Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount occupies three full chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. It is the longest piece of teaching from Jesus in the New Testament.
In February, during this season of Epiphany, we hear snippets from the Sermon on the Mount over the course of four Sundays.
Two weeks ago we heard the beautiful and familiar words of the Beatitudes.
Last week we heard the inspiring and timeless teachings that encourage us to be the salt of the earth and to not hide our light under a bushel.
This week we get to a much more difficult part of Jesus’ sermon.
This is the part of the sermon where Jesus takes the Ten Commandments and ratchets them up a notch. This is where he says it’s not enough to refrain from committing murder or bearing false witness, because simply having anger or deceit in our heart is an affront to God as well.
This is where Jesus talks about relationship issues that we wrestle with in our time – like adultery and divorce – and speaks out against them in what we might call very unforgiving and un-Jesus-like terms.
In other words, this is the part of the Sermon on the Mount that we may prefer to skip over or dismiss as a relic of an ancient time.
Taken at face value this is a very difficult passage to listen to.
But if we know anything about scripture, and Jesus, we know that taking either one out of their context, and out of their time, opens up the possibility for misinterpretation and misunderstanding.
So as we listen to this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, and hear words that may stir up painful emotions in our own hearts, I encourage you to pay attention to the call to change behind the words. Keep in mind that Jesus’ focus was always on healing relationships. And here, once again, he urges us to choose life by choosing love.
Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst UCC, NH
February 16, 2014
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Mathew 5:21-37
“Choose Life, Choose Love”
Before we get to unpacking this difficult passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount I want to tell you a Valentine’s Day story.
It’s not a story about romantic love but it is a story about choosing love.
Which is what Jesus’ sermon is all about.
So let’s start there.
Let’s start with what it means to choose love.
This is a story shared by Dr. Josh Misner, an author and professor who writes an online blog called Mindful Dad. Misner is the father of two children and on a recent plane trip from Chicago to their home in Washington state he and his children had an experience that will sound frustratingly familiar to many of us. Yet the outcome may surprise us all.
Misner shared his story in the form of a letter, which he titled:
To the Ticket Agent at the Delta Counter.
Here is Dr. Misner’s story:*
In Chicago, we watched the snow fall on the tarmac.
Our flight was delayed.
But I refused to let it bother me, as I was intentionally trying to demonstrate patience to both my teenage daughter and 6-year-old son on our trip home. This was remarkably hard to do, considering that, in the last three days, I had only four hours of sleep.
We finally took off but 30 minutes before landing panic set in.
The flight attendant announced that we would arrive at 11:00.
Looking at the boarding pass for my connecting flight, I realized it was scheduled to take off at 11:02.
We had two minutes.
Knowing there was no way I would de-plane in time from the back row with two children in tow, I gave up and prepared for the worst.
But to my surprise, the flight attendant, overhearing me discuss with the kids that we would miss our connection, announced to the rest of the passengers to remain seated when we landed and allow us to leave the plane first.
Two minutes. It was going to be close.
When we landed the sound of seat belts unlatching broke the silence.
The flight attendant announced one more time for everyone to remain seated and let us off first. But the ding from the seat belt light going off might as well have been a starting pistol. As soon as we stood up so did everyone else.
The other passengers ignored the attendant's instructions and spilled into the aisle, taking their time to gather bags, put on coats and perform other menial tasks. We were the last ones off the plane.
I was enraged at seeing this outpouring of selfishness.
With my determination to make the connection growing by the millisecond, the three of us sprinted as soon as we were out of the gate.
Well, as fast as a 6-year-old’s legs can sprint.
Reaching the terminal my hope dissipated when I saw that the jetway door was closed and the gate was empty. Two minutes.
We missed our flight because of the two minutes we lost because of the selfishness of others. My outrage turned into an outright grown-man-tantrum.
I spotted a ticket agent at the desk in front of our gate and shouted in his direction. He ignored me so I shouted again, “Excuse me, can you help us?” He responded, "Sorry, I can't help you right now," as he turned his back and walked away from the gate.
This was the last straw. My temper boiled over and I lost it, shouting a string of curse words and angry accusations at the retreating agent.
That's when I looked down.
There was my 6-year-old, looking up at me.
He was looking at me because he had never encountered a situation like this before in his young life. The problem was, I was giving him a precedent.
My childish tirade presented him with a solution to his future conflicts when dealing with difficult situations and difficult people.
I tried to regain my composure, and found a self-service kiosk and booked us on another flight, leaving four hours later. This gave me time to ponder how I was going to reconcile what I had just instilled in my children.
I needed redemption, and it had to be something they would remember.
Roughly 30 minutes before boarding our new flight I spotted the original ticket agent, who was working the desk at our gate…and I chose to do something daring.
I took my son's hand and said, "Come with me. I need you to watch and listen." He got up, held my hand, and walked with me to the desk.
My heart was pounding out of my chest.
When it was our turn, the agent looked up at me and asked, "Can I help you?"
I said, "Sir, I don't know if you recognize me, but about three hours ago, I did something inappropriate. I cursed at you because you didn't help us find a new flight after we missed our connection, and that wasn't right.
I took my frustration out on you and set a poor example for my children.
I want to apologize to you and ask your forgiveness."
He looked stunned, and after a long period of silence, he said,
"I don't know what to say. I do remember you. I was trying to locate a medical kit for a woman over at the next gate, and I was in a hurry. I wanted to help you, but I was rushing to help someone else. I'm sorry."
Now I was even more ashamed of my actions. I responded, "You have nothing to apologize for. I was in the wrong, and I need to ask forgiveness to show my son that the way I behaved was not right."
