Year A — Transfiguration Sunday

Commentary for March 6, 2011

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Exodus 24:12-18

This text gives us the context for Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. Clearly, the Christ is “Moses Plus,” greater even than the great lawgiver. His glory will shine like that of the Lord on the holy mountain.

Taking another tack for a moment, notice that Moses and Joshua are summoned before the Lord and that, upon arrival, Moses waits for six days in the presence of God before a word is ever spoken. Talk about preparing for worship!

Most congregations would find it intolerable to wait for six minutes without some type of “action” in worship these days. We are busy, busy, busy and we don’t want to waste any time in worship just sitting around. What’s the old saying — “You get out of it what you put into it?” 

Maybe we would feel a bit more transformed after worship ourselves if we took a little more time to prepare and just “wait on the Lord.”

Psalm 2 and Psalm 99

The psalm texts also lend “thickness” to the gospel text. In Psalm 2, God speaks through the generations the words affirmed of Christ: “You are my son, today I have begotten you….” Psalm 99 sets the proper tone of respect when one is called to the mountain to worship God: “The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble!

2 Peter 1:16-21

The Apostle Peter gives his “eyewitness” account of the events that transpired on the mountain that day. He is like any person asked to repeat an incredulous tale — “No, I swear to you, I heard it myself! I know it sounds crazy, but there was a real, out-loud voice that spoke from heaven. We knew it was God!”

Our worship traditions give validity to the “personal testimony” to various degrees; Peter’s is certainly a powerful word. As preachers, what is the place in our own speaking for “personal testimony?” We never want to take center stage from the gospel, certainly, but is there a time for our people to hear from our own lives — or from the lives of others within our congregations — what we know to be true from our own experience?

Matthew 17:1-9

You will find no shortage of commentary material on this familiar story of “The Transfiguration.” Wrestle with it, as you no doubt have and should. Dr. Chilton sets forth the idea, in the sermon that follows, that this story is, among other things, about the holiness that resides in the everyday experiences of our lives. 

We are called to pay attention — snap out of it and quit looking for “the next new thing” or the “mountaintop experience” that will change our lives. Perhaps, by the very presence of the Christ among us and the Spirit in us, God IS changing our lives if we are willing to open our hearts and eyes in order to see.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton

The Hidden-ness of the Holy

Almost every Saturday afternoon, I listen to the opera on the Public Radio Station.

Don’t look so surprised. I like opera; not as much as I like Lynard Skynard or ZZ Top, but I like opera.

Well, actually I don’t like opera, but I do like the idea of liking opera; deep down inside I fell like an educated person SHOULD like opera, and sooo….

On Saturday afternoons I listen to opera, kind of on the same theory as your mother had when she kept feeding you liver and asparagus, hoping that one day you would come in and when she said, “What would you like for dinner?,” you would say, “How about some yummy liver and asparagus?”
 Not gonna happen, but hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Anyway, I listen to opera in the vague hope that someday I’ll like it and can then count myself as a genuinely educated and cultured person. Every once in a while, I find myself liking a piece, nodding along and getting into it and thinking, “Gee, I beginning to like this opera stuff.”
But then I realize that the opera pieces I liked were the ones they used as soundtracks for Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoons, and I was back to square one.
I still didn’t like opera; I was just engaging in nostalgia about my childhood.

It seems to me that many people are seeking after Spiritual Enlightenment in much the same way that I have been seeking Musical Enlightenment. It’s something they’ve heard about, many of the better people have had these experiences, so they believe they ought to have them too.

So, they go seeking after the next new thing; the latest prayer techniques and the different churches and the praise bands and labyrinth walks and Alpha Bible Study and the Men’s drum-beating Sweat Lodge, and I don’t know what all.

Whatever they’re looking for, it isn’t where they are, it must be over the hill or around the next corner.

Some of this can be traced to biblical stories like today’s scripture lessons, which tell us about extra-ordinary spiritual events.

