Sermon February 16: Choices of the Heart

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Faith United Methodist Church
February 16, 2014
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Rev. Krista-Beth Atwood

Scripture: Matthew 5:21-37, Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Prayer of Illumination:  Three Things We Pray #493

Sermon: Choices of the Heart

Before I begin I want to tell you something.  I love preaching. And I try my very best to offer up original, timely (and meaningful) sermons for our time together every week.  Sometimes it is easier than others.   Wrestling with the Scriptures and writing my sermon are, often times, among the best parts of my week.  Other times ~ like this week ~ not so much.  This week I was sick.  When crunch time came, fingers poised about the keyboard, I had nothing.  So I went back and looked in my files and I found this sermon that I had preached a few years ago on these Scriptures.  Some things bear repeating, right?   While it is not original or hot off the press, I hope you find it meaningful.  And, if you hear echoes of things I have said before, perhaps that is God trying to get your attention 🙂

So…. Love.  Love is in the air.  But you might not know it from this week’s Gospel lesson.  Valentines’ Day or not, the Lectionary serves up some pretty difficult teachings of Jesus.  No Hallmark cards. No candy hearts.  No sugar coating.  This is tough stuff.

In this teachings Jesus covers a variety of topics:  anger, lust, divorce, oaths.  Four controversial subjects for one sermon!   Jesus’ audience ~ the disciples and the crowd gathered around them ~ were familiar with the Jewish law and what the law said about these topics.  They knew the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses.  And Jesus, having just proclaimed that he hadn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, was surely expected to uphold every word.

So it must have been a little surprising when Jesus employed the rhetorical device we find here.  About each topic Jesus proclaimed, “You have heard that it was said….. But I say to you…” You have heard that it was said….. But I say to you… It almost sounds like Jesus is changing the very law he said he came to fulfill.

Almost, but not quite.  Because if we look closely we can see that Jesus isn’t changing anything, but rather getting to the heart of it.    For example, in his teaching on murder, Jesus invites us to see the emotion that lies beneath it.  Anger.  If we can get ahold of anger before it blossoms, if we can restore damaged relationships before they break, we can all live more peacefully within community.  And, in so doing, we will be upholding not only the letter, but the heart of the law as well.

Still, Jesus’ statements seem harsh ~ even heartless ~ at first.  Especially when we consider the punishments he suggests.  For those of us who lust we are to pluck out our eyes, cut off our hands.  And hell fire awaits those of us who’ve been known to use the phrase, “You fool.” The Greek word for ‘hell of fire’ is Gehenna and refers to an actual smoldering garbage dump outside of Jerusalem.  An image that Jesus’ listeners could easily bring to mind.

So what are we to do?  We all experience anger.  We’ve all lusted after someone or something.  We’ve all experienced fractures in our relationships at one time or another. And we’ve certainly all broken promises.  Are we to pack up and move to the garbage dump?  Are we to pluck out our eyes and cut off our limbs?  Is there any hope at all?  Do we have a chance?

In our Scripture from Deuteronomy this morning Moses puts a choice before the people of Israel.  “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God…by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways…you shall live and become numerous.”  Then he invites them, “Choose life…”

It seems to me that Jesus is offering a similar choice.  We can live the letter of the law by not murdering, not committing adultery, not lying or we can go deeper.  We can live our faith not only with our actions, but with our hearts also.  As Amy Oden puts it, “It is one thing to behave rightly, it is another thing entirely for one’s heart to be oriented toward love.”

I admit that, personally, I find this morning’s Gospel lesson most challenging.  It’s a difficult one.  I have trouble reconciling these words of Jesus with what I understand of the God of love.  The only way I can truly understand these teachings is through the lens of relationship.  When Jesus speaks of anger, I hear the pain that is caused when relationships between people are not valued.  When Jesus speaks of lust I hear him warning against the ways we objectify each other.  When Jesus speaks of divorce I hear him caring for the women of his day who, when divorced by their husbands, often had no place to live or way to earn a wage.  When Jesus speaks of oaths I hear the importance of honestly in building trust within communities.  All of these teachings, as I understand them, speak to the importance of honest, caring, loving relationships between people.  Living from the heart.

So what does it mean to live in ways that restore relationships and strengthen community?  What would it be like to put relationships above rules?  And what would it mean to trust our neighbors as friends rather than rivals?  To me this sounds like an abundant way to live.  It’s a way that builds up rather than tears down.  It speaks to a way of life in which we honor each other as persons who are blessed and beloved of God.  It is a life of integrity.  And I believe in my heart that this is the life to which Jesus calls us.

So perhaps love is in the air today.  The love that Jesus calls us to is not a simple love, but a demanding love.  It’s a love that requires something of us.  It’s a love that doesn’t permit us to use others to further our own purposes.  And it’s a love that, when lived, challenges us and changes us from the inside out.  You have heard that it was said…. But I say to you… Choose love … Follow me, Jesus invites us, and I will show you the way of love.  Amen.