Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why is Jesus So Harsh?

This past week I was coming home after a full day of Bible Club, distributing grocery bags and Table Church and my neighbor was standing on his porch asking, ”Can I have communion and can you tell me the gospel reading for Sunday?” He has missed Table Church and was going to be away Sunday.  It had been a long day and frankly I was tired. My first response was to say the gospel was Matthew 5 on killing, adultery and divorce and that I didn’t have any communion at home. Yes, I know I really did say that at first.  

I’d traveled long that day. I really didn’t want to turn around and walk back to church and get the communion ready and walk back again... About one whole minute later, I popped back outside and said-“ I’ll be right back.”  I went back and got wine and wafers and as I came back, he apologized if I had gone to any trouble. But really, how many people are so focused on Jesus that they would even ask? It seemed necessary. And it was for both of us.

I set up communion in the dining room and started reading this gospel lesson from Matthew. As I read it frankly all I could imagine was someone hearing it who needed some good news and it's murder, adultery, divorce, hell fire. It’s harsh. And I almost felt like I needed to resolve it in some way. So I talked a little about how sometimes as a parent and even before that as a child there have been the “hard conversations” where the niceties get stripped away and we tell people straight up truth not only about love but owning our actions. And how all the rules we had for our kids were about showing them how to live in life and love. Our “law” wasn’t about creating a game no one could win. The words themselves might sound harsh but they have a purpose. That sounded good.

Then I pointed out that it’s easy to hone in on the sexy words of divorce or adultery or the fierce words of murder where lots of judging happens and say- well I didn’t do THAT! But Jesus is speaking about things much more broadly- the ways we are all somehow drawn into the scope of words that kill, promises broken, lives shattered ad hearts that are grieved. Not just where we are victims but actors. And you know, when Jesus puts it that way, it’s pretty hard to be judgey. We want to believe that our relativism or comparison strategies count. It stings to be reminded that none of us is who we were created to be or even wanted to be. And that sounded good too.

Well, then I suggested that the good news is there is more to the story- that though we cannot live up the law, God’s grace in the cross is the last word.  And although that’s true it kind of fell flat.

Luckily I think he wasn't listening to that. Because he was emotional and said hearing those words from Matthew were just what he needed. He had felt someone was a little insulting and sarcastic, so he had been a little salty back. Reflecting later he realized that the other person might not have understood and he needed to make it right. He wasn’t focused on “just get to the grace.” He was focused on the ethics. And it really wasn’t a terrible thing he’d said, but he looked for a time to work together with this person where they both volunteer to have a conversation to clear the air and tie up loose ends.
And then he shared that it felt good to do that. Hearing Jesus’ words about our ethics, affirmed not just what he had done but to keep doing it. Keep choosing to transform something rather than just let it go. We really do need that accountability. This is what Jesus is getting at. One scholar I know says, following Jesus means doing what Jesus says which is MORE demanding than other paths. And it is about community. Just appealing to grace won’t cut it.
And I think I played the grace card because I felt guilty about my earlier words.

We can opt for recognizing and trying to gloss over our human failure but Jesus goes to the root- our motive and attitude matter. And the justice and righteousness of which Jesus speaks- God’s transformative will-demands confronting and changing the status quo in all of us.
When we do not live this way, we are not participating in the completion of God’s purposes.
The law is not about pleasing God, it’s what’s given for our life- all of us. More than a negative goal of avoiding sin. But a positive one of discovering and following what is God’s will. The sting we feel is not that God’s being harsh, its our experiencing the potential for pain and destruction our brokenness brings and seeing our role.

All the examples Jesus gives show that destructive expressions kill. Angry thoughts, words of contempt, insults, public shaming, emotional abuse, disgrace. Choosing to demean and discard. We want to hear these are not as bad as killing. But we know in our hearts how these destroy and cause loss of life. Even when we think it’s a little thing, we are sacrificing each other in ways that harm more than we know and break our connectedness.  God calls us to keep each other focused by giving us this community.
When we are not reconciled in relationships we find life lacking. But the work of tending relationships is not convenient. The story of leaving the sacrifice imagines journeying 80 miles to do something only to turn right around and journey back the same distance and another week to participate in mending a rift. Much farther than a block. That’s how far we should go to avoid allowing bad in relationships to remain unresolved. Or risk someone feeling lost altogether.

It shows the importance of relationships to God and what Jesus shows is what God gives for us. For life. We don't find life in the comparison strategies or relativism we want to rely upon.  Even in what lots of people gravitate to- the part about divorce. Jesus is speaking to protect dignity so that no one is demeaned or cut off. In Jesus’ day marriage was a male prerogative in which destructive behaviors included victimizing women to abandoning them for things as simple a thing as spoiling a meal. Jesus proclaims that destructive behaviors undo the “One flesh-ness” of marriage. Even here, no matter how we try, none of us perfectly escapes times we undo the one body-ness of many relationships in some way.  

And living with perfection is beyond our grasp.

This is where Jesus continues to come to show us and lead us into new places and to offer forgiveness. In seeing our brokenness then we grasp the power and love of the cross. And the strength to try again to live into the ethics of the kingdom. Where we show and experience God revealed. Together. In all our thinking, speaking and living. Even the simplest words.

My neighbor didn’t need to share his experience with me- he could have kept it to himself. He shared because he had a need. But it wasn't for me to make Jesus more palatable. He  and I needed to hear Jesus say again that doing the hard work of relationships was holy and that God’s word, communion and fellowship are where continually we meet the God who promises to lead us not into temptation or the destruction of evil, but into the kingdom. My neighbor said at the end that when he is away from church too long, he can feel it. That he needs it. We all do.

And the other day he saw I was stressed and called out, “Pastor,  just remember Matthew 5. “


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