In our First Lesson, Moses goes up on the mountain and meets God in cloud and devouring fire.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James and John — and while there is TRANSFIGURED, whatever that means.
And in our Second Lesson, Peter talks about his own memories of that day on the mountain.

Somehow, some people are always looking for something more, something electric and kinetic and spine tingling to happen to them religiously. Which is okay, those things do happen, sometimes, to some people.

What is not okay is when one believes that such experiences are what religion in general and Christianity in particular are all about.
What is not okay is when people think that unless one has had such an experience, one has not really encountered the HOLY.

The truth of the matter is that religion is NOT about seeking after the extraordinary, not about the quest for the next new spiritual high, not about looking for an experiential fix of the Holy to carry one through another drab and ordinary week.

NO! Religion is about seeing, and feeling and hearing and respecting the Holy in, with and under the ordinary-ness of our daily lives.

To be religious is not a matter of being otherworldly; to be religious is to be uniquely grounded in this world, seeing the very stuff of life as the very stuff of God.

Where are we to find the Holy? On Mountaintops and in Sweat Lodges?

Where are we to look for God’s presence in our lives?
Well, you don’t have to go to the mountaintop; it’s all around you, all the time. We know this. It’s shown to us in our sacraments.

The water in the font, the water in which we baptize. It’s ordinary water. It’s the same water that goes into the drinking fountain, the same water that flushes the toilet.

It’s just water.

What makes it holy? The use makes it holy. We use it to baptize a child, we speak the promise of Christ, and in with that water we bring a new child into Covenant with God and into Community with us.

Look at this wafer. It’s just a little whole-wheat flour and water. We buy them by the thousands. It’s not very good to eat; if you’re not careful, it will stick to the roof of your mouth.

And this, it’s just wine, grapes fermented and bottled and sold at  the liquor store along with Budweiser Beer and Jack Daniel’s Whiskey.

It’s good wine, good with dinner, but it’s nothing special or extraordinary, not until we make Eucharist out of it.

What makes it holy? What turns this ordinary stuff into the Body and Blood of Christ? Not me, I don’t have magical powers, and neither do any other pastors.

It’s us and God together; God promising and acting and our believing and celebrating which reveals the Holy within the ordinary.

That’s what happened to Jesus up on that mountain.

Jesus was a man, just like every other man; smarter, holier than most perhaps, but still very much a fully human person.
Even though the disciples called him Rabbi, Christ even, they still saw him as a man. And then this thing happened. And they knew — Peter, James and John knew that here was the Divine, the Holy, in human form.

And we too are ordinary people, doing ordinary things. We too, as a church, as a community of faith, as the Body of Christ in the world, we too carry in, with and under our human-ness, the brightness of the Holy-ness of God.

We don’t have to go looking for it; we don’t have to struggle after extraordinary spiritual experiences. God is here with us in all that we do.

Our calling is to pay attention — to listen, look, feel and know that God is here, in this place, and in all our places: at home, at work, at church, at school. God is present with us in the world.

All we have to do is lift the veil and look for the Holy with the eyes of the heart.

Year A — The Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for February 27, 2011

