Listen to the sermon:
I must confess to you all, right here and right now, that I thought I was so clever a few weeks ago when I decided in my ever so finite wisdom that we should spend the season of Epiphany delving into Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Sure, Jesus never actually preached the Sermon on the Mount, but it does represent a first century distillation of the teachings of Jesus. Whoever it was who wrote the Gospel according to Matthew put together a compilation of Jesus greatest hits and the Sermon on the Mount represents the teaching that Jesus died for. The Sermon on the Mount is the very heart of who Jesus of Nazareth was and so those of us who seek to follow Jesus in the 21st century ought to at the very least know what’s in these passages of scripture. So, I told you all that we’d take advantage of this unusually long Epiphany season to work our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Apart from the Beatitudes which function as the introduction of the sermon, these passages of scripture rarely come up in our three-year lectionary cycle of gospel readings. I thought I was so smart when I came up with this idea. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed the challenge of the past five weeks of preaching on Jesus’ teachings. Well, Monday morning I got my comeuppance. Clearly, I’d forgotten all about today’s reading when I came up with this ingenious plan. Mondays are my day off, but sometimes I sneak into my office just to get the wheels in motion. I did a double take when I read these verses. I didn’t come out of my office for a couple of hours.
What was I thinking? But I told myself not to panic. If I stayed calm, I’d find a way through this mess. So, I picked some lovely hymns, thinking if nothing else Marney could lead us in some beautiful singing and you might forgive me for dragging us all into the hell fire and damnation that I was pretty sure these texts were going to take us to.
Tuesday morning, I thought I’d better check hat other preachers have said about these texts. Well, apart from some pretty conservative preachers, it was pretty slim pickings. Liberal and progressive preachers tend to leave these texts alone; most of the commentaries lead you back to the first reading from Deuteronomy and suggest sermons on the value of choosing life. Most Lutheran resources suggest the preacher fall upon God’s grace as the only solution; and Lord knows a few years ago, I might have taken that option…back when I still believed that we were all fallen sinners in need of God’s unmerited grace to save us from the punishment due to us under the law. But I’ve moved so far away from the doctrines of original sin and atonement theories that this particular option although appealing would sound somewhat hallow coming from me. So, even though I suspected that in the end, I’d fall back on grace, it couldn’t be the kind of grace that gets handed out by some super gracious, super-natural being up there in the sky. So, I began wondering what a progressive does with this text once we’ve located grace not in the hands of a super-natural being, but as a quality that permeates creation. Well it was clear that most of the progressives I was consulting just avoided the problem of these texts altogether. So, I consulted a few of my progressive colleagues around the world to see if they could help. But most of them had seen this one coming and had opted for the second option for the gospel reading for this the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany and they are preaching on a relatively tricky piece from the Gospel according to John and have enough problems of their own. One colleague, who no longer uses the prescribed readings, just laughed at me for not seeing this text coming while there was till time to do something about it. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep on Tuesday night. Visions of the fires of Gehenna danced through my head as I argued with Jesus. By Wednesday, I was feeling desperate.
None of the theologians I usually consult were of any help so I resorted to Googling the text. When that didn’t get me anywhere, I decided to just google “progressive Christian sermons.” I figured some progressive somewhere must have posted something. The first entry under progressive Christian sermons was Rex A Hunt. Terrific, Rex is an Australian who has helped me out of many a jam. So, I went to his site and wouldn’t you know it under the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Rex recommends preaching on Evolution. Turns out that among progressives this just happens to be Evolution Sunday and Rex has posted a great sermon on Charles Darwin. So back to Google I went. I kid you not friends, if you don’t believe me, google progressive Christian sermons and the second entry is somebody named “pastor dawn.” I couldn’t help myself, I just had to click on it and I was taken to a post on my blog that contained a sermon I’ve posted that many of you have heard me preach before about Brenda, Janice, and Sue, three prostitutes who used to live next-door to me when I lived in Vancouver’s east-end. I was almost tempted to bow to
Google’s algorithms and just preach that old sermon one more time. But I thought no, there’s got to be a way through this. So, back to the text I went. I read it over and over again.
