Choose Life (So that you and your descendants may live) (2/12/17)
Maurice Harron, Hands Across the Divide
Sometimes it's difficult to decide which scripture to preach on. That was certainly true for this morning's gospel lesson. I didn't want to preach on divorce and remarriage because, well, I don't think I'm qualified. But sometimes that discomfort is a sign that I need to do some more investigation before I make a decision.
Good morning! I think I need a second to catch my breath after all that Scripture. First, I’d like to thank everyone who helped out with the meal last Sunday. The food was delicious! I wish I could have tried more of the soup. Everything that I tried was wonderful and the company was even better!
This week’s lessons all continue with the theme of true righteousness that we have been hearing throughout these last few weeks. There is a wonderful harmony to all three readings, and that’s why I wanted you to hear all of these readings together—even if it feels like we’re drinking from a firehose.
Now it’s usually best to stick with one text, just one story, and then try to explain one part of that story, particularly if it’s something that’s difficult to relate to in our world today. And I’ll admit, I was tempted to do that. I really wanted to dive into the Deuteronomy text, or even Paul’s letter, because they both speak directly into our situation today: the Deuteronomy speaks to our time of transition here at Rehoboth and the Apostle Paul speaks to the discord in our society. I could give you some of the history behind either of those readings and I would be right in the middle of my comfort zone.
Anything other than that passage from Matthew.
You know, the one about divorce and remarriage.
Yeah. That one.
The one where Jesus says that if a woman divorces her husband, and then she remarries, that both the woman and the new husband are committing adultery.
What the heck can I possibly say about that? What the heck do I know about marriage? I’ve never been married! Why on earth should I preach on this text? What the heck am I thinking? I mean, besides the fact that I have to work really hard to use the word “heck.” No. Heck doesn’t fit the way I feel when I think about this passage. Yet sometimes, when I feel uncomfortable after reading a text, that means I have to spend even more time working through the text and the problem that I have with the text.
To explain my problem with what Jesus says about divorce, I need to tell you about my friend Charissa. Charissa is one of my very best friends from seminary. She is also a Presbyterian pastor. Charissa’s great act of teenage rebellion was to get married shortly after high school. That marriage didn’t last.
Charissa’s first husband was physically and verbally abusive. Some of the members of the church she belonged to witnessed the abuse, but they didn’t want to see her get a divorce. Her pastor even counseled her to be a better wife—that would make the abuse stop. But it didn’t. Charissa came to believe that she had to leave her husband to save her own life. Later, she and her first husband divorced.
A few years after, she met Tim, her second husband. And then a few years after that, Charissa went to seminary. Charissa and Tim are still together and they have a great marriage. Yet if we go by the letter of what Jesus says, they are both committing adultery. Certainly, Jesus would approve of Charissa leaving her first husband to save her own life. But how could the Presbyterian Church approve her for ministry? Yet I know that she’s a great pastor and the she and Tim have a truly healthy relationship. How can that be different from God’s plan for them? It sounds to me like she’s living faithfully into her call.
The problem is not with what Jesus says about divorce, the problem is pulling that one saying out of its larger context. Today’s gospel lesson is about true righteousness. In fact, this is the common thread running through all of today’s readings—righteousness above and beyond the letter of the Law.
The narrow context of today’s gospel lesson is the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus is teaching the disciples how to be righteous as they go about living their call to be disciples. The broader context is that Jesus is pushing back against the teachings of the scribes and the Pharisees, who spend an awful lot of time debating the Law of Moses and how to follow the law. This legalistic approach to Scripture leads the scribes and the Pharisees into a place of self-righteousness. Jesus is arguing against this sort of legal interpretation. In doing so, he offers a nearly-impossible standard to live into:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.”
So, guys, men, when’s the last time any of you plucked out an eye, or cut off a hand? Anyone? I didn’t think so. This is almost impossible, and if we try to obey this command word-for-word, then we are falling into the same trap as the scribes and the Pharisees.
So, what causes us to zoom in on just one little piece of this story, rather than the entire context? Why do we get so hung up on this bit about divorce and remarriage that we miss the call to true righteousness? First, practicing true righteousness is really difficult. Self-righteousness is so much easier. Perhaps the temptation toward self-righteousness is greater because our world has become so confusing.
