Engaging the Hard Stuff

February 16, 2020


Our text today is a challenging one. You may have questions about it. God’s
Word to us is not always simple even when we would like for it to be. As followers of
Jesus Christ, we are free to ask questions of the text. It’s ok to say, I don’t understand or
I’m not sure I like what that says or can’t we just skip over this part? We are free to
imagine and wonder and wrestle. In fact, I encourage us to do just that. When we
encounter passages of scripture that make us pause or make us mad or sad or
confused, I encourage us to ask questions, to imagine, to wonder, and to wrestle. For
this passage, in particular, we do ourselves a disservice if we do not ask questions,
seek clarification, learn all that we can about the writer, the context in which it was
written and the entirety of the gospel. In our Presbyterian tradition we encourage
learning. We encourage questions. We encourage wrestling…with the text and matters
of faith and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Asking questions is not a sign
of a lack of faith. Being confused by a passage of scripture is not a sign of a lack of
faith. Being angered by or saddened by a passage of scripture is not a sign of a lack of
faith. If anything, these are signs that it’s time to dig deeper and learn more. I hope we
can do that together today.

(Read Matthew 5:21-37)

Here we are nearing the end of Matthew chapter 5. We’re still in the sermon on
the mount and Jesus is still speaking. This part of the sermon on the mount is
sometimes referred to as the antitheses. These are the sections that begin with Jesus
saying, “You have heard it said…but I say.” Jesus doesn’t mince words here and he
doesn’t candy coat or tie things up for us in a nice bow. He raises the stakes on what we
think we know about the commandments and how we are to live in community with
others. He reminds us very quickly that we are fallible, that we mess up, and we can
easily do the wrong thing. When I read things like, “you will be liable to the hell of fire”
and “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” I remember that
Jesus loves hyperbole and that when I encounter hyperbole in the words of Jesus it’s
time for me to sit up and pay attention. These are little red flags planted all over the
gospel. Jesus is very serious about how we are to treat one another and about how we
are to live in community with one another. Following the commandments isn’t about
personal piety, following the commandments is about how we love God and how we
love others. Jesus recognizes full well that we are human and we will fail at this. And
when we fail, the grace is God is already present.

I’ve noticed that when I read scripture I tend to hone in on the parts that seem to
be pointing a finger right at me. So, if you’re angry with someone you may hone in on
the part about anger. If you’re struggling with the way you see other people, you may
hone in on the part that says its about adultery but is also about the ways in which we
objectify others. If you are yourself divorced or know someone who is or come from a
family of divorce or are considering divorce, you may hone in on that part. You want to
know exactly what Jesus has to say about these touchy subjects. They may seem like
unrelated topics but they’re not. Jesus is talking about how to be in community. Jesus is
talking about how we love and treat others. That’s what each of these things has in
common. You may be able to say with confidence that you’ve never murdered anyone
but Jesus says that your words can kill. You may be able to say with confidence that
you’ve been faithful in every relationship but Jesus says anytime you see another
person as an object rather than a child of God, you’re breaking covenant. You may be
happily married or happily on your own but Jesus says anytime you throw away another
person, you’re breaking fellowship. And we live in a word, right now, that prizes
canceling out those who have hurt us, holding onto anger, maiming others with our
words, and encouraging the objectification of anyone who disagrees with us or looks
differently or lives differently than we do.

See what I mean about Jesus raising the stakes? The bar is high for us Jesus
following types. All that we say and all that we do ought to be in service of loving others.
It’s no small thing and it’s certainly no easy task. When we read short portions of
scripture we have to read in light of the whole. And when we do that, we remember that
Jesus is all about loving others. Jesus is all about community. Jesus is all about
forgiveness and grace. When he says that he has come not to abolish the law but to
fulfill it, this is what he means. He embodies the way we are to live. So, we take these
words of Jesus seriously because what’s at stake is our ability to love others as Jesus
loves us. What’s at stake, is our ability to follow Christ with our whole heart, mind, body,
and soul. When Jesus talks about anger, he tells us that it’s not just our actions but our
thoughts and our words that get us into trouble. We shouldn’t even come to this space
to worship without making sure we’ve made amends with all of the folks that we need
to. That’s one reason we pass the peace every Sunday. It’s more than a handshake. It’s
more than a ‘how are you?’ It’s an act of reconciliation. After we’ve confessed and been
made new, after we’ve been assured of our own forgiveness we turn to our neighbors
and offer that same forgiveness and reconciliation to them. When we choose to be in
community we risk hurting others and we risk being hurt ourselves, so we offer
forgiveness whenever we are given the opportunity.

