Sermon for Epiphany 6A

Matthew 5:21-37 & Deuteronomy 30:15-20

 

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” This verse from Deuteronomy is often quoted by those who advocate for the pro-life side of the abortion debate. Of course, they are narrowly defining what life means in this case—the baby who is growing inside his or her mother is alive, and therefore, choosing life in this case means not having an abortion, but instead letting the baby come to full term and be born. Some of you may have been following the recent controversy between Thrivent and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod this week. The LCMS is ardently pro-life. Someone in the LCMS discovered that Thrivent’s Choice Dollars program, which allows people to direct where Thrivent gives some of its money designated for charitable programs, was allowing people to direct money to Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Planned Parenthood is one of the nation’s largest abortion providers, so obviously this person had a problem with this. They let the higher-ups in the LCMS know, and these folks raised a ruckus with Thrivent. Thrivent, hearing these concerns, put a hold on all charitable money going to both pro-life and pro-choice centers while they examined the matter. Several days later they came back with a decision: no money would go to either pro-choice or pro-life organizations. The ironic thing about this is that, while it was only one chapter of Planned Parenthood that was involved in this controversy, and only one person had directed money in their direction, many more pro-life pregnancy resource centers, who had relied on this money coming in from Thrivent, are now looking at reduced funding because of this decision. What the folks in the Missouri Synod thought it meant to choose life actually wasn’t in the end.

In today’s portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us a broader view of what choosing life is all about. And it is about our relationships with one another. Jesus’ tightening up of the laws against murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing are not meant to become legalistic, with us being thrown out of the kingdom of God if we break them. Instead, they are meant to be a description of what life in the kingdom is supposed to be like. And that life is not about following the letter of the law to the extent that we show no mercy upon others. Instead, it is trying to understand what the spirit of the law is, and how that law benefits us and sets us free to love one another.

So, let’s begin with Jesus’ teaching about anger. If you’re like the confirmation kids who encounter the commandment, “You shall not murder,” for the first time, you’re going to think, “Well, I’ve never murdered anyone, so I’ve got that commandment down, no problem.” But, Jesus says that even if you’re angry with someone, then you’re liable to judgment. Now, Jesus knows that we are going to get angry in life. Jesus himself got angry when he went into the temple and drove out the moneychangers with a whip. What Jesus is talking about here is about holding that anger inside of you so that it eats at you constantly and damages the relationship you have with the person with whom you are angry. Because the longer you hold that grudge and that anger inside of you, the closer you skate to actually murdering the other person. This is why in our worship services we have the sharing of the peace before the offering. It is not really a time to greet friends and ask how they are doing. It is not, as some have named it, the “seventh-inning stretch” of the worship service. Rather, it is a holy ritual to signify that we are reconciled with our brothers and sisters before we offer our gifts at the altar. God is more concerned that we are in a right relationship with our brothers and sisters than he is about what we offer to him as gifts.

From anger and murder, then, Jesus moves on to the relationship of lust to adultery. And remember that we are putting this not in the framework of morality, which wags its finger at people when they break its rules. No, we’re putting this in the framework of right relationships with one another. There is a difference between lust and love. Lust for another person objectifies that person. In other words, if I am lusting after a man, it is because I see that man not as a person, but instead as an object that I can use to fulfill my desires. Love, on the other hand, sees the person as a beloved child of God, someone who is sacred, and not an object. If I love someone, then that frees me to ask what that person’s needs are in order that I may serve that person. Lust leads not only to adultery, but also to things like sexual harassment and to rape. Love for one another leads to commitment to one another, service to one another, and to valuing each person as a beloved child of God.

I recently saw a video online that reversed the roles of men and women in society, so that men could experience what often happens to women, even today in the 21st century: being whistled at by construction workers, enduring lustful stares from those passing by, having the blame for an assault put on us because of the outfit we are wearing, etc. This video is a little too much to be shown as part of this sermon, and even I, who have experienced some of this myself, was shocked to see the man in this video being put in this role. (If you folks reading this online would like to watch this video, here is the link:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/07/gender-roles-reversed-film-oppressed-majority_n_4740248.html) In Jesus’ teaching today, he does not say that we will never have lustful thoughts. To deny that we have those from time to time would be to deny that we are human. Instead, in God’s kingdom, Jesus is calling us to discipline and master those thoughts, for when we do not master them, they lead us down the road to adultery and worse. We as Christians are called to love and value one another, remembering that we are all God’s beloved children, and not to treat one another as objects to fulfill our desires.

After anger and lust, Jesus tackles divorce. This is the most difficult part of these difficult teachings today, because divorce is common and, although not necessarily approved of in the church, accepted as sometimes necessary. It was not always like this. I remember reading some old church records once where the council of that church—which was Lutheran–deliberated on whether or not to excommunicate two people because they had gotten a divorce. So to understand what Jesus is telling us here, we need to understand the culture in which he lived. The law stated that a man could divorce a woman (and not the other way around) if he “finds something objectionable about her”. Some strands of interpretation of this law said that therefore a man could divorce his wife if she ruined his dinner! Jesus therefore tightens up this law for the woman’s protection, because if a woman was divorced, she was often without protection in her society.

