Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany.
“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.”
A week or so ago, Erron and I tried out a new show on Netflix. We were looking forward to learning about ancient archaeological sites while enjoying some global scenery. Except pretty quickly, this show veered into some weird territory. A lot of ominous music and conspiracy theories. The host kept pressuring the featured scholars to say things they clearly didn’t want to say. We half-expected aliens to show up.
We watched the show through, but then looked at each other in confusion. “Well,” I said. “That’s not exactly what I signed up for.
Perhaps some of you are feeling the same way this morning.
Pastor, I didn’t come to church on Superbowl Sunday to be told that heckling the other team is going to send me to hell.
Pastor, I didn’t come to church on Valentines Day weekend to hear about lust and divorce.
Pastor, I didn’t come to church today to be scolded about my potty mouth.
This is not what I signed up for.
I wonder if Jesus’ first hearers felt the same way. The Sermon on the Mount starts out well. Jesus offers blessings to those who are beat down by life. He amps up the crowd with a pep talk about how they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. But then… things get weird.
Jesus starts talking about the law. The Jewish law, to be clear, the laws found in the Torah and interpreted in a variety of ways by rabbis, Pharisees, grandmas, and priests. The law, writ large, was at the heart of Jewish life. In fact, God promised all the way back in the time of Jeremiah to write the law on the hearts of God’s people, so that it couldn’t be lost or broken.
The problem, of course, is that hearts break, too. The human heart is a very dicey place for the law to live, because our hearts are messy organs, fragile and forceful in equal measure. So to put the law in the human heart is a tricky business.
Today we enter into messy, fragile, forceful territory—and some of it will strike our own hearts. One of the jobs of the preacher is to watch for where her preaching might cause pain, touch raw nerves—and in this case, I might as well put asterisks by the whole scripture. Anger, lust, divorce, hypocrisy—these are not theoretical. These are part of our own lives, our own stories, our own struggles—and that is precisely the point.
Jesus is now on a campaign, not just for our outward behaviors, but for our very hearts. The Jewish law, recorded in the Torah, is not often concerned with our inner selves, where behaviors begin. It tends to curb the extremes of human behavior—murder, faithlessness, extortion—and assume we can work backwards from there.
Except… too often we can’t. We make it through a day without murdering or betraying relationships or lying to a judge and feel pretty good about ourselves, while we keep the seeds of those sins nestled nice and safe in our hearts.
I was moved this week by a reflection from Lauren Winner, a professor at Duke Divinity. She focused on Jesus’ claim that thoughts matter—a strange claim to modern ears, but one Jesus seems to be making here nonetheless. “Jesus is telling us,” Winner writes, “that not just our good deeds but even our thoughts somehow contribute to the Kingdom of God.”
Winner writes about a passive-aggressive argument with her mother-in-law—purely hypothetical, of course—a simmering jealousy of her colleague’s better, bigger office, and a new obsession with whether she has enough to retire on. All these thoughts—“harmless” thoughts—work against the kingdom of God, she concludes. Because they pull her away from relationships, from trust, from love. They isolate her, self-center her, and left unnoticed and unchecked, will eventually move from harmless, inside thoughts, to damaging, outside behavior.
Jesus uses some really intense images in his campaign for our heads and hearts, and not just our outward behaviors. If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out, he says, and if your hand is the trigger, cut it off. I really wish he hadn’t said this, because some of us are prone to hear it literally, and believe that we can release our guilt, or sorrow, or anger, by hurting ourselves. And if that’s something you struggle with, I hope that you’ll come talk to me or someone else you trust.
I think Jesus used such intense imagery in order to show us that he was serious about the kind of inside work that needed to be done. Not literally chopping off body parts, but taking a long hard look at where our anger, our lusts, our false fronts begin, and bringing those rawest spots to the grace of God for healing.
Jesus wants his disciples to do the inside work of love. Not just to look the part; not just to impress the neighbors; not just to have that good old veneer of holiness. Jesus wants his disciples to pluck out their sin by the roots, to make a place for God’s love to grow.
