As Steve Mueller put it this week:
When does the good news sound like bad news?
…In today’s readings.
They are tough… Jesus is doubling down on the commandments which we often interpret as restrictions…..but
When I was in college, a professor posed to us restrictions. He said, If you ask a stupid question, I will impose a restriction on you: your work. He said, if you ask a stupid question in front of the entire class, then I will impose a restriction based on that for all of you. For instance, we were in a class making 3 D models with paper and someone asked if we could use scissors… so that’s what I’m talking about…
But he said, if you ask a serious question about your process I will give you freedom to explore it.
That is what Jesus is doing for us in a way: How do you process the commandments?
When we first hear these readings, it is hard not to cringe. Jesus brings up Murder, Adultery, Divorce, Swearing. Most of us here (I’m assuming everyone here) is free of the first one.
But the others: not so much.
In the Episcopal church we do not consider the latter three as grounds for exclusion from communion or participating fully in our community. Many of us are divorced. My husband was previously married.
When I sat down to look at the readings, I thought as my mother in law says. “oy vey;” this would’ve been a better week to have invited the guest preacher!
So how are we to wrestle with these teaching from Jesus?
If we go over the collective readings today, they are about
“choosing" life. What does the flourishing of God’s kingdom look like? What does the flourishing of God’s people look like?
“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying and holding fast to [God].
We are not talking about living forever, but rather what makes our life sanctified? Holy and set apart for true living!
Our lives are holy. We are all made in the image of God, and yet we each have one precious life. And each of us is “ruled” by something (the highest power: God, or our appetites and drives, you name it)!
In this week’s Gospel Jesus doubles down on some of the “rules” in order to emphasize God’s commandments as offering health and life. It is a tough teaching. But Jesus takes these commandments, what seem like restrictions and puts them in the context of a thriving life for the entire community.
What is new in this teaching, is that Jesus expands the definitions of the commandments for us. He pushes us to take these foundational teachings deeper.
Jesus relates anger itself to murder. While we may not commit actual murder, Jesus is equating anger, insult and swearing with murder. The similarity being the fruit of all of these is imprisonment: The lack of life.
Jesus is speaking to the ease at which we let anger fuel us; Rule us! Name-calling, “fool!” might just feel like a release…but what feeling does it really create in you, and what mood do you project? That’s the “hell and the fire” he speaks of…Our moods are contagious. And they have the power to imprison us… and others.
Instead Jesus offers: “First be reconciled to your brother or sister… Come to terms quickly with your accuser.”
We are not responsible if others will not reconcile. We cannot control what others do… but we can control how we respond. Integrating that understanding will offer us freedom and life.
Jesus is asking more from us than simply following an external law so we don’t get in trouble. He asks us to internalize some of it; And that makes us consider: What does “rule” us? He is asking us to look inside and transform or hearts, and minds; our inner lives.
Jesus takes adultery into a new level, by saying forget about the external law. If you entertain thoughts that objectify another, that actually is a form of violence. It is not life-giving.
While the religious leaders had agreed to accepting a certificate for divorce, it’s important to think what that meant for the people of the time. Men could divorce their wives leaving them destitute. Jesus’ point is a matter of justice rather than simply morality. Solo women were often in grave danger in the first century. That’s why there are so many lessons about caring for the widow and the orphan.
Jesus takes the commandments and expands on them by asking us to consider the spiritual health and wellness of ourselves and our communities. These are not moral codes by which we are simply judged by our peers. He expands on them showing the shape of a healthy and just and righteous community for all.
Paul reminds the Corinthians of this work, as a whole, while they are quarreling. The justice, the health of the community, the family of God is for all - and attributed to all. He says, “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose.… For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
The commandments may sound prescriptive, but if we engage them on this deeper level that Jesus asks of us, we may come to find that they are life-giving rather than simply rules to be judged by on the human domain in legal indictments or even gossip. From Moses’ time until today they remain true in that bigger sense of truth. They were always designed for human flourishing not as a way to punish us.
While we fail at some of the commandments regularly… Jesus’ insistence on them as foundation for God’s community is food for thought…
How might interpreting them anew in the context of your daily habits, and then practicing them make you flourish? How could this be life-giving for you, for your family and community?
Freedom from imprisonment is incremental. Anger may not feel the same as murder… but we know how our anger imprisons us in cycles of dissatisfaction, frustration, pain. How it may imprison others through this cycle of negative energy that is not life-giving.
Paul speaks to the Corinthians saying that their community is still acting out of the “flesh”. He is referring to the ailments that come from human nature.
To have a higher power, to have God in our lives as the ruler (although it sounds old fashioned) offers us freedom from our addictions and our predilections in the form of life!
The commandments are restrictions designed to help us thrive.
In my art class incredibly creative solutions came out of those students who worked within the limits of the restrictions. It was challenging and even exciting, incredibly rewarding and spirit-building.
What’s your spiritual process? Working with the commandments, ancient knowledge which has come to us through the millenia…may be exciting again…your spiritual life can be creative and rewarding.
The most important thing to remember as Paul reminds us: is that
God is life,
and we are all the field:
And it is a field of spiritual exploration that waters and grows the kingdom.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Jesus says this to us! Not just the apostles but to all of his disciples. That’s us.
