Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37.
I felt, when I first looked our Scripture passages… what the lectionary was serving up for this Sunday, I felt as if cold water was splashed in my face: how unforgiving they felt. Or, at least, estranged from my experience.
I don’t doubt that God sets choice before us. Or that certain decisions and actions lead to well-being and wholeness while others can pave the way toward disaster and ruin.
But those roads diverging in the midst of my ambiguous woods, those intersections are rarely so simple or obvious as Deuteronomy makes it sound? Geez, I’d probably do better if they were!
As I said in the time with the children– God’s offer to me have not been is all that often “once and for always,” not all that, to use the words of the old hymn, “once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide.”
Oh, there have been a few watershed moments, times and experiences, people and decisions that clearly turned me this way or that, that set a path before me. But even those often were usually only really obvious or even visible in hindsight.
Looking ahead, there’s is mostly to be an almost endless series of less dramatic little choices. By the age of 50, I’ve figured out that cumulatively these seemingly insignificant choices can together become more than their constituent parts. But stilll, their interplay and effect together, at least in my experience, can hardly be foreseen, much less calculated.
So, what do we do? I guess, we must try and take them one by one, recognizing and evaluating each one carefully, as best as we can. But like marriage being more than the wedding day and Christianity being more than your baptism, confirmation or coming back to church, life gets made out of getting up each day and deciding again and again, often in increments so small we barely recognize them, deciding to be for more than oneself.
As I said, maybe it would be easier; we’d fare better; if we only were presented with a few, red letter days; big, loud, neon-light, macro choices! Maybe life would amount to more if we could say to ourselves, “Ok, on the first day of every quarter– Jan. 1, April 1, July 1. and Oct. 1– we’ll come across on of those big, important, continental divide decisions.”
If Deuteronomy left me feeling sort of unfairly challenged, the Gospel, when I read it, offered no more solace. Lord, Matthew portrays this Jesus Impossible– taking faith commitments that are no easy accomplishments in themselves, and blowing them up, turning them into something none of us can live up to.
Non-violence is a standard our world isn’t close to. If we don’t actually strike each other; still our words are often put downs, blows to others and ourselves. But in today’s reading, Jesus pushes it further– suggesting anger is the same as murder.
(We all just got a lot guiltier!)
He says that slighting someone ought to end us up in front of the church council.
(The Elders just got a busier agenda!)
Calling someone a fool lands us in hell.
(Down there just got more populated!)
Why, we shouldn’t even show up at church until we’re all right with our neighbors.
(The pews just got a lot emptier! )
Jesus challenge– we are supposed to make the first move and solve our own problems. Be the bigger one. Because, it’s a simple moral fact: thoughts, feelings, words have the power to injure, even kill.
It’s as if Jesus is on a roll, and his bar just keeps getting higher:
~ getting int the middle of other people’s marriages, messing with someone’s spouse is wrong. But Jesus warns: we don’t protect our virtue by staying out of bed. Our hearts can be corrupted more easily than our bodies. A wanton glance, a wandering thought can be as disastrous as any action. And we often get much more involved than that!
His remedy– that it’d be better to tear out one’s wandering eye or cut off one’s wayward hand– sound like the practices Amnesty International regularly condemns.
~ he also pretty much closes the divorce loophole, at least when we use what is allowable in our tradition as a cover for our own selfishness and whim.
~ in summary, right in the midst of the complexity of our lives, and all our excuses and wrong choices, Jesus calls us out, names all the ambiguous half-heartedness of so many of our promises, and much of our lives– how we let ourselves off the hook by saying or doing what we don’t really mean:
Promising to pray for someone with no intention of doing so.
Saying “God bless you” when we mean just the opposite.
Jesus isn’t backing down on this one:
~ pious appearances don’t make falsehoods true.
~ making ourselves sound or look more religious, we often make ourselves less honest. ~ manipulating our presentation, disguising our words or actions to look faithful when we really only want to get our own way, we do double wrong.
Jesus is also offering us the Deuteronomist’s single option, black and white choice, life or death, blessing or curse, either “Yes, yes” or “No, no.”
Hmm… what do we do when Scripture makes choices seem so Either/Or and unbending, so much less relative, ambiguous than our lives?
First of all, let me say, God, Jesus and the biblical writers, looking at the whole of Scripture, are well aware of, even understand our torn natures, how we are often at odds with ourselves and one another.
They know our internal conflicts and battles. How we can love our brother or sister, and yet hate them.
The oppressive power of parents, even the best of parents.
The impulses that drive us to commit violations against others, even when we know better.
The yearning for and frustrations over leading lives of meaning.
Our fear of mortality.
Our struggles to deal with our uncertainties.
Our misguided, even hijacking lust.
Our desire to make ourselves the center of our own universe, our longing to be God.
They know as well as our moments of nobility, compassion, and courage.
God, Jesus and the biblical writers know our needs and our strengths, hopes and fears are entangled and often competing, hard to tease out.
