Rules of the Road

February 12, 2017

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
The 6th Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

(Gospel Text provided below)

Most summers when I was a kid my family would pack up the station wagon and head off on a road trip. Sometimes we went to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, other times to see our cousins in Springfield, Ohio. From Houston, it usually took two days of driving to reach our destination, and with five kids and two adults, it was a very full car.

road-tripNow anyone who’s traveled in a station wagon, similar to traveling on a crowded airplane, there are “preferred seats.” As you’d expect, the window seats were first choice. And while sitting in the way-back wasn’t great, especially when the seat faced backwards (whose idea was that?) – even the way-back ranked higher than the dreaded middle seat. But the best seat was the one we called the seat-apart. It’s the one that gets pulled forward to let others into the way-back. What made it so popular was the little split that clearly designated where your seat began and where it ended. All the other seats left room for seat creep, followed by the emphatic complaint: “Mom, she’s touching me!”

Now, my mom’s a big fan of being fair – or at least trying to be fair. So, realizing she had five young children traveling in a very confined space for hour after hour, she came up with a rotation strategy. Every time we stopped for a meal or to get gas, us kids would rotate seats. This way everyone had time in the dreaded middle seat, in the way-back, and in the coveted seat-apart. She put this plan – these rules – in place, with the hope of creating harmony for our long journey together.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is putting some of those same kinds of rules in place at the outset of his ministry journey, but unlike my mom, he didn’t start from scratch. Jesus grew up in the Hebrew tradition, so he started where all Hebrews begin – with the Ten Commandments.

Remembering our Bible history, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God shortly after the Israelites were led out of Egypt. These commandments provided some rules with the hope of creating harmony on their journey together to the promised land.

The first three,

  • I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods besides me.
  • You shall not make an idol, or bow down to other gods or worship them.
  • You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.

set God as the ultimate authority.

The next:  Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy – conveys the importance of keeping God in a prominent and intentional place in their lives.

Then, Honor your father and your mother – keeps the family system in place

And the rest:

  • You shall not murder.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  • You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; or wife, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. – are all about keeping the community together.

false-witnessWhen we bear false witness, we tear down the fabric of trust essential to a strong community. When we long for or envy something that belongs to our neighbor, it creates an us-and-them dynamic, or resentment, or unhealthy competition, which works against a goal of harmony.

The Ten Commandments became the foundation of the Hebrew tradition, and as Jesus begins his ministry, we see them again, as a starting point. But before going there, let’s look at what came right before today’s lesson. Jesus is telling his followers to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world – that is, to live into a purposeful way of being. He then says that those who keep and teach the commandments are living the right way. Concluding by saying:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

While the scribes and Pharisees follow the letter of the law, Jesus is saying that this isn’t enough. Jesus is telling his followers that they need to up-the-ante. He’s taking the Big 10 to a new level. When we live into God’s purpose, we must live into the full depth of God’s command for us to love one another.

Jesus begins by reminding his followers of the ancient command that “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” Then he goes further:

“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; 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.”

up-the-anteSo, it isn’t just murder that puts you in hot water. Anger, insults, and name-calling are unacceptable if we are to live into our purposed life as Jesus-followers in the world. He says that even the gift brought to the altar can wait. It’s more important to go and be reconciled, to resolve differences with those who have something against us. Then we can come to the altar without that burden. We come to the altar knowing that we are in good relationship with others in our lives.

Jesus next ups-the-ante on the commandment “do not commit adultery.” He says that if we lust after someone (the same word for lust is to covet, one of the Big 10), we have committed adultery in our heart. It’s destructive to our current relationship when we allow ourselves to indulge thoughts of infidelity, of unfaithfulness.

And then there’s this difficult text about divorce. In today’s culture, we probably all know someone who has been divorced. Some of us have been divorced ourselves. So, this one really strikes a nerve, especially since some divorces are necessary and truly for the best. Yet in the context of the ancient commandments, divorce was an obstacle to a community that needed to stay together. Marriages were contracts made between families, intended to ensure the continuation of the Israelites for generations to come. Dissolving a marriage contract compromised the family structure, and splintered the community.

community-buildingThe intention of all these commandments in ancient times was to retain strength of the community. The Israelites were in a time of transition, of transformation. They were journeying from a place of captivity to a new place of liberation. Staying together was paramount to that process.

In much the same way, the first audience of Matthew’s gospel had been cast out of Jerusalem. The Hebrew temple had been destroyed. They were trying to establish a new way forward, and staying together as a community was essential. If significant divisions arose, they might be difficult to overcome.

It reminds me of an incident on one of our family trips. Us kids must have really been picking on each other and acting up. I don’t remember the specific catalyst, but all the sudden, Dad pulled the car onto the shoulder of the highway, and said “Everybody out!” He pointed to a stretch of railroad tracks running parallel to the highway, and said “Start walking.”

So, as Mom drove slowly along the shoulder, Dad accompanied the rest of us as we reluctantly made our way down the tracks on foot. My brother, the oldest, went jogging ahead, as if to say, “This doesn’t bother me.” The rest of us were crying or whining, but moving forward, nonetheless. When our penance had been served, we all piled back into the car and continued on our way… probably falling asleep from emotional fatigue as much as anything else. Community restored!

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These moments of friction, in families and in communities, are inherent to our human existence. We even see evidence in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Some of these early Christians had aligned with Paul, who established the community but wasn’t physically present. Others were devoted to Apollos, a current leader among them. News of this division made it back to Paul, who wrote:

For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not… behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? … I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

Mature faith allows us to overcome the human inclination for division. It also keeps us looking to God for our growth. When we keep God at the center, our actions are ones that build up community – not by following the letter of the law, but the spirit of God’s love.

connectionThis community we are called to build-up isn’t limited to those inside our walls. It’s not only for those who believe, look, and act like we do. The community that Jesus calls us to is one that includes all people.

This same commitment to community is at the heart of the final affirmations in our Baptismal promise. That we will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. We will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. And we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

I know this isn’t always easy. If it were, we wouldn’t need constant instruction, from Moses, Jesus and Paul. Keep in mind that even our baptismal responses include the phrase “I will with God’s help.” So, when it’s difficult to do this community-building work or when you’re feeling depleted, draw on God’s help, God’s strength, God’s love.

Each time we make our words and actions ones that lead with love, kindness, and reconciliation, we live into our shared purpose of bringing the kingdom of heaven near. Let’s go out and do that today – with God’s help.

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Gospel Text:

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 into 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.” (Mt 5:21-37)

 

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