Laundry Lists and Love – God Cares!

This is, I confess, very much a rehashing of an old sermon. I don’t enjoy doing this sort of thing, but I got a bit overwhelmed with meetings (I co-chair SURJ-Birmingham, Alabama) and training sessions. Heck, even my webcartoon will run late this week.

As my friend Katie Mulligan pointed out, as a preacher with a pulpit, I’m a paid protester. And I’ll go further: if you’re in the kingdom of heaven, you are, too (Matthew 6:20). Now, more than ever, we need to be busy at our jobs.

Photo Credit: MPACT/Black Lives Matter Birmingham Chapter/SURJ – Birmingham Alabama Community Organizing Training, Cara McClure

MATTHEW 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But 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. 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. Come 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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If 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. And 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.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But 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.

“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.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Oh, goody, new rules. Juuuuuust peachy. And a laundry list of stuff, too… murder, anger, adultery, divorce, making oaths… and the punishments are over-the-top! For cryin’ out loud, being condemned to Hell for calling someone a fool? Mutilating our body to refrain from committing sin? No wonder these fall in to the category that’s called “the hard sayings of Jesus.”

I think it’s safe to say that most of us don’t make it our life’s work to follow these “hard sayings” to the letter. Oh, some Christians use them, sure – quoting them to condemn someone. Others of us read them and feel really good about the ones that aren’t currently a problem for us. To our shame, some churches have used the part about divorce to shame women into staying in abusive relationships.

But follow them? Well, not so much. We get angry, for example. I know I do, anyway. Divorce is common nowadays, and in our lawsuit-crazed society we swear oaths verbally and with our signatures all the time. Letting our “yes be yes” kind of pales when we sign an arbitration agreement. I don’t know of anyone who has come to the Lord’s Supper, then before taking part has left to go make up with someone they’d had a quarrel with. It has probably happened, sure, but I have never seen it. I don’t know of anyone who has poked their own eye out or cut off their own hand to refrain from committing sin.

As a list of rules – I am gonna go ahead and just say it – these are unreasonable. If I have to treat this passage as a checklist of things I cannot ever under any circumstances do, or else, I give up. I can’t do it.

And let me go further: If we treat the Scriptures as a list of rules and regulations, a law-book, a Constitution… we will all fail. Maybe not every time, on ever point, no. I may do OK not lusting after my neighbor’s wife, but I get irritated if I am walking behind someone slower than me in the store! And just ask my wife about what I call people when I watch the news. And I know I’m not alone in this.

It’s depressing, isn’t it? Are we just left with beating each other up with “clobber verses” and feeling inadequate?

No. Because I think the point of what Jesus is saying here goes deeper than keeping rules, following the laundry list. Look at what Jesus is actually saying here, look at the focal point of his “hard sayings.”

“…If you are angry with…” “…if you insult…” “…if you say…” are some of the phrases Jesus uses to start off this reading, and he does it over against murder. Jesus seems to say anger is worse, or at least on a level, with killing… and to be sure, someone would have to be pretty angry with someone to kill them, you’d think. But I want to suggest to you that this isn’t even about antecedents to murder.

Jesus is talking about how we think about – how we treat – one another. It ain’t about rules. It’s about relationships. God cares about our relationships. That is the thread that weaves this seemingly stream-of-consciousness, hard to take reading together. It isn’t random rules and threats of punishment. It’s about how we relate to one another, and through that, how and if we relate to God.

This changes everything, doesn’t it? Suddenly, God is not the Unmoved Mover of the philosophers. Suddenly, God does not see us as playthings. Suddenly, God is not completely disinterested in God’s creation. Suddenly, God is more than simply a spiritual director or a dispenser of divine karma.

Suddenly, God cares. God cares about us, and God cares about our relationships.

Yes, sometimes people say or even do bad things, and our natural reaction is anger, our natural tendency is to strike back somehow. We have a right to! But at least in the Christian community, that right is less important than the responsibility, on both the part of the offender and the offended, to reconcile.

God cares about us. God cares about our relationships.

Think about it – when we hold a grudge, the person we are mad at is living in our head rent-free! It takes our heart and mind away from the things that matter, it causes stress, and stress can kill us. Better to forgive, even if we cannot safely forgive face-to-face. Forgiveness isn’t about letting someone off the hook, remember, it is about allowing ourselves to move on and grow out of that and into our life in Christ.

And notice how the burden of reconciliation isn’t just on the one offended – Jesus says that, whenever we realize we have offended someone, even if we are in the middle of church, even gathered around the Lord’s Table, we must go and fix it right then, it is that important. Right relationships with one another both speak volumes to those outside of the faith looking in on us, and those relationships help to strengthen our individual and corporate walk with God.

Believe it or not, this dovetails in perfectly with Jesus’ words about adultery, lust, and divorce, because if we value other people deeply enough to care about right relationships, one thing we are careful not to do is objectify other people – remove their humanity, define them as a body part or value them only for what they can do for us. We cannot treat people as possessions and truly value relationships with one another or with God.

God cares about us. God cares about how we care for and about others.

Now, treating people, specifically women, as a possession was exactly what Jesus was talking about when he was speaking of divorce. In Jesus’ time, remember, women had no rights, no identity of their own. Rabbinic tradition held that a man could write up a “bill of divorcement” and leave his wife if she displeased him in any way. Women couldn’t own property, had no legal recourse, could not work… for cryin’ out loud, even the Ten Commandments lists “your neighbor’s wife” in the same “Thou shalt not covet” sentence as a man’s livestock!

A woman could be left homeless, destitute, starving to death, because she burned the toast.

So this isn’t about forcing women, or anyone, to stay in abusive relationships, it is about elevating women, and by extension all people, of any race or gender or nationality or orientation or identity, to the level of equal human beings.

I am serious. If we can get that one thing right, everything else will fall in to place.

If I consider every human being equal, then I don’t have to worry about being greater than someone else. No one has to be less-than for me to feel good. If every human being is of equal value in the eyes of God, then my concern for right relationship with God compels me to act like it – to reconcile, to support, to heal.

If I am honest, it would be easier if our passage today was a list of rules and regulations, a checklist I could review every day and give myself a pass-or-fail. Relationships are messy, difficult things. I am a dyed in the wool extrovert (I know that is a shock), but there are days when I just don’t want to be messed with. There are times when I get hurt or offended or wronged and, by golly, someone owes me an apology.

But…

God cares about us. God cares about our relationships, and right relationships are more important than being right.

Now, let me say this very clearly: this does nothing to release us from the responsibility of speaking truth to power, for standing up against the forces of systemic oppression and injustice. Yes, sometimes when we do these important acts of protest and advocacy, we can’t simultaneously be nice.

However, and this is important, when we speak the truth to power, when we stand against unjust and oppressive systems, we are doing just that – we are fighting systems and structures, not people. In the epistle to the Ephesians, chapter six and verse twelve, we read, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Remember that the same Jesus who ate with Pharisees, who was buried in a Sadducees’ tomb, spoke against them – we talked about this last Sunday, how in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, Jesus proclaimed woe to scribes and Pharisees, called them hypocrites – but it was their system of oppression and condemnation that Jesus condemned. No person was, or is, outside of his love and redemption.

I’m going to leave us all today with some homework. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give a test next week.

In the coming week, I’d like to invite you to join me in doing two things. First, call to mind one of the relationships in your life that is most important to you. One that is healthy and whole and good and sustains you. What makes that a good relationship? Why is that relationship so important? Reflect on that relationship this week, and in your time of prayer and meditation give God thanks for that person and the relationship you share.

Second, think about another relationship that is important to you, but it has suffered some damage. Don’t waste time trying to figure out who was to blame for the hurt; rather, hold that person, hold that relationship in prayer. Offer that broken relationship to God as an arena of God’s help and healing. And here is the hard part: take some time and think about what action you can take to move that relationship to greater health.

That’s it. We start small. Just one.

Let us pray.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you:

We give you praise for our good relationships. Help us to see, and to focus upon, the things that are good and right and which bring us joy and life.

And because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you,

give us the help of your grace to begin to heal those relationships which require reconciliation, and to practice forgiveness in those places where reconciliation is not possible.

Loving Creator, may we please you both in will and deed;

through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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