When my parents were kids, they were taught that if they worked hard, they would succeed; they would always have enough to provide for their family. I was taught that, too, and not just by my parents. To be fair, each person defined success a little bit differently. For some, this meant going to college, or even grad school. Success meant a career as a teacher, as a nurse, or as an accountant. For those who went further, it meant a career as a doctor, a lawyer, a college professor, or maybe even a call to ministry. For others, it meant learning a trade, or getting a union job in the mines or in a mill. Success was buying a new car, buying a house, sending your kids to college so they didn’t have to work in the mill.
But somewhere along the way, the bargain changed. This change has happened in the space of my life. In 1971, just about everyone believed that hard work was enough to guarantee success. In 2017 we are not so certain that hard work leads to success. As the bargain changed, we began arguing with one another about who changed the deal, whose fault it was.
We see the fruits of this argument—the bitter fruits of this argument—in our broken politics. It used to be that the shouting stopped after the campaigns were over. Now, we yell at one another on social media, while our political parties yell at one another through the news media. Any story that we disagree with is labeled “fake news.” Our party affiliations have turned into our personal identities, even more than our jobs or our relationships.
I hear echoes of our world and our broken politics in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He takes them to task for their spiritual immaturity; he cannot speak to them, “as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” The people are too attached to their worldly identities; that’s what it means to “be of the flesh” for Paul. The Corinthians are still ruled by their human nature, rather than by Christ’s call:
For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
Paul is saying that we are called to transcend our human identities. The community at Corinth wasn’t quite there; neither are we. We see ourselves as Democrats or Republicans; conservatives or liberals. We see ourselves as business owners or teachers, computer programmers or steel workers, nurses or miners. We see our professional identities and our political tribes. I belong to Paul. I belong to Apollos. In this, we fail to see our true identity in Christ and we fail to live into our call to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world.
This doesn’t mean that we’re not called to reconcile our differences in our own nation. In fact, that’s exactly what we’re called to do. We’re called to listen to the people whose politics we disagree with and work with one another to build the Kingdom of God. To do this, we have to stop shouting at our neighbors. We have to set aside our human urges. We can no longer scream: “You’re not a true American!” Or, “You’re not a true Christian!” And we have to forgive anyone and everyone who has shouted those things at us. That ain’t easy.
In our personal, secular lives, and also here in church, we hear what we want to hear because it’s easier than actually listening to people we don’t agree with. We call out other people’s unrighteousness because it’s easier to pick out a verse or two from Jesus or one of the Ten Commandments and make an argument about someone else’s behavior. We hear what we want to hear and we do what we’ve always done because it’s easier than changing. It’s easier than being truly righteous. It’s easier than following Jesus, especially when Jesus tells us:
· Blessed are the meek.
· Blessed are the merciful.
· Blessed are the peacemakers.
This is the context of Jesus’ teaching and the Apostle Paul’s teaching, too. But we don’t want this context. We don’t want to be humble when the world tells us to stand up and assert our individuality. We don’t want to be merciful to people who have hurt us. We don’t want to make peace with people who are wrong. We don’t want to follow Jesus.
But we’re stuck! We’re stuck as a church and we’re stuck as a society! The only way forward is to follow Jesus. The only way forward is to practice the true righteousness that Jesus preaches. The world is profoundly unjust. And each and every one of us participates in that injustice in some way, shape, or form. We cannot wish that away and we cannot ignore our own participation in the ways of the world. Nor can we say set aside Christ’s call because some person or group has wronged us. We must participate in this work. We must forgive others and we must work toward peace and reconciliation.
You may have noticed that I pulled the title of my sermon from our lesson in Deuteronomy. We are very concerned about the survival of the church, and this congregation, in particular. For too long, we have measured the church by the things of the world: the number of people in worship and the amount of money we collect every Sunday. This is how we measure success in the church.
Beloved, I am here to remind you that we are NOT called to be successful. We are called to be faithful. I believe that faithfulness, faithfully following God’s call to love one another and do the difficult work of reconciliation—in this congregation, in this community, and in the world—is the way forward. This is how we choose life! If we live faithfully into Christ’s call, it will bring about a renewal and revitalization in the church. This is true everywhere, even here at Rehoboth. If we remain faithful to God’s covenants; if we work for reconciliation; if we reach out to the last and the lost and the least; then people will see that we are alive with the love of the Lord. People will see that we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ. We are called to participate in His saving work. We are called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Live as changed people. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!