Sermon preached February 16, 2014
Texts: Matthew 5:21-37
White Tail Chapel invites all worshippers to come as they are, exactly as God made them. The church, located on the grounds of the White Tail resort (“a Family Nudist Community”) focuses on casting off material concerns, including clothes…. Pastor Allen Parker told a local television news station that many of Jesus’ most important moments happened when he was naked.
How many of you are familiar with the author and speaker Richard Rohr? Richard Rohr is a best-selling author and speaker. He is a Francisan monk. One of his book is entitled The Naked Now. I don’t think White Tail Chapel is what he had in mind. You just cannot make up stuff like this.
One of my undergraduate majors was psychology. I will never forget a date I had in college. That I can remember them so well says something kind of sad about their frequency. Anyway, this young woman and I went to a movie. She knew what I was studying and after the movie she confessed to me that she was nervous the whole time, wondering if I was analyzing her reactions. The relationship did not last long.
So here we are this morning with some texts that often make us as uncomfortable as if we were attending a clothing-optional worship service. We have words of Jesus about anger, about lust, about divorce, about truthfulness. And it is not just because I was a psychology major that I think this, but I think these texts are about digging deeper, about inner work, about laying bare the heart and soul if you will.
Jesus begins with elements of his religious tradition. You shall not commit murder. But he uses this to offer words about anger and angry words. “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.”
You shall not commit adultery. Jesus uses this, as if it may not be uncomfortable enough, to move in a different direction. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And if that is not difficult enough he goes on. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.”
Divorce was permitted in the Jewish tradition of Jesus time. It was always solely a male prerogative. Divorced women had few opportunities to make a living economically. Capricious divorce left women destitute. Jesus wants to speak against this. but how he does this! “Whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Jesus also has some words to say about deep truthfulness, but perhaps we already have enough to grapple with.
You must admit, this is pretty powerful stuff. These are some pretty powerful words. Anger – don’t even think about it. Lust – don’t even think about it. That’s not easy in our sex-saturated society. Divorce – don’t even think about it. I’m not sure that “don’t even think about it” thing is a very accurate understanding to these passages, but it seems closer to what we have done with them over the years.
An acquaintance of mine, someone who was working on her Ph.D. at SMU at the same time I was, and is now teaching theology at a seminary, posted a link to an interesting piece on her Facebook page this week - “The Most Pernicious and Pervasive Heresy (within American Christianity).” You want to know what it is? The writer of the essay called it “respectablism.” Here are elements of what he means by respectablism. Many local churches tend to become instruments for achieving middle class interests, whether or not these interests can be defended in New Testament terms…. Most American “church people” look for a church that will entertain and comfort them. As soon as it challenges their most basic values and lifestyles, they either protest or leave.
I am not sure my theologian friend agreed completely with this essay, but she thought it might have something to say. I have problems with the way this person characterizes some issues, but there is a truth here for us and we see it in how we have dealt with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.
We have taken Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 and understood them to mean, “don’t even think about it” and made that “don’t even think about it” mentality our standard of respectability. What does it mean to be a Christian? It means to be respectable. We don’t get angry. We don’t really deal with the fact that we are sexual beings – don’t even think about that. Marital problems, don’t even think about it. For many years the church harmed a lot of people with its head-in-the sand, don’t-even-think-about-it attitude toward divorce.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not against being respectable. Nor do I think we should think about anger, and lust and divorce cavalierly. But I think Jesus is after something more than respectability. What I think Jesus is after here is a certain kind of naked honesty, though not the kind at White Tail Chapel, more the kind in Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now. These words of Jesus invite us to dig deeper into our lives. These words of Jesus invite us to serious inner work. These words of Jesus invite us to dramatic transformation. But dramatic transformation begins with willingness to honestly look at who we are, look at all the tangled roots of anger and sexuality and relationality that are inside of us.
Jesus says in Matthew 5: “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Paul writes in Ephesians (4:26): “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” So is anger ever appropriate? I believe it can be, but only when it arises in the face of injustice and hurt in the world. Even then, anger is in danger of being captured by self-righteousness. We always need to be aware of our anger. We must always ask tough questions of our anger, whether or not it is really rooted in concern for others. We must not let anger turn into self-righteousness. If anger is ever to be creative and constructive, it must be thoroughly woven together with love. In the face of anger we should either be weaving it together with love or learning how to let it go. Failing to do that, we tend to nurture a negative attitude toward those with whom we stay angry. We would like to see them eliminated in one way or another. Sounds a little like murder, doesn’t it. This is not about “don’t even think about it,” it is about digging deeper.
Jesus says in Matthew 5: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I remember when President Jimmy Carter was a presidential candidate, and admitted that he probably had not been pure when it came to lust. Some people were shocked, as if this was the most horrific thing he could say. We fool ourselves if we don’t think sexuality is powerful, and we fool ourselves when we deny that we are sexual beings, to some extent or another. I appreciate how author Sharon Salzberg puts the matter of the appropriate use of our sexual energy. “All too often, people will sacrifice love, family life, career, or friendship to satisfy sexual craving. Abiding happiness is given up for temporary pleasure, and a great deal of suffering ensues when we are willing to cause pain to satisfy our desires…. Sexuality is a very powerful force. A mature spirituality demands that we, without self-righteousness, commit to not harming ourselves or others through our sexual energy” (Lovingkindness). When we look at people only through the lenses of our own desires, we begin to see them as merely the sum of their parts, not as whole persons, and Jesus wants us to see others as whole persons. This is not about “don’t even think about it,” it is about digging deeper.
Divorce. I have already said something about the social context for this passage, how women in the time of Jesus were often made destitute by divorce, and it remains true that women tend to be made poorer by divorce today, too. Jesus is concerned about that. Beyond that, Jesus takes life-long covenantal relationships seriously and so should we. While divorce may be a regrettable but necessary alternative when there has been deep unfaithfulness in a relationship (this is not just sexual unfaithfulness), it should never be seen as an easy option. How do we grapple with all that is inside of us that longs for deep connection with another, but also fears such connection. This is not about “don’t even think about it,” it is about digging deeper.
These difficult words in Matthew 5 are not about superficial respectability. They are about deep transformation. They are about the adventure of inner work. They are about following Jesus even into our own hearts and souls with a certain naked honesty.
In his book, The Naked Now, Richard Rohr captures something of this inner work. It is living in the naked now, the “sacrament of the present moment,” that will teach us how to actually experience our experiences, whether good, bad, or ugly, and how to let them transform us” (12) We are invited to be awake, which Rohr describes, in part, as “I drop to a level deeper that the passing show” (135). We want to keep “moving deeper into faith” (166).
An elderly gentleman ran an antique shop in a large city. A tourist once stepped in and got to talking with the old man about all the many things he had stacked around his shop. Said the tourist, “What would you say is the strangest, the most mysterious thing you have here?” The old man looked around, surveying all that he had in his shop, then turning to the tourist, said, “The strangest, most mysterious thing in this shop is unquestionably myself.” (Anthony DeMillo, Taking Flight, 131)
We are strange and mysterious and wonderful, with capacities for beauty, but also for harm. The invitation here is to do the inner work needed to let God’s grace and love touch all that we are, transform all that we are, so that God can love the world through us. It’s not about “don’t even think about it,” it is about digging deeper. Amen.