Relationship Status

(sermon 2/12/17)

relationship-status

[Jesus said,] “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.

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Well. I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel like I’ve been taken to the woodshed after hearing this gospel text today. This is the third week that we’ve heard part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and it’s pretty obvious that we’ve moved past the feel-good “Blessed are you”s of the Beatitudes. Now, we’re starting to feel some sting in Jesus’ words. I mean, of course we aren’t supposed to murder, but now you’re telling me that even if we’ve ever just gotten angry at a person we’re facing God’s judgment? Even if we’ve ever just insulted someone, or if we’ve ever called someone foolish, we’re bound for the fires of hell? If that’s the case, then there’s no hope for any of us. It’s simply impossible for anyone to interact with other people and not get angry, or to think or speak about someone in an unflattering way. It just can’t be done.

And then Jesus continues by discussing marriage and divorce. If you get divorced, and especially if someone gets remarried, then in one way or another you’re engaging in adultery. I don’t want to get into a detailed consideration of Jesus’ views on marriage here today; that’s another day’s sermon, but still, this is a very sobering teaching for a lot of us – since, statistically speaking, more than half of all marriages end in divorce, and something like half of those divorces end up resulting in a remarriage; and this statistic is at least as true for us in the church as it is for the general public.

Jesus’ words in today’s gospel text can cause us to feel fear and guilt, maybe even tremendous fear and guilt. Every time I read this particular passage, it reminds me of a parishioner I once knew. She was a very deeply devoted Christian, and very active in the life of the church. She’d been raised in another church tradition before becoming a Presbyterian as an adult. When she was a young woman, she’d been in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage that, thanks be to God, she got out of. A few years after that, she met a wonderful man. They eventually got married, and at the time I knew them, they’d been happily married for decades. But over time I noticed that whenever we served the Lord’s Supper, she never participated. Finally, I asked her why, and she told me that it was because of her childhood teaching in that other tradition – that it was sinful for her to have ended her first marriage, even as abusive a it was, and when she got remarried, she put herself in the position of living constantly, irretrievably, in a state of adultery – and that no matter how much of a Presbyterian she was now, deep down in her heart she still held onto what she’d been told as a child. She couldn’t’ shake the feeling that she was living in a dirty, sinful, adulterous lifestyle, and that made her unworthy to participate in Communion. Can you imagine living with that burden of guilt on your shoulders your entire life?

Well as I said, this isn’t a marriage and divorce sermon. But before moving on, I’ve got to say that I don’t think that Jesus’ primary point here – or anywhere else, for that matter – is to make anyone live with that lifelong kind of guilt and shame. To be even more blunt, I think that to interpret Jesus’ words here, or anywhere else in the gospels for that matter, in a way that harms someone in the way it did that parishioner, in a way that causes someone a lifetime of unshakeable pain, is a form of ecclesiastical malpractice, negligence.

Now having said that, I don’t mean to take all the teeth away from what Jesus is saying here, either. These issues are obviously very important to him; it’s only when he’s talking about something very important that he veers into this strong kind of language – pluck out an eye, cut off a hand. What I think is important about all of these things is that they all deal with the issue of human relationships, and potential harm to those relationships.

The issue of being in right, healthy relationships is of the absolute highest  importance to God, and anything that would harm or break those healthy relationships is a very, very serious matter in God’s eyes. Simply put, we were created in order to be in relationship. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that being in healthy relationships with one another is a necessity for us to be fully, truly human.

And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is one of the most important reasons that Christ established the Church. One of the most important things that we’re called to do is to offer an alternative way of being, a way different than what’s typically seen in the world. We’re supposed to model just how people can live in healthy relationships, relationships that honor God and complete our own humanity. It’s easy to find too many examples of the harmful behaviors that Jesus mentioned in this passage – allowing anger and insult to rule the day, harming and even breaking, destroying relationships, whether they’re marital relationships or other kinds. We seem intent on setting up different categories of people in order to justify not engaging in positive, constructive relationships with them. We see it done all the time; divisions based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, political affiliation – all these sorts of classifications and categories really boil down to being attempts to set up different tribes among us, and then to justify getting angry at them, or insulting them, or considering them foolish, or completely breaking relationship with them – in short, they’re attempts to justify not loving them.

The fact that being in healthy, right relationships with one another is so important to God is why harming those relationships earns some of Jesus’ strongest language. And we, the church, are called to model these kinds of relationships – not artificially, by ignoring the legitimate differences that we have within our midst, or pretending they don’t exist; but by loving one another even while acknowledging them. By seeking God’s help to allow us to find positive, authentic ways of living, and serving, and worshipping, together, forbearing one another – loving one another – without falling victim to any kind of actions or ways of being the church would separate us, divide us, tribalize us, and lead us into ways that break our relationships. We’re called to love one another when it’s easy. We’re called to love one another when it’s hard. But even when it’s hard, we can have hope, and confidence, because God has promised to walk this journey along with us. And if God has called us to that way of living, and has promised to lead us and strengthen us as we try to live that out, is there anything that we could possibly be worried or afraid of?

Thanks be to God.

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Past/Present/Future

(sermon 11/6/16 – Stewardship Sunday)

trap

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

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Well, it’s finally here – this week we’ll all go to the polls and vote, and for better or worse, after the dust settles, we’ll have a new President-elect. I suspect that most of you are like me, tired of the whole process. Every day, the candidates trying to find an angle, an edge, something to discredit their opponent and boost their own image. Campaign surrogates and staffs scrambling to score points against the other side, beat the other person down, while simultaneously trying to defuse similar attacks on their own candidate. Some days it seems like it’s all just negative, all sleaze, all just debate and no actual discussion about actual issues. All just trying to score points and make the opponent look bad.

