In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I first started to think about being received into the Episcopal Church, I joined an Inquirer’s class where we learned that the Episcopal Church was descended from the Church of England. And our teacher asked us on the very first day what turned out to be a trick question.
She said, “Who founded the Church of England?” And I think we all said Henry the VIII. And we were proud of ourselves. But that actually wasn’t the answer she wanted. She wanted us to say that our founder was Jesus Christ. And of course that is true, but I think it’s also misleading in a way, because Jesus didn’t set out to found a new church. If anything, he was more of a church reformer. He wanted to take people deeper in their relationship with God, so that faith wouldn’t be a matter just of what they did, but what they held in their hearts.
In this series of statements in today’s Gospel where he says, “You have heard it said … But I tell you,” these aren’t meant to be a set of new commandments replacing the old commandments. What he’s asking his followers is to internalize the values that those commandments and those rules represent.
This passage that we read today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, which takes up three chapters in the book of Matthew, and it’s a collection of teachings about how his followers are supposed to live. And ultimately it’s all about relationships. Living our faith is not just a matter of having a good private personal relationship with God. It includes our relationships with other people and the teachings that Jesus gave all come down to the love commandment, one commandment, love your neighbor as yourself.
There’s a writer named Bob Goff who wrote a book called Everybody Always, and it’s about love. Love everybody always. And he says that we’re not meant to receive God’s love and hold onto it. We’re meant to be rivers of love, not reservoirs of love, so that God’s love flows through us to other people.[i]
Today’s Gospel is the section of the Sermon on the Mount that deals with murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing of oaths. And there is, I have to say, quite a bit of hyperbole in this part. When Jesus talks about cutting off hands and going to hell for saying you fool, it is clearly exaggeration to make a point and not stating the literal truth.
Sometimes people think that that part about adultery is supposed to say to us that it’s wrong to have sexual thoughts. And that’s not it either. It’s about refusing to recognize other people as bearers of God’s image, so that instead we turn them into objects to be used for our own satisfaction. Which I think is an important lesson, even all these many years later in this era of the #MeToo.
Jesus taught us that each and every one of us is loved by God, that each and every one of us is created in the image and likeness of God—which has so many implications, which we are I think still struggling to understand both in our personal lives and also in our common life together.
And that shared life, that common life that we live together is what Merriam-Webster gives us as one definition of politics: “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” [ii] And that complex of relations is in tatters today. Our politics is broken. But it’s bigger than that.
What I kept coming back to this past week as I read this Gospel and thought and prayed about it was the part about murder, which I usually find it pretty easy to read right past, right? Because I’m not a murderer, not even close to it. So is this really to me?
But Jesus takes it farther than that. He’s not just talking about physical violence, he’s talking about anger, he’s talking about insults. He’s talking about broken relationships, both in a family and in the wider community. He’s talking about how before we start to worry about our relationship with God, before we bring our gift to the altar, so to speak, we need to mend our relationships with other people, because they’re all connected.
So he says, “don’t judge” later in the same section. Love your enemies. Forgive those who do you wrong. This isn’t in the part we read today, but it comes a little later in the Sermon on the Mount now.
Jesus talks about entering through the narrow gate. He says “for the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life.” And he’s right about that, because when you put all of this stuff together and take it really seriously, it does make a hard, hard road to follow. It’s not easy.
But the only way I know to go this route is to take it step by step, to start by attending to our anger and insults and broken relationships.
Our civil discourse is as broken as I’ve ever seen it and out at a different level, I hear about families where members don’t talk to each other or have a hard time talking to each other and often just because of political differences.
And sometimes I just want to shake my head in despair because I don’t know how all of this is ever going to be fixed.
Everybody seems to be angry. The news is all about insults. Relationships are torn across the board.
And a huge question for me is how can we follow what Jesus said today and at the same time stand up for our own beliefs and values in this world in a way that doesn’t involve anger, insult, and the kind mistrust that he’s talking about.
Because no matter how wrong we think people are, it’s also wrong to think that God loves them any less than God loves us.
So here’s an idea, sort of step by step: What if we stopped nurturing our anger and calling each other names? What if we looked honestly at our own broken relationships, and I think we all have them, in some degree or another, and began to work on mending them, even if we are the ones who are right?
What if we made a point of building new relationships with anyone who’s willing to be in a relationship with us, until the world is connected by a web of the kind of relationships that Jesus was talking about?
I don’t know what would happen, but it seems like something that might be worth trying, because what else have we got?
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Buckingham PA.
[i] Everything Always, iii.
[ii] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/politics, accessed Feb. 15, 2020.