Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, February 12, 2023

YEAR A 2023 epiphany 6

Epiphany 6, 2023
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37
Psalm 119:1-8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today we got to hear about anger, hatred, lust, adultery, murder, and hell.  This reading is our ex-vangelical friends worst nightmare.  And for those of us who grew up in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the latent anxiety is palpable.  And that’s because, in some sectors of the church, the Bible is considered infallible and inerrant.  The literal Word of God without error or fault.

But here in the Episcopal Church, we take a different view.  And you can see that view in the presentation at the Ordination of  a Bishop, Priest, or Deacon, where the candidate professes to believe that the Old and New Testaments "contain all things necessary to salvation.”  The Bible contains all things necessary to salvation.  The Bible doesn’t stand for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”  It is not a literal roadmap for how to live your life.  It is not a science textbook.  The Bible contains all things necessary to salvation.

Are there myths and allegories in the bible?  Yes.  Are there mistranslations, and cases where some monk changed the name Mary to Martha?  Yes.  Are there added portions, like in the 16th chapter of Mark?  Yes.  Is there a hidden message in the King James Version of Psalm 46 for William Shakespeare’s 46th birthday?  Yes.  And, most importantly for us today, are there times where the separation of time and culture make it nearly impossible for us to understand the magnitude of what Jesus is saying?  Yes.  The Bible is not the inerrant, infallible, literal Word of God, but it does contain all things necessary to salvation.  If you are looking for salvation, it’s in there.  If you are looking for a science curriculum, it is not.

So let’s start with the first reading, from Deuteronomy.  Moses says to the people, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”  You can obey God’s commandments and love God, or you can ignore those commandments and turn to other gods instead.  And then he says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life . . . .”

Choose life.  He tells them they can choose life or death, and suggests they go with life.  Good choice.  But it’s important to notice how matter of fact this presentation is.  It really is simply about making good choices, not about punishment for walking away from God.  It’s more like, you can choose to jump out the window, but that way leads to death.  Choose not to jump out the window, okay?  But what if we can’t choose life?  What if the way we are, or the way life has treated us, makes us unable to choose life?  What then?  We’ll come back to that.

Let’s jump ahead to the good news from Jesus.  You know, the part about anger, hatred, lust, adultery, murder, and hell.  We could say that this entire section of Matthew is about relationships.  All of these sayings with the construction, you have heard it said, or you have heard it was written, and then “but I say to you,” which feels like a tightening noose in some ways.  Like, Moses gave the 10 Commandments, and Jesus is saying, “and it gets worse!”  But that is an overly simplistic way of viewing this passage.

Because if our base level for morality and how we treat others is just the 10 Commandments, well, most of us can do pretty okay there.  Chances are pretty good that you’re not going to kill anyone, for instance.  So, I can proudly walk around with my head held high, safe in the knowledge that through my own effort and strength I have not killed anyone.  Today.

But what is missing from my achievement of doing the absolute bare minimum of not committing murder is any relationship with another human being.  There’s a law on some piece of paper or some tablet of stone and I have not broken it.  So what?  Does that have anything at all to do with how I treat other people?  With seeing others as beloved children of God?  No.  I’m just avoiding violating the letter of the law, and ignoring the spirit of the law.

And so we can look at all these statements from Jesus as taking the Law of Moses and turning the spotlight to, “What does this mean in community?  What does this mean in relationships?”  Thou shalt not kill is the letter of the law; don’t nurse your anger at your neighbor is the spirit of the law.  Do not commit adultery is the letter of the law; do not objectify other human beings is the spirit of the law.  

And look at the relationship in the section about leaving your gift at the Altar.  I have always misread this as saying, if I’m angry at someone, or if I have an issue with someone, I should go and settle that before I come to church.  But look at what it actually says: “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you . . . first go and be reconciled.”  Remembering that I have something against someone else is a corrective to my own spiritual health.  But remembering that someone has something against me is about a relationship.  It’s not my personal spirituality; it’s about my relationship with my sisters and brothers and siblings.

And of course, we have to wrestle with the bit about divorce and remarriage and adultery.  This is an uncomfortable topic, to be sure, and different branches of the church have different views on what it all means.  One sticking point is that we don’t know exactly how Jesus is using the term “adultery” here.  But one thing is certain is that we are far removed by time and culture from what life was like for women in Jesus’ day.

You and I live in a patriarchal society, yes, but we ain’t seen nothing compared to first-century Palestine.  So the best construction I can put on this section is that it is meant as a protective hedge around women being divorced and abandoned in a society in which divorced women had no rights or security.  And that puts us right back to comparing the letter of the law with the spirit of the law.  Yes, the law says you can hand your wife a certificate of divorce on a whim, but I say to you, women are beloved children of God, and people are meant for relationships.  And the damage you cause with your indifference spreads to other people you don’t even know!

And then, let’s go to hell.  In our translation of this text, the word “hell” comes up 3 times.  And it probably conjures up in your mind some scene from Dante’s Inferno, or last week’s Grammies, with flames and a guy with a pitchfork in a costume from Halloween City.  But the actual word in the text is Gahenna, which was an actual location outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem.  (Not to be confused with Gahanna, the location of the Columbus airport.)

In Jesus’ time, Gahenna was essentially a burning trash heap.  But prior to that, it is thought to be the place where children were sacrificed to other gods.  So in people’s minds, in Jesus’ day, Gahenna was a place of blasphemy and corruption and isolation and despair.  It was a literal dumpster fire.  But it was not a place of everlasting torment and damnation with special levels of hell reserved for the worst sinners.  It was a giant garbage fire, with a sordid past, outside the community of God’s faithful people.  Not hell, but you can see it from there.

So why does Jesus keep mentioning Gahenna in this reading?  I mean, he’s clearly using it for effect.  Essentially conjuring up the worst thing people could think of.  Because Gahenna means being cast out and cut off, living outside the community, and beyond the reach of relationships.  As I said, all these examples Jesus is giving are about relationships.  About how to treat other human beings.  About living in community.  About choosing life over death.

Which takes us back to that reading from Deuteronomy.  Remember the questions I mentioned earlier?  Moses says, “choose life.”  But what if we can’t choose life?  What if the way we are, or the way life has treated us, makes us unable to choose life?  What if the people around us consistently choose the letter of the law over the spirit of the law, and we end up angry and divorced and beat down by the struggles of life?  Moses says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life . . .”  What if we can’t choose life.

And this is where we find the good news in these readings.  Because God always chooses life.  When we choose anger over love, God chooses life.  When we treat other human beings as a means to our own selfish desires, God chooses life.  When God walks among us in the person of Jesus, and we condemn him to death on a cross, God chooses life.

No matter what we choose, God always chooses life.  May God help us to also choose life over death, to choose people over rules, and to live in a world where there is room for every beloved child of God.


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