“A Higher Standard,” February 16, 2020, Rev. Louise Kalemkerian
Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
In the name our all-loving God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen.
I think we need to be reminded over and over that God’s name is Love. I say this because there are so many messages in our culture that mitigate against our believing that we are loved and lovable. The bottom line of the Bible is that God loves us totally and unconditionally. God hates nothing God has made, and all persons are made in God’s image. And as St. Paul says, nothing can separate us from God’s love. I want us to remember this as we unpack this difficult text.
It’s jarring to hear these phrases we get today “if you call your brother or sister ‘you fool,’ you will liable to the hell of fire, and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away, it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” These are words from the God of love, the very heart of God made flesh, Jesus?
This section in Matthew chapter 5 follows the Beatitudes and is part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus makes a series of statements in his discourse “You have heard that it was said…” followed by “But I say to you…”
In this passage, Jesus expands the meaning of the Ten Commandments. He expands them to perhaps an extreme and unrealistic level. He equates murder and anger, calling a sibling a fool with blasphemy, and lustful thoughts with adultery. He’s teaching that we are to follow the spirit of the law, not simply the black-and-white, either/or interpretation. But instead of making it easier, Jesus is actually casting a wider net. Following Jesus always means being held to a higher standard. What matters most, he says, is that in all ways we do whatever we can to live righteously and hopefully and, in the process, we will protect the well-being of others.
Our relationships matter to God. Jesus is repeating this idea over and over throughout the Sermon on the Mount. How we live with one another is hugely important, because God loves each and every one of us so much. And God loves each of our neighbors, that is every person in the world, as much as God loves us.
To acknowledge that our relationships matter to God is to reinterpret the law in a way that I think is more faithful to this passage and the larger biblical witness about the nature and purpose of God’s commands.
Part of our struggle with Jesus’ words is a cultural one. As a 21st century Christians living in the U.S., I think we are inclined to read Jesus’ sermon — actually to read all of Scripture — through an individualistic, American lens.
This is not the only way to read this text. Jesus isn’t just admonishing individuals in his Sermon on the Mount; he is calling forth a new community. A blessed community. A beloved community. A community meant to initiate a radical way of living life on the earth. A community Jesus trusts will follow in his footsteps, and incarnate God’s love to a world hungry for hope and healing.
Preaching professor Thomas Long reminds us that the community to which Matthew wrote these words had its share of disagreements, church fights, broken relationships. Not any different from us 21st century folk. Still, I believe Jesus is asking us to look beyond our personal relationships into the wider culture in which we live. Jesus is calling us to see all of our neighbors, whether we like them or not or don’t even know them, as God’s beloved children. And then Jesus is calling us live this same ethic with them as well.
There is more than one way to kill another. I don’t have to take a gun and shoot a person; my words, my attitudes, my discounting and disrespecting another can have the same effect. I can “cut” a person down to size, I can “stab a person in the back”, I can belittle and demean and criticize another and make that person feel worthless.
As I was thinking about today’s lessons, I was caught by a report of the meeting of the Episcopal Church Executive Council this weekend in Salt Lake City. The meeting began with presentations by Native Americans about the toll racism and discrimination have taken on them. In the Episcopal Church. Today, not just in ages past.
We all know of the genocide of Native Americans in our American history. The presenters at the Executive Council meeting stated that “deep injustices linger on today in forms like intergenerational trauma… but new injustices continue to manifest the centuries-old idea of Native peoples’ inherent inferiority.” That the old history continues to plague the communities in other actions, as well, including the destruction of Native people’s cultural heritage and the reduction of the Bears’ Ears National Monument in southeast Utah, both of which continue to show a lack of respect for the dignity of Native peoples.
When I read this report, I realized, again, that Jesus’ words on killing another have much wider ramifications. Jesus is calling us into community, not just with our friends and those like us, but into a wider, global community. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We are called to love and respect all our neighbors as ourselves. And as our baptismal covenant states, we are to strive for peace and justice for all people.
Jesus goes on to challenge his hearers about adultery. He’s making clear that life is threatened when women, any persons, are objectified, seen merely as fulfillment of sexual desire. Women, Jesus insists, do not exist for the taking, in spite of what some of our leaders have said.
Jesus says that life is threatened when women are consistently reduced, even discarded, based on their capacity to satisfy privileged and patriarchal needs. And he says life is threatened when you do not follow through with oaths you make.
One important disclaimer: This Gospel is not an indictment of those who are divorced, those who have made the difficult decision to leave relationships that were unhealthy, abusive, stifling, even life-threatening. Our God is not happy when we are miserable.
In other words, Jesus is saying that interpreting the law is far more complex than we make it out to be. And if our interpretations lead to death — the silencing of voices, the discounting of the personhood of the other, the disrespect and demeaning of entire groups of people, the labeling, the putting people down — then we have to think long and hard about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. These words of Jesus apply in every aspect of our lives, especially in our communal, civic life; because the Gospel covers all of life.
If this wasn’t enough, Jesus adds hyperbole, exaggeration, about cutting off body parts and burning in hell to magnify just how important our relationships are to God. Jesus is using a rhetorical device, exaggeration, common in his time, to get our attention. If we were to take this teaching literally – tearing out our eyes and cutting off our hands when we were tempted to even think about doing things that are harmful – there would be a whole population of dismembered people walking around, as one of my friends pointed out this week. What Jesus is saying is that not only actions matter but also our thoughts and intentions.
Like that old Hebrew National hot dog commercial from years ago, Jesus is calling us to a higher standard. Loving God and loving our neighbor is challenging, demanding, often very hard. I take comfort in a quote from Br. Mark Brown of the SSJE: “Sometimes I imagine Jesus pondering the human condition down through the centuries and saying, ‘What was I thinking? It’s just too hard for them – they’ll never get it all right! I’d better give them all a free pass.’” He continues, “There’s a certain expansiveness in giving out free passes – and what could be more expansive and loving than God?” 
 Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, February 9, 2020.
 Thomas G. Long, Westminster Bible Commentary Matthew, p. 56.
 Brother Give Us a Word, October 13, 2013.