The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany: February 16, 2014
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Good morning, and a belated Happy Valentine’s Day to you all. On Friday I was on Facebook and read a friend’s post that really encapsulates how I feel about February 14th:
Some people are kind of cynical about Valentine’s Day. I am not one of them. When I was a kid I so loved making paper Valentines with doilies and red and pink construction paper. They went to everyone: parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, teachers. It was an expression of love—not romantic love, but just love. I’m not sure I differentiated love into ‘kinds.’ I still celebrate Valentine’s Day, and I have such good feelings all day. I don’t mind that there are industries that make money helping people express love; just think about how many industries are built on expressing hatred. Selling candy and flowers and cards is a pretty good way for people to have jobs and make an income. There’s also something positive about people having permission, at least one day each year, to express loving feelings for each other.
I hope each of you received an expression of love this past week—and I hope you will belatedly accept my expression of love for you, St. Michael’s Church.
Today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount is a particular challenge for the preacher. How does one deal with the issues Jesus raises—adultery, divorce, and murder—neatly in 15 minutes or less?
Your prayers for me—in the next few minutes, and always—are appreciated.
This passage is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which we have been studying in our Wednesday night Bible study. We have talked a lot in that forum about the basic tenets of Jesus’ teachings, which can be found in these three key chapters of Matthew’s gospel. Richard Rohr, the author of the book we are using to guide our study, says that there are three major themes that Jesus explores. First, he calls us to a new image of reality that challenges conventional wisdom; second, he explores the human condition – what it means to be flawed, mortal beings; and third, he lays out the way to transform both ourselves and our society, leaving behind our old ways for the path of radical love.
All of these themes are encapsulated in this reading. In particular, we hear Jesus challenging conventional wisdom. Over and over he says, “you have heard…” followed by, “but I say…” But Jesus is not contradicting the laws that his audience of devout Jews works to follow; instead he is transcending Torah. He goes beyond the letter of the law to the core of what those very laws were created to protect. His focus is not on legalism, the modus operandi of the scribes and Pharisees. He focuses on people—specifically he focuses on relationships.
Jesus challenges us to look not at the letter of the law, but rather to look beyond it – to think about how we treat one another. In each of these antithetical statements Jesus calls us to embrace the other, really seeing their sacred worth and tending our relationship.
It is not enough not to murder – Jesus says we must take away the anger that is at the root of such a horrible act. Certainly we should not murder. But what if we worked to abolish those attitudes and feelings that lead to killing?
Similarly, Jesus bids us not to simply turn away from adultery, but to turn toward truly seeing others for all they are, rather than objectifying them.
Theologian Amy Oden says, “Jesus connects the dots for his listeners from outward acts to internal orientation, from murder to anger, from adultery to lust. It is one thing to behave rightly. It is another thing entirely for one’s heart to be oriented toward love.”[i]
What if we turned our focus from the worst possible outcome forbidden by law to respect for one another that builds us all up?
Jesus is building for the disciples, and for us, a vision of the Kingdom of God – where we honor God by honoring the glimpses of God in one another. He does not suggest that there is a new law, but rather that there is a new way of understanding God’s law.
Jesus wants us to go beyond legalism to relationship. That is the purpose of God’s law. “Law is given to guide us in the way God would have us honor, respect, and care for each other.”[ii]
Jesus calls us into right and fruitful relationships with one another – and helps us to understand that those right relationships lead to a bountiful relationship with God.
OK – but what about Jesus’ words on divorce? Again, Jesus is thinking beyond law to relationships. In this case, historical background is important. Remember that marriage was not truly mutual – a wife was something like property in those days. For a man to simply “follow the law” and get divorced neglected the humanity of his wife. Jesus, still operating within the bounds of the law of his time, suggests that the man take into consideration what that divorce will do to his wife. To make such a statement in the patriarchal society of Jesus’ time was radical. Again, he focused on reality—and relationship.
Today our understanding of marriage and even of divorce is very different than in Jesus’ day. I do believe that when we marry, we intend it to be “til death do you part.” Yet we know that there are times when marriages no longer work—when the best course for a particular relationship is for two people to allow each other to go separate ways, and to find other relationships to live into.
While it would be wrong to suggest that is what Jesus is saying here in Matthew’s Gospel, I think that it is in the spirit of these words—just as Jesus calls us to consider our relationships with each other above legalism, so should we acknowledge that some couples best honor each other by allowing their marriage to end before they become too destructive of one another.
So here in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers us a glimpse of the coming Kingdom – the Kingdom of God. He makes it clear that living into this kingdom is not just about following rules, but about being empowered by a living a life conscious of, and compassionate about, the other.
This good news about the importance of relationship, and of respect for one another, is sorely needed in our lives today, don’t you think?
This message must also be heard in the Church. Perhaps this is where our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians comes into the conversation. Paul speaks to this early church about the divisions that have cropped up amongst them. He likens their behavior to that of young children: “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”
Jean Vanier suggests that, from our childhood, we all carry a deep wound of loneliness. We want desperately to belong, so we join communities, but they always tend to disappoint us. We don’t feel really accepted; we don’t feel truly loved.
I think there is a lot of truth to this concept. The most valuable thing about St. Michael’s Church is not the stained glass, or the deeply meaningful worship, or even the profound teaching and preaching. What we treasure most are our relationships. We value being together, being a community. And as such, while we almost always treat each other with love, dignity, and respect, invariably we will also disappoint one another. Because we are already wounded people, we can easily be wounded again.
St. Michael’s Church, what would it look like for us to fully acknowledge that our relationships that are our greatest asset? Well, one of the longest passings of the peace in the five boroughs is already a sign of the value we place in one another. But there’s more than just warm smiles, hugs and handshakes. Acknowledging the treasure that we have in one another might mean finding opportunities beyond Sunday morning to be in community with our fellow parishioners. Or joining in one of our many efforts to share the love of God beyond our walls, like the Saturday Kitchen or help with Sandy recovery on Staten Island. Or volunteering your help to church leadership to make St. Michael’s run. Or even acknowledging the value of your St. Michael’s family in your life by making an increased financial contribution.
Paul concludes this passage from first Corinthians by saying, “we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” We are all in this together. Even as we are the ones tending God’s vineyard, so are we also the fruits being tended by one another. Jesus calls us to work at our relationships, and to treasure one another. That’s a good sentiment for Valentine’s Day weekend, and a good watchword for all of our life.
The good news is that God delights in us and loves us unconditionally, and also desires the best for us in and through our relationships with one another. My friends, let us love and treasure one another, now and always. Amen.
[i] Amy Oden, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=2/13/2011 Accessed 2/10/2011. [Dean and Professor, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC.]
[ii] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1521, accessed 02/13/2014.