February 16, 2020 - Sermon - Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton

Scripture:  Matthew 5:21-37

Create Right Relationships   


     So here’s the thing, and let’s say it up front: when you leave here today, you’re going to say, “He didn’t get that right!” Now, you may well say that every week. But this time, even more than on other Sundays, you’ll be entirely justified. You can sit down at your noontime meal and be totally warranted in having “roast preacher” for lunch.


     And the reason is: the words we’ve just heard from Jesus are almost completely inscrutable. Or maybe it’s fair to say: they’re clear, but we can’t really imagine how they can shape our everyday lives. How is it possible to say so baldly, No anger, no lust, no divorce, and to expect that we can really live that way? Yet that’s what Jesus says.


     Or does he? Is it as simple as that? I suspect there’s more to what Jesus is saying than that first impression. But it’s all a bit opaque. So today we’re going to do things a little differently. We’re going to take a little more time than usual to engage in a close, and fairly extensive, study of a particular biblical passage. We’re going to explore these words and see where they lead us. And let’s start with the bracing laws Jesus sets out as what seem to be God’s expectations of us. Because on the surface, it’s pretty clear what Jesus is saying. Jesus says, essentially, not only should you not murder, but, in the words of The Message, “I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder” (Matthew 5:22).


     That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it: it’s an egregious sin to be angry. And it doesn’t get any better as he goes on. Not only are you not to commit adultery, says Jesus next, but you’re not even to look at another person with lust. And forget divorce; it’s ruled out.


     Now it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how commonly these commandments of Jesus have been violated—the first two, against anger and lust, by probably every single person in this room (you can tell me afterwards if I was wrong!), and the third, against divorce, by another large swath. I know it’s possible, for example, that there may have been once or twice that I myself have been angry. And it may or may not be true that Heidi Klum has occasionally made my little heart go pitter patter. And while I’m fortunate not to have been divorced, many people I love, including a significant number of you, have seen your marriages end. Jesus, in this blistering Sermon of his, might well have contented himself with telling us how wrong perjury and grand theft and aggravated assault were. We could deal with that! If he had limited his laws to such things, many of us could justifiably breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Other people do that, not me.”


     But no, Jesus takes on three incredibly prevalent dimensions of human life, and says, Don’t do them. And the penalties for doing so seem wildly out of proportion. If you insult someone, you’ll be “liable to the hell of fire.” If you lust after someone, you’ve already committed adultery and you should cut off some body part to make amends. This is outrageously harsh stuff.  It’s fair to guess that uncountable numbers of people have felt guilty about their anger and their lust and their divorces for two millennia, precisely because of these words of Jesus. And who of us could be blamed for saying, “Is there any real way in which laws like this enhance my life? I’m having nothing to do with any religion that’s so absurdly punitive.” These laws remind me of Teresa of Avila’s great line, addressed to God: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”


     So this is when we all take a deep breath. And we say, “I wonder if there’s more to this than meets the eye. I wonder if, just maybe, there’s something to these commandments that’s spirit-giving, that enhances this shared life of ours, that makes us all better, more faith-full people.”


     What we need to do here, it seems to me, is two things: first, to remember the context of these words, and second, to look more closely at what Jesus is really saying. First, context is vital. If you were here either of the last two Sundays, you may remember what immediately precedes these words of Jesus. This is still fairly early in his Sermon on the Mount. And do you remember what has come just before? The very first part of this defining Sermon of Jesus’ is what we call The Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are the well-known blessings Jesus gives to his followers. “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who are persecuted” (Matthew 5:3, 4, 5, 10). Jesus begins his Sermon, in other words, by bestowing blessings on all of us.


     Right after these blessings, Jesus says to the crowds, and to us, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. [You are] a city built on a hill” (5:13, 14). ‘You have no idea what wonders of God you are,’ Jesus seems to say. ‘Whatever else I tell you, and there’s lots more to come, you are epiphanies of God. You are fundamentally good.’


     That’s what immediately precedes Jesus’ long discussion of the law: you and I are holy manifestations of grace. Just the way we are. There’s nothing we need to do to earn this blessing. It is given without any conditions. It’s pure gift.


