In the name of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last Sunday and the next three Sundays Eric, Jordan and I are pleased to offer a sermon series entitled, “For the love of God.”
After hearing today’s Gospel you may be thinking to yourself, “Sarah must have drawn the short straw!”
Today’s Gospel reading is one of the most painful we have. This reading has been used to ostracize people from their communities, to shame abused people from leaving their spouses, and make people wonder if they were really loved by God if they continued to have angry thoughts and lustful feelings. My grandmother was not allowed to take communion in the Catholic church the final forty years of her life because her marriage to my grandfather ended. She became isolated from the church she had loved.
What is Jesus doing here? Where is hanging-out-with-the-sinners Jesus? Where is Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know-for-the-bible-tells-me-so Jesus? We may be tempted to throw out these verses. We may prefer to just live with a warm and fuzzy Jesus who does not ask too much of us. But the truth is, Jesus does ask something of us.
In the Sermon on the Mount, which precedes this passage, Jesus has just said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Part of loving God and following Jesus means we should be hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Yes, we are forgiven of our sins through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but even as we screw up and are forgiven over and over again, the arc of our lives should be an arc that moves toward righteousness. And by righteousness, I mean living like Jesus wants us to live.
The first thing to note is that to Jesus, the assumption is that his followers live in community. People at the time lived with extended family, with servants or in the homes of the people they were serving. They didn’t live in isolated suburban or rural houses like we do. People lived in community. So, for Jesus, living a righteous life, rooted in God’s love means learning how to live in community.
Love your neighbor as yourself could be the overarching theme of our passage today.
First, Jesus tackles anger. The crowd following Jesus knows they aren’t supposed to murder anyone, but Jesus contextualizes Scripture for them to enlarge their responsibility. Jesus wants to get underneath the law, to help his followers understand the heart and the meaning behind the law. As human beings, Jesus wants us to be in respectful relationship with each other. We are not to be angry with each other, or even insult one another. Jesus is probably not very happy with the comments sections of the internet, political ads, or any episode of Real Housewives. More seriously, this means Jesus does not condone any type of abuse—either physical or emotional. Jesus longs for his people to be in relationship with each other, to face conflict with dignity and compassion.
You may not be aware of this, but every week our liturgy lives out a principle of reconciliation. The exchange of the Peace is not just a chance to take a seventh inning stretch and check out what your neighbors are wearing. The Peace happens after confession, but before the offering, so you can live out this verse in Matthew: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” The function of the Peace is for you to reach out to people who have hurt you or people whom you have hurt, so you can present your offering to God with a clear conscience. The peace is intended to maintain a healthy community, where reconciliation is part of our weekly experience.
And while murder and adultery may seem only distantly related, the prohibition against each comes from this same preservation of community. While a prohibition against holding onto anger can protect the harmony of a community, Jesus’ prohibition against lust and divorce protects the weaker members of the community. Remember that Jesus was speaking to particular people in particular contexts. In the time, only men could initiate divorce, and if they did, their former wives were often left in real trouble—without income, without a support system. I don’t know what Jesus would say to us in our context—we can divorce each other without leaving each other penniless and powerless—but at the very least, Jesus would want us to treat each other with dignity and respect. I am certain he would allow my grandmother to have received communion those last 40 years. On the other hand, sexual harassment or abuse, adultery, abuse of power—these can really damage people and the Christian communities in which they live. These violations can shatter not only the relationship within a family, but can destroy the bonds of trust within the entire community.
And if you weren’t already feeling overwhelmed, Jesus goes on to say that his followers shouldn’t swear or make an oath promising something. We should just say yes or no and let our answers stand for ourselves. Does that mean we are disobeying Jesus every time we swear in as a juror? What about when we click on those terms of service agreements websites make you affirm? Sheesh! The culmination of things we are not supposed to do in this passage is enough to make us afraid to step outside our door for fear of disappointing God!
We live in tension as Christians, between law and Grace. There are certain rules we are expected to follow, but in a modern era we have to think about them really carefully since some make sense in our context, but others make less sense as we learn more and more about the world. And even if we sort out all the rules we should follow, our minds rebel. Our neo-cortex may understand that being angry at someone is bad for our souls and our community, but our limbic system is ready to throw a punch! In the same way, we know in our heads that it is a bad idea to look up that high school sweetheart on Facebook, but sometimes a little online flirting seems easier than facing the challenges in our marriage. Growing into a Christian who can learn to let go of anger and lust takes time, discernment, and a lot of prayer.
We are all going to make mistakes. We are all going to find ourselves attracted to someone we shouldn’t be, or unable to let go of an insult. We may find it easier to be a bully than to admit vulnerability. But God’s grace is still for us.
God came to earth in the form of Jesus, because he knew we were incapable of living perfect lives. God’s grace still applies to us, even when, especially when, we are unable to live up to God’s commandments. We are forgiven, over and over again.
However, we are also given the Holy Spirit. And that Holy Spirit is what enables us to grow and mature over time. The Holy Spirit gives us the courage to look at ourselves honestly and to keep trying our best, even when we make mistakes. Christian maturity is not a sprint—we won’t live perfect lives until we are united with God after our deaths.
In a counterintuitive way, our mistakes can be avenues to deepen community and our relationship with God. When we start to understand that everyone around us is broken, and imperfect, it’s a lot easier to be forgiving. When Ra leads weekly yoga on Mondays, she often says something along the lines of “Offer compassion to yourself and others. Everyone is doing the best they can with what they know and where they’re from.” We are in this struggle of life together. That’s really Jesus’ point here. He knows we need each other and he doesn’t want us to blow this amazing gift we have in each other. He doesn’t want us to become fragmented and distant and untrusting. He wants us to be real with each other and to take joy in each other and to help each other grow. He wants us to practice forgiveness with each other. He wants us to practice being friends with appropriate boundaries. He wants us to practice protecting weaker members of the community. He wants us to practice honesty and trustworthiness with each other. The Christian Community, the church, is one of the biggest gifts God gives us. In an ideal world, the church is a place where people from all different walks of life, all interests and political views, can come together and form a new family. And when you have such a diverse group of people trying to figure out how to love each other, we need boundaries. We need rules, so we can all be on the same page. And so, just as God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, Jesus gives us the gift of an expanded view of the law, a law that reaches all the way down deep into our hearts and reminds us that God is not interested in our obedience, so much as he is in our hearts.
This Valentine’s Day Weekend, the best gift you can give God is to do your best to love your community, knowing that you are surrounded by the grace and love of the God who made you.