Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ordinary 6 A, February 16, 2014

As If Your Life Depended On It

 “No Exit.” New York Times, 2006.
Audio here:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Matthew 5:21-37

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Jean Paul Sartre, the famous existentialist, is perhaps most well known for his one-act play, “No Exit,” in which the three main characters have been sentenced to hell.  And for Sartre, hell is not some hot place with devils and demons or lakes of fire.  Sartre’s version of hell is spending all of eternity in a locked room with three incredibly annoying people.  Ever since I read that play in high school, I have always found that scenario far more frightening than hellfire and brimstone.  And after some long family  road trips when the kids were little, I feel as if I’ve experienced it.

Sartre’s play has one very famous line: “Hell is other people.”  Now, even though Sartre was a confirmed atheist, it seems like he might have some understanding of how Jesus interprets Torah law. Because Jesus’ interpretation seems couched in the clear recognition that one of the most difficult parts of being a human being is having to deal with other human beings.  Or, to use the line we always used to use back when I was in advertising, “This would be such a great business if it weren’t for the clients.”  Or, as I have heard church people say, “This would be such a nice church if it weren’t for the people.”  Of course, when you get right down to it, even though healthy relationships seems to be the whole point of being human, it’s easy to forget that when we run into the inevitable conflicts of life together in families, in workplaces and in the church.  Life together can be messy.  And conflict can indeed, feel hellish.

So in today’s text, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus’ interpretation of Torah law.  Although we often think of the law or the 10 Commandments as rules for right behavior, Jesus’ reinterpretation seems designed to get us thinking about right relationships.  Even if the language about tearing out eyeballs and chopping off our hands makes us uneasy, these are words that demand our attention because they communicate how passionately God cares about our relationships with other human beings.

These verses today from Matthew contain four of the six “antitheses” used by Jesus to interpret the law.  The structure is pretty consistent and it will probably sound  familiar to you.  Here they are:

You have it heard it said, “You shall not murder.” 
You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 
You have heard it said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 
You have heard it said, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” 
And then in verses 38-48 which come follow today’s lectionary passage, there are two more antitheses:
You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” 
You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 

Jesus takes each of these laws and looks at the old ways in new ways that were probably pretty stunning for his Jewish audience. He cuts through the religious smog so that the light of truth can shine.  Jesus doesn’t dispute the law, but he does puts flesh on it, placing the laws in the context of our real lives and our struggles to be honest in our relationships and in doing so, exposes our fierce resistance to love.

“You have it heard it said, ‘You shall not murder.’”  Jesus says that anger and bitterness destroy relationships as surely as murder.  I’m pretty sure that there are not a lot of murderers among us today, but I would guess that most of us sitting here are currently ticked off with at least one person.   And Jesus is having any of that, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” business.  Our words can injure as deeply as a knife or a bullet.  Inflicting emotional harm by calling someone names or refusing to forgive them is the same as inflicting physical violence.

“You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery.’”  Jesus says that looking at another person as a sexual object is the same as actually using that person as a sexual object.  And being exploited in such a way was not merely a question of morality, but in fact a dangerous situation for women in the first century.   Women in Jesus’ time were dependent upon fathers or husbands, and to be used and discarded for another’s sexual desires had sometimes deadly repercussions. A woman who had been seduced brought great shame upon her family. A woman who had been raped was considered damaged goods. For young women, the ability to marry well would be jeopardized. For those who were married, there would be the threat of divorce or worse.  

You have heard it said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.”  Jesus says that divorce is a terrible idea because it puts women in a vulnerable position.  Wives in that time could be cast aside for ridiculous reasons, including burning bread.   Far from merely seeing women as property to be coveted by men, Jesus’ teaching on adultery and divorce reinforces the dignity of women and warns against a culture of male privilege.  I suspect that Jesus’ teaching warns us against treating any person as disposable.  And when divorce is inevitable, as it often is, we need to still honor one another and be certain that vulnerable people are not harmed in the process, especially children.

You have heard it said, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.”  Jesus says, we should speak and act with such integrity that we don’t need to make oaths at all.   Imagine that, politicians and lawyers.

You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  Jesus says, turn the other cheek, give up your coat and your cloak, go the extra mile, and give to everyone and don’t refuse to lend to anyone who asks.  So much for the military and banks.

You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Well, Jesus has pretty much gotten all of us on that one, hasn’t he?