When Jesus talks about adultery he’s talking about objectification. Objectification
isn’t just about looking at someone as a sexual object though it is certainly that.
Objectification is about seeing others as something other than a child of God, something
other than a human being created by God. We objectify others with derogatory names
and ‘us/them’ language. We objectify others when we relegate their personhood to a
political issue. We objectify others when we decide they’re an enemy to be crushed
rather than a sibling in Christ to be loved. We objectify others when we forget that even
the people we don’t like or get along with are beloved children of God. We’re not meant
to treat one another as objects. We’re not meant to use people for our own pleasure or
our own gain. Notice, too, the responsibility is on us. We have to check ourselves when
it comes to how we look at and treat other people. Objectification isn’t about what the
other person is wearing or doing or saying. It’s about how we choose to regard people.
And I want to handle the divorce portion carefully because we need some context
here. In context, Jesus is protecting women. For the culture in which this text was
originally written, a woman could be cast off for something as minor as burning bread. A
divorced woman would have been left destitute. So, Jesus outlines something very
specific in regard to divorce because women were thrown away at the whim of a man.
What we can glean from this is that people are not disposable and we are not to break
any covenant lightly. Sometimes relationships fail and for the sake of both parties it’s
best to separate. This is true in marriages and friendships and even in churches. It’s
never what we want. It’s never what we sought when started out but sometimes it
happens and God loves us still. Even when relationships end, Jesus tells us to love our
enemies and to pray for them. That’s what we find when we finish out Matthew chapter
5. When you’ve broken a relationship with someone, I encourage you to pray for that
person, to place them in God’s care because that’s where they belong. It’s the loving
thing to do even when we can’t be in relationship anymore.

These sayings of Jesus are all related. Anger can lead to objectification and
objectification makes it that much easier to cancel someone out of your life. If we kept
reading, we’d find that the text goes on to talk about oaths and retaliation; speaking
honorably and truthfully, turning the other cheek and being generous with those who
takes action against us. Each is connected. Each helps us to understand how it is we,
as followers of Jesus, are to behave and live in community with other people. And each
goes against what the world would say is the way we ought to behave. We live in an
eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth kind of world. We live in a name calling world. We live
in a world where we are encouraged to see those who are different as ‘other.’ We live in
a cancel culture that wants no part of redemption. If you hurt me, I’ll just throw you
away. If you don’t agree with me, I want no part of you. If you don’t live the way I do, I’ve
got nothing to say to you. One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, says, “You can safely
assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the
same people you do.” If we choose to test fellowship, we’ll find plenty of people who fail
to meet our standards. Our siblings in Christ at Decatur First Baptist have discovered
that in their stance on full inclusion of LGBTQ persons they have failed a test of
fellowship for some in their tradition and I, for one, am proud of them and I’m thankful
for their witness.

The thing is, if we took Jesus’ hyperbolic words literally, we’d all be missing an
eye or a hand. We would all be doomed, truth be told. It’s hard to love others. It’s hard
to look outside of ourselves and remember that not just our actions but also our words
and thoughts have consequences and an impact on other people. We are called, as
disciples of Jesus Christ, to be in covenant relationship with one another. And it’s hard.
Full stop. I know it’s easier to hold onto anger rather than make amends. I know it’s
easier to turn someone into an object because then you’re not required to love them. I
know it’s easier to toss aside everyone in your life who is hurtful and difficult to deal
with. But this is not the way that Jesus wants us to live. The gospel of Matthew doesn’t
mess around. Jesus tells us exactly how we are to live. Jesus tells us exactly how we
are to behave. We are to prioritize love and forgiveness. We are to prioritize
relationships and community. We are to prioritize grace. It requires intention, prayer,
hard conversations, and swallowing our pride. It requires tending to our own spiritual
well being so that we are able to better be in relationship with others. With God’s help,
we can and by the grace of Jesus Christ, we will.

Rev. Alex Rodgers
Assoc. Pastor for Faith Formation and Congregational Care