Sermon preached February 13, 2011
Text: Matthew 5:21-37
Things were going so well. There was the beautiful difficulty of the beatitudes, pronouncing blessings. Then came the wonderful words – you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. Now there is a shift. The tone seems to change. Did Jesus stub his toe on a stone? Did he get a thorn stuck in his sandle?
You have heard it said that you shall not murder. Most of us can check that off the list – never murdered. But have you ever been angry, angry to the point where you insulted another, angry and insulting enough to shred the very fabric of a relationship?
You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery. Well, we are pretty sure that that is problematic and to be avoided. When it happens, it takes a lot of work to repair the relationship. So maybe we’ve avoided that too. But have you ever looked at a woman, looked at a man and felt desire, longing, lust?
Do you find yourself struggling with integrity as you say “yes” or “no”?
Have you ever divorced?
Let’s be honest, this change of tone in this speech of Jesus’, well, it is difficult. These are difficult words.
So what is Jesus up to? I thought we were salt and light. Now anger brings judgment, torn relationships are to be mended, we need to take care in how we look at women or men, if you are divorced – well that’s not good, we are to be more direct in our communication. I don’t feel so salty anymore. My light seems a little dimmer.
But that’s not the point. The point is not guilt or shame. The point is not to try and hide ourselves from ourselves. Anger, who me? Lust, never! I think the point is just the opposite – it is to foster a deeper honesty. The point of these words of Jesus is to take us deeper, deeper into our lives, deeper into what God hopes for us. God is interested in transformed lives, inside and out. God is interested in working in our lives to transform our actions, attitudes, dispositions and desires.
Before getting into that deeper stuff, I think we should remind ourselves just how important the changed behaviors Jesus identifies are. We may be wanting to go deeper than our actions, but let’s not forget how important it is to stay away from things like murder or adultery or falsehood. In a world that is all too violent, we should speak strongly for less violent behavior. In a world where sex is sometimes treated as just another physical activity, we should speak words of care and caution. In a world where it sometimes seems that what’s right is what you can get away with under the law with good legal representation, we should speak for more integrity.
Jesus is not trying to say that such things are unimportant in God’s scheme of things. They are very important. What he is trying to say is that we can avoid murder and violence, we can be sexually faithful in our relationships, we can be truthful on the surface, and still have work to do in our lives. The invitation to the Jesus way in the world is not an invitation to a series of don’ts. It is an invitation to live toward deep transformation – toward healing and wholeness in relationships, toward dealing not just with actions but also with desires.
And it begins with honesty.
Let’s be honest. We can avoid murder, avoid striking someone, yet still fall short in managing our anger or in our efforts toward reconciliation.
Let’s be honest. We can avoid adultery yet still struggle with our desires for intimacy or our desires around our sexuality.
Let’s be honest, unhealthy relationships are not just those that end in divorce. By the way, it needs saying every time we read this passage that this should never be used to be judgmental toward those who are divorced. For too long the church used this passage to beat up on divorced people, and that was a plain mis-use of this text. When you pay close attention to the text, you see that it is just addressed to men (so, it seems, is the text about lust, but I don’t want to go there now). At the time of Jesus, only men could initiate divorce and they could do so for any reason whatsoever. In a society where women were economically disempowered, not being able to own property, few job opportunities, divorce often meant ruin. This text is much more about justice and reconciliation than about divorce, per se.
Back to the main thread of the argument here. Being salt and light requires honesty. Staying salty and bright means continuing to open our lives to God’s Spirit for deep transformation, but always beginning where we are.
Last weekend I got my first look at Amsoil Arena. My son was given a couple of tickets for the UMD hockey game and he asked if I wanted to go. I was delighted. Well, when we got to the arena, it took us a little time to find our section. We found our section and our row and our seats were 7 and 8. We needed to walk past some who were already seated, but we were on the end of the row that required us to walk by more people than if we had been at the other end. A little embarrassing, but not terminal, until one guy we walked by said quite sarcastically: “Way to go guys, coming in at the wrong end of the row.” We got to our seats, but I was livid. What a jerk. It is not like we stepped on him or made him spill anything. It was not like he couldn’t stand up so we could get by – he was relatively healthy and probably a little younger than me. I suppose it didn’t help that he was a Gopher fan. I was tempted to say something to him about being rude (that was after a few other thoughts surged on by), but my anger subsided and I just wanted to enjoy the game with my son.
