Faith United Methodist Church
February 12, 2017
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Rev. Kristabeth Atwood
Scripture: Matthew 5:21-24, Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Prayer of Illumination:
Caring God, nurture the life within us. You have shown us the ways that lead to life. You have challenged us to move beyond easy answers, to embrace the hard choices that come with caring deeply for others. Give us the wisdom and the courage to resist evil and walk in your ways of love. Amen.
Sermon: Give It Away!
Today our worship theme is “Creating Right Relationships.” And we spent a little time earlier hopefully doing just that. In order to be in relationship we have to get to know each other. But what, exactly, is “right relationship.” It’s not a phrase we hear very often. We hear about good relationships or challenging relationships, toxic relationships or loving relationships, but not often “right relationships.”
In a theological sense, right relationships means putting God at the center of our lives. Only when we have God at the center can we be in right relationships with those around us. Being in right relationship means that we try to love, to live, to forgive, and to hold each other accountable as Jesus did. Right relationship requires that we sometimes put our needs, our wants, our desires aside to meet the other person ~ whether a friend, a lover, a parent, a child ~ where they are. We don’t stockpile God’s love for ourselves. Instead, we give it away.
One thing I’ve learned ~ and I’m sure may of you have learned ~ is that relationships take work. In the “chocolate and roses” phase of a relationship it seems that nothing could ever go wrong. And then something does go wrong. Sometimes that is the end of the relationship. But other times we don’t want to walk away, so we get down in the mud and muck and try to work things out. Sometimes that means saying we are sorry. Sometimes that means accepting an apology. Sometimes that means adjusting our expectations or preconceived notions and starting fresh.
And this is true not just for romantic relationships, but all kinds of relationships. Friendships. Family connections. Working relationships….. And church relationships. We here are a family of faith and, just like any family, we have our disagreements. When these disagreements come up we have to decide if we are going to work through them or walk away. Staying and working through things often requires hard work and sacrifice but, as Jesus reminds us, there are often great rewards.
Today we meet Jesus teaching on the mountain ~ the Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon Jesus touches on some pretty tough topics, including ‘anger’ which we hear about today. Jesus’ audience ~ the disciples and the crowd gathered around them ~ were familiar with the Jewish law and what the law said about anger. 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.
But Jesus added a little twist. He preached, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’… but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Jesus didn’t just uphold the law, but expanded upon it. It’s as if Jesus was saying, “Yes, your actions matter, but so does your heart.”
Indeed, Jesus invites us to see the emotion that lies beneath the teaching on murder. Anger. If we can get ahold of anger before it blossoms, if we can restore damaged relationship 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.
Still, Jesus’ teaching seems harsh. The hell of fire awaits those of us who’ve been known to use the phrase, “You fool”? Really? So what are we to do? We all experience anger. We’ve all experienced fractures in our relationships at one time or another. How are we to be in right relationship in our imperfect world?
In our Scripture from Deuteronomy 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 in the Gospel lesson. We can live the letter of the law or we can go deeper. We can live our faith not only with our actions, but also with our hearts. We can live thinking only of ourselves, or we can live in right relationship. 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.”
When Jesus speaks of anger, I hear the pain that is caused when relationships between people are not valued. I hear the fighting that often results when we think we don’t have enough and someone else is getting more. I hear the fear that we are not going to get what we deserve. Jesus challenges that mind set. He encourages us to see that we do have enough, that there is plenty to go around, and that the only way we can truly hold on to it is by giving it away.
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? David Lose puts it well in his Lectionary Reflections, “…Jesus calls us to envision life in God’s kingdom as constituted not by obeying laws but rather by holding the welfare of our neighbors close to our hearts….” Living in right relationship. 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. When we live this way our hands are open. We recognize that there is enough of God’s love to go around, so we give it away. And I believe in my heart that this is the life to which Jesus calls us. Choose life. Amen.