“You’ve heard the commandment, ‘No committing adultery.’ But I tell you that those who look lustfully at others have already committed adultery with them in their hearts. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. It’s better to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It’s better to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna. It is also said, ‘Whenever a couple divorces, each partner must get a decree of divorce.’ But I tell you that everyone who divorces—except because of adultery—forces the spouse to commit adultery. Those who marry the divorced also commit adultery.”
Ah Jesus, what where you thinking? By your own logic we’re all going to have to pluck our eyes out, and cut our right hands off!!! This is nuts. We’re all, each and every one of us guilty according to Jesus interpretation of the law. I’m an adulterer, you’re an adulterer, we’re all adulterers! So, will it be blindness all around. One armed adulterers are we marching off to the fires of Gehenna.
This is the stuff of nightmares and nightmares I was having. And then it hit me. The text says, everyone who lusts is guilty of adultery. We all lust so we are all guilty of adultery, right? So, then the text says, “But I tell you that everyone who divorces—except because of adultery—forces the spouse to commit adultery.” By the text’s own logic, everyone qualifies for a divorce because everyone has committed adultery. I was so relieved. I went out to buy my love a Valentine’s Day card. On the way home, I began to second-guess my own genius. I mean if it is that simple why didn’t somebody else discover this way out. So, when I got home I went up to my office and consulted the Greek text. Sure enough my worst suspicions came true. Turns out I’m not really that clever. My solution doesn’t work because the Greek words that are translated as adultery are different. The first word that is translated as adultery is the common garden variety Greek word for what we would call adultery; being unfaithful to one’s spouse. The second word that is translated as adultery, has a different meaning. The word in Greek is pornia, we get our word pornography from it. Back in the first century it was used to mean sexual promiscuity. Turns out that according to the text only those whose spouse was positively pornographic about their infidelity could get a divorce. We are talking about a level of sexual promiscuity that would make a porn star blush.
I gave up. Well actually, the whole thing made me sick. I mean that literally. On Thursday afternoon, I came down with some sort of flu bug that knocked me off my feet and sent me to bed moaning and groaning. Without going into details, I was really sick. A colleague to whom I complained on Friday, just laughed and blamed it all on Jesus. Oh, Hutchings he said, “Jesus has made you sick to your stomach!” So, I thought two can play at Jesus’ game. Make me sick will you, well, I’ll just call in sick. Let Pastor Tom deal with all you adulterers. I’m not going to get out of bed! We’ll the only problem with this solution is that I actually like Tom. He’s a great friend and he’s had quite a week of his own getting ready for the two concerts at which he preformed so brilliantly. I was too sick to come on Friday night. But I head via the grape-vine that Friday night’s performance was simply wonderful. Valentine’s Day and Song’s of Love and Romance, how could I ask my friend Tom to turn his attention to adultery when he had one more performance on Saturday night. It just wouldn’t be fair to ask him to sing last night and then preach this morning. Besides by yesterday morning I was over the flue and I’d have to lie if I wanted to call in sick this morning.
So, yesterday I read the text over and over again, I consulted all sorts of experts, but I just couldn’t see a way through this. I gave up and went to the concert last night. I’m so glad I did. Tom, Gary, Marney, Cyndy and Linda were marvelous. I went to bed with songs of love and romance dancing through my head. I woke up this morning at ten minutes to four with a completely different song running through my head. It was a song from my childhood. A country song. Sung by none other than Tammy Wynette. I’d sing it for you, but I like you people and I don’t want to subject you to my Tammy Wynette impersonation. So, let me spell it out for you.
Our little boy is four years old and quite a little man
So we spell out the words we don’t want him to understand
Like T-O-Y or maybe S-U-R-P-R-I-S-E
But the words we’re hiding from him now
Tear the heart right out of me.
Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final today
Me and little J-O-E will be goin’ away
I love you both and this will be pure H-E double L for me
Oh, I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
Lord help me Jeeezus!!! I jumped right out of bed and I knew I was in a whole heap of trouble. I had nothing!!! Usually, when this happens something comes to me in the night. But Tammy Wynette!!!
