Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 16, 2014
Friday was Valentine’s Day—a day that followed a Nor’easter and left us surrounded by snow. Life in states in the south came to a halt and one official canceled St. Valentine’s Day in the interest of public safety. How would the weather interrupt one of the most popular secular holidays of the year? Business owners and romantics worried about flower deliveries and dinner reservations.
I mused about children making cards for their parents, cutting big hearts out of red construction paper and decorating them with sparkles. It is, after all, a big day in the U.S. According to Hallmark, more than 163 million cards are sent on this holiday. The heart—it is the quintessential symbol of this observance. Valentine’s Day is all about the heart. And, strange as it may seem, so is the Gospel we heard today.
When I first perused it last week, I wished that we were not a liturgical church with a fixed lectionary as the mandated resource for preaching. I would have gladly passed on this text and chosen something more upbeat, comforting, and far less challenging. It would have been much more fun to play with last week’s passage about salt and light than navigate the mess of mangled limbs and plucked out eyes, adultery and murder. Nevertheless, I’ll give this one my best shot.
I’ll set the stage by reminding us that the season of Ephipany proclaims the good news of God’s presence with us. Our response to that proclamation, our recognition of God’s life and work here, is not just about going through the motions of looking like we’re a church. Jesus calls us to a whole new life in God.
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…” He offers sharp contrasts but neither erases nor discounts the teachings of the law, using traditional and familiar teachings on murder and adultery as essential grounds for building his case for a higher standard of morality. Jesus intensifies and radicalizes these teachings, extending them into almost every area of life.
No longer do the commandments against murder and adultery apply strictly to acts of murder and adultery. Instead, they become entryways into the understanding of internal feelings as well as external behaviors of one’s life: anger, ridicule, defamation, false generosity, arrogance, and alienation among these. Ambrose Bierce wrote in his famous “Devil’s Dictionary”: “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” That advice covers a lot of ground.
Perhaps one of the most radical aspects of Jesus’ extension of the law is his internalization of it, so that not only behaviors, but attitudes and emotions fall within its scope. Jesus connects the dots from outward acts to internal orientation. It is one thing to behave properly. It is another thing entirely for one’s heart to be focused on love.
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 happiest when we are most miserable.
Jesus offers a more far-reaching ethic, a realm of God ethic, one already hinted at in the list of beatitudes preceding this discourse. The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the pure in heart–all of these are blessed not because they are exemplars of the law, but because of their inward orientations of heart. The righteousness of this newly launched kingdom of God is more than following rules. It requires and empowers a life yielded to God and neighbor.
Hhmm. What do we do with this gruesome eye and arm stuff? Even if only a small portion of Christians followed through with what Jesus suggests here, we’d run into mangled faces and folks with missing limbs all over the place. People in the pews would look like the cast of a horror movie.
Even the most conventional biblical literalists agree that Jesus never intended his followers to pluck out their eyes or saw off their hands. Yet his reframing of morality exposes the easy concessions we make. People may applaud themselves for not committing murder while they ruin someone’s reputation by nasty gossip or by some mean-spirited post on FaceBook. We even call that “stabbing someone in the back.”
And does the notion of first reconciling with anyone who has something against us before we can give our gifts to God not give us great pause? That resentment, alienation, and estrangement from others, prevent me from even offering gifts to God? How radical an idea is that?
People can pat themselves on the back for not committing adultery, and yet create primary relationships with work, sports, an addiction, or even the internet that prevent their honoring the relationships that should take priority in their lives. What Jesus is doing here is shifting our attention from the “big sins” of which we typically are not guilty to the orientation of our hearts that we need to cultivate.
“You have heard it said.” Who, exactly, was doing the speaking in that case? We have heard it said by whom? By those who went about reminding people of all the rules and regulations they had to follow, that would be the Pharisees, the face of religious law-enforcement in the Hebrew community. “You have heard it said,” implies “by the Pharisees.”
Matthew is the most Jewish gospel, the one most likely written by a Jew for a Jewish community. This text is a full-throated engagement of Jesus with his heritage. This is a family conversation, Jesus adding his wisdom to the wisdom of the ages and in the midst of this discourse, Jesus makes two very significant points: the law is an impossible taskmaster. None of us is capable of complete and utter fidelity to it without the grace of God.
And this is the Good News—we have that grace. We have it, no matter who we are or what we have done. We have the love of God, through no power of our own, not because of who we are but because of who God is. God in Jesus re-orders the relationships of this world and re-orients the internal backdrops of our lives. During this Epiphany season, we claim once again that we have a living God, come to life among us. We proclaim a God present in the flesh and bone of our lives, not a keeper of check-lists nor a dispenser of punishments.
Edgar Allen Poe was one of my favorite authors when I was in high school. Apropos for Valentine’s Day, his short work “The Tell Tale Heart” is a macabre story of a man snuffing out the life of another and burying him under the floorboards, then hearing his heart pounding in his ears. I hear a heart beating throughout Matthew’s passage, a telltale heart.
We don’t generally get to the point of committing murder or adultery without first experiencing a long journey of the heart that leads from peace to violence or happiness to restlessness. Today Jesus says, “Pay attention to your heart. That’s where it all begins.”
You may recall the commercial for Capitol One credit cards that asks, “What’s in your wallet?” This morning Jesus simply asks, “What’s in your heart?” What’s in your heart?