That same thing is very much what’s going on in the gospel text that we heard this morning, this story of a group of Sadducees questioning Jesus. The Sadducees were a religious group who were almost exclusively made up of the social elite, the upper crust. Because they were the group that was the most collaborative with their Roman occupiers, they became a powerful group politically. For the most part, they were the wealthy, the well-educated, the well-connected, and they looked down their noses at other parts of Jewish society. And as Luke points out, it was part of their religious beliefs that there really wasn’t any resurrection of the dead. To the Sadducees, you live this life, in this world, and when you die, that’s it. There’s no final judgment or accounting, and certainly no resurrection, so you’d better make the most of things while you’re here.

Luke tells us that this particular group of Sadducees came to Jesus and posed this question to him. And just like so much of our presidential campaign, it wasn’t really a serious attempt at discussion; they weren’t really trying to open up a meaningful conversation about the question; they already knew what they believed about it. Their intent was to try to get Jesus, this uneducated country bumpkin from the backwater of Nazareth, to say something that they could use to discredit him in the eyes of the large numbers of people who had begun to follow him. He was a threat to the Sadducees’ power, so they were trying to neutralize the threat by trapping him with his own words.

So what’s their question, which sounds so bizarre to us, all about, anyway? Well, it has to do with what’s called the concept of Levirate marriage. According to this part of the biblical definition of marriage, the scriptures say that God commanded that if a married man died childless, the next oldest of his brothers was required to marry his widow and the widow was required to marry the brother. The brother really didn’t have any say in the matter, and neither did the widow, who in this culture was considered the dead man’s property – more important than his other forms of property, but still, property nonetheless. And the two were supposed to have a child, who would then be considered the dead man’s son. This was important for several reasons. First, in a time before social security, pension plans, and 401(k)s, society relied on children to care for and provide for their aging parents. Second, and just as importantly in that culture, a son was needed, in order to keep the man’s wealth and assets, especially his property, in his family’s name.

So the Sadducees ask Jesus this question, stretching this scriptural command to the point of absurdity, and then asking Jesus whose wife the woman would be – more to the point, whose property she would be – after a supposed resurrection. It was intended from the get-go to argue that it wasn’t reasonable to believe in an afterlife and resurrection.

But Jesus doesn’t hesitate to use their question, and other points from scripture, to point out the shortcoming inherent in both the question and their beliefs. He told them that they were getting caught up in the letter of the Law, the literal words, and in so doing, had missed God’s actual intent behind the words. Inherent in his answer to them that he understands that marriage itself was intended to be an important part of God’s declaration in Genesis that it was not good for human beings to be alone, and that human beings should have the ability to choose a partner and helper in life to love, and be loved by, and and be in relationship with – but that it was only something that was needed in this life. Marriage wouldn’t be necessary to achieve those things in eternity, in an afterlife; they would be fulfilled simply by virtue of being in the presence of God.

In offering the Sadducees this explanation of the scriptural commandment of Levirate marriage, and warning them not to miss the real meaning behind the words of scripture, he points them to the future. He tells them to not get trapped in the past, and not to live only for the present, but to also be mindful of the future that God has in store. He invites them to open their minds and eyes and hearts, and to imagine what that future will be like – and how it will set right everything that’s wrong in this life. Just imagine: loneliness will no longer exist. Any unfulfilled need to love and be loved will no longer exist. A need to have one’s physical, spiritual, and emotional needs met will no longer exist – because all those things will be completely fulfilled, directly by God.

Anyone in this life who knows suffering, grief, illness, poverty, discrimination, oppression, will know full justice and health and love and mercy. Jesus tells the Sadducees that all of us, even those that the Sadducees would likely consider the lowest of us, will be on par with the angels – children of God. Jesus points them toward the incredible, wonderful reality of that future. He points them to this good news, this great news, for everyone who is part of God’s kingdom.

Well, this is a good week for us to think about the future, too, and not only about what the future of our nation, and our society, might be like in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election. This Stewardship Sunday, as we make our pledges of financial support for the congregation, we’re recognizing our past and our present, and we’re using the resources that God has entrusted to us to work for that future. To help our congregation continue to live out the particular mission that God has given us, and to make this world in the here and now at least somewhat more like that future world that God has in store for us.

But it’s also a good time to think about our own personal past, present, and future, too. Dr. Martin Luther King said that the arc of moral history is long, but it continually bends toward justice. In a similar way, we can all examine our own lives and ask if the great, overarching arc of our lives of faith are in fact, continually bending closer and closer to Christ. As we mature in our discipleship, and travel farther along in our faith journey, are we allowing ourselves to adjust our lives and beliefs to be more in accord with God’s will, as ultimately seen in Christ? I hope that when we examine our lives, even while we’ll undoubtedly see the occasional stumbling and steps backward, we can see ourselves progressing, moving forward on that arc.

And as we consider that, whether for our congregation or for ourselves, we can have hope because through Jesus’ answer to those Sadducees, he also assures us that even though we’ll never achieve that fullness of living out God’s will ourselves, God will ultimately establish us in that kind of abundant, eternal life. And on that point, there shouldn’t be any debate.

Thanks be to God.