missing the mark?
As we ponder these things, we must remember that Jesus came as a first-century Jewish man who had inherited a particular way of life that involved obedience to all kinds of rules and restrictions that were enshrined in the Jewish law code. The core of that law, so you know, was formed by the Ten Commandments and the other laws directly associated with them which Moses had handed down centuries earlier to Jesus’ ancestors as they had wandered in the wilderness. Although they had been given as a gift to help God’s people live as a light to the nations, it had always easy to interpret them in a very legalistic manner, as if life were one big Olympics with judges standing by the sideline cruelly deducting points and enforcing boundaries and awarding medals to the quickest and the perfect.

When we try to figure out who Jesus is and figure out how he fits into this lengthy set of codes and rules, when we try to understand this good news that he brings, it’s tempting to think that he’d come to do away with all these rules and restrictions. That’s one common trap. We know him as a man of compassion and mercy and so we paint him as some hippie from the 1960’s, who essentially comes to lower the standards set down by the law, to make things a little less strict. We come to the conclusion that life in God’s kingdom will involve Jesus’ minimizing of everyone’s faults and viewing all our “lyin’, cheatin’ and killin’” as mere factors of our “humanity”…and be cool with it all.

However, it is clear after sermons like the one he gives today, Jesus isn’t going to take that approach. As it turns out, Jesus actually takes the law very seriously—in fact, he re-interprets it in a way that goes far beyond a legalistic reading, and he adds to it an overly-exaggerated system of consequences for what we should do when we disobey.

As an aside, I've heard it said that this is the one that really flushes out the biblical literalists from everyone else. If we take Jesus at his literal word, there’s not a one of us here this morning that wouldn’t be blind or maimed in some way!

In any case, one by one he goes through certain commandments—murder, adultery, bearing false witness—and extends their reach into the human heart. In Jesus’ view, it’s not just the outward action of taking someone’s physical life that counts as murder, but also the taking of their life through hateful speech and slander. It’s not just the act of illicit sex that makes someone guilty of adultery, but the thought alone of it. We thought we knew what lyin’, cheatin’, and killin’ was, but it turns out it’s much more than we thought.

This is the part of confirmation class that usually takes most of the confirmands off guard, and the part that is always the most humbling for me to teach, as well. All our lives we’ve thought we’re pretty good about keeping, say, the fifth commandment: You shall not kill. It seems pretty straightforward and something that most people could avoid doing—here’s the boundary, don’t cross it—until we read Martin Luther’s explanation of what it means in the Small Catechism which is entirely based on Jesus’ sermon here:  “We are to fear and love God,” Luther says, “so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help her in all her physical needs.” With that understanding of the law, we realize that each of us has blood on our hands at some point.

The segment on divorce is another one of those cases where we must make take into consideration what the religious and social connotations were in Jesus’ time. Divorce was allowed by the Old Testament law, but Jesus realizes that in his day, men were abusing this stipulation in the law in order to get rid of one wife so they could start sleeping with another woman, which in many cases they had already started doing. He names that practice for what it was: adultery. But then he expands its implications by saying such a man who does just that is guilty of making the woman guilty of the same. Rather than viewing a woman like she is some form of property, somehow beneath responsibility to the law, Jesus explains that a broken relationship with a wife is no different than a broken relationship with a husband.

Whether it’s sexual ethics or bearing false witness, Jesus expands the scope of all of these commandments, taking them from a very strict sense of the actions that our hands or eyeballs make and extends them into our heart, which is where our actions are ultimately rooted. And I imagine that comes as a quite shock for those who think that the good news of Jesus is that he comes just to be cool with us the way we are.

I think when we hear Jesus’ words, however, uncomfortable they may make us feel, we have a choice, not too unlike the stark choice laid out before the people of Israel in this morning’s reading from Deuteronomy. One, we can simply view these interpretations of the Ten Commandments as yet more ways we just don’t get it right, more ways we fall short and deserve consequences. We can hear them as examples of how religion, even at its self-proclaimed best is nothing more than a bunch of restrictions and regulations that essentially condemn the human experience or at least suck all the fun out of it.

Or we can choose to see them as good news. We can view them as evidence that God sees us as we are, flawed at every edge, darkness deep within, and still calls us to be so much more, to be help for our neighbor and light to the world. We can hear them and realize that these are not regulations handed down from some place on high, or dictated from the sideline but they are spoken by the lips of someone who is living with us, someone who dies with us, feeling every bit of brokenness himself. We can hear these words, as incriminating as they are, and still know they have the power of healing because we know ultimately that this Lord will not leave us, wagging his finger, when the commandments become too hard for us to bear. Instead, he will stand with us the entire way, and as it turns out, be thrown into prison—and pay every last penny!—have his body beaten, and descend into the pit of hell to have us choose the life God desires for us.

All the counselors at the camp I worked at during college quickly discovered that the best place to hold cabin devotions was by the lake at the foot of the large cross that stood at its edge. No matter how rough the week had been, no matter how much they had all torn the cabin community apart with bickering and rule-breaking, quiet time at that cross always seemed to restore some hope for the rest of the week, pull things back together. No words needed to be said. Simply the presence of that cross spoke volumes about the love God had for them—has for all of us—and about the better vision of ourselves God calls us to.

Simply the cross: when we’re thinking where Jesus fits in, that’s where Jesus always fits in best. This is where Jesus’ words lead us, today, one big human cabin community that we are, torn apart by bickering and rule-breaking. Torn apart, and yet being put back together by Jesus on the cross. And with that in mind, we can hear those hard words about being the light of the world. We can hear these challenging commandments and, knowing the one who speaks them comes with unconditional love, we can respond in boldness and confidence: Yes, this is the gospel of the Lord. 

Praise to you O Christ!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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