EPIPHANY 6, A
Choices. It’s all about choices.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. So says Moses, the bringer of the law. Life. Death. Blessings. Curses. Choose life. Can it really be so simple?
The pharisees thought so. Not easy maybe, but simple enough. Their lives revolved around the law – observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances that they might live and become numerous.
First blush, doesn’t seem so difficult – not really. I don’t mean I could live the life of the pharisees – way, way too many rules. But we’ve pared those rules down a bit, haven’t we?
Jesus emphasizes a few for us today. Murder, adultery. Those are clear enough. Divorce. That one deserves a little more comment. In an age and culture where about 50% of marriages end in divorce it is so tempting to just ignore this part of the lection altogether. Pretend we didn’t hear it. Keep in mind, though, divorce now is not what divorce was when Jesus was teaching. In the days of Jesus, initiating divorce on any grounds was not an option for women, no matter what the circumstances. Women whose husbands divorced them (something which could be done on essentially no pretext) faced social isolation, ostracism, poverty. Divorce did not simply end a relationship or a contract, it left a person abandoned and bereft.
So, murder, adultery, abandonment.
When I go to bed at night, thinking over the day that was, looking back at events and happenings, it is easy enough to ask myself these questions
Did you murder anyone today? No. Check.
Commit adultery? No. Check.
Leave anyone profoundly abandoned and bereft of all support? No. Check.
L’chaim, then. To Life. We have thus chosen life, right?
Ah, but we have chosen to follow another path to life. We have chosen to follow Jesus. Jesus who shows us the God of love, of light, of relationship.
But love and light and relationship clearly does not always mean warm and fuzzy. Far from offering the easy out of allowing us to happily absolve ourselves of the crimes of murder, adultery and abandonment, Jesus ups the ante. Clearly he did not study at the Mary Poppins, Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down school of thought. He champions instead the “cut it off and pluck it out” approach. Scholars seem united in the idea that Jesus was not actually promoting self-mutilation (good news there), but was instead utilizing the time-honored rabbinical approach of hyperbole to underscore his point.
Even without actual dismemberment, what He is saying is radical. “I have come not to abolish [the law], but to fulfill [the law]” He told us in last week’s lection. Fulfillment of the law, living the law means that it is no longer enough to restrain oneself from killing – we must learn to recognize, to rout out the root cause of murder – unresolved anger, disrespect. We are no longer responsible merely for our actions, but for our thoughts, our emotions, our relationships. Anger is a part of our nature when we are threatened, physically, emotionally or psychologically. Physical desire is a part of our nature, well, pretty much any time in some cases. It allows our species to procreate, and often allows our relationships to deepen. We are not asked to prevent our emotions it in the first place – that is not our nature. We are not asked to deny them, stuffing it down where it merely festers and grows. We are asked to mindfully, deliberately teach ourselves not to live in them, foster them, dwell in them.
Rev. Beth Johnson tells this story, “Once there were two monks who were on a journey. Each of these monks had taken a vow to never touch a woman, for any purpose. They came upon a river and a woman, in attempting to cross the swiftly moving river, had lost her footing and was in danger of drowning. The older monk leaped into the water, and delivered her safely to the other shore. As they travelled along the younger monk was most distressed that his mentor had broken his sacred vow. Finally the older man replied, “Brother, I set her down several hours ago, why are you still carrying her?”
Jesus asks us to put down our burdens of anger, of all-consuming desire (this could easily be extended to a desire for things, power, money, influence, whatever occupies our energies in addition to physical desire). He asks us to put down these burdens and seek reconciliation and harmony with our fellow creatures of God. To do this is its own act of faith, its own act of courage – it leaves us feeling vulnerable. According to Henri Nouwan, “Jesus.. says, ‘Let go of your complaints, forgive those who loved you poorly, step over your feelings of being rejected, and have the courage to trust that you won’t fall into an abyss of nothingness but into the safe embrace of a God whose love will heal all your wounds.”
Healing or hurting?
Serving self or serving God?
Festering in anger or seeking reconciliation?
Community or isolation?
Blessings or curses?
Life or Death?
We have choices to make. They are simple. They are not easy. We are not perfect. We will make bad choices. With Jesus as our guide, with the body of Christ as our support, with God as our help, we are forgiven, and we walk on. Onward to love, onward to justice, onward to the Kingdom, onward to life. L’chaim. Amen.