In today’s gospel, we are being asked to use our imagination. FIRST, there are a lot of DIRE things that Jesus says. If you do THIS, then THAT will happen. If you are angry, insult a brother or sister, if you look with lust then what you need to do is tear out that eye or hand. Or if you swear falsely, you will be liable to judgment, or the council, and its better if you lose a body part than go to hell.
What are we to make of these things that Jesus says? Should we ignore them as irrelevant to people who live 2000 years after him? Should we say maybe Jesus was having a bad day, and we’ll listen to him when he’s in a better mood?
We have been on a thematic journey where we have been mulling over what it means to be righteous. We started with the Star of Bethlehem leading the three wise men, and then Jesus took over the job of the star. HE is the light that we have been following, from the Jordan River, to the Sea of Galilee, to the mountain where he gives us this sermon.
I have held up his father, Joseph, as an example of someone who didn’t do the bare minimum, when the bare minimum of righteousness would have gotten Mary shunned or stoned to death. Joseph must have wondered how could those actions, grounded in the LAW, be considered righteous when it would result in DEATH?
As I said, today’s gospel is asking us to use our imaginations. Jesus is addressing these harsh words to those people who consider themselves very righteous. If there was a scale of zero to ten, there are listeners who would have given themselves tens on the scale of righteousness.
But today, Jesus is saying, ‘but what about?’ What about anger? What about insults? What about nurturing anger in your secret hearts? What about those grudges?
What about forgiveness? Where is reconciliation in your life? What about lust? What about divorce? What about swearing falsely? What about what about what about . . .?
For those listeners, many may have been cringing. What IS righteousness when you factor in all these other things? The law and the prophets don’t mention any of them, yet, Jesus says he is not here to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill them.
In today’s gospel we see the disposition of our hearts MATTER, and Jesus addresses hearts, always. Jesus is RELATIONAL. RELATIONSHIPS matter.
The Light of the world sheds LIGHT on hearts that would prefer to remain in the shadow, because the legalism of the day doesn’t challenge hearts at all. The list Jesus gives us is DAUNTING. Jesus presents a new world of relationships, where love is the difficult path we walk. Where we reconcile with each other as brothers and sisters.
Where we put aside our anger because there is no such thing as righteous anger for us humans, as his holy people.
The only one who gets to have righteous anger is GOD. And we say, where is this world? We have an inkling that it cannot be made by HUMAN righteousness. We hit our limits as humans when we read today’s gospel.
For example, when Jesus brings up lust, he confronts the MALE gaze of his time, and he says when you LOOK – SEE the women as children of GOD, as children of the Father.
In Jesus’ day, divorce would be life-threatening for the woman. She would be left to starve in the street, with no recourse to her family of origin. Jesus just got through saying their righteousness has to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, the good people, who pat themselves on the back as being the best of the best, the holiest of the holiest.
But there are even bigger things than our individual righteousness. Jesus is addressing a CROWD of people and saying YOU in the plural sense. When this gospel was being written, there were Christian communities being formed around Jesus’ words and his life, death and resurrection. The questions would be what do you need to do to keep this community going? The law and the prophets weren’t enough. Sure, thou shalt not kill is a useful commandment, but chances are that no one was going to kill each other in the newly formed communities, so what else do they need to do to be a Christian community?
If any of you work or have worked in an office, would you call it a Christian community just because no one there gets killed? No, of course not. In order to make a Christian community, MORE is expected than refraining from killing, the bare- bones of the ten commandments. Using our imaginations, how could we make the workplace or the office LIFE-GIVING? For one thing, KINDNESS, is necessary. Putting aside our anger is another. Not holding grudges. SEEING each other as children of GOD is essential. Granting people dignity. A Christian community is where score-keeping is not done.
When Jesus speaks about lust and adultery and divorce, he speaks to the WORTH of the individual. Where the dignity of the individual IS kept. Jesus is speaking to mind sets where some people are seen as expendable and disposable, especially women. You could make a list of what is necessary to make your work place a Christian community.
These words of Jesus are not an academic exercise from the past. A large sum of money walked into this church – and now we see it’s not about money. It shed a light on the squabbles it caused. Jesus speaks to all of us NOW to build a BELOVED community NOW, as St. John Lutheran Church of Bellmore. Putting away anger and not keeping resentments is useful and NECESSARY instruction. There are different and NEW directions and paths opening up for us at St. John to follow, let’s ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, remember the necessity of being KIND.
Even if you are certain that the new path is the right path, let us BE KIND to one another. Even if you are certain that YOUR way is the ONLY way, remember that Jesus is THE WAY.
No matter where we are on the spectrum of discipleship, we cling to Jesus as THE WAY. Remember Jesus’ words about the first being the last and the last being the first. There is no competition here, except a competition in KINDNESS.
There will be no Christian community, there will be no BELOVED community of St. John of Bellmore without kindness. Kindness is not the instructions for the other person, but for me, and you and ALL of us. So, let’s take a deep breath and remember to BE KIND.
And look at today’s reading from Corinthians; Paul says that the Corinthians are still on milk, not solid food, meaning they are UNLEARNING their old ways of living, and they are still learning this NEW WAY of LIVING. For them, it was to UNLEARN jealousy.
What is the task before the people of St. John? Paul’s words are relevant NOW as we deal with each other in KINDNESS. Jesus came to start NEW ways of relating to each other. Doing the bare minimum was not going to create and sustain these new Christian communities of love, these BLESSED communities.
Holding grudges and resentments is not a foundation for building BLESSEDNESS. Jesus urges us to be truth tellers, without the exaggerations of making oaths. Refusing to forgive and withholding forgiveness does not build holy living.
And what exactly is holy living? Is holy living a form of RIGIDITY and a form of PERFECTIONISM where we cling to what does not give life? Abundant living is open-handed; it forgives, it lets go of grudges, it desires what is best for the other person. Abundant living sees and respects the image of Christ in each other even if we disagree with each other. What Jesus wants us to do is focus on our relationships. He uses exaggerated language like cutting off body parts and losing an eye to make his point.
Jesus’ words today show just how challenging it is to follow him. We all have our short comings. If St. John is to do more than survive but THRIVE it will be by digging deeper to find the mutual respect we need. We will need to cling to our Good Shepherd as he invites us to go deeper into relationships of Christian love and respect. Christ is the one who shares his SPIRIT with us, so that we can live the way he sees we are capable. We can do it. Let’s use our imaginations to imagine St. John as a place where we put kindness first. Let’s put on our Jesus glasses and IMAGINE what a church devoted to KINDNESS would look like.
I thank you, Lord for your challenging words. Let us all take them to heart. You show us how to have a deeper Christian community and to have a deeper relationship with all of us. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.