Time After Epiphany 6A: Law of Community

Readings

  • Deuteronomy 30:15-20
  • Psalm 119:1-8
  • 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
  • Matthew 5:21-37
You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translation, by clicking this link.

Every now and again, a pastor has a hard week with sermon writing.  Sometimes, a colleague’s words speak deep into our hearts and do the job that we are struggling to do.  My thanks go out to the Heidi Brear who shared words of salt and light with me in my time of need.

Sermon

I’m not sure about you, but there are more than one or two things in today’s Gospel reading that make me feel uncomfortable.

Part of me wants to move quickly past this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel.  After all, I don’t think many people really want to talk about how holding anger towards someone can lead us to the hell of fire, or, how you must cut off parts of your body if they cause you to sin, or, that those who marry once-divorced people are committing adultery.  However, if we simply move on and ignore this passage, we miss the opportunity to see a message worth exploring – despite inflated words that are spoken in a different time and place and were never meant literally at any time.

At the core of this section of Jesus’ teaching, we discover truth about the dangers of broken relationships, and how the way in which we live out our relationships with one another really do matter; not only to us, but also to God.

Historically, this third segment of the Sermon on the Mount has been described in academic circles as ‘The Antithesis’ – implying that it was to be understood, in some way, as Jesus contradicting the legalism found in the Law of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.  It is important to point out, then, that Jesus never says in our reading that the laws of the Hebrew Bible are not important or relevant.  Jesus instead expands on them, interpreting the rules of faithful life for his time and context.

The Law is important, and all the rules for life that God has shared with God’s people, throughout time, ought to be taken seriously.  But, I think, sometimes, we get trapped in following the absolute letter of the Law – and this is where we may miss the point.  An example of this is a little like a person deciding to learn, in fact, memorize each and every rule and law of the road in fervent hope that it will make them the very best driver.  The problem, some of us may have discovered after years of driving, is that even if you follow each and every law of the road – to the letter, there is something more required of you to be a good driver, let alone the very best driver.  The reality of driving is that the rules and laws cannot mandate that you care for others, or offer courtesy to those who you encounter.  And, these things are actually an important part of being an excellent driver.

The same is true of faithful living.  The Law requires something more – to be interpreted and understood within the context of relationship and community.  You must consider not only the Law (or the rules of being a good Christian), but also how your actions impact all those who live around you.

So, Jesus begins by addressing a problem of anger.

He says that we all know of the commandment not to murder, and charges us to do our best to prevent anger of any kind from getting in the way of our relationships with all people.  I think it is important to acknowledge that Jesus is moving into the heart of community – stressing that if we look to other people as objects of anger rather than as people, we put our relationships with others in jeopardy.  Jesus continues:

“Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.” [Matthew 5:23-24, CEB]

Our own liturgical practice each Sunday serves as a reminder of this teaching.  You may have noticed some patterns in what we do each Sunday.  Every Sunday, before we take a moment for our offering of time, talents, and treasures, and before that is all offered to God at our feasting table, we have the opportunity to pray for the church, the world, and those in need and to also offer one another peace.

This act is simple: a handshake, a hug, a greeting.  Yet, the implications are profound.

The sharing of peace is a time where we are invited to share the very peace that Jesus shared with his disciples with one another.  It is a time where we are called to be reconciled with one another; a time to let go of any grievances that might be getting in the way of our relationships.

And, oftentimes, it is easy for this time of peace to grow beyond a simple act.  Something deeply rooted to the life of this parish: a quick catch-me-up with those around us; reminders of the life of the parish through reminders of planned meetings and events; or a means to let you know that there are people here who truly love you, care, and pray for you.  Whatever the reasons for connection, at its core, the sharing of peace is a time to acknowledge our hope that we be in right relationship with God, one another, and ourselves.

It may be worthwhile to move and speak with intention as you share peace a little later on, both as you offer the peace of God and as you receive it from person you encounter.

Our Gospel lesson then continues with Jesus expanding the boundaries of the commandment to not to commit adultery.  Jesus suggests that lusting after a person is equivalent to committing adultery, and I think it is important to acknowledge that Jesus is again moving to the heart of community – stressing that if we look to other people as objects of desire rather than as people, we exploit that other person and put our relationships with others in jeopardy.

From here, Jesus goes on to talk about divorce.  And, there is no doubt that these words are concerning for many people, in all walks of life, perhaps especially for those who have been touched by the realities of divorce in one way or another.  Jesus words about divorce imply that “it is not enough to follow the letter of the law regarding divorce. We should not treat people as disposable and should make sure that the most vulnerable — in his culture that usually meant women and children — are provided for.”[1]

So, perhaps an a little extra understanding of context is important here.

Jesus’ words are words of protection for women living in a time and place where men could choose to divorce a woman for any number of reasons – most beyond her control and including everything from burning bread to not providing her husband with a male heir.  The choice of a man to divorce his wife left her completely vulnerable.  Suddenly, she would no longer have the protection of a father or husband, and she would not have been seen to be of any value in society.

So, Jesus is challenging his listeners to see women not as property to be owned, but as people worthy of respect and care.  People who were also disciples.

But, I think that Jesus’ words about divorce still have relevance today:  all marriages are an important blending of two people’s lives – a commitment to a strong partnership.  And sometimes those commitments fail, but divorce is never an easy option.  Divorce always represents the end of a relationship that started with great hopes and expectations.  Even when divorce is the best and most healthy option for all involved, it is still painful.

So, Jesus ends this portion of his sermon in speaking about the importance of people living with integrity, telling the truth, and honouring their promises.

Once again, Jesus brings us into the heart of community – stressing that the best way for us to live acknowledging the God of love and life in ourselves is to honour the God of love and life in those around us.  To live in faithful community and relationship with God’s creation is to share trust and truth.

It may be that the dramatic language around cutting off body parts and going to hell is being used not to scare us into following the law, but to remind us of just how vital relationships are to God.  All relationships.

I think God wants us to follow the Law.  Not just because God gave it to us.  And not just for the law’s sake.  But, because it is through the Law that we discover a way to the heart of community: a way to live in right relationship with God and one another.  Last week something happened while I was reading the Gospel.  I noticed this part of the passage where Jesus says this about the Law and I was astounded:

“Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven.  But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5:17-19, CEB]

Whoever ignores the least of the law will be called the lowest IN the kingdom of heaven.  “Whether you keep it or break it you’re still in the kingdom. So maybe the law isn’t the way we earn God’s favor or merit a place in God’s kingdom. Maybe the law is the precious gift of an adoring parent given to beloved children, urging us to treat each other well.”[2]

God loves us and wants the best for us; therefore, God cares how we are treated and how we treat one another.  When we find ourselves in relationships that bring us life and love, we get to see a glimpse of God’s kingdom, a kingdom that although not fully realized yet, is here now, and for this we say thanks be to God.

Let us pray,

Thank you for creating relationships and communities around the world that are life giving and good.  Empower us to be mindful of the special relationships in our lives that help us to life faithful lives.  Encourage us to work always towards reconciliation, striving to mend broken relationships and communities.  Help us to offer our broken relationships to you for healing and mending as you direct us.  We lift to you all who are hungering and thirsting for a connection to you through the communities around them.  Help us to be salt and light in your world.  Amen.


This week’s image is entitled, “Community,” created by Vincente Manansala, in the 20th century.  The image is fair use, and presented only for your contemplation.  You can find out more about the painting here, and the artist here.  The image has been modified for the purposes of this blog.


[1] David Lose.  “The Relational God.”  Dear Working Preacher: February 11, 2014.  Preach This Week.  Working Preacher.

[2] David Lose.  “The Relational God.”

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