Based on Matthew 5: 21-37
Addressing the Elephant in the Room …
There are times in each of our lives where we regret not being prepared. For me, this was one of those weeks. Once a month I visit Wynfield Retirement residence and do a service for about 10 people. I take a travel communion kit and a copy of the readings for Sunday with me to use in the service. This week, I neglected to review the readings prior to my arrival. I thought to myself, “There will be nothing surprising since the Gospel reading is part of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.” Then I began to read the Gospel to the residents. Oh, how I wished they were all deaf or sleeping. It would have made my life so much easier.
Later in the week I sat down to investigate more deeply what was going on in Matthew. I have a personal stake in this – my parents divorced many years ago. While I have not always had a great relationship with my Father I do not want my Dad to go to hell, or for my mother to suffer any more consequences of something that happened a life time ago. A good and just God would not punish these people in this way, right?
As I prayed, re-read and studied this passages I began to get a little upset. How can I operate in the world if I am not allowed to vent my anger? When I am angry and upset with someone, I want to pray about what to do and not talk with the person I am upset with. I might make it worse, or I may get worse. To top it all off, Jesus’s stance on divorce is firmly rooted in the Old Testament and does not appear to give any wiggle room on the matter. Divorce happens when lies and lust take root and begin to choke out the beautiful plant of marriage. Jesus is taking a clear and extreme stance and we are left to twist in the wind. Thanks Jesus for intending to send my Dad, who is broken like the rest of us, to hell. God’s judgment appears to be arbitrary, and will eventually catch up with you in the end. What is really going on here because it does not sound quite right to me.
One of the striking things about this entire passage is the extreme nature of it. Caught yourself looking at a pretty boy or girl too long … pluck your eyes out. That is extreme. This extreme tone permeates through the entire passage. This is a rhetorical style that drives home a point. It would be impossible to avoid the impulse of noticing an attractive person. However, we are called to avoid the long gaze and lust filled imagination that follows … and yes, we have all done that from time to time. We have all been angry with another person, and we have all had to reconcile with someone too. The point in all this is not to get bogged down in endless debates about what precisely is allowed. We know what is right and wrong, and we are called to do our best to hold to these standards as best we can. We are also called to love, forgive and reconcile with ourselves and each other as best we can too.
My parents are as reconciled as they can be. Forgiveness has been offered and received by both sides. I have reconciled with my father and forgiven him, as he has done for me, for things I had done. This stuff is to be worked on now, and not in some distant time far in the future. God’s process of judgement begins now, and continues each day after that. So, don’t give up on yourself or others. God, in Jesus hasn’t and neither can you. I do not believe a good, just and loving God would condemn my family in light of all this faithful work of restoration and reconciliation – work that Jesus commands too.
Discipleship in community
When we read this section of Matthew we tend to focus on the individual directives that are laid out for us. There is nothing wrong with this, and the scripture itself lends to this kind of initial reading to be sure. When you move your focus back from the individual examples something new comes to the forefront. This thing is what binds the reading together and each of together. Our sense of belonging to a community of faith is holds each piece together. If the individual examples are concerned with what is right and wrong for an individual, the collective story is how a faith community is called to account, support and lovingly nurture each disciple.
Nothing we do as Christians, believers of Jesus Christ, is an autonomous action. What you do and what you say … how you live influences those around you. When we remember that there are others around us our actions begin to shape who we are as a community. This is part of the reason that we need to pray for and with each other.
What you do and say with your individual faith actually matters. It matters to the people sitting next to you in the pew every Sunday. It matters to your family, friends, and children. It matters to you too.
Two weeks ago a man came to Family Friday’s well before we were ready to eat. He was not well kept. He was meek and had a sad, depressed way about him. He entered the hall quietly. I stopped talking with the caterer, turned around and greeted him. I asked him if he was staying for a bite to eat, and I asked him if he was okay.
He was not. He could not stay for dinner. He told me that he was moved by what we are doing. He told me how much the program means to him and his friends. He told me that he believes in God and was having a really rough time. A friend of his, who came with him to Family Friday’s last year, committed suicide. His group of friends are having a really hard time with this and they don’t’ know what to do, … so they drink a lot. They don’t know how to deal with what is going on in them and around them. I asked if I could say a short prayer with him. Standing in an empty hall, in the door way to the stairs we prayed. He cried. He could not talk. He reached in his pocket, took out 6 dollars – all that he had on him – and placed it in the basket. He wanted no food, but he wanted to give back because we had given to him and his friend last year. I offered to speak with him and his friends to see if we could sort out where God was in all this, and to help connect them to services in the area that might be able to help. He only said, “Thank you, thank you …. Thank you.” This man lives in the house across the street.
When you leave this building, and share your faith in God, you are sharing more than just you and your beliefs. You are sharing a relationship and a claim of Godly connection. You are sharing this community of faith. You share God with the other person. This may feel heavy – and it is – and it is part of what it means to be part of this parish. When that man entered the hall, he was looking for more than a soft shoulder and a listening ear. He was looking to connect to God in someway – and I was privileged to be there and help connect him. He knew he needed help to see the truth of what was going on in him and around him. He needed a community of faithful people to connect with. He needs each one of you too.
Communal life means that we follow Jesus together. It means that faith and belief are not only private affairs and that there is a right, and a wrong. There is no way to do what Jesus will ask of you, and reach your full potential, without community with you and beside you. The community helps each person figure out what is right and what is wrong – and helps to remind us that we are forgiven when we fall short of Jesus’s demands too. Even more than this, when you realize that your potential as a disciple, who you are called to be, is not just dependant upon you and solely rests on your should, but is helped by another, it is then that you begin to believe it.
This may seem obvious to you, but this is very hard to speak and live out. The modern age favors and rewards individualism, autonomy, and independence. When we speak about communal right and wrongs, community and dependence on others, we will not be sharing popular messages. We will need to be prepared for questioning and resistance, or even a flat-out rejection of Jesus’s demands because they go against what the world favors and values.
When we remember that God is with us, not just that God is with me, we begin to realize we are not simply members of community but shapers of that community too. The shape of this community proclaims a critical thing that is absolutely true, – our God is a God of community, this community right here right now. In this community, we are called to support each other, and hold each other accountable in forgiving love, kindness and grace … just as Jesus does. Amen.