Of course, we Christians who want to be faithful to what Jesus has taught us then earnestly seek to understand in what cases today divorce and remarriage might be allowed. Some of us, while meaning well, then make this teaching into a legalistic rule, which is not what Jesus intends. Again, remember the framework that we’re looking at for all of these teachings: it is about relationships and it is about treating people as loved and valued children of God. For a man to divorce his wife for ruining his supper meant that the man was treating the woman as a disposable object, and not as a beloved child of God. So, as we look at divorce within the Christian community, we will need to ask ourselves in each case: Is one partner treating the other in a way not befitting the value that each person has in the eyes of God? If so, is there anything that we as a community can do to help the couple stay together? Or, is this a case where it is better for each partner to go their separate ways in order to regain that sense of being loved? What will be the best solution for everyone to be safe and protected? When we frame the question of divorce in this manner, we move away from a legalistic interpretation of what Jesus has taught, and more towards the mind of God.

Finally in today’s passage, Jesus tackles the issue of swearing oaths. This may seem a bit foreign to us, as we usually only think of swearing oaths in connection with testifying in court or taking political office. In Jesus’ world, things were done verbally instead of being written down, so oaths to do something that was promised were the way people were held to their word. This doesn’t mean that lying still didn’t happen, though—people lie and have been lying for a long, long time. So, in Jesus’ day, oaths were becoming overused and no longer meant anything. Today, Jesus’ teaching is that, as Christians, we believe that God knows the truth about all of us. Therefore we should not be afraid of speaking the truth to one another, but with the goal of keeping our relationships with one another good and harmonious. We do not need oaths to keep us to our word, for love and respect for one another will encourage us to speak plainly with one another. Again, it is about treating others as beloved children of God.

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,” says the first part of the verse from Deuteronomy. Those who interpret the word “life” narrowly often forget the rest of the sentence, but now, let’s add it on: “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days”. Jesus shows us what choosing life in a broader interpretation looks like. And his interpretation of these laws, while seeming stricter than the original ones, are given to us out of his great love for us, knowing what will help us to choose life and live long: living harmoniously together. These teachings from his Sermon on the Mount today are not meant to be interpreted legalistically, for to do this would not enable his beloved children to live in right relationship with one another. Instead, we are to live according to the Spirit of the Law. Will we fail at this? Of course—we are still sinful human beings. But we rest in the knowledge that our loving and gracious God will extend mercy to us, and that knowledge will help us extend mercy to one another. Amen.

Sermon for Epiphany 5A

Matthew 5:13-20

 

Today begins a couple of Sundays where our Gospel readings come from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I have heard many people say to me over the years that, “The Old Testament is about an angry God who likes to smite people, while the New Testament is about a loving God that Jesus teaches us about.” Or, in other words, the Old Testament is all Law while the New Testament is all Gospel. To counter that teaching, I point to numerous passages in the Old Testament that show a God who loves his people immensely. And in the New Testament, I point to the Sermon on the Mount as an example of Law. Over the next couple of Sundays, we will hear Jesus giving us examples of how he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but rather to fulfill them. As I have encountered these passages over the years, I tend to fall into despair: what does Jesus mean by them, really? And how can I ever be expected to live up to them? If you’ve ever felt this way when reading portions of the Sermon on the Mount, or hearing them in church, don’t worry: this is a typical Lutheran way of viewing passages of law: the law is a mirror to show us how much we need Jesus’ forgiveness, so let us throw ourselves on his mercy and trust that he will forgive us. It is not a bad way of looking at these difficult passages. However, when we do this, we tend to forget that Matthew wasn’t a Lutheran, and neither was Jesus. Neither one of them had as much of a problem with the relationship of good works to faith as Lutherans tend to have. And so, I think in order to try and fully understand what Jesus is telling us in his Sermon, we need to take off our Lutheran glasses for a moment and look afresh at the teachings we find here. When we do so, we may find good reason to hope and not to despair.

So, let’s begin by looking at the teaching we get in today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth.” Before we get into what Jesus means by this metaphor, and whether or not salt can actually lose its saltiness, let’s clarify one language issue from the start. One of the great deficiencies of the modern English language is that there is only one word for “you”, whether it is singular or plural. Of course, if you’ve spent any time in the South, you know that they remedy this deficiency by saying “y’all” when they mean a plural you. So, let’s make Jesus’ teaching a little bit clearer here: “Y’all are the salt of the earth.” In our individualistic American culture, we think it is up to each one of us—alone—to fulfill this description by Jesus. Sometimes it is. But what would it look like if we, as a community, were indeed “the salt of the earth”?

