You have heard that it was said…But I say…

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A           (video link)
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
I Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Whew. Jesus gets downright personal today. We continue with the Sermon on the Mount and some of the most demanding ethical teaching anywhere. There’s a lot here, so let’s jump right in.

Jesus starts by laying out the ancient standard—the minimum demands of the law or what is allowed by the law—and then ups the ante—“You have heard that it was said, but I say to you…

For instance: ‘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.

 Oh, the english just can’t quite get us to the heart of the greek. The greek is more piercing—if you’re angry with a brother or sister, you’re going to be under obligation, bound, subject to a crisis, a sundering, a divide, a split, a rending;  and then, if you call your brother or sister a rhaka, a derogatory term for a senseless empty-headed person, a term of utter vilification depicting someone as worthless, then you’re going to be subject to the council; and then, if you call anyone moros, foolish, empty, dull, stupid, as in moron, then you will be subject to the fiery geenna, Gehenna, that Jewish depiction of future punishment, otherwise known as the dump south of Jerusalem where the trash and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned.

Do you see what Jesus is doing here? He’s taking one standard of law that applied to a few people, those who commit actual murder, and applies the standard to all of us in our relationships, and shows us how this escalates in us. Anger brings us to a crisis point, to a point where something is tearing in the fabric of the relationship.

At that point, we have a choice—we can reconcile, we can speak the truth in love, we can hold accountable—we can do many things that will pull us through the crisis point toward life and richer relationship.

Or, we can blow past that point and head for the gutter, hurling derogatory words at the focus of our anger and frustration, stripping them of their worth. That will land us before the council. A stiffer consequence than a crisis point, a place where we have to stand accountable before the assembly of our tradition and have held before our eyes that tragic gap between the values we profess and the reality of our words and deeds.

And, we can choose to blow past that point, and move beyond the singular brother or sister who is the target of our anger, and spray our venom out upon anyone who’s in the way—and in one broad sweep, they’re all stupid, foolish, completely empty, devoid of any forethought or wisdom whatsoever, morons, and that will land us in hell, a place full of the stink of dead, rotting, burning trash, surrounded by our own venom.

And that’s just where Jesus starts. It’s going to be a long morning.

He then goes for the heart of the matter, and it’s brutal. 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. Did you get that? It’s not if you remember that you’ve got a beef with your brother or sister; no, as we come to this altar today, Jesus wants us to do a heart scan on ourselves—can we think of anyone who’s got a conflict with us? Can we think of any relationship in our lives that’s experiencing a tear in the fabric? Yes? Okay, pause, if you’ve got a pen, write that name down on your bulletin. If you don’t have a pen, etch that name in your mind. Jesus wants us to leave our gift here, and go and be reconciled with that person. I’ve always had this fantasy of stopping church right now and letting everyone go out into the world to do just that. What would happen if we did that? But back to the text.

Reconciled—it actually means “change, to change the mind of anyone, to renew friendship”so change course with someone who’s in conflict with you, and then come back and offer your gift. So, what if you commit to doing one thing this week toward reconciling before coming back to this altar? It could be a phone call, a letter, a cup of coffee to talk it out; it could be a commitment to hear them out; it could be a commitment to pray for a softening of hearts, theirs and yours.

 Because here’s the deal, that accuser that Jesus tells us to come to terms quickly with on our way to court, that accuser is just another way to talk about our opponent, our adversary, our enemy. And, in the greek, Jesus doesn’t tell us to come to terms with that person, but rather, Jesus tells us to wish them well, to be of a peaceable spirit with them, literally, to be well in the mind toward them. And Jesus is so right, if we don’t, then it lands us in prison, we are locked in a cage, and it is so hard to get out of that place.

Then Jesus goes on to do a really graphic lesson on how we can’t really  compartmentalize our lives. “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.

 How we view something matters, and how we view things changes our hearts. We think we can do this thing over here quite in isolation, and not have it affect the rest of our being, but we are coherent, whole selves. What one piece of our body, spirit, mind, heart does impacts the whole of who we are. We can’t quarantine off parts of ourselves—the actions of our bodies, the vibrations of our spirits, the fixations and ruminations of our minds, the ripples of our hearts—these cannot be contained. We either move through this world as a coherent whole, or we leave parts of ourselves behind and cut ourselves off from the abundant life of which Jesus speaks.

Jesus moves from there to pull into our consciousness the difference between what the law allows, what is permissible, and what is moral. The law certainly allowed divorce at the whims of the husband, but that doesn’t make it right. The ease with which a man could divorce his wife left the woman exposed and economically vulnerable. Jesus is saying to us, “Yeah, I know the law allows it, but you don’t divorce on a whim. Do not treat this most intimate of relationships with an air of convenience. Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it moral; there are grave consequences to this action—for everyone involved.” What’s motivating Jesus here is his concern for how men, who held the power, were trivializing marriage and putting women, who were property, in unbelievably vulnerable positions, and thinking that one could take those actions and go along one’s merry way. Anyone who’s been through the tragedy of divorce knows it doesn’t work that way.

And then, there’s  that whole sort of odd bit about how it was said in ancient times that people should not make false vows, but should fulfill their vows to the LORD, but how Jesus says, “No, don’t swear an oath at all, not by heaven, not by earth, not by Jerusalem, not by your head. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this full of anguish and hardship and labor.” Oh, so true. How hard it is to just say what you mean, and mean what you say, and set your boundaries, and say your “yes’s” and your “no’s” without hedging, apologizing, or explaining yourself ad nauseam. Keeping it to a simple “yes” or a clear “no” just feels so not southern, feels so wrong. Sometimes, we fear the distress that we think our clear “yes” or “no” might cause, and so we hem and haw, but oh my goodness, the tangled web of explanations we weave are a load of work. Jesus is counseling us that clarity is a gift. He had that clarity, and his clarity allowed the people around him to make the choices they needed to make. Honor your wisdom, and honor the discernment of the people around you. Let your “yes’s” and “no’s” simply be, and use all that freed up energy to move more deeply into the “yes’s” that God’s calling you to say.

Hard stuff, ehhh? Jesus is demanding an ethical consistency and coherence that few of us possess. It’s the narrow way he talks about, and yet, this is the way to life. And it has always been so. Moses reminds us today: I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. We have to consciously choose this life, for this is where we will find life and blessings and the promised land of abundance and right relationships.

This is the solid food that Paul talks about that so few of us can stomach. We’d rather follow our human inclinations and cling to our jealousies and quarrels and divisions, but this isn’t the field that God’s growing, and it’s not the field that God is building.

The scriptures focus a lot on systems and structures, but today, Moses, Paul, Jesus, they get downright personal. There are choices before each one of us, every single day, in every single relationship. What will we choose? Will we let our anger escalate? Will we work to reconcile? Will we wish our adversary well and allow our mind and hearts to soften? Will we compartmentalize our lives? Will we hide behind what is allowable and forsake what is moral? Will we stand by our “yes’s” and our “no’s,” and know that, while not perfect, we are enough? Will we choose life, or death?            Blessings, or curses? Will we grow up into the full stature of Christ and feed on this solid food?

So many hard choices; it all seems a little overwhelming to tell you the truth.          But you are here, and that’s enough to begin. This table is set,       and in this food, we will find the strength we need to choose the way that leads to life. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 12, 2017