     So then when we come right away to these laws, what Jesus says about anger and lust and divorce is said in that context: you are indeed loved as you are. No preconditions. And then, says Jesus, there’s more.


     So Jesus launches into these extreme guidelines for life: no anger, no lust, no divorce. And they’re followed by three others: no oaths, turn the other cheek, love your enemies. Taken together, these six amplifications of the law are total head-scratchers. They defy common sense and our own experience. They present this ideal that seems so far from possible.


     It’s this that we rebel against, of course: how could we possibly live up to these apparently impossible demands? Never be angry? Come on! Erase natural sexual impulses? Why? Rule out divorce when clearly some marriages were not meant to be? What would be the virtue in that?


     Jesus does an odd thing in this part of his Sermon. And we’re going to focus on the anger section this morning to listen for what he’s doing. Here’s the way that section goes: “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” (5:21-22). It’s a totally impossible demand, a complete prohibition of anger, with an eternal fiery hell awaiting you if you ever succumb.


     But here’s where a careful reading makes all the difference. What follows that? Immediately after Jesus completely rules out all anger, what does he say? He says essentially, ‘If you are angry at someone, go make up with them. If an enemy accosts you, “make the first move” to make it right’ (5:23-26, The Message). There’s a glaring inconsistency here. How can Jesus possibly say, ‘Never be angry, and you’ll burn in hell if you do get angry’ and then go on to say, ‘But if you are angry, here’s what you can do to make it better’? Either anger is an unforgivable violation of God’s law, or there are steps you can take to deal with your inevitable anger. But you can’t say both at the same time.


     Except that Jesus does. He says, ‘Here’s this model of perfection that I’m holding you to.’ And at the very same time, he says, ‘If you don’t live up to it, then there are clear and distinct steps you can take to make things right.’ Here, I think, is the crux of what Jesus is doing: he’s using hyperbole to set up a grand ideal; and, at the same time, he’s saying essentially, ‘I know that you live in the real world and that this ideal can never be fully achieved. I want you to aim for the ideal—never be angry—and, when you fall short, to keep making peace with anyone you’re at odds with—go to them and connect with them and reconcile with them.’


     Our worship theme today is “Creating Right Relationships.” This is what Jesus is trying to do—he’s insisting on the importance of building healthy relationships with each other. He does this by saying, ‘This is what to aim for—a world in which we’re not angry with each other, in which we celebrate each other’s gifts, in which we affirm each other’s fullness. So keep that as the ultimate goal. Pursue it with vigor.’


     And at the same time, he’s saying, ‘But I know what it’s like to live with other people. They irk us. They irritate us. They drive us crazy. So when that happens, make it a point to connect with them. If a chasm has developed between you and someone else, go to them. Listen to them. Be humble. Apologize if it’s appropriate. Work at building bridges. See if you can understand what they’re about.’ Aim high, in other words. And when you fall short, take steps to make peace.


     The great Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, talks in a video about how to release our anger. He says that “anger is useful.” And the way it’s useful is that it can help us to understand the person we’re angry at. “And when we understand,” he says, “there is love . . .. And if you hold that anger in understanding, in compassion, the anger becomes something like love, like compassion.”


     Thich Nhat Hanh then goes on to say that if someone hurts you, they do this because they themselves suffer. You can acknowledge to yourself that they “don’t know how to handle the violence in [them], the unhappiness in [them]. That is why [they] suffer. . .. When you see the anger in [them], and you understand that anger, you say to yourself, ‘I don’t want to punish [them], to make them suffer more. I want to make [them] suffer less.’ And you smile at [them], and you say, ‘Dear friend, I know that you suffer. I am not angry at you even if you have said something like that to me, even if you have done something like that to me. Because you suffer a lot. So I don’t blame you. I am not angry at you. . .. I understand you.’” The idea is to react differently than we are tempted to do or than we customarily do, “with tenderness, with loving kindness, with smiles” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTF9xgqLIvI).


     The odd truth, the truth that we so often forget, is that we are tied inextricably together, we are totally interdependent, we rely on each other for a full and rich life. And his is why the chasms between us need to be bridged. Cosmologist Brian Swimme gives us a parallel from the world of science. “An individual hydrogen atom will persist as it is without change for billions of years. At the most, it might disintegrate into an electron and a proton. It will never create anything new by itself.


