Sunday, February 13, 2011

Epiphany 6A

Anger, adultery, divorce, lying. In a few small verses Jesus brings out the big guns, and isn’t afraid to use them.

The crowd knew their bibles, and they knew the commandments. And here, it looks like Jesus is ADDING to what they already observed. Jesus was piling additional obligations on people already struggling to get through their days.

The commandment says “Do not murder.” For most of us, that’s easy enough to obey. But Jesus turns up the volume on his listeners and says, Don’t just NOT murder. But don’t get angry either, especially with another believer. You can’t worship God if you’re angry with a brother or sister.

Don’t commit adultery. Okay. We get that. We’re supposed to have one partner for the rest of our lives. And then Jesus dials up God’s demands. Don’t even LOOK at another person with lust. So, good-bye advertising industry. Sterling-Cooper needs to close their doors. Don Draper is out of a job.

Jesus then lays out the proper procedure for divorce, as expressed in scripture, only to place greater demands on people trying to get out of a bad marriage. The only grounds for divorce is marital unfaithfulness, he says. Irreconcilable differences? Irrelevant. Abuse or mental cruelty? Hardly deserves a mention. And if you divorce your partner and she remarries, you’re causing her to commit adultery.

Don’t lie. Or in Ten Commandments parlance, don’t bear false witness. In other words, don’t tell stories about your neighbors. Don’t gossip. Don’t massage the truth about another person just to make them look bad. We get it. That’s what we learned in confirmation when we studied the commandments.

But then he cranks it up a notch. He says, don’t just NOT bear false witness, don’t even swear an oath. Just say “yes” or “no” if someone asks you a question. Anything more than that comes from that guy in the red pajamas brandishing a pitchfork.

Sorry, folks, these are the rules. Thanks for playing.

I was tempted to acknowledge the difficulty of this text, then move on to preach from the easier Old Testament reading. This is one of the harder passages of scripture to bundle our brains around. It seems like Jesus is more interested in placing barbed-wire fences around our moral behaviour than setting us free with the good news of the Kingdom of God.

After reading this passage, I can only say with irony that “This is the good news of Jesus Christ” because I don’t find any gospel relief for my anxiously sinful soul. All I find is burden piled upon burden, rather than grace heaped upon grace, as the bible promises.

I would guess the same is for you. Who HASN’T committed at least one of the sins that Jesus identifies? Who HASN’T perpetrated one of these crimes?

Gotten angry? Burnt your bridges with someone close to you? Killed a friendship? Then have the temerity to come to church without repairing the relationship? Then, sorry, no soup for you.

Have you ever put a poster of half-naked women on your wall? Have your pupils dialated over Justin Bieber or Michael Buble, or the Old Spice guy? Ever felt a slight tingle over the server who brought you your lunch? Then, sorry, it’s to the back of the line for you.

Have you ever been divorced and re-married? Has your former spouse? How about your current spouse? This is a sin I’m consciously committing as I preach. If or when Rebekah gets remarried, I’m causing her to commit adultery, which causes me to sin. If you’re in the same boat as I am, I guess we’ll go down together on the same sinking ship.

I think we can ignore the last one because it doesn’t really apply to church folks, does it? Good church people don’t ever gossip, do they? Christians let peoples’ behaviour speak for itself. We observe without comment, don’t we? BUT, on the off chance that you have shared a small story, or’ve been party to a tiny smidgen of gossip, then, sorry, you better stock up on aloe vera.

That’s certainly what it sounds like Jesus is saying. But if that’s true, heaven is going to be a pretty empty place.

And if THAT’S true then there must be something else happening in this passage. Jesus isn’t interested in an uninhabited heaven. His job is to fill heaven, not empty it. He was sent to gather people to God, to set them free, to show them God’s way of living, not to push them away from God and into eternal torment.

And here, Jesus is doing exactly what he was sent here to do. If you look closely, you’ll notice one thread running through this passage, even throughout the whole sermon on the mount. And, perhaps, through the entire bible.

This passage isn’t about governing our moral behaviour. This passage is about creating strong, deep, life-giving relationships.

Jesus knows that most of us don’t murder, but we all destroy important relationships. He says that reconciling with those from whom we’re estranged is just as important as worship. That’s why, in the communion liturgy, we share the peace before the offering. We say “peace” to those around us before we place put offering on the altar.

Some churches, especially in the Mennonite tradition, require more than a ritual gesture, but a real, true reconciliation between two estranged people before they’re allowed to give their offering.

Jesus set strict parameters around divorce to protect women. In the culture he was preaching to, men could divorce women on a whim, leaving them homeless and forced to beg to provide for themselves and their children. And also, by saying that those who look lustfully at a women de-humanizes her. He was telling the men to treat women as fellow human beings, and not as sex objects. He wanted to encourage deeply human relationships, not utilitarian partnerships.

And he had a problem with oaths because it assumes peoples’ basic dishonesty. Let your be yes and your no be no. That turns the assumption on its head and assumes peoples’ basic honesty. If you are his follower, of course you’re honest. That’s who you are because that’s who he is.

Is it still impossible to live up to Jesus’ standards?

Absolutely.

But I’m not sure that’s what Jesus wants from us. This isn’t a list of behaviours to obey as much as a description of what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.

The Kingdom of Heaven is God’s gracious presence in the world, God’s vision of mercy, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace, let loose in our lives. The Kingdom of God isn’t a far away ideal or a heavenly promise of a perfect afterlife.

The Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus, and his reconciling work in us and in the world. We treat others with love and respect because that’s who Jesus is. We seek peace among enemies because that’s what Jesus did in us and for us.

As baptized people of God, joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Kingdom of Heaven is who we are, and who we are becoming.

We still get angry. We still break off important relationships. We still are unfaithful and we still manipulate others for our own selfish ends. We still hurt one another.

But God does not. God is working within us so that this Kingdom that is alive in Jesus will also be alive in us.

The Kingdom of Heaven is about life, not death. The Kingdom of Heaven is mercy and forgiveness, not judgement and condemnation. The kingdom of Heaven is freedom, not constraint. The kingdom of Heaven is living in God’s new tomorrow, not in slavish obedience to a human past.

The Kingdom of Heaven, this Kingdom of life, of love, of mercy, of peace, of forgiveness, and justice reigns in our lives, transforming us from the inside out, so that we can bear witness to the one who is making everything new.

The Kingdom of Heaven is drawing us in to live in the freedom that God wants for us and all God’s people, and indeed, the whole world, so that - together, with Christians of every time and every place - we can grow into the fulness of who God wants us to be.

May this be so among us. Amen.

2 Comments:

Blogger Pastor Joelle said...

I think we were on the same page here. But it does make you thankful we don't have long Epiphany seaons every year doesn't it?

6:51 PM  
Blogger Kevin Powell said...

Joelle...this long Epiphany is killing me. But on the upside, there's a better chance that there won't be snow at Easter.

6:48 AM  

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