Sunday, February 16, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
I am not a big sports person. I don’t follow any sports teams or watch a lot of games; it’s just not really my thing. And because of this, it often surprises people to learn that I actually played a lot of sports when I was growing up – I even enjoyed some of them! I was never a great athlete or anything, but it was fun to be part of a team, fun to hit things and throw things and just run around outside together having a good time.
I played softball every summer, starting from about when I was in second grade. And the fact that I was never a very sporty person did not stop me from getting into a competitive spirit. We may have been a bunch of little girls playing against other little girls, but we still developed rivalries with teams from neighboring towns and we worked hard to win! And when we were out on the field, it was easy to let the faces of the other team kind of blur together while we focused on cheering on our own.
But one thing I will always vividly remember is what happened at the end of each and every game. No matter who won or who lost, the players and the coaches of both teams would line up in single file; and then they walked across the field and and high fived every single member of the other team, telling each one of them, “Good game, good game, good game, good game…”
After those days of sometimes fierce competition, it was important to take that moment to acknowledge the people on the other team. It was important to look into their faces as we high fived each other, to remember that at the end of the day, they were all our neighbors and friends, not just a random bunch of people wearing the wrong color uniforms. Those high fives were an important moment of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is at the heart of this very challenging gospel text we read this morning. We’re still working our way through the Sermon on the Mount – which we’ve been in for the last two Sundays – and in this part of the sermon, Jesus uses some really strong language to talk about the importance of reconciliation and restoring relationships. And the intensity of the images he uses shows us just how dead serious he is about it.
Right off the bat, Jesus starts off this section of the sermon on a heavy note: “You have heard it said… ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” But Jesus goes on to interpret this commandment in a much broader way. It’s not just about physically killing someone else, he says; it’s about the ways we use our anger against one another. We choose to hold onto our anger instead of working toward reconciliation. And in our anger, we tear down and insult one another; we call each other stupid and foolish – literally “moron” in the original text. We dehumanize one another and we stop seeing each other as fully human people.
But reconciliation is so crucially important that Jesus tells his listeners, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and in that moment you remember that you have beef with your neighbor, literally drop everything and go be reconciled first.” The gifts at the altar he is talking about would almost certainly have been the sacrifices of atonement that the Jewish people made in the temple: these were gifts that were meant to reconcile them with God. What Jesus seems to be implying here is that we must reconcile with our neighbor first before we can hope to be reconciled with God. We cannot be fully reconciled with God when we can’t even bring ourselves to see God’s image in the faces of our siblings.
After Jesus finishes his comments about the commandment “You shall not murder,” he continues in the same vein with another commandment: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” And here again, Jesus broadens the scope of what this commandment means; it’s not just about the physical act of adultery; it’s also about the ways that lust disrupts our relationships. Having sexual feelings for another person isn’t an inherently bad thing at all – far from it. But in this case, Jesus is talking about the ways that we use those feelings to objectify others, to diminish their full humanity. And he uses the exaggerrated image of cutting off offending body parts to keep ourselves from harming our neighbor in this way.
Jesus’ teaching about divorce in this passage is probably the hardest part of this reading for most of us to hear. Those among us who have been through a divorce have probably had this passage used against them at some point. But it’s important to remember that, even though these verses are also about relationship and reconciliation, the concept of marriage as we know it has almost nothing to do with how marriage was actually practiced in Jesus’ day.
You’ll notice that Jesus’ instructions in this passage are all for men – because women had no say in the matter. At that time, a woman’s social status depended on the men in her life, so for a man to divorce a woman simply because he felt like it meant that he was also taking away her livelihood and her social standing. He dehumanized her in the most literal sense of the word. Reconciliation in this case was instead about recognizing and respecting the full humanity of all the people involved. And in modern marriage, that’s something that can happen whether you stay married or get divorced.
What all of Jesus’ teachings in this reading boil down to is the importance of right relationship with our fellow humans, our siblings and neighbors. Because we cannot be in right relationship with God if we are not in right relationship with God’s other beloved creations.
And that can be a real challenge sometimes. Some of our neighbors are pretty easy for us to love, especially the ones who look and think like us and who like the same stuff we do – the ones who are already on our team – but there are also other neighbors in whom we struggle to see God’s image. I’m sure you can think of who those people are for you.
This has become a major struggle of 21st century life. It affects our lives in lots of ways, but it is especially evident in our political life. Just in the last month, the impeachment proceedings and the contentiousness of the 2020 election have shown that the division in our country goes way beyond simple disagreement; our dividedness is tearing us apart. And as we get more and more polarized, we all too often give in to the temptation to stop seeing the people who disagree with us as even being human, let alone as people of intelligence and compassion, people on whom God’s image is printed.
I’m not saying that we can never disagree with each other. It’s still important to stand up for what we believe in, especially when those things have the potential to harm us or to harm other people that we care about. What I am saying is that disagreeing with someone’s ideas and policies – however strongly – does not give us permission to insult them and tear them down as people. It doesn’t matter who they are. We are all created in God’s image, by God’s hand, and so we are called to treat all other people with dignity and respect, no matter who they are or how angry they make us.
And at the end of the day, we all have to find a way to live together. The people we disagree with aren’t just going to go away; we can’t legislate them away or build a wall to keep them out or deport them all to Antarctica. We are all in this together and we have to find a way to make it work.
It’s not part of our gospel reading, but Jesus wraps up this section of his sermon with the one commandment that is probably hardest to follow:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.Matthew 5:43-48
We have a long way to go trying to be perfect like God is perfect. It is hard to try to love the people that we hate like God loves; it’s hard for us to pray for them and to truly wish for their happiness and well-being.
But the good news is that God loves all of us regardless of how bad we are at loving each other. And even though it might be really annoying to think of God loving the people that we absolutely cannot stand, I find it reassuring that no measure of human crappiness is greater than God’s capacity for love and grace. God’s love and grace are stronger than any human brokenness or resistance. That’s good news for all of us, because the truth is that we have all sinned and fallen short in some way – at one time or another, we have all found our own special little ways to make ourselves enemies of God – but God keeps on loving us anyway. God loves us no matter what we do. And God is determined to be reconciled with us and with all humanity, however long it takes.
At the end of the day, when the game is over and we all walk out onto the field, it does not matter what teams we’ve chosen to be on. God has chosen all of us to be on God’s team. So let all God’s people say: good game.