Epiphany 6, Year A, 2014

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.

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Proper 22, Year B, 2006

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable unto you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.

I find the conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus about divorce to be unsatisfying.  Do you?

The Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus in a slip-up. Jesus has had the gall to teach people on the Pharisees’ turf-They were the authorities on law, not this young upstart–and they’ve long since stopped being amused by him.  The Pharisees ask Jesus this question about divorce, not out of their own trouble or grief, or out of some burning question members of their congregation have been asking them, or even out of a desire to seek holy living.  No, they just want to see how he’ll tiptoe around a difficult political question

(After all, the 6th chapter of Mark reminds us that Herod Antipas, leader of the Jews, was married to his brother’s wife.  They each had to get divorces in order to get married.  You’ll remember that John the Baptist was killed because of his condemnation of their relationship.) 

Well, Jesus is not about to be trapped by their maneuvering.  He asks the Pharisees to recall what Moses said about divorce in Deuteronomy.  When they give the answer-Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal to his wife-Jesus tells them that Moses created this exception because of their “hardness of heart”.  You see, this “certificate of dismissal” was originally meant as a measure of mercy for women.  It allowed them to remarry.  However, the certificate ended up being a way for men to divorce their wives easily.  In the Hillel tradition, a man could divorce his wife because “the bread was burned too badly!”  Jesus thinks this is a bad system.  Jesus turns their question around from politics to spirituality and refers the Pharisees to the earliest Jewish reference about marriage there is–the second chapter of Genesis–our Old Testament reading today. 

Now, the reason the Pharisees’ question is not satisfying is because they are not asking the question about divorce on behalf of those who have gone through the pain of divorce.  Their attitude disrespects those who have experienced divorce because of the manipulative way they ask the question.  At first glance, Jesus’ response is equally unsatisfying.  Sure, it’s nice that he doesn’t want women to get abused by a divorce system that is too easy, but it still leaves a lot of questions for us about modern divorce.  And then later, when the disciples have him alone, and ask him to clarify himself, he simply says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 

We know through other stories that Jesus is a compassionate person, but his response does not seem to leave room for those people who sought divorces for what we would consider good reasons-to escape abuse, to protect one’s children, as a response to chronic infidelity or disrespect.  Jesus certainly couldn’t have known that his words would be used to excommunicate people, force people to stay in abusive marriages, or make people feel rejected by God. 

I wonder though, if Jesus was as unsatisfied with the question of the Pharisees as we are.  The Pharisees’ question about divorce was not a bad one in and of itself, but because they asked it with a motivation to trap Jesus, out of a “hardness of heart” rather than out of an “open heart” the question loses its credibility.

Clearly Jesus did not support divorce.  But what was his perspective on divorce?  Was there a reason for his strong reaction besides the Pharisees’ hypocrisy?  Let’s go back to the passage from Genesis that Jesus quotes to see why he chose to speak these words.

In the passage from Genesis, we read a lovely story in which God decides that Adam needs someone as a helper.   Now here helper is not a demeaning term.  In fact this particular word is used to describe God in several passages in the Old Testament.  I think we sometimes think of this word as helper in the sense of, “Honey, can you help me?  I want a beer but there are only three minutes left in the game and I don’t want to miss anything. . .”  Actually, when the word “helper” is used in the Old Testament it means rescuing a person, saving someone’s life. 

So, God was not interested in getting Adam housekeeping help.  God wanted to create someone who would be with Adam through thick and thin, on whom Adam could rely.  Now that God knows what he is looking for, he tries out several options.  Though Adam seemed duly impressed with all the cattle and birds God presented to him, he wasn’t ready to set up house with any of them. 

We all know what happens next. God puts Adam under some pretty heavy anesthesia, and takes out a rib. . .or does he? 

(Pause)

The word for rib is an interesting one.  Every other time it is mentioned in the Old Testament, the word refers to something architectural, most commonly a side chamber of a building.  So, when God was pulling out Adam’s rib to make his partner, he wasn’t pulling out a miscellaneous bone that Adam didn’t really need, he was pulling out his side, a fundamental part of Adam’s person, so that this helper really could be “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh”.   This woman and Adam are going to be connected in the deepest way possible.  Alone, Adam was not enough.  To complete this human race God was creating, Adam needed a partner.

When he sees his partner for the first time, Adam is so struck by the presence of this new person that he speaks for the first time. He recognizes that this woman is truly a part of him and can’t help but proclaim that.  “I will name her woman, for she was taken out of man.” 

So, when Jesus was responding to these questions about divorce, maybe he wasn’t giving the answer that seems so harsh initially.  Maybe, on another level, Jesus was responding to the question the Pharisees didn’t ask.  Maybe Jesus was saying, “I wish you could remember.  I wish you could remember how it was at the beginning, when you were so thrilled to see another person that you stopped in your tracks.  I wish you could remember how magical it was to see a reflection of yourself in her.  I wish you could remember those first few moments, before you started bickering about who ate the apple and blaming each other.  I wish you could remember how we meant it to be when we created you.” 

Of course Jesus condemns divorce.  Who would want to worship a God who intended for marriages to fall apart?  For people to betray one another?  In our hearts, we wish divorce didn’t happen, too.  Who of us falls in love thinking, “Gosh, I’m glad there’s an escape clause in this one!” I’ve never met anyone who has gone through a divorce who has enjoyed it, even if their life after the divorce was healthier and safer than in marriage.  Divorce represents all of our deepest fears:  rejection, betrayal, being unloved, being alone. 

For Jesus to condemn divorce is not the same as Jesus condemning those who have had divorces.  We know Jesus-we know his compassion to the woman at the well, we know his love for those going through rough patches in their lives.  We know that if a heartbroken man or woman had asked the same question the Pharisees asked, Jesus’ response would have been full of love and compassion.

So, what do we do with Jesus’ response?  We know we can’t crawl back to Eden, back to the days before brokenness entered the world.

I think, in reminding us of our intimate connection with each other; in the way we share the same flesh and bone with all other humans, Jesus points us to what his ministry was all about.  He came into the world to take on all the brokenness that drowns us. If anyone had a right to be angry about divorce, Jesus did.  He earns the right because he was willing to do something about it.  He was willing to take all that pain, all that suffering on himself, so one day we could be free of it.  His death and resurrection are the second half of his answer about divorce. 

The reason we can survive the devastation divorce and other broken relationships bring is because we know, ultimately, through Jesus’ death and resurrection one day we will healed and whole and reconciled to ourselves, all others and God.  Although that can be hard to believe-or even want-in the midst of breakup, some small part of us recognizes that someday in our future we will live in a place where there are no divorces, where there is no heartbreak. 

The hope Jesus offers us is not only for a future heavenly kingdom, it is hope for the here and now.  No, Jesus does not offer us an easy escape from pain.  Being a Christian does not exempt anyone from the hard work of grief.  What God does offer us is a safe place to come with that grief.  Whether we use the image of God as strong rock or a sheltering wing, God gives us something steady to hold onto, gives us a safe place to fall.  Before God we can be completely honest.  We don’t have to pretend to be fine, hide our anger, stop our tears.  By allowing God to be part of our grief, we give Him room to be part of our healing.  Experiencing God’s love for us gives us courage to take steps toward relationship again, knowing that as capable of destruction as we are, we are also capable of the kind of love we were designed to give.  The love Adam felt as he watched, jaw dropped and eye opened as his life partner was made. 

Amen.