Monday, February 14, 2011

Tough words from Jesus

This Sunday's Gospel was a tough one to preach on: fire and brimstone, plus adultery and divorce! Here's my sermon. And you can find the scripture readings here. For me, this Gospel passage connected to the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers about how we should just let our thoughts be thoughts and not let them control us. I was thinking a lot about this book by Benedictine nun Mary Margaret Funk, but didn't specifically reference it in the sermon.
I welcome your comments and reflections. Here's a discussion question to get you started: if you had been preaching this Sunday, what might you have said?

Sermon by the Rev. Kate Ekrem, 6 Epiphany, Feb 13th 2011
Light and salt, Sabeth reminded us last week are what Jesus asks us to be. Bringing illumination and flavor to the world. And being light and salt is not just about doing a certain thing, it’s about being a certain way. A way that Jesus continues to unpack in this next passage from Sermon on the Mount.

It’s often said that the New Testament, the Christian Scripture, is the law of love and the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scripture, is the law of rules. The theory goes, Jesus brought us God’s grace, which means we don’t have to follow all those hard rules of the OT anymore. This is problematic on a number of levels, first of all because the Hebrew Scripture has plenty of references to God’s love and forgiveness. But also because, today Jesus explains just what that law of love is all about. If we’re just following the law of rules, we can all pat ourselves on the back that we’re not a murderer or bank robber. Congratulations. But Jesus ask us to go a little further than that. As one scholar has said, “The law just forbade a certain act. Jesus forbids the inner attitude which produces the act.” (Herschel Hobbs)
So, in each of these examples, Jesus goes beyond the act that is prohibited to identify the root cause that needs to be healed. You have heard it said, you shall not murder (that’s one of the 10 commandments, right?) but Jesus says, that if you are even just angry with a brother or sister, you shall be liable to judgment. Now I don’t think Jesus is saying all anger is wrong, he certainly felt righteous anger. He’s talking about when we nurse our anger. Hot anger, getting upset and expressing that and moving on, is one thing. Cold anger that congeals around our lives is another.
And Jesus digs even deeper, he connects the way we talk about people to how we act towards them. He says that to express contempt for a person, or group of people, is to deny the value of that person’s life, which can lead to violence. How many times have we seen that in our own world, from Matthew Shepherd to Gabrielle Gifford. We talked in last week’s very thought provoking adult forum about how bad things happen in the world, and they aren’t our fault, and there many be not much w can do about them. I’m not responsible for Hosni Mubarak’s choices. But our thoughtless choices can make us part of a system that does wrong to others. When we express contempt for those different from us, we help create a culture in which violence can happen to the innocent. Jesus says, even saying “you fool” to someone can have serious consequences. As Christians, we are called on to respect the dignity of every human being, and reconciliation and healing of relationships are we do as salt and light.
Jesus goes on to what I can’t help thinking of as the Jimmy Carter passage. You all remember how he confessed that he had “lusted in his heart”. But the point is that we are responsible not just for our actions but also for our interior life. We can’t let thoughts and emotions control us. Carter was and is a person who takes responsibility for what’s going on inside of him. It’s actually kind of sad that that strict self-reflection and holding self accountable was mocked in our culture of outward show and appearances.
In all these examples, Jesus was concerned with the Pharisees who were focused on fulfilling outward forms of law but didn’t have God’s law of justice and concern for others rooted in their hearts. It’s not just about legalities, it’s about where your heart is.
So Jesus’ teaching here about divorce, is because that in those times religious leaders said OK to get divorces as long as you fill out these forms, do this paperwork, then you’re all set. Only, however! if you’re a man, of course. In those times, only a husband could divorce wife, and so women often turned out onto the street with no way to support themselves if their husband decided he was tired of her. Jesus saying, it’s not about the paperwork, it’s about showing concern and care for the vulnerable.
So Jesus is not giving us a new set of outward rules to follow. Jesus certainly would not have said the same thing about divorce to an abused spouse as he does to these self-righteous men. He’s not saying here’s a new rule about divorce, but asking do how to we treat each other and how do we take care of those in need. It’s a new way of thinking, a new way of being. Not law but Spirit, and grace.
Because, as Ecclesiasticus reminds us, we have a choice. A choice between fire and water, between death and life, between life with God and life without God. Living by Grace means we have God’s help, but it doesn’t mean we have God’s help doing something easy. As G.K. Chesterton has said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
You have a choice about what’s in your heart and how you act. You may not be in control of the world, but are in control in how you react to the world. If we were going to be judged on our thoughts alone, we’d all be in trouble. But the good news is that in Christ we have the power to allow thoughts to be just thoughts. And not control us or make us act. We have ability to experience full range of human emotions, but also ability not let them rule our lives.
Jesus calls not for new rules, but a new heart. In this Epiphany season, when we continue to remember that Jesus came to us as a baby, a human person, reminds us that God wants to be in relationship with us and through us with the whole world. No one can serve two masters, and Jesus wants us from the inside out. To quote Chesterton again, “let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”

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