February 13, 2011-- Emily Guthrie -- Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

posted Feb 18, 2011, 6:40 PM by Unknown user   [ updated Feb 18, 2011, 6:41 PM by Terry Brady ]

Choosing life: Coming of Age in the Faith?

The Rev. Emily Guthrie, Assistant Rector

St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church

Epiphany VI, February 13, 2011


Life-giving God,

Open our hearts and minds

That we might choose life and life abundant. Amen.


This section of the Sermon on the Mount strikes fear into the heart of a stone. What is Jesus getting at? Isn’t it enough to try and color within the lines of the Ten Commandments? Here he is connecting murder and anger, adultery and just thinking about another, the prevailing understanding of divorce and an expanded prohibition, false oaths and our daily commitments... Are these words crafted to convict us? To feed our shame? To rekindle that sneaking suspicion that those who would make faith all about moralism/moralistic judgment are right? Can’t we just skip over it? After all it isn’t Lent yet! Bring back the magi!


What is Jesus getting at?

Well, Matthew certainly has Jesus trying to get the disciples’ attention and ours by addressing the prohibitions against murder, adultery, divorce, and false-swearing of oaths (three of the big Ten Commandments and one hotly contested cultural issue, divorce). But here he intentionally expands even exaggerates[i] the scope of the prohibitions so that we might consider that our intentions and motivations matter as well as our acts. He ups the ante. Rather than treat the “law” as something external to our lives –just a check list of do’s and don’ts that will keep our names written in the book of life- (didn’t murder today, check; didn’t commit adultery as defined by the ancient law, check; didn’t go back on my oath sworn in the name of God …check), Jesus pushes us to see the law’s broader ethical implications for our daily behavior in our relationships with one another, and the high cost of ignoring those implications, such that the check list doesn’t quite work anymore; didn’t reflexively get angry with my spouse rather than breathe deeply…uh…; didn’t think oh la la about… you get the idea.)


Perhaps Jesus is challenging us to move from a posture of good boys and girls who may or may not obey the rules… to adults who cleave to the law of God not because we have to obey but because we recognize somewhere deep in our core that in respecting, wrestling and cleaving to the teachings, we grow into the fullness of ourselves and make way for the light to shine in our communal life. When we can honestly reflect on our whole lives, acts and intentions alike, in relation to the letter and the spirit of the laws, we see that they are intended to help us live lives of wholeness, dignity and love.  


We could say that Jesus is pushing us to become adults, and adults in our faith; not fighting against the rules because they are rules, but digging in and seeing how they fit in the bigger picture of loving the source of all that is holy with all our hearts and minds and souls, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. You might say he is begging us, just as Moses did in the part of the farewell sermon we heard from Deuteronomy today, to choose life by loving, heeding, and holding fast to God, and to realize that the laws offer keys to a manor of living that befits our high calling as human beings made in the image of God.  


So why the focus on these particular laws and interpretations? What’s the connection? Perhaps as one commentator suggested: they collectively concern broken relationships[ii]. Perhaps he’s on to the fact that this hits us where we live and breathe: the cost, the pain and challenge of behavior that tears apart our human relationships.


Unchecked anger, insults, name-calling, adultery, inappropriate behavior, divorce for reasons that don’t make sense, reneging on vows… this is the  stuff of broken relationships…and here we are challenged with higher expectations and pretty explicit consequences. There is much to be said about the history and cultural context of the particulars of 1st century issues around the nature of adultery and divorce, particularly as it pertains to women, who were then still property. That background is key, but I’m not going to go into the details in order that we not get stuck on this difference; in order that we may hear the challenges as they may speak to our lives today. Suffice it to say that Jesus was expanding the responsibility to a point that it made the men and perhaps women listening quake in their sandals, and if it were written today it would include other behaviors that would be equally disturbing.  We can choose to hear it as a challenge for us to consider what may be a mature faithful way in our relationships. The cultural context is different…but the challenge remains.