     “But the amazing fact is that, if a hydrogen atom finds itself in the intense and interacting community called a star, it discovers that it has the power to participate in crucial ways in its transformation into the elements that give birth to life. In the community called a star, an individual atom becomes the gateway into the next era of the universe’s story” (quoted in “Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox,” Feb. 13, 2020).


     Like hydrogen atoms, we were born for community. We are inevitably better together than any one of us would be alone. We were meant to work in harmony with each other. There are so many places we can work out this process of being together as community.


     Racism, for example, continues to be a virulent scourge on this shared life of ours. Some municipalities have, in fact, declared it a public health crisis. “Racism,” says one of the municipalities, “isn’t just someone using a racial slur. It’s also the poor schooling in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, the racial wealth gap, housing discrimination, mass incarceration, police killings of black and brown people, higher infant mortality rates for people of color, and unequal access to health care” (email from the Justice and Peace Action Network of the UCC, Feb. 13, 2020). While it may not be precisely anger that is at the root of such racism—or maybe we could say that racism is a public face of anger—these unjust ways of ordering our society are nevertheless rooted in the same sort of angry attitudes that demean and distance and subjugate. Studying white privilege, as so many here at Federated have done, and continuing to build a relationship with Mt. Zion UCC Church in University Circle and working on the dismantling of racism in other spheres, as our Social Justice Advocacy Ministry continues to do, are ways of connecting with the neighbor from whom we have been systemically separated. These are ways, as Jesus urges, of reconciling with the neighbor.


     This same sort of coming together has been evident in the deliberate process Federated church leaders have gone through this past fall and winter to discern how best to proceed with our facilities. You’ve all received a letter from our Church Council outlining a proposal for a new non-profit, the Community Life Collaborative, to take over the running of our Family Life Center. And while the merits of the proposal itself are imaginative and strong, I want simply to note, this morning, the remarkable determination, by the joint task force that has developed the proposal, and by our Church Council in endorsing that proposal, to develop a common vision. Even with many competing senses of what might be right, and with the friction that inevitably entails, and even knowing that no solution is perfect for everybody, these groups have stuck with it and come to a recommendation that the members of that joint task force and the Council could all support. That is no small feat. “Be reconciled to your neighbor,” said Jesus (5:24, NRSV); “go to this friend and make things right” (5:24, The Message). And whether you share the conclusions of the task force and the Council or not, it is to be celebrated that church leaders haven’t settled for division and opposition. They have found a way forward that they could all support. They have found a direction together.


     ’Cause doesn’t it feel good and right when groups of people come together, when warmth and love and mutual support are the order of the day? Doesn’t it seem as though God’s world is being enacted? I know it does for me. And we know that feeling, that feeling that we’re to aim for, that feeling of unity, in any number of settings.  On Wednesday of this week, our older son Alex texted Mary and his brother Taylor and me—his birth family, in other words. His text said, “Cynthia and Allie called me out for taking too long to change [my clothes] today. The transformation is complete. I am now Dad.” To which his younger brother said, “You can’t fight it—it’s inevitable.” Mary chimed in, “Oh, you poor thing!” And what I heard in this gentle teasing was a deep and abiding love. That’s the love that, in the middle of societal division and discord and fracture, is always calling us forth.


     We’ve focused on the law of Jesus today. Ultimately, though, that law serves something larger than itself. It’s there to serve the love of God that is at the root of everything. The law itself matters greatly, because it pushes us to be vigilant and determined in pursuing peace and reconciliation. And, at the same time, Jesus reminds us that there’s more to fullness of life than just that law. Because God loves you and me as we are. And our highest calling is to embody that love here and now, with everyone we meet. ‘He didn’t get it right,’ you may be thinking about this sermon. ‘He should have made a bigger deal of the inviolable law,’ or, on the other hand, ‘He should have said more strongly that the law doesn’t matter.’ Maybe I didn’t get it right. But maybe our highest vocation is to live right in the midst of that tension, between the law that calls forth our best selves and the good news of God’s love that makes it all possible. Law and gospel, expectation and grace: that’s what makes us who we are, the indomitable and grace-filled and love-fired people of God. May it always be so.