A hymn sing…Tom joked last night that if I did call in sick he’d resort to a hymn sing. So, I started to try to think of hymns that you all love to sing but I could get D-I-V-O-R-C-E out my head. This was pure H-E double L for me. Great an earworm. Over and over again Tammy sang as I drank coffee and slurped my cereal. Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final today. Me and little J-O-E will be goin’ away. I love you both and this will be pure H-E double L for me. Oh, I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
There’s just something about a song that can take you back to the times when you first heard that song. In the wee hours of this morning I was ten or eleven years old again. Singing on the backseat of my father’s car. My brother sitting beside me. The whole family singing along to Tammy Wynette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Suddenly, my little brother Alan’s arm strays over to my side of the backseat. So, I did what I always did when that happened. I belted him one. Right smack in the middle of his chest. Pow. Stay on your own side, why don’t you. “Don’t make me stop this car!” my father would warn us. “If I have to stop this car, you’ll both get the hiding of your lives!”Let me stop right here. For those of you unfamiliar with the English word “hiding” back in the day, when I was coming up, a ‘hiding” was what now a-days would be called child abuse. Some of you may have called it a spanking. But if my Dad had to stop the car, my brother and I would have taken a hiding and we would have known that we deserved it. “Thems was the rules.”
It was so different back then. Back then, the eighteen months that separated my brother and I in age, meant that we were always at it. Our disagreements were never resolved by time-outs. Often we were left to our own devices, which meant nothing less than a fight to the finish and I’m not talking about a verbal disagreement here! I’m talking about a knockdown drag out fight to the finish. I beat the what’s it out of him or he beat the what’s it out of me, to the victor went the spoils. I can remember so amazing battles. Chasing one another around the house, threatening to kill one another, wrestling one another to the ground, breaking doors down to get at each other, pulling hear, pinching, punching. I don’t know what sisters are like, but brothers, my goodness, we could go at it. But today, when I think of my brother, it’s like something comes over me, that I can’t explain. Nobody in the whole world is like my brother. I couldn’t imagine hurting him. I love him. I’d lay down my life for his and I know he’d do the same for me. We share a love that nobody can understand. We just aren’t the same people as those two kids who fought like cats and dogs back then. It’s like we’re somebody else.
Suddenly it was as if a light-bulb appeared over my head. I had my very own epiphany, and I could see what these strange passages from a long ago gospel were all about. Jesus is recorded as having said, “Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the law.” Jesus apparently insisted that he came, “to fulfill the law.” To fulfill the law can mean only one thing. Jesus gave us a vision of a world where breaking the law is unimaginable. Jesus invited us into a vision of God’s reign of justice, mercy and peace where relationships are more important than anything thing else; a world where we are not the people we thought we’d always be a world where there’s no dancing around the law because nobody could imagine doing anything other than fulfilling the law. Yes, we are all adulterers, yes we all get angry with each other, yes we hold grudges, yes we all break our word, yes we fracture relationships. Jesus invites us into a new reality; a new creation, Jesus is alluring us with a vision of a world that transcends laws, were relationships matter. A world where we become a new creation, where we become all that we are created to be. Jesus’ teaching offers us a vision of humanity that has evolved beyond the pettiness of the law; a humanity that has evolved into loving creatures who put right-relationship above everything else; where love is who and what we are.
When I was a child I could no more imagine the relationship, I have with my brother now, than I can imagine being the person Jesus’ teaching is inviting me to become. The possibilities are endless, when we choose love over hate, generosity over greed, inclusion over exclusion, forgiveness over grudges, right-relationships over abusive relationships. The possibilities are endless when we choose life over death. We may not be able to image all that we have been created to be, but the possibilities are all there before us. All that is necessary is that we choose life. Each and every day, each and every decision we need to ask ourselves, which decision gives life, which path offers the life to more people? Choose life and together we shall fulfill the law. It will not be easy, and yes we will get it wrong over and over again. But ask yourselves, when Jesus was confronted with someone who had been caught in adultery how did he respond? Let the one among us who is without sin; the one who is not an adulterer, a breaker of relationships, an incomplete human being, let that one cast the first stone. In this amazing life that lies before us, mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and love are the way, the truth and the life. The very things Jesus lived for. Let us choose life. Let us become more than we ever imagined we could be. Let us be love in the world.
In this amazing life that lies before us,
mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and love
are the way, the truth and the life.
The very things Jesus lived for.
Let us choose life.
Let us become more than we ever imagined we could be.
Let us be love in the world.
The blessings of God who is love,
Christ our lover,
And the Holy Spirit who empowers us to love,
Is yours now and always. Amen.