One of my spiritual directors used to love the phrase: “Integrate that!” He wanted me to really absorb and not so readily deflect things in this life. Mostly Good things, as many of us do.
So, Jesus says to you: You are the Light of the World! You are the Salt of the Earth! Integrate that!
What does that mean…
As salt of the earth we are season for one another! Salt is a preservative, brings out flavor, makes things tasty! Working together we can bring out the flavor of our community.
Okay, I know St. Paul’s likes to feed people, but I also mean Feed one another spiritually!
In ancient times salt was also an antiseptic, a healing remedy. The Romans paid their soldiers a salarium which our word salary derives from. This was money paid to them so they could purchase salt among other food items.
To be “worth ones’ salt” is a 19th Century expression, but it came down through the centuries obviously and means to be worthy of one’s responsibilities, reliable and valued for what they do. A doctor who is “worth their salt” is an able doctor. They live up to their profession.
In Today’s Gospel Jesus is asking us to be the salt and the light for one another: to integrate that;
We are often so caught up in our tasks and our schedules, that errands can take on an automated response in us as we try to get things done as efficiently as possible. Often, ironically trying to be “worth our salt.”The World pushes us to be busy and often frustrated and harried. But if we focus on our center, our light, each one of those encounters with another can become light touching light, spirit touching spirit.
Today’s gospel follows the Sermon on the Mount ( which one commentator remarked) is essentially Jesus’ “I have a Dream Speech.” He is expounding on the things that are of the Kingdom, a realm that is “just and right:” A realm that we hope to see on earth one day.
And his proclamation this morning is not a guilt trip, but rather a pep talk! He is saying we can do this: we are salt and we are light!
He makes it very clear that he is not throwing out the old, but doubling down.
“Not one letter of the law will pass away until all is accomplished.”
God’s righteousness is eternal. Our participation will help in this accomplishment. The commandments are our foundation. And our participation in God’s righteousness is more than lip service.
Jesus is not throwing out the law or the prophets, but is riled up about hypocrisy from leaders who speak of righteousness but don’t live it out. He is asking us to live it, or we will never reach that dream; that dream of heaven on earth.
When we hear the word righteousness, we may think of it as moral perfection. But the word in Hebrew is quite complex. We don’t have a word quite like it. In Hebrew it can mean to redeem, to protect, to bless, to be obedient to the law, to be virtuous to others.
In our own spiritual lives we are participating in that characteristic of God. That righteousness. We are joining in and participating in what God is always doing. It is a pattern of life that helps us to keep reaching for the Kindgom of Heaven. That is where endurance comes in… rather than perfection. We are not perfect.
The gospel today and the portion from Isaiah make me think of the famous lyrics by Leonard Cohen…
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.
Isaiah claims Our “light shall break forth like the dawn” when we begin to let the the oppressed go free…
Isaiah speaks of the same things that Jesus speaks of in the Sermon on the Mount: feed the hungry, care for the poor, loose the bonds of injustice. And your light will shine. Not only that but, “your healing shall spring up quickly.”
These two things are connected: our healing and our participation in righteousness.
…Sometimes are brokenness allows for new light to shine in places we aren’t expecting, and through community, where we can season one another with the Spirit of love and understanding: where we can heal one another.
How does our Spirituality show our light and our salt?
Paul has a lot to say about our spirituality in his letter to the Corinthians. That community is having a hard time. They are quarreling, and all in all seem to be acting out. They sound like a bunch of teenagers, and it is easy to imagine that getting a new identity and starting a new life in a communal model could have that kind of regressive effect.
And even after all that I’ve said earlier about Jesus not needing us to be perfect, I admit that Paul tends to be somewhat of a perfectionist… but here he is appealing to their spirit.
He says, to know what is truly human is to know the spirit within. He is literally using the Spirit to center them. It is not some lofty or “new age” idea. He is saying what is central in us is this grounding place. It is very serious. Like the commandments, this is foundational for us. This spiritual center, this space that is united with God through the Spirit is foundational.
How can we be salt and light…The healing that brings the Kingdom of Heaven?
There are major figures like Martin Luther King Jr and many others that pave the way… prophets in our own time… but we also have that spiritual center of our own… that center that knows what righteousness is
on a salt level (so to speak); a human level.
Fr. Masud helped break that open for the congregation in his sermon last week that asked us to consider the elements of Micah’s famous passage:
Walk humbly with your God.
What does that really look like, he asked?
And you gave him some pretty good answers!
It is easier than we think. Just offering a smile. A smile lightens a room and shows another person that little piece of heaven. Kindness. When we buy our groceries remembering to smile at the person at the register is healing. It may sound ridiculously small. But each small piece of our Spirit that we give offers healing to another.
Integrate that: That we have the power to bring light into one another’s lives, to season one another’s lives with flavor, preserve one another’s lives through kindness; heal one another through humility and justice as Micah proclaimed last week.
That is how we become “worth our salt.” We do not need to be perfect. How can we?…but we can attempt to walk humbly enough for God’s light to shine through us to others.
As the psalmist sings:
Light shines in the darkness for the upright; *
the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.
It is good for them to be generous in lending *
and to manage their affairs with justice.
For they will never be shaken; *
the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.
That is the everlasting righteousness that is not ours alone; but our participation lightens the arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice.