What a cheerful Scripture passage we just heard from Sarah! It seems almost incongruent to entitle this sermon “Happy Are Those . . .” when we hear the strong words Jesus had for his disciples. Two weeks ago, we heard him say, “Happy are the poor, those who mourn . . .” and so on. Last week we basked in hearing that we are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” In light of those two discourses, today’s sounds like a smack-down of the first order. So, let’s look to see what God is saying to us and how it can apply to us today.
In grade school, I was terrorized by the nuns and their fear-of-God warnings. In 3rd grade it was Sr. Jean Clair. Her admonitions went something like this: if we were to ever consider jay-walking, we would do well to remember that a younger child might be watching, might follow our bad example, and probably be hit and killed by a speeding car. The stern warning included this Biblical quote: “It would be better that a mill stone be hung around your neck and you be drowned than that you would lead one of these little ones astray.”
Today’s Scripture reading sounds a bit like this—but it’s not what Jesus is saying. The words today first cite the extremes of the laws—murder, adultery, divorce, and false swearing—actions that the Law outlines as destructive to the community. But Jesus challenges us recognize that other actions, perhaps lesser transgressions, are just as destructive to the community and the individual.
Let’s take a moment to imagine once again that hillside, with Jesus instructing his disciples—the multitude gathered around his feet. The people might have been feeling good with Jesus’ words of The Beatitudes and the salt of the earth—they are blessed and happy. But wait, what’s that? Do you see some of them start to squirm? Are they looking around to see if others are pointing them out when Jesus is talking about anger and violence toward others? Let’s remember that God’s disciples do not need to squirm; they need to grow.
Jesus recognizes that we need to be reconciled with one another before we can come to offer our gifts to God. When we harbor hatred or grudges against our siblings and neighbors, we are less than God would have us be. I can rationalize and justify my resentments—but I cannot undo the harm I am causing until I can let go of my indignation and be reconciled with my enemies—or “frienemies.” Nursing resentments is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
One saying that I find especially helpful is this: we are not punished FOR our sins; we are punished BY them. Petty grievances and hurt feelings can leave us feeling cut off from others, leaving us lonely and bitter. So, I am grateful that Jesus tells us we can choose once again—can choose forgiveness and love. If we can ask forgiveness from others and in turn forgive them, we can learn to forgive ourselves, too—and we won’t have to keep repeating self-destructive behaviors.
This idea reminds me of a story they tell of two dogs, which both at separate times walk into the same room. One comes out wagging his tail while the other comes out growling. A woman watching this goes into the room, to see what could possibly make one dog so happy and the other so mad. To her surprise she finds a room filled with mirrors. The happy dog found a thousand happy dogs looking back at him, while the angry dog saw only angry dogs growling back at him. What we see in the world around us is a reflection of who we are.
At the risk of showing my naivety, I’ll share one of my childhood embarrassing moments. At some point in grade school—5th or 6th grade, I think—I went to Confession (which we did a lot as Catholic kids) and I told the priest that I had committed adultery! God only knows what was going on in my young brain, but I suspect the priest had a hard time containing himself. I only remember that he assured me I had not committed adultery!
Obviously, I’m not trained enough to elaborate on the Bible’s treatment of adultery, so I don’t intend here to go into extensive examination of that or the other issues outlined in today’s reading. But there are themes that can be explored which apply to each of them.
The overriding theme that comes through for me today is the effect we have on one another and on the community. Jesus calls us to treat one another with integrity, respect, and discipline, and to work toward reconciliation. God calls us to “love people and use things,” rather than “use people and love things.” We are challenged to not treat others as objects—to be scorned or used. To build the kingdom of God requires us to love one another—and to love and treat fairly and with kindness even those whom we might see as our enemies.
I would contend that today’s words of Jesus ARE a continuation of The Beatitudes. Happy are those who love God, who reconcile themselves with their families and neighbors, and who live with integrity. Perhaps it could be said, “Happy are those who do not stand in their own way.” When we can live in right relationship with God, others, and ourselves, we can truly bring about the Kingdom of God.
Today’s bulletin cover is an old cartoon from “The Family Circus.” It reminds us that we have an unlimited supply of love to share, especially with those who may feel unlovable or who doubt their own ability to love others. I would challenge each of us to find more ways to offer what Douglas Hare calls “Biblical love”—“a love that is marked not by ‘warm feelings’ of gratitude but by ‘rather stubborn, unwavering commitment.’” And he goes on to say, “. . . commitment can be seen as a setting of the heart, something we choose to do, a way we freely choose to live our lives. Commitment is that mysterious mingling of feeling and action, a beautiful dance between the two.” And when we act with such commitment, both we and those we serve are transformed.
Jesus calls us today to be reconciled with one another. If we are burdened with hard hearts, we cannot bring our true selves before God’s altar. We are taught that Jesus atoned for our sins. The word atonement can be broken down in another way—a way that speaks to me of its intent. The word can also be read as “at-one-ment,” meaning that we are called to be reconciled with everyone. God challenges us to choose love over power in all our relationships.
Happy are those who answer this call to love one another as God has loved us.
In the name of the one who loved us to the point of death, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Sermon Seeds for February 16, 2020, by Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson.
Working Preacher for February 16, 2020, by Prof. Eric Barreto, Princeton Theological Seminary.
Quotation by Douglas Hare.
Scripture Reading for February 16, 2020 Matthew 5:21-37
[Jesus said:] “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“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 lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 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 to hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.