Sermon from Sunday, February 13th 2011

Based on: Matthew 5:21-37

If I were smart today, I would preach about the psalm, or invent a biography of the Corinthians. Anything would be better than tackling things like this. "...I say to you, that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment."[1] And then there's, "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 at the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift."[2] And then worst of all, "I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."[3] Who wants to listen to stuff like this anyway?

What Jesus is talking about here - using these particular actions he describes - is things that tear at people and at the fabric of a community. Each action Jesus describes is something that is destructive and soul-destroying for the individual and for the community. The text this morning is about those things which keep us from being in community with one another and keep us distant from God. These things are the things we do when we are self-absorbed and self-sufficient. They are things that are unsustainable and will eventually destroy us from within. These are ugly things to look at and even uglier to think about. Maybe we should just turn away because this doesn't apply to us; we don't need to worry.

We should worry, because what Jesus asks us to do is to examine what is beneath these actions. Jesus asks us to examine the consequences of our actions. He asks us to take ourselves out of ourselves long enough to ask, "Is what I am about to do sustainable? Is it only good for me, or is it good for my neighbor too? Is it what God wants me to do?" Jesus asks us to take the action that will build rather than destroy, love rather than hate, and reconcile even when we are not the cause of the hurt.

Jesus tells us that it makes no difference if we are the cause of someone having something against us. We are still called to reconcile. Listen again to what the text says, "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 before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift."[4] There is nothing here about who wronged whom. It is simply a command to repair the brokenness of the relationship. This is hard. Anger is something that grows with feeding. Anger is like a fire we stoke the fire with self-righteousness, "If I had done that to him or her, why just imagine how s/he would feel!"

How about this? Ever been upset with the church? Do you remember saying, "I won't give because I don't like what ‘they' are doing." How about this? "I'm not the one who said those awful things. She or He will have to apologize first." Well then, remember this, "When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift."[5]

Now about this adultery thing...does anyone remember when former President Carter admitted he had lusted in his heart? Do you remember the snide jokes and sniggering media attention? It was because by admitting his own faults, President Carter reminded us what the seed is for the weed of infidelity. What was there to respect - no matter how you feel about him as a president - was that while he could admit these feelings, he had obviously not acted on them. By contrast, a more recent president was caught lying about his infidelity and there was an enormous uproar. I think the fuss was because we were confronted by the idea that someone who lied about infidelity might lie about other things. There were two schools of thought at the time. There were those who believed the lie and the infidelity were signs of other dishonesty. And there were those who believed that a lie to cover up infidelity was just that; it did not mean the person was dishonest in any other way. But infidelity and adultery are lies that destroy people and communities. These acts neither repair nor build up the individuals or the community. Even if the act remains hidden, it creates suspicion, anger, and guilt.

So about this divorce thing: there are times and places where divorce is the only appropriate answer. Jesus spoke about the time to come. He described the Kingdom of God when no one would be in any relationship that would damage the other person. At the same time, Jesus knew of our inability to live as though the Kingdom is here. He gave us a model of life that takes account of the consequences of what we think and do. The decisions we make can build up or destroy. The decisions we make can repair and sustain life or they can destroy.

Just as in the Deuteronomy reading, Jesus holds before us the choice of life and death. Jesus asks us by our actions to choose blessings rather than curses. He asks us to choose the way that reconciles, that builds up and that sustains. He asks us to choose the way of blessing. AMEN.

 

The Rev Nicolette Papanek

Trinity Episcopal Church

Covington, Kentucky

©2011



[1] Matthew 5:22a (NRSV)

[2] Matthew 5:23-24 (NRSV)

[3] Matthew 5:32a (NRSV)

[4] Matthew 5:23-24 (NRSV)

[5] Ibid.

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