We’ve heard it said…

A Sermon preached on February 16, 2014
at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland
Based on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37

If you’ve been in a hospital recently, you’ve probably experienced some form of the pain scale chart. I’ve seen them done with both smiley faces and with numbers. The nurses and doctors no longer say: Are you in pain? They use some version of a universal pain assessment tool which assesses pain according to the patient’s experience and then medicates them accordingly. Medical caregivers have come to understand that one person’s severe pain is another’s mild pain. And that pain treatment cannot be handled in the same way from patient to patient.  This is a real gift to us, but it is somewhat unusual in a world where we are more comfortable with polarities and dichotomies.

plus or minus
thumbs up or down
guilty or not guilty
I like it or I don’t like it
Republican or Democrat
Liberal or Conservative

These are choices we often find we have to make.

And today’s texts ask us to look at two more:

yes or no
life or death

As common as these choices are, if you ask most undergraduate philosophy students, they’ll be able to tell you that this kind of black and white reasoning where we are forced to make a choice between two things of seemingly equal value is called a logical fallacy – these are false choices. They’re false not because they’re inherently wrong – they’re false because the two options and the methods we use to choose between them are so much more complex than the question presents. It’s not simply a matter of “which shall I choose” but
And:  What are the potential outcomes of my choice?
And:  How is my life affected over the long run?

Truth be told,  we probably don’t even need  to ask a philosophy student.  Most of us experience the reality of ambiguity, of gray areas every day of our lives. That’s why when we hear passages of scripture that seem to present unambiguous requirements based in ancient Hebrew laws, we resist more than a little bit.

So let’s take a look at what’s behind today’s texts.  Though it may not be immediatley apparent in texts like the ones before us, it’s hard to argue with the truth that what undergirds all of this is relationships.  Relationships are important to God. If we learn nothing else from scripture, if we take nothing else away from sermons, Christian Education, social justice engagement – any and all church work – it should be that relationships matter.

We can start right at the beginning of the Bible.  Take a look at Adam and Eve. They didn’t get in trouble just because they disobeyed. They got in trouble because they didn’t take their relationship with God seriously enough to trust that God knew what was best.

And what about the Ten Commandments? Well, a quick glance tells us that the first section explains how to be in a good relationship with God and the second tells us how we should treat each other. So in the wilderness when the Israelites were acting up, God didn’t get angry just because they were disobedient – because they can’t or won’t follow each and every one of the laws. God got angry because the people chose to honor their relationship with the culture, economy and powers that surround them rather than hold up their end of their covenanted relationship with God.

I wonder would would happen if we could shift our thinking from trying to understand the Bible as a rule book to considering Scripture as the guiding force behind the way we treat each other and God. What if the whole law is meant to call our attention to all the ways we need to honor those around us?

A brief review of the first section of what we know to be the Sermon on the Mount reveals this pretty quickly. Remember, this is the first opportunity his disciples and the curious crowds have to hear him speak. Jesus is laying out his mission statement in this extended teaching. And guess what!?  It all boils down to relationships.  With every word of this teaching, Jesus is explaining to those who would follow him that being part of God’s kingdom means we treat each other in very careful ways.

We are humble, we mourn with each other
We are meek
We strive for righteousness
We are merciful
We try to keep our hearts pure
We are peacemakers
We are willing to be persecuted in the public square because we are committed to these ideals.

We’re the salt and light – making sure these ideals get communicated to those around us in ways that are palatable and visible.

We’re to seek and offer forgiveness.

It’s a tall order to be sure.  But Jesus clearly says he didn’t come to erase the law. Instead, he’s using his first public speaking opportunity to turn it up a notch – to intensify the law.  And he does it in a very precise way – taking one law at a time and dialing it up.

We’ve heard it said that murder is wrong – but Jesus is telling his followers (and us) that It’s not enough avoid murder. We have to treat each other with love and care. If we stop for a moment to think about it, it makes total sense. How many times have you watched a little (or big) death someone uses demeaning language to shut another person down. The same thing happens whenever we speak hateful words or gossip behind someone’s back. Any time we behave or speak in ways that diminish another person, we are murdering our relationship with them.

We’ve heard it said that adultery is wrong – but Jesus is telling us that it’s not enough to avoid the physical acts that have been defined as committing adultery. Any time we objectify another person to satisfy our our own needs, we have committed adultery. Any time we think we can make use of another person to get what we want, we have broken relationship with them and committed adultery.

We’ve heard it said that divorce is wrong. As a divorced woman, I’ve struggled with these words.  To be sure, if and when we hear them, we might wonder what century the speaker is living in. Of all the things Jesus says, this often seems the least sensible. Yet if we take what Jesus is saying seriously, then we will come to realize that the injunctions against divorce means we shouldn’t casually throw people away. The ancient laws were oriented around making sure that the most vulnerable would have everything they need.  I have learned to hear these words as part of the whole of God’s covenant relationship – that means I have to work hard at forgiveness, work hard at recognizing the needs of my spouse, work hard at remembering that Peter’s well being is woven together with my own.
We’ve heard it said that swearing falsely or lying is wrong. Now even the youngest among us know this deep inside. But Jesus takes it one step further. He’s saying: if we are upfront and honest in all our dealings, if we are honest with ourselves and each other about the truth of our motivations, if we aren’t making deals behind the scenes so that we can accomplish what we want, then we shouldn’t need to make oaths at all. In other words. We should be able to know that we can truly trust that a Yes means Yes and a No means No.

So for us, the bottom line boils down to what an Old Testament professor once asked: what kind of community do we want to inhabit? What kinds of relationships do we want to have?  These are an important question for us because it means we look at the law, not as something that helps us stay out of trouble, but as something that actually makes us shape our lives in such a way that we are caring for each other before we do anything else. We’ve heard it said… The question is… Can we, will we do what we’ve heard? May it be so.

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