Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 16, 2020
We would rather eat french fries than broccoli. We would rather have a hamburger than a salad. We would rather sleep in than go to the gym. And we would definitely, definitely rather skip this passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Too bad that the things that are good for us are just so hard to do.
Let’s just get this out of the way. This is not our favorite passage from the gospels. We would prefer Jesus to talk about love rather than judgment; about mercy rather than sin; about anything rather than adultery and divorce. Too bad that Jesus can’t just stay in the little box we made for him.
Of course, we could explain our out of this with fancy theological footwork. I could conveniently choose to preach on another passage. We could concoct some sort of scheme in which Jesus didn’t actual say this stuff but some of this later, more corrupted, followers did. I could wrap it up quickly and move on to communion. But where’s the fun in that?
Look at the four topics Jesus is talking about - anger, adultery, divorce, and lying. Things not discussed in polite company. On face value, as we sit here in church on Sunday morning, it sounds as if Jesus is spouting out new restrictive rules. New laws. Being products of Enlightenment thinking, we find all of this too prohibitive. “We are free in Christ! We are not bound to the law!” Or like Roy Rogers sang, “Don’t fence me in.” Except that if we say that, we have missed the whole point entirely. The point is that this whole passage, even the tough parts, are about love and peace. Stay with me here.
See, I think that what is going on here is that Jesus is casting the vision for a new community. This new community would be the remade people of God. Yes, it would include the Jews, but it would also include Gentiles. And that new family is what we call the church. These words about love and peace because Jesus is creating a community of love and peace.
So, rather than reading these words from Jesus as prohibitions, read them as instructions for living together in a loving community. Read them in the positive sense. Take anger. Jesus is forming a new community which is so bound together by love and mutual affection, that anger will have no place. Imagine that. Imagine living with people who are so committed to loving each other, that anger isn’t even a possibility. Of course, people will disagree with each other, that’s just part of humanity. But imagine how beautiful, how lovely that would be if we could disagree with each other without becoming angry. That’s what Jesus has in mind for us.
The same goes for adultery and divorce. Imagine a community, imagine living together in such a way, that people would not be treated as objects. Imagine living together in such a way that mutual love and commitment undergird every relationship, not just married couples. That’s what Jesus has in mind.
And take oaths and vows. The reason they make you swear on a Bible before you testify in court is because everybody assumes that you will be lying. But Jesus has in mind here a community in which taking that vow, that oath, would not be necessary because everything you say would be truthful. Jesus imagines a community in which you don’t have to make people swear to tell the truth because they will tell the truth because they love each other.
That’s why I love the Sermon on the Mount. We might find it unpalatable, but this is the stuff my soul is thirsting for. That’s why I love this, granted, difficult passage. Because I desperately want to live in that kind of community with those kinds of people that Jesus is describing. I want to live with a people who love each other. I want to live with people who can disagree without getting angry; who won’t use me; and who won’t lie to me. Doesn’t that sound great? Of course it does, because that is the Kingdom of God.
The good news of the gospel is that we are called into community with people for no other reason than the simple fact that Jesus Christ loves us and we share that love with each other.
So before you cast away these words of Jesus because they are too hard, consider the alternative. Consider what it would be like to live in a community in which anger, violence, and hatred was the norm. Consider what it would be like to live with other people who only used you for their own purposes. Consider what it would be like to live knowing that everybody is lying to you. Oh wait. We already know what that is like. That’s the world. Living in a culture like that - a culture of anger, materialism, and lying - well, that’s a hell all of its own.
Compared to the vision that Jesus has for his new community, even though it’s some hard stuff, I’ll take what Jesus has in mind over what the world has to offer. Put simply, this is God’s vision for the church; a new community of love and peace. And it takes time, and prayer, and diligent discipleship, to let go of our anger, our desires, our lying.
Which brings us to that one part of the Prayer Book that is not discussed in polite company - the Confession of Sin. For those who come to the Episcopal Church from other churches, the Confession can feel off-putting or coercive, depending upon your past experiences. I get it. We prefer ice cream over vegetables. We prefer Communion over Confession. But from my own experience and from my own life of faith, confessing my sins to God here in the Church is life-giving and liberating. I rejoice that God, who knows that I am given to anger, opportunism, and lying is always willing to hear me, to forgive me, and to welcome me back home.
As we approach that penitential season of Lent, a time in which the Church calls us back home to God; we begin a season of prayer, fasting, and confession. In the Episcopal Church, we don’t have set rules for Lent. We don’t require fasting or abstaining from certain foods. We don’t mandate certain prayers to be said. And honestly, I could care less if you give up chocolate. What we ask for instead, is a penitent heart. And a desire to turn your back on the ways of the world and recommit to the life of Jesus, to recommit to this new community. Because the things you need to confess, the things you need to work on to grow closer to Jesus, are probably different from the things I need to work on. What unites us, then, is not what we’re doing for Lent, but that we’re doing Lent together. That is good, old fashioned, Anglican theology. That we all bend the knees of our hearts together, asking God to blot out our anger, our materialism, and our lying.
So these words from Jesus are probably not our favorite lines from the gospel. Saying the Confession of Sin is probably not our favorite part of the Prayer Book. Sure, it is far easier to order another round of onion rings than to get the fruit salad. And yes, it would be much easier to keep on with our anger, our objectification, and our lies. But is that the kind of life you want to live? Is that the kind of community you want to live in? Because if so, the world would be more than happy to have you. And like Jesus says, living that way is a hell of its own making.
Finally, I have to say one more thing. As we are called to live in this new way together, we are not called to be self-righteous about it. Rather, we are called to live in this new way because this is the very way that Jesus lived and loved. And in his example upon the cross, we do not see self-righteousness but humility. By bending our knees, by opening our hearts we are following Jesus in the way of perfect love.