2014-02-16 NBW Sermon<—–click here to listen along (sermons are spoken events. So much of the meaning comes from the hearing of it.)
Years ago there was a project undertaken by Bible scholars whereby they were trying to ascertain what was really knowable about Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure. The scholars would take the Gospels, verse by verse and vote as to which things they thought Jesus actually said and which they thought were made up later. They wanted to determine the historical accuracy of Jesus’ words and actions. Now, there was more to it and perhaps this is a legitimate academic endeavor – it’s just not a question I personally find at all interesting. I could care less what fancy Bible scholars say is more or less historically accurate when it comes to Jesus’ teachings. What I would be game for, is if scholars started voting on which of Jesus teachings were more or less done with his eyes rolled. I mean there are just some texts where I feel like I can almost hear the annoyance in his voice. Like when on the way to Jerusalem, he tells his disciples that he is about to be betrayed and handed over to the authorities, and condemned, beaten and die and then after 3 days rise again and they are like, “so when you come into your kingdom will I be seated at your right hand or will it be Steve?” – you know the guy was like…really?
I mention this because I wonder if this section from the Sermon on the Mount didn’t have an undercurrent of “I can’t believe I even have to say this to you” to it.
But he does. He does have to say these things to us. Because we, like those who first heard them, are a forgetful people. We need to hear what it means to uphold the 2 commandments that matter the most: Love the Lord your God and Love the neighbor as yourself. Because we so easily get bogged down in details, we can fail to see the big picture.
A couple weeks ago we were studying the 10 commandments in the catechumante class. The Thou Shalt Nots of the 10 commandments are pretty recognizable to even the least religious among us. Growing up I was taught that the law – especially the Ten Commandments – are there because they are God’s prescription for our lives. People would say that the word Bible stood for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Basically the importance of the Bible is that it gives us all the rules we have to keep so that we are right with God. God gave us these rules (and a bunch of others that the church added along the way) and they are there because God loves you and wants you to be happy.
But now I see it differently. Now I think the law is less about God loves you and wants you to be happy and more about the fact that God loves your neighbor and wants to protect them from you. And God loves and wants to protect you in so far as you are also someone’s neighbor. That is to say, that this strange God we have who created this world, and spoke through fiery prophets and freed a people from slavery and gave them a law and said they were his…this same God who came to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and loved people so completely, this God is strange, but what God is not – is distant. This God does not create the world, give us some rules and then leave us to it. Because what we see in the teachings and life of Jesus is that people matter. Human relationships matter to God. The way we are treated matters to God. So some laws are established for that.
But Laws are made for us, not us for laws. That is to say, there is a spirit behind each law that at times trumps it’s letter. I know that may sound like slipping dangerously into moral relativism, but so be it. Our obsession with moral absolutes comes from clinging to the letter of the law as though it can love us and save us when really that’s what Jesus is for.
And you know who got in trouble, like all the time, for breaking the letter of the law? Jesus. Hey Jesus, your disciples are not washing their hands. Hey Jesus, why are you eating with sinners? Hey Jesus, we saw you heal a guy and it was the Sabbath. And as we see over and over again, Jesus had no patience for this. The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath, he would say. And that usually shut them up. You know, until the next time.
What Jesus seems to be doing here is reminding us of the spirit of the law so that we know how to love one another. That sexting and flirting and lusting over someone who is not our spouse may not be technically committing adultery but it certainly does not uphold our dignity, or that of our spouse or the object of our lust.
Jesus seems to be unfairly raising the bar on us, but in reality he’s just insisting that we not do violence to each other through loopholes. That we not put our relationship with the law above our relationships with our neighbor. And if that seems harsh and unnecessarily strict, know that he says all of this so that violence is not done to you as well. God loves you and wants to protect you.
Which brings us finally to the dreaded divorce text. This week I asked for your stories about how this text has shown up in your lives and on two occasions, the responses caused me to tear up in public, which as I’ve mentioned before is not exactly my favorite thing.
Now, I really try to not yammer on and on about the historical reality in the 1st century. But what is important to understand is that at the time (if my memory of seminary serves), if a man divorced a woman it was often a death sentence. She relied on him for security and income. It’s not like today when she could just go back to teaching or work in a shop to make her way. She often would not be welcome back in her father’s home. So the reality of divorce for many women was that it sentenced them to a life of poverty and possibly begging or prostitution. So for Jesus to say, look, just providing a certificate does not get you off the hook, her dignity needs to be upheld – well, this was a way of saying that God loves you and your spouse and desires that cruelty and violence not be done to either of you. Jesus was wanting to protect women.
So, this week, as I read your stories, stories of being violently yelled at and slapped and choked and having church folk stand over you and say that God loves you only if you stay with the man who does this to you, when I read about another of you being a 24 year old woman who was literally abandoned by your husband and then how your church would no longer give you the Eucharist, when I heard of the shame felt by one of you as a divorced man who felt like he wore a scarlet letter D in church, when I heard of loveless marriages that went on for decades…I thought how the hell is it that the church can manage to take a text meant to protect people and make sure violence is not done to them, and then use this same text to do violence to so many for so long?
I don’t know what to say. I just know that it is real. And if Jesus rolled his eyes when having to re-orient his disciple’s understandings of things, I can only imagine his reaction to what has been done with his teachings about protecting people.
And so tonight, from this pulpit, and under the yoke of this stole and from the office of a clergy person and with whatever authority that still manages to hold in this world… I want to offer an apology. As a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ, please hear me say I am so sorry this happened. If you are someone who has had violence; emotional, spiritual, physical or otherwise done to them in the name of Jesus Christ (of all names under heaven), if you have been shamed or excluded or denied what is only God’s to give, if you have been made to stay in a situation that denies your humanity or kills your soul because someone said that’s what God wants for you,… on behalf of the church, I apologize.
And let me say this one thing more: We do not serve a distant God, but one who actually cares about how you treat people and how you are treated. People matter. Relationships matter. The diginity of human beings matters. May the church, of all institutions, uphold this truth and ask forgiveness when we do not.