Again, in disbelief, he said. "It's OK. I forgive you, and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your apology. Trust me, we get yelled at a lot in this job and no one ever apologizes. You just made my day, and I thank you for that."
I looked down at my son, who was still gripping my hand tightly.
He was staring up at me again, with the beginnings of a smile.
I smiled back at him, tears brimming in my eyes, and said, "That, my son, is doing the right thing. Always do the right thing, no matter what."
Dr. Misnar’s story is a modern day tale of someone who has come to understand the value of letting go of the anger in one’s heart and making amends to those who may have been hurt by that anger.
This is what Jesus was referring to when he said, “Leave your gift before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift to God.”
Coming before God and asking for forgiveness for the many ways that we fail one another is important.
But it’s just as important to take a step towards healing by actively letting go of the anger, resentment, and pain that we carry from those failings, and by doing what we can to repair the relationships that are strained as a result.
Relationships are very important to God.
The passage we heard today from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount focused on just a few of the ways that we might heal strained relationships, and prevent them from becoming strained in the first place.
In his sermon, Jesus took the clear violations of God’s law that would have been familiar to his Jewish brothers and sisters – murder, adultery, bearing false witness - and he broadened them to include the smaller actions that get us there…starting with what we carry in our heart.
It’s not enough just to refrain from murder. We should also treat each other with respect and not speak hateful words in anger.
It is not enough to refrain from swearing falsely when under oath.
We should speak and act truthfully at all times so there’s no need for oaths in the first place.
It is not enough to refrain from committing adultery.
We should also not allow lust to linger in our heart, because it objectifies the person we desire, and devalues the person we’ve committed ourselves too.
Jesus’ teaching here is that we don’t need to go to the extreme of breaking a commandment to cause damage to ourselves and our relationships with others.
What starts out as a small anger, a tiny deception, or a burgeoning desire in our heart has the power to propel us headlong into dangerous territory.
And before we know it, we’ve said something or done something that has caused pain to another, and to ourselves.
Which is why Jesus said that honoring God’s Commandments isn’t enough.
Allowing anger, desire, or deception to take root in our hearts leaves little room for anything else to grow.
And like weeds left unchecked, they can choke the life right out of us.
This is a good time to remind ourselves that honoring God’s commandments and seeking redemption and reconciliation when we fail is not for God’s benefit. God does not require our obedience in exchange for love and grace.
God offers us love and grace unconditionally and will continue to do so no matter how many times we trip up and land flat on our face.
Honoring God’s commandments and seeking redemption and reconciliation is for our benefit.
Because living in this world is much easier for us all when we choose love, compassion, and openness in our relationships with one another.
Choosing love results in a better life for us all.
So if Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is about choosing life by choosing love, what do we do with his statements about divorce?
Even in his time, Jesus had to know that some relationships are more damaging than life giving, and that sometimes choosing life involves letting go of what is killing us.
I believe that Jesus did know this.
Thou shalt not divorce is NOT one of the Ten Commandments.
In fact, divorce was a legal way to dissolve a marriage according to Jewish law. It is here where scholars disagree about Jesus’ motive for expressing a restrictive view of divorce.
Some say that his intention was to protect women and children.
In his time, only men had the power to file for divorce and in some Jewish sects they could do so for the flimsiest of reasons - because the man had grown tired of his wife, or had his eye on another.
Thus Jesus was speaking out against a legal practice that treated human beings as if they were disposable and victimized those who were already the most vulnerable in society.
Other scholars disagree, saying that this is an inaccurate representation of first century Judaism. These scholars point out that women in Jesus’ time owned property, had marriage contracts that made divorce costly to their husbands, and were not as vulnerable as we often make them out to be.
Perhaps Jesus spoke out against divorce because he truly did believe in the sanctity of marriage, and that what God joined together should only be separated in the most extreme cases. Such as when the marriage is deemed unlawful or when one partner is unfaithful to another.
But as we know, there are many ways that partners in a marriage can be unfaithful to one another - physically, emotionally, by not honoring the vow to be a loving and compassionate presence to one another in all ways.
When we place Jesus’ words about divorce in their time we realize that regardless of the situation he was addressing when he spoke, his underlying motive was to promote healing by urging us to choose love.
Sometimes choosing love involves working together to heal the damage in our relationships.
And sometimes choosing love, choosing life, involves walking away from each other, because healing cannot happen otherwise.
In many ways, Jesus offered 1st century responses to 1st century problems, but he also offered ageless solutions to human problems.
On this Valentines Day weekend, I invite you to celebrate the relationships in your life that are most important to you. Think about what makes these relationships healthy and whole and sustaining to you, and take a moment to thank God for the gifts that they bring.
I also invite to you call to mind the relationships in your life that have suffered damage. Don’t dwell on who is to blame or who has been hurt more, but rather spend some time holding that relationship in prayer. Offer it up to God and ask for help, and think about what action you might take to move that relationship towards greater healing.
Reconciliation is not always possible in our relationships, but redemption is. We redeem ourselves whenever we choose love and seek healing in our hearts.
We can’t change the heart of another, we don’t have that kind of power,
but we can change what we cultivate in our own hearts.
And as Dr. Misner learned from his 6-year-old son, when we choose love we give others permission to do the same.
You have heard it said that God rejects us in our brokenness,
But I say to you that it is our brokenness that invites God into our hearts to make us whole.
May we do the same for one another…..always.
*Thank you to Dr. Josh Misner for granting me permission to share his story. I’ve adapted his story for use in this sermon, sometimes sharing his own words and sometimes paraphrasing. You can find the story in its entirety on Dr. Misner’s blog here: http://www.mindful-dad.org/2014/02/to-ticket-agent-at-delta-counter.html