Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 16, 2014

2014.02.16 “Rules for Relationships, Part 1” – Matthew 5: 21 – 32

Central United Methodist Church

Rules for Relationships, Part 1

Pastor David L. Haley

Matthew 5: 21 – 32

February 16, 2014

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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 insulta 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 courtwith 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.” – Matthew 5: 21 – 32, The New Revised Standard Version

Many years ago, I remember watching a movie named Bread and Chocolate (1974), about an Italian immigrant named Nino living in Switzerland. As is often the case with immigrants everywhere, Italian immigrants were not very welcome in Switzerland, and it was not an easy life. After one unfortunate incident after another, Nino winds up living in a chicken coop with fellow immigrants. In the film’s best and most unforgettable image, one day the inhabitants of the chicken coop peer with admiration and envy through the wire, at a group of blonde Swiss kids frolicking in a nearby pool, like outsiders watching the gods at play. Afterwards, Nino even decides to dye his black hair blonde, in hope that might help him fit in.

This image, of outsiders looking in, is one we may identify with today as we hear Jesus describe the behavior expected of those who would live in the Kingdom of God. As Jesus describes it, it’s sounds exalted and noble; but can WE do it? Is such behavior as Jesus describes it, even within our reach?

In previous weeks, as we have heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we have heard the Beatitudes: those God blesses, such as the poor, the meek, the humble, those who mourn and who seek after God; the opposite of those blessed in the world. Last week we heard the function kingdom people are to serve in the world, that being salt and light.

This week Jesus speaks of the ethical standards of the Kingdom, one of the most challenging sections of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The German sociologist Max Weber once said that it is the mark of a charismatic prophet to say, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” That is exactly what Jesus says, identifying six representatives issues, in which he calls his hearers to transcend what he calls “the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” These six representative issues are: anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. To address them, let’s call them “Rules for Relationships,” and split them into two groups of 3 each, Parts 1 & 2. Today, let’s do anger, adultery, and divorce. (Wait, that just sounds wrong!)

As we hear what Jesus says in each of these issues, we may feel like outsiders looking in, considering ethical behavior more appropriate for saints, perhaps, than us fallible human beings.  In fact, considering the standards Jesus sets, some might say they are impossible for us or anyone else to follow. Consider what we just heard:

– Not just “Don’t murder,” but “Don’t be angry with your brother or sister.” And when we are angry, don’t make it worse by insulting or calling names. (Oops, guess Jesus never drove in Chicago traffic!)  And IF someone has reason to be angry with us, stop in the middle of worship, before leaving our gift at the altar, and go be reconciled with our brother or sister.  And we think the passing of the peace is difficult?

– Men (and it is addressed to the men), not only “Don’t commit adultery,” but “Don’t look upon a woman with lust,” for if you do you have ALREADY committed adultery in your heart. If this is true, most of us men are in deep trouble. And what about the gory language that follows: “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.” Children, don’t try this at home!

– And what about divorce? “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.” Considering that our congregation, like most Christian congregations, has a divorce rate that reflects or often exceeds the general population, which currently stands at 50/50 to remain married to the same person for 20 years, where does that leave us? On the outside looking in, pondering behavior appropriate for gods?

What shall we make of these difficult sayings?

The most important thing we should learn from Jesus’ pronouncements is this: according to Jesus, our relationships matter to God. The God Jesus revealed is not the Unmoved Mover of the philosophers, nor the disdainful gods of Greek mythology, who saw humans as playthings to be trifled with. God is not our therapist or the director of divine karma. Rather, God cares deeply and passionately about our relationships and how we treat each other, because God loves each and every one of us. How much? All that hyperbole about cutting off body parts and burning in hell, are ancient Near East figures of speech used to emphasize how important our relationships – and how we treat each other – are to God.

And what if Jesus’ figure of speech – “You have heard it said, but I say to you” is Jesus trying to tell us that God isn’t interested in us keeping the law for the law’s sake, but rather that God wants us to keep the law for our sake; that is, because God loves us.  Think of it as the fence – not keeping us out of, but keeping us in – the good life.

