a sermon on rules and loopholes

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 | Psalm 119:1-8 | 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 | Matthew 5:21-37 

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In last week’s gospel, we heard Jesus tell the disciples, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” The Sermon on the Mount went on to talk about Jesus’s relationship to the law and the prophets, saying that he came not to abolish the law (meaning the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures, the prophets) – not to abolish, but to fulfill. The reading last week ended with this difficult sentence:

“I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20)

And when the reading ended, you all dutifully responded, “Praise to you, O Christ!”

My sermon last week didn’t deal with that sentence. Since this week’s gospel text picks up right where last week’s left off, I was planning to use that good old loophole where your supervisor can deal with the more difficult parts when it’s his turn to preach. But Pastor Erik is sick this morning, so here we are!

Jesus goes into some detail this week, digging in on this idea of human righteousness and God’s law. Jesus goes right down the list – one can almost hear echoes of the Ten Commandments – as he exposes some of the most difficult things that disciples deal with in their (our) lives: anger and broken relationship with our siblings; sexual objectification of other people; gender based oppression, especially as related to marriage; and the difficulty of following through on our word.

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Each topic uses this trademark Jesus sentence structure: “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” It almost carries the feeling of a reality TV show, like: Oh, you thought you had been doing great because you didn’t murder someone? Well not so fast, because -surprise! It’s just as bad when you are angry with them and don’t reconcile. Or: Oh, good job for not committing adultery – JUST KIDDING, you actually have committed adultery if you’ve ever looked at someone as a sexual object.

With each lesson, the disciples begin to get the idea that to be righteous is going to be much more difficult than simply following the letter of the law. Jesus is leaving no room for loopholes.

Because of course, the original purpose of God’s law is not to guilt us into compliance, nor to give us a system by which to make ourselves look good. God’s law is a gift; it sets the stage for the ultimate reconciliation of all things to God. Where humans, left to our own devices, have a tendency to choose death and to devote ourselves to things besides goodness, God’s law is meant to create the conditions under which a community can live, in which there is no place for those things that break our relationship with God and with one another, in which there is room for a community to thrive, to be whole, to be restored to right relationship with God.

A dear professor of the Hebrew Scriptures of mine describes God’s law as a sort of playpen. When God’s people are hurt, or lost, or struggling to create the community they need, God acts like a careful parent: Okay, stay here so you don’t fall down those stairs. Ooh – let’s set this limit over here to avoid that danger. Don’t kill each other. Don’t lie to each other. Don’t steal from each other.

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The “negative” nature of the Ten Commandments (negative in that they give us a short list of things not to do) actually leaves us a ton of freedom! Rather than a long list of expectations that run our lives, we are given just these few limits. Within this ‘playpen’ to keep us safe, we are free to make many, many decisions. We are free to thrive – in a way that we wouldn’t be free if murder, deceit, and theft were the fabric of our world.

The difficulty is that our tendency is still to look for loopholes. One look at corporate taxation in the state of Illinois should be evidence enough that humans do this. Or if that’s not enough, those of you who have ever worked with children can attest that the work of defining and redefining the rules is constant. (But what about this exception? But what if she hurt me first? But what if you don’t really touch him, you just sort of look at him?)

Even within the safety of God’s playpen, we can still hurt one another. The life of our community can still be broken. And we know that this isn’t the fullness of life that God promises, that God yearns for us to experience… and that we long in our bones to experience, too.

I spend a lot of time in 1-1 conversations, and something that I ask people fairly often is, “What is your vision for the world-as-it-should-be?” And for as many times as I’ve asked that question, I have never heard, “Well, as long as people aren’t murdering each other all over the place, and stealing each other’s stuff, and cheating on their spouses and lying to one another, that’s the best I can hope for.” No! Many of you envision more than just barely avoiding death and destruction. You envision health, wholeness, abundance, interdependence, joy… You envision full reconciliation of humans to one another, across lines of difference, and full reconciliation with God… You envision what Moses described in the reading from Deuteronomy today as life! “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live!” (Deut 30:19b)

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And we know that we don’t experience that good life, that full reconciliation, simply by following the rules. If you remember, the Isaiah reading from last week told the story of a community experiencing inequality, suffering, and oppression… and though they were following all the rules of engagement with God, abundant life was still so far away. As we retold their story here, we remembered: We don’t get to say, “I fasted, so God will fix it.” Or, “I didn’t break the commandments, so I’ve done all I can.” It’s not a transaction, we remembered. It’s a relationship. It’s choosing the life that God invites us to, every day. It’s acting, over and over again as if that vision of the world-as-it-should-be is at hand.

And it is more difficult than following the rules.

The rules about divorce, for instance, were intended to protect women from simply being discarded by their husbands with no due process or accountability. The spirit of the law is: The community has an investment in your marriage, and we have a responsibility to make sure the most vulnerable people among us are cared for (and women in Jesus’s time without a partner or family were very vulnerable indeed). So instead of just kicking her out of your house, you need to give her a piece of paper that says, “I divorce you,” and other people from the community need to be there to witness it and make it official. At face value, this law is an improvement. But Jesus points to a troubling trend that he’s seeing: while people are technically following the law, women are no more honored in this new process than before! People are giving their wives certificates of divorce now, yes, but they’re doing it for any little thing: if she doesn’t cook the food they like, or if she is unable to have children, or if she looks at him the wrong way. Any reason is a good enough reason, and all you have to do is write this certificate. This new process continues to leave women vulnerable to the whims of their partners.

And unfortunately, in modern American Christianity we have seen how these sayings about divorce can continue to create shame rather than life, even in our own interpretations.

Following the law may be enough to make you look good, but it isn’t enough to lead to fullness of life. In fact, sometimes choosing life means breaking the rules… Jesus’s life-creating movement broke so many rules that he was sentenced to death. We have inherited a rich legacy of saints that follow in that spirit of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. They are ones who see that the “rules of the world” actually create isolation, alienation, emptiness, idolatry of wealth – the opposite of life. They know that to really choose life will mean destroying those rules.

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I think this is what Jesus means when he says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the religious leaders, you still won’t experience the heaven I intend for you.” That heaven – that life that God intends – requires a lot. That life looks like making things right when they’re wrong. It means being willing to make a painful sacrifice, even to cut out what may be precious to me (“If your eye/hand causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…”) so that I don’t objectify or violate others. Life looks like no one being discarded for whatever reason. Life is living in the freedom to say what you mean (“Yes, Yes” or “No, No”), and in the trust that others mean what they say to you.

It requires a lot, but it is worth it. We do these things, not only to do the right thing for others, to be nice, or to do what Jesus says we should. We do these things but because WE. NEED. it. We were made to live in a world that looks like this. We are creating something here with God (that vision of the world-as-it-should-be) that is so big, so life-giving, something that we need so deeply in our bones, that it is worth it. It is worth choosing every day. It is worth doing the harder thing. It may even be worth losing what is most precious to us to make it happen.

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