I will admit this scripture is particularly hard for me. Not because I have walked friends through much-needed divorces, although I have; not because I have offered gifts to God while angry at one or more of his people, although I have; but because I have a slightly tense relationship with my own thoughts.
Many of you know from past sermons that I was diagnosed at age 16 with depression; that depression was accompanied and intensified by thought-based OCD. Learning to manage my own intrusive, damaging, and seemingly uncontrollable thoughts saved my life. But, if I’m not careful, constant self-monitoring can become an obsession all its own. It would be easy for me to take these scriptures and become so centered on my own self, my own thoughts, that it would leave me frozen in guilt.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus is heavenbent on making disciples. His therapist hat is nowhere to be seen, and that chafes, when I—and so many of us—struggle with our own brains and our own thoughts, from OCD to dementia to PTSD to anxiety. If the idea of Jesus having opinions about your thoughts is making you panicky today, want you to hear today that Jesus is, in a roundabout way, calling us to healing. Calling us to take ourselves and what goes on in our heads seriously, and bring it all to God. Make room, if we at all can, for God’s grace in our own thoughts.
Jesus does not want us imprisoned—literally or metaphorically. To exchange the judge and jury of the courtroom with an internal judge and jury condemning our every thought is not what he is going for here. Jesus wants us free, outside and inside, to be his disciples.
After all, being a disciple of Christ is not just about saying nice words on Sunday morning. Being a disciple of Christ is about shaping ourselves fully towards his example.
But—let’s talk about that example for a minute. Here, in the sermon on the mount, he says not to be angry, since that’s as bad as murder. Yet when he sees corruption in the temple, he fashions a whip.
Jesus, here in the sermon on the mount, says not to entertain lust, since that’s as bad as adultery. Yet when he meets a woman caught in adultery, he keeps her safe and sets her free.
Jesus, here in the sermon on the mount, says not to divorce. Yet when he meets a divorced Samaritan woman—divorced not once, but five times—he commissions as the first preacher of the good news that the Messiah has come.
The real world is always messier than the world of sermons.
I’m not recounting these examples to tell you to ignore what Jesus says here on the mountain; I’m reminding you that Jesus, that God, is as capable of we are of anger and of grace; in fact, since we are made in God’s image, capable of deeper anger and deeper desire and deeper grace than we could ever hope to produce.
So I do not think that Jesus is calling us to the life of emotionless, disembodied, heartless Christian automatons. I think Jesus is calling us to let our faith permeate every bit of our lives, and of our hearts.
There are two more laws that Jesus emphasizes to that crowd by the mountain, but next week we will follow him to a different mountain for his transfiguration, and leave the sermon on the mount behind. But I wanted to mention them here, because this is the final law he wants us to take seriously: love God, love neighbor.
Jesus is driving us towards love here. Driving us like a herd of rather stubborn and wandering sheep, with rough and blunt language, but driving us towards love nonetheless.
Loving God and loving neighbor is more than a pleasant, warm feeling that comes as if by magic. Love is an action verb, and it starts on the inside, with what we allow ourselves to think, focus on, obsess over.
Now, do I think that if you insult the ref during the Superbowl tonight you will be liable to the flames of hell? I do not. But if that anger holds—and holds—and holds—into Monday and Tuesday and the days beyond—and bleeds onto your family and friends and coworkers—then it might be time to take that anger to God, and ask God to help you burn it up and out.
Being a disciple of Jesus is not easy. It means taking stock of every part of our life—our thoughts, our emotions, our actions, our inclinations, our suspicions, our dreams, our histories, our hopes—and measuring them against Jesus’ example. And then when we fail to measure up—and we will, every single time—it means accepting the grace that he offers, grace that flows from the mountain and the cup and the cross—and getting up, and orienting ourselves once again in the direction of love.
That is what we signed up for.