Before we answer that question, let’s see if we can figure out what Jesus means by calling all of us salt. Salt is necessary for life. Salt is used as a preservative as well as for flavoring. In fact, salt was so valuable in the ancient world that it was distributed to the Roman soldiers as part of their pay, and this is where we get our modern word “salary”. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “You’re not worth your salt,” you can understand how in the ancient world that would be a huge insult.

So, let’s look at the use of salt for flavoring. Salt is used in almost everything we eat, including recipes for cookies that usually call for a dash of salt. If there is too little salt, then you have something like the chicken noodle soup that my mother made once when her doctor put her on a low-salt diet. It was inedible without the salt, so the rest of us were adding much salt to the soup. Or, if you have too much salt, the food can also be inedible. After spending 2 ½ years in Taiwan, I came back to discover exactly how much salt we Americans add to our ready-make dishes when my mother made a pre-packaged pasta dish as a side for dinner one night. I had never before realized exactly how salty those things are, and discovered that apparently in Taiwan, not much salt is used in fresh-made food. So the use of salt must be exactly right—neither too little nor too much.

As a community of Christians in the Powell area, then, Jesus is saying that we are and will continue to be salt for Powell, giving this town the essential flavor it needs to make life palatable. And we need to bring just the right amount of flavor to the community—too little, and no one will know that we are here. Too much, and everyone will know that we are here, and wish that we weren’t. For Jesus to call us salt means that we need to be visible—to the right degree–to the surrounding community. What then does that look like for us?

One way of not being salty enough and becoming invisible to the community would be to blend in with it so completely that we are indistinguishable from the rest of society. For example, if all we are known for in society are good works, then we become just another community service group like the Kiwanis or the Lions or the Eagles. And I mean no offense to any of those groups, because they do very good things here in Powell. What I mean is, the good works that the congregation of Hope Lutheran Church does come from a different source and we have a different reason for doing them. We do good works in the community, like giving to Loaves & Fishes and to Boys & Girls Club and other groups, as well as volunteering to help them in other ways, because the love of God compels us to. The good works that we do are meant to be windowpanes through which the love of God shines (and so we also see what Jesus might mean by describing us as the light of the world). So when someone asks us why we give so much of our money and so much of our time to helping others, our response should be, “Because God has done so much for us through his Son, Jesus Christ, and I want to show that love to my neighbors in need.” This is how we are the salt of the earth—doing things for a different reason, and being the windows through which others can see the love of God.

There is a way, however, that we as Christians can become too salty for the community. Some of you may know that there was a debate aired this week between Ken Ham, the guy who runs the Creation Museum and who believes in a literal six-day creation as described in Genesis, and Bill Nye the Science Guy, who, as a scientist, believes that the theory of evolution is the most correct way we have to describe how the earth was created. There was a lot of hype about this. Looking at the Facebook comments from both my conservative and liberal friends, each side claimed victory in the debate. However, there were many of us on the sidelines who were groaning because we thought that people in America were going to get the impression that Ken Ham represented all of what Christianity believed about creation. And the rest of society was going to think, “Oh, those crazy Christians. They won’t believe evidence that’s right in front of their faces that the earth is older than what they think it is. I’m so glad I have more sense than to become a Christian and believe in that nonsense.” This is an example of one segment of Christianity pouring too much salt into society, so that the rest of our culture wishes all of us weren’t around.

The problem in this case is that those of us in the middle on these issues don’t speak up loudly enough. What would happen, for instance, if we as a community stood up and said, “We don’t believe that science and faith are incompatible. We believe that God delights in us when we ask questions. We are willing to reexamine what we believe the Bible says when scientific evidence gives us something that we think contradicts what we believe. After all, the Christian faith didn’t crumble when Galileo and Copernicus proved that the earth rotates around the sun instead of the other way around. We believe that doubt is an essential part of a stronger faith. So scientists, your doubts are welcome here and we will encourage our children to continue to have faith as well as encourage them to examine things that science puts in front of them. After all, we’re Lutherans, and we say “yes” to either/or questions all the time.” That, I believe, is an example of just the right amount of salt to add flavor to our society.

One of you, several months ago, brought up this question in reference to Jesus’ salt metaphor: How does salt lose its saltiness? After all, I’m sure all of us have had salt sitting in our cupboards forever, and we never notice that it goes bad or loses its taste. Whereas our table salt is pure sodium chloride, salt in the ancient world was seldom pure. The salt collected around the Dead Sea contained a mixture of other minerals, so it was possible to imagine the salt content being washed out and “losing its saltiness”. This part of the metaphor was a reinforcement of the image of losing our distinctiveness as a Christian community and melting in to the surrounding culture—that is, of not being salty enough. When we continue to gather around the Word and Sacrament each week, however, we are reminded of the source and the purpose of our community. When we do this, we will neither run the risk of losing our saltiness nor of becoming too salty for the society around us. Let us therefore continue the cycle of meeting together frequently and going out into the world to be salt for those around us. Stay salty, my friends. Amen.