It’s like this: parents, over the years we make many rules for our children. And while at times come across as overbearing tyrants, we pray as our children mature, they will realize that the rules we have set – don’t play in the street, treat each other right, don’t talk meanly to each other – were intended to care for and protect them and help them have a good life.  What if God’s law is the precious gift of an adoring Parent given to us, God’s beloved children, to help us treat each other right? As the highway billboard, “What part of “Thou shall not kill” don’t you understand? – God”

Overwhelmed by Jesus’ standards, throughout the centuries, Christians have tried to read them in context, in order to understand them more clearly. The fact, for example, that Jesus spoke at a time when women were not treated as people, but property. That it was a time when grounds for divorce was under discussion, and women could be divorced by pronouncement for as simple as matter as burning the biscuits, which sent them forth into the street. That Jesus – as a devout Jew – was not seeking to abolish the Jewish Law, but to transcend and internalize it, in the hearts of those who would be kingdom people.

Let me put it this way: The Ten Commandments are still in effect, but it is not enough to say, “No murder today; check! No adultery; check!” Still married; check!” What God expects of us is not just to fulfill the minimum daily requirements – which in fact we have trouble with – but to transcend and internalize their intent in our heart.  In other words, to do everything in our power in heart, mind, and body, to respect, to honor, and to love others: including those who anger us and those who attract us, to men and to women, and especially those to whom we are married or in relationship.  Says Jesus:

– It’s not enough just to refrain from murder. We should also treat each other with respect and that means not speaking hateful words.

– It is not enough to avoid physically committing adultery. We should also not commit emotional adultery, nor objectify other persons by using them as a means to satisfy our own desires.

– It is not enough to follow the letter of the law regarding divorce. We should not treat people as disposable and should make sure that the most vulnerable – in that culture and our culture – women and children – are protected and provided for.

So what can we do? If – as Jesus tells us – that God cares so much about our relationships that God would rather have us tend those relationships than come to church (verses 23-24), then we can begin right here and now by doing two things:

– First, I invite you to call to mind one of the relationships in your life that is most important to you; one that is healthy and whole and good and sustains you regularly. Think about what makes it such a good relationship, and why it is so important to you. Now let us stop and give God thanks for that person and the relationship we share with them.

– Second, I now invite you to call to mind another relationship that’s important to you, but that has suffered damage. We don’t need to figure out who was to blame, but rather to hold that person and that relationship in prayer, to offer it to God and to ask for God’s help and healing. I also invite you to think about what action you might be able to take to move that relationship towards greater health.

To end, a story. Once there were two members of a congregation who worked in the same industry on opposite sides.  They weren’t fans of each other and often it was hard to keep their conflict from spawning bigger conflict in church. I think we understand, because when we are in community, we are inevitably in conflict.

That changed one day, however, when their pastor – who knew about the conflict – talked one of them into serving Communion.  Of course, he orchestrated it so that the man would be serving on the side of the sanctuary where his chief competitor and family always sat.

It’s hard to stay mad at someone and continue pursuing conflict when you offer the words of reconciliation – the body of Christ, given for YOU, the blood of Christ, poured out for YOU. One small step, taken in church, which began to make a difference in their lives.  I wish I could tell you they all lived happily ever after, but I’d likely be lying. (Daniel Ogle, Sermon Notes, General Board of Discipleship)

Hearing these words of Jesus, are we on the outside looking in?  Or now – having heard them – are they on the inside of us, working their way out, beginning to make a difference in our lives, our congregation, and our community. May God use both Law and Gospel – whatever it takes – to make it so.  Amen.

_________________________________

Again this week, as many weeks, I am indebted to the insights of David Lose, The Relational God, 2/11/2014, at workingpreacher.org

I especially appreciate Dr. Lose’s insights that preaching in the modern church should be less performatory, as it has been in the past, and needs to become more participatory. Asking people to stop and pray for relationships, good and bad, is an example of such an approach. You may read more about Dr. Lose’s insights in regard to preaching here:

http://www.davidlose.net/2012/03/from-performative-to-participatory-preaching/%5D – http://www.davidlose.net/2012/03/from-performative-to-participatory-preaching/

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