They appreciate our emotions; feel our weaknesses. They understand how we are not the people we want to be or know we should be. How hard it is for us even to articulate all this. How life and creation can be as glorious and beautiful as it can be mysterious, evil and cruel.
Church, we’d do better by starting to admit all this too. We’re not at church because we got it all figured out. Because we are together, or easy to deal with, or right. We don’t comprehend why horrible things happen. We mostly can’t say why we are here or what will happen to us after this short sojourn on earth ends. We’d do better– right here in church– by admitting that God is mysterious and unknowable, inscrutable.
And yet, somehow, despite all our limitations and failures, even though we only see through the glass darkly, there is this message that keeps trying to come through. These clues here and there.
No clear list of eternal rights and wrongs.
Not some black and white rulebook.
Or one break or make moment to decide that either offers some “get out of jail free” assurance or eternal condemnation.
Nope, instead, God’s seen fit to trust us with an exhortation, or a relationship.
Some broad principles that we have to discern, piece together, figure out. General stuff mostly about love. Calling us to love God and our neighbor and ourselves. Without too many specifics about what exactly that looks like or really means.
It’s a sort of foggy message, like a sound you think you can hear, but you are not quite sure. What comes down to us in the form of stories. Parables. Metaphors. Poetry,
In the end all only hints, glimpses, clues. Maybe what we’re talking about is so big and sacred that even God can’t put it all into words that we can make sense of.
Reinhold Niehbuhr tried to explain it this way:
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.
Beloved, both Scripture passages that make the choices sound so clear and ultimate before us– they speak to our need, our call to discern specifically God’s message is for us. Can you say what God wills for you? Can you point the direction God wants you to go? Can you follow?
These challenges also, ironically, give us permission to hear new things, to see new directions. They call us first to listen carefully, deeply. And to pray hard– pray more in the sense of trusting that if we are still– stop talking for awhile– we will begin to hear God’s spirit over all the noise of the world, even all those words with which our prayers often try to tell God all we have to say.
Deuteronomy, presented as a series of sermons by Moses, is the 5th book of the Torah, but is actually a reinterpretation of what’s included in the first four. Scholars believe that it’s the work of a number of authors, probably part of an effort at religious renewal and reform during the time of King Josiah. It takes the inherited tradition, tries to distill the essence which then is applied and interpreted in light of new circumstances.
God’s intention for us may not change, but the world in which we need to live it out, our lives change radically… and at rates we struggle to keep up with. Sometimes I think it’s that dynamic, the constant, rapid change all around us, that causes so much of our inner confusion and turmoil.
And, yet, God is steadfast and faithful. God can keep us with us. God is still speaking of eternal justice and love, so if we listen, we can– at least provisionally– make some sense of our predicament and move ahead in choices toward wholeness and holiness. Not every decision in the right direction. Not without missteps and regressions. But in the end, moving towards that well-being and wholeness.
Likewise, the Matthew passage: it has Jesus name faith commitments we inherited. Matthew shows Jesus wrestling with the meaning of the Law, not unlike any first century Jewish rabbi (though most of his peers would have disagreed with his reinterpretations).
But Matthew takes it further– offering applications for strange new times and unfamiliar situations facing the early church. That’s what the elaborations are all about– applying the essence of the faith in a new context, because God was still with them. The Spirit of Jesus was still to be found in the midst of their lives.
Beloved, you are promised or invited, likewise, to mine our faith and tradition, owning its sacredness as you understand it to be given to you freely, liberally– that you, or we together, may distill God’s meaning for our lives, reinterpreting and applying God’s intent in light of the contemporary issues with which God confronts us and expects us to struggle in faith.
What does faith offer us? What strength, wisdom, direction, abundant life can we draw from this deep, dark well that we can’t see the bottom of?
I believe faith promises that life, no matter how confounding or disappointing, is neither meaningless nor random. There is a purpose to our lives. In the midst of an often
apparently uncaring universe, our religious tradition insists we are not fully alive, or completely human, if we try to live our lives alone. Rather, our relationships, imperfect, even broken as they often are and our tiny, seemingly insignificant thoughts and actions matter ultimately. They can make a difference. The humble selflessness and compassion we can muster and share sustains others and a divine spark, which is love.
Beloved, your efforts have a power beyond themselves. They live on after you. They protest and undercut all the ways the world dominates, oppresses and impoverishes. Your words and deeds can advance, albeit incrementally– sometimes in ways we cannot see or appreciate– basic moral, humane consideration for all people, especially those judged unimportant and unworthy.
Our efforts, half-hearted as they can sometimes be, nonetheless can add up to that which matters, can make all the difference in the world. They can affirm the humanity of others… and cumulatively, like a mosaic, produce a new vision– that every person is created sacred and in God’s image. At their purest, such efforts go to any length, even at the cost of sacrifice to the actor. The gospels call this resurrection.
Preached by the Rev. Michael W. Caine.