Is Jesus trying to tell me that my anger was akin to doing this man physical violence? I don’t think so. Is Jesus trying to tell me that just by being angry I was wrong? I don’t think so, though there were a few unkind thoughts that probably were not me at my best. What the words of Jesus do for me is make me think more deeply about my anger. Sometimes it is o.k. but that doesn’t mean I have to express it or act on it. In this case, I had to admit that my anger was mixed with my own desire not to look foolish. It would have been better had we entered the row at 1 rather than at 18, but that just happens sometimes. I need to be honest. I still have some work to do inside, and that’s o.k. to admit.
In the January/February issue of The Atlantic the following statistics were cited in an article: In 2007, a quarter of all Internet searches were related to pornography. Nielsen ratings showed that in January 2010, more than a quarter of Internet users in the United States, almost 60 million people, visited a pornographic Web site. Let’s be honest, there are a lot of people in this country, including people who are trying to follow Jesus, who may be struggling with desire, with intimacy, with lust. This is not the church saying that all sex is bad, that the naked human body is shameful, that every depiction of human intimacy is inappropriate. But that kind of traffic on the Internet says to me that there are struggles that we need to be honest about.
Psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath writes: Bringing what is hidden out into the light and knowing the name of what troubles us are the first steps toward autonomy. They provide us with insight and understanding about our hidden desires and emotional habits. But to become the Subject of our own desires, we need the moral strength or courage to face the conflicts of our inner and outer lives as we attempt to put our insights into action. (Women and Desire, 201-202) Jesus is inviting us to bring what may be hidden into the light. He is inviting us to a searching honesty.
Young-Eisendrath goes on to write, To follow blindly your own desires will create a prison of constant craving and longing, from which you cannot escape. To refuse your desires will create another kind of prison, one in which you will feel ashamed, guilty, resentful, or even psychologically dead. (203). We are salt. We are light. We are on the Jesus way. Yet, let’s be honest, we are still working out some of the conflicting desires we find inside. God give us the moral courage for that kind of honesty.
Charles Taylor is a brilliant philosopher. In his most recent book he writes this: It is generally thought that the more clearly you see the right, and the more committed you are to it, the more you will be moved by anger and indignation at all the violations of it that one sees around you. The pure in heart are in a perpetual flaming rage, according to this view. An openness to the vertical dimension [by which Taylor means new possibilities, often possibilities offered in religious views of life] – which raises the question, how do we all have to change, in our most basic motivation, in order to live up the ideals we’ve set for ourselves? – would alert one to the dangers of this cultivation of anger (Dilemmas and Connections, 363). We are salt. We are light. We are on the Jesus way. Yet, let’s be honest, we are still working out appropriate ways to feel and express our anger in a world where there is a lot to feel angry about. God give us the moral courage for that kind of honesty.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer led an underground seminary in Nazi Germany for a time. He worked to create a meaningful common life among the students and teachers and reflected on the challenges of Christian community in a work called Life Together. There he wrote: Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream…. God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves…. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship. Bonhoeffer is saying that genuine Christian community needs to begin with an honesty that we who are salt, we who are light, we who are on the Jesus way, are also working out our salvation, are also undergoing continuing transformation by God’s Spirit as we work with anger, desire, reconciliation, and integrity. God give us the moral courage for that kind of honesty.
One last thought. We often talk about the challenge of churches in attracting young people. We often look at music and worship style and the like, and these matter. But I am convinced that one factor that has kept some young people away from the church in our inability to be honest about the struggles as well as the joys of Christian life. Too often the church has said that we are beyond struggles with desire, emotion, reconciliation. We speak as if we are never angry, and then our anger comes out sideways. We avoid as much discussion about sexuality as we can, yet none of us would be here without it Rather than do the challenging work of reconciliation, we avoid disagreements until they erupt, making reconciliation much more difficult. So let’s be honest. Our salt will be saltier. Our light will be brighter. Amen.