In our time, more than 50% of marriages in this country end in divorce. The percentages of men and women who report having affairs means it’s more common than not. What does that mean for us here? What implications do the laws of our faith have on our intentions, motivations and behaviors?  Here, where we gather each Sunday to make sense of life and worship a God “from whom no secrets are hid.”[iii]


 I know of one couple, pillars of their church community, whose marriage was strong and loving for many years. They have wonderful children, close family and friends…but somewhere along the line, one became even more focused on work, and the other felt abandoned and gradually more and more distant. It’s the classic story of benign neglect. Silence creeps in…and distance expands. Eventually she was teaching with another man who seemed to fill her emotional and eventually physical needs. It just, as they say, happened. After about a year, the wife sought help, and told her husband. While it blew their life apart, the gaping hole left room for new growth. They were able to each confess what they had contributed to the death of the relationship. Somehow because of that and the fact that there was enough love and good will, they were able to hang on through the pain of telling truths that they hadn’t named for years: truths that went far beyond the relatively simple fact of the infidelity. Five years later they are still together, and they are more aware that it is precious in the sense that it is vulnerable.  Both of them need nourishment and the marriage needs tending all along the way. It doesn’t just happen. They continue to seek what is life-giving and try to forgive one another when they find it has drifted away from that center.  


For them staying with each other was the life-giving thing to do.  I don’t tell the story because it is the only faithful response, but because it was the faithful life-giving response for them.  I tell it because while the laws of life are common to all of us, they are specific to each of us. They have import for our particular lives… for our particular marriages and relationships.


For other couples I know, maintaining a marriage that had kept the couple in a state of darkness and antagonism, or of violence, or a state of frozen development was not life-giving and stood in the way of a life of faith, a life of dignity. To maintain that kind of marriage would be to choose death.  Yet to honor the sacred vows we make, we clearly should not be quick to run from the challenge and difficulties of our relationships, for that too is ultimately choosing death. Most psychologists would agree: we’re likely to repeat our patterns again and again unless we choose to break the cycle, and choose to seek a different way. So it is often truly difficult to discern what is life-giving.


The promise underlying all these “You have heard it said in ancient times…”, “but I say… “ expansions is that when we embrace the laws of life, we become as Psalm One says so beautifully,  “like trees planted by streams of water.”  The promise of obeying[iv], holding onto and listening for the voice of the holy in the laws of life as we struggle to see clearly the patterns of our own lives just may lead to life and life abundant.  


Jesus, as Moses did before him, calls us to cleave to the ways of truth, justice, love and mercy, knowing that when we do, life opens up all around us.  We are reminded that we are called to live examined lives in community: to encourage each other to create life-giving relationships, to seek reconciliation whenever possible with one another even if forgiveness doesn’t come easily, to support each other in our marriages and commitments, and to walk alongside each other when those relationships have died… in order that both parties and all of us might find life and reconciliation.


Cleaving to these ways means speaking our most difficult truths, naming when we are interested in another, or telling the truth about acting out those feelings with another besides our spouse or professed loved one, even though it will cause deep pain. We are called to choose what is life-giving, even if it means not running from the pain of facing the impact of our behaviors, and digging in to find the renewal of life and reconciliation in relationship.


And the high cost if we don’t choose what is life-giving in our behavior, in our relationships? Matthew suggests withering judgment, prison, and hell – a state that I believe we understand and all know in part: the awful chilling estrangement from the ones we love, from what is life-giving; a state of being where we are disconnected from those whom we love and the goodness that is ours in creation. That state of being when we are locked in a cycle of pain.


The God that I know, above all else, longs for us to thrive…to have life abundantly. When there is a fracture in relationship, as there inevitably is or will be, thriving pushes us to reflect on our part in contributing to the brokenness, to speak the truth and act on it. This is holy work indeed. This morning we are reminded that as people of faith we have a higher calling to contemplate our intentions, our unconscious and reflexive responses before we act on them…asking always:  is this life-giving? Am I my best self:  the soul that is filled with the love of God and my neighbor? 


Oh good people of God, let us hold each other up in love, open our lives to the strong and merciful light, so that we might cleave to the ancient truths, and help one another choose life. We can, we do, and we will for the sake of deep love that pulls us toward the heaven within and among us.



[i] “If your eye offends you, gouge it out,” for example. Many commentators refer to Jesus’ hyperbole that peppers this particular pericope. In fact many would point to this as evidence that it is Matthew’s redaction of Jesus’ words in order to appeal to his particular audience of Jewish Christian listeners who would have been so familiar with the centrality of the Law to govern all relationships and behavior.

[ii] Ronald Allen, Feasting on the Word, pg. 359.

[iii] From what is known as the “Collect for Purity” in the Book of Common Prayer, which we generally use at the opening of our services. It begins with “Almighty God, to whom our hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid…

[iv] Obey from the Latin oboedire, which in its first translation means “to listen to”. Here’s another sermon – at least that I need to hear!