Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Words Matter, Love Matters

Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

Well…happy Valentines Day everyone!

Let the record show that I warned you about week three of the Sermon on the Mount.

Look, let’s be honest, Jesus’ words to us today are hard to take. The imagery is violent and upsetting and the conclusions are simply outrageous. On the surface, this seems like the kind of thundering judgment that hurts so many people.

It was just last week that Jesus was talking about us being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The week before we were all #blessed. It was all so happy. What happened to that guy?

I think Jesus would have really thrived in today’s 24-hour wall-to-wall media environment. After all, isn’t this the type of overheated language that’s becoming more and more common these days? It seems like we’re always going through this endless cycle. Someone says something incendiary (or even not so incendiary) and suddenly we’re launched into another round of debating, reflecting yet again on how words matter.

I can imagine the click-bate headline after Jesus’ sermon: “Galilean preacher blasts divorcees; advocates preemptive amputation.” The Pharisees would go on Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow, howling about how they are “so offended.” The Sadducees would start a Twitter war. And the disciples would be pummeled into issuing a statement of clarification that would publicly distance themselves from this crazy firebrand.

The truth is, these words were equally shocking in Jesus’ time. The prevailing religious sentiment was that if you upheld of the Law of Moses—passed down to the faithful by their ancestors—then you will be blessed. We saw it today in our first reading: “If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God . . . then you shall live and become numerous.”

But while most people followed the law, some thought so narrowly, so legalistically that they forgot about what really mattered…they forgot about the other—the outcast, the oppressed. Take the example of divorce: At that time, divorce was basically the sole privilege of the man. He could easily divorce his wife, according to the letter of the law. But a divorced woman was left with no rights, no income, and no dignity. In many ways, it was a death sentence.

It can be difficult for us to understand in our own context, but Jesus is raising the stakes. He is placing fairness and justice at the center of the most intimate of human relationships. He is showing a little tough love, taking the strict and narrow-minded religious folks of his day and shaking them by the collar.

“Following the law is important,” he is saying, “but so is what you hold in your heart.” Righteousness matters, but so does justice. Judgment matters, but so does mercy. Words matter, but so does action.

It’s clear that we can’t take this passage literally. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off”?? If we followed that, all of us here today wouldn’t have any hands and no eyes and we’d probably be running out of toes…and we’d still be getting in trouble.

So, maybe instead, instead of focusing on the letter of the law, we should take notice of how it causes us think and feel. How does it spark your imagination?

Perhaps today, Jesus is trying to get your attention, to shake your complacency, to force you to consider the lengths you would go to live with justice and righteousness. What extreme measures would you take to live for your brothers and sisters?

As I was preparing for Scout Sunday today, I was thinking back on my own days as a Boy Scout. And one of the things that I remember was getting my monthly copy of Boy’s Life—the Scout magazine. And there in the back of the magazine was “Stories of Scouts in Action.” This regular comic strip—a true story of a Scout who had risked his life to save others.

So I went and checked to see if the strip was still in print. And indeed, it’s still a regular feature. You can even read it online! This month’s edition is pretty typical. [read here]

The purpose of this comic strip as well as all the training we get as Scouts—first aid, wilderness survival, emergency preparedness—all of that is to condition us to respond like the boy in the story. To jump in and take action and to know exactly what to do without even thinking about it. Like *that.*

And it occurs to me that is the type of bold action that Jesus’ bold words are calling us towards. If you saw a brother or sister teetering on a ledge, swept up in the rapids, gripped by despair and loss, what lengths would you go to save them? Would you be willing to risk a hand or an eye or even your own life? And would you do it instinctively?

Through Jesus, we what lengths God will go, what actions God will take. This is a God who loves us so much that he gave his only son…a son who humbled himself to the point of death—even death on a cross. Jesus is the heart of God’s love. He is the very model of God’s self-emptying love.

God’s love is love that is much more powerful than anything a greeting card can put to words. It is a love that heals our broken relationships. It is a love that reconciles us to one another. It is a love that transcends our petty quarrelling and our nitpicky legalism—our bitter words and our cruel actions.

Paul tells us today that “we are God’s servants, working together; [we] are God’s field, God’s building.” What if, as a community and as a society, we took those words to heart and backed them up with action? What would our world look like? What if we patrolled our world, looking for those swept up in desperation and fear? What if we rejected the lustful exploitation of our bodies and our sexuality and instead honored its dignity and beauty and mystery? What if we truly valued the love of families and friends and passionately fought to preserve that love? What if we approached this table—this altar—deeply reconciled to each other (even our enemies)?

That’s hard work. It cannot be described in a witty sound bite or contained in 140 characters or summed up by Hallmark. It will require more difficult words, a few more shocks to the system, a bit more tough love.

You know, when you think about it, maybe this is an appropriate passage for Valentine’s weekend. Maybe on this holiday we should think of love differently—not just as an emotion that can be expressed by flowers or a box of chocolates or a nice dinner, but as a way of life that requires real sacrifice and real self-discipline.

Remember today: We are God’s servants. We are God’s field. Words matter. Actions matter. But love matters, most of all.