And then the rest of it – about tearing out our eyeballs, or cutting off our hand and burning in hell – all of that hyperbole reinforces God’s deep interest in how we conduct our relationships.  They matter to God more than we realize.  Because the way in which we treat one another has quite a lot to do not just with where we will end up in the next.  The quality of our relationships determine how well we live the life we are in right now.  
Jesus’ interpretation invites us to imagine what it would be like to live in a world where we honor each and every person as blessed and beloved of God.  And I believe that most people really do want to live in a world where people treat one another with gentleness and respect.  The big question is given where we are, how do we get to that place that seems so very far away?

At our presbytery meeting this week, a group of pastors attempted to guide a conversation about racism among the elders and ministers gathered for the meeting.  In that large suburban sanctuary filled with mostly white Christians, you could just feel the tension in the air almost instantly.  Talking about race in public is not something we do well as Americans, and we sure don’t do it very well or very comfortably as white mainline Presbyterians.  As our presbytery’s general minister Sheldon Sorge pointed out, not much has changed in our churches since Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that Sunday morning at 11 a.m. is the most segregated hour of the week in American.  A half-century later, the majority of Presbyterian churches do not come close to resembling King’s “beloved community” or John’s vision in Revelations of people “from every tribe and nation” united in chorus around the throne of God.  And the church is very far away from fulfilling our constant prayer of, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Sheldon suggested conversations about race are hard for us because they require us to confess our own brokenness, embrace people we’ve been taught to keep at arm’s length, and trust people who we have been conditioned to see as our enemy.  It is so much easier to not have those conversations and I suspect that the majority of people at the presbytery meeting would have been much more comfortable to talk about property or money for an hour instead. 

If we want to participate in the kingdom building work of Jesus Christ, I think we have got to take seriously what Jesus is teaching in Matthew and begin the incredibly hard work of having difficult conversations about how we can get better at loving our brothers and sisters as if our own lives depended on it.  Jesus suggests that this is serious, life-saving business.  Loving one another is the primary mission of Christ’s church.  In fact, love is the only mission of the church.  Our mission is not to protect ourselves or maintain our institutions.  Not to save our own lives, but to lay down our lives for one another.  To outdo each other in honoring and lifting up one another. 

Loving as if our life depends upon it means we stand up not just for the prevention of murder, but for the dignity, health and well-being of all God’s children.  It means that we strive to seek understanding instead of giving in to anger.  It means that we stop holding onto grudges that we secretly enjoy holding, but are in fact poison to our souls. 

Loving as if our life depends upon it means that are faithful to the covenants that we have make, particularly in our most intimate relationships.  It means that we teach our children about the God’s incredible gift of sexuality and the awesome responsibility that comes with it.  It means that we should reject those who objectify and exploit other people, and call out sexism that demeans people. 

But loving as if our life depends upon it also means we honor the institution of marriage and family without turning it into an idol.  It means that we acknowledge the reality that some brokenness that cannot be repaired.  Relationships sometimes must come to an end and do come to an end, but they must end in a manner that provides wholeness and healing for everyone involved, especially the most vulnerable. 

Loving as if our life depends upon it means that we must say what we mean and mean what we say.  We must strive to be honest.  Trustworthy.  Transparent in our dealings.  Our yes must mean yes, but our no must also mean no. 

Loving as if our life depends upon it means that we have to be ridiculously generous.  Ridiculously forgiving.  Ridiculously kind.  Ridiculously vulnerable.  And we have to do all of this as if our lives depend upon it. 

Jesus won’t let us keep our religious lives in one box and our real lives in another.  God requires our whole lives.  Not our actions alone, but our thoughts, our intentions, our words, our very being. 

In our text from Deuteronomy this morning, Moses knows he is about to die.  The Israelites are at the Jordon River about to enter the promised land.  In his final words to the people he has led through the wilderness, Moses lays out their future:  “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you.” 

We choose life when we choose to love.  To forgive.  To let go of anger. To fight for justice.  To care for the hurting.  To treat others fairly.  To celebrate sex with the one we honor and cherish.  To sleep well at night because we have chosen truthfulness.  And to wake up each morning feeling blessed again by our hunger and thirst for righteousness, which are gifts of the Spirit for us as God’s chosen people. 

Wow.  You know what that sounds like?  Not just a good life, but a little bit of heaven on earth.   May it be so for you, for me, for all creation.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.