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by Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago I had lunch with an old friend from a church I had once served as pastor.  After catching up on wives and children I started asking about the lives and fortunes of other former church members.
How’s Bill?”
“Bill’s the same as he ever was; still worried about money.”
“Worried about money? Didn’t I hear he inherited about a million dollars?”
“He used to worry about the money he didn’t have. 
       Now he worries about the money he does have.”
In our Gospel lesson Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for the slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.
Be it the money you want or the money you have, either way money is a mean master.  And if you’re serving money, you don’t have time to serve God.
Back in the day, Bob Dylan put out a Gospel album. I think it was called Slow Train Coming.  One of the songs had the mournful refrain, “You gotta serve somebody; it might be the devil, it might be the LORD, but you gotta serve somebody.”
Eugene Peterson in THE MESSAGE puts it this way:
You can’t worship two Gods at once.  Loving one god, you’ll end up hating the other.  Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other.  You can’t worship God and money both.
It’s interesting that Peterson uses the word worship instead of serve.  The English word worship comes from the word worth.  So to refer to God as “worthy of worship” is really redundant.  To worship something is to acknowledge its worthiness.
To worship something is also to say: “It is from this that I get my worth.” It is a two way relationship. I value money because if I have money I am a person of value.
If someone were to ask you, “What are you worth?”  what’s the first thing you would think of?  Your net worth of course.  Your assets minus your liabilities.  The value of your possessions plus your money on hand minus the debts you owe; that’s what you are worth. 
Or is it?  That’s what you’re worth if the master you serve is money, if the god you worship is the Almighty Dollar. 
But what would your life look like if your worth were calculated by your service to a different master?  What is your value in relation to “The Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth?” 
Our value to that God, the real God, is not tied up in what we have, nor in what that God provides to us in the way of material blessings.
This is the point Jesus is getting at in our Gospel lesson with all the talk about birds of the air and flowers in the field and not worrying about food and water and clothing. 
These are what my Daddy used to call “The Hippie verses.”  He frequently told me he thought Jesus was being very unrealistic here and that he wished Jesus hadn’t said this.
Well, we all have to admit there is a level of unreality going on here.  There is no such thing as a free lunch.  Somebody has to pay for it.  Those of us of a certain age get fretted about young people who have what we sometimes call a “sense of entitlement,” as if things should just be handed to them without their having to work for them.
This is not what Jesus is talking about here.  Remember, particularly in Matthew, Jesus uses a lot of exaggeration and hyperbole to get our attention, like a couple of weeks ago when he talked about poking out our eyes and cutting off our arms.
Jesus is reminding us that the things of this world are of temporary value and worth, while God and our souls are of eternal value and worth. 
Therefore, do not devote your life to the things of this world, like money and clothes and or even food and drink and length of years. 
There are lots of jokes about people who “tried to take it with them.”  This is one of my favorites. 
A rich man was dying.  He was mad that he couldn’t take his considerable wealth into the next life, so he prayed every night asking God to give him a break and let him take some money with him.
One night an angel came to him and told him god had heard him and had decided to reward his good works on earth by letting him take one suitcase.
The man filled a large suitcase with pure gold bars and stashed it under the bed.
When he died he showed up at the Pearly Gates with suitcase in hand.  It had been explained to St. Peter about his exception so Peter asked to look and see what he had chosen to bring.
Peter opened the suitcase and stared at the pure gold bars with his mouth hanging open.  Then he looked up at the rich man and said, “You brought asphalt?”
(Plato and a Platypus Go Into a Bar . . .Understanding Philosophy through Jokes. Cathcart and Klein, Penguin, 2008, p. 177)
No, you can’t take it with you and you can’t control how long you’ll have it. And even if you could take it with you, it wouldn’t be worth anything there. So giving our lives over to accumulating and serving our stuff is an exercise in futility.
We are called instead to devote our lives to that which has permanent value and worth; what Jesus in verse 33 calls “the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
And here’s the counter intuitive thing about this.  Once you have turned your life in the God direction, you discover you have what you need.  To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, “You don’t always get what you want, but you will find that you get what you need.”  That is to say, “all these things will be added to you.”
Now, here’s a key question, what’s the good news for us in this text today?  What is God’s call and promise for us in the year of our Lord 2011?
Well most individuals and congregations I know of are worried about money.  Most in the last couple of years are more worried about the money they don’t have than they are about the money they do have, but they are still worried about money.
And all the things that circle around money, like staff and salaries, and if we had more people we’d have more money, and if we had more money we could do more ministry and mission and if we did more ministry and mission we would have more people and more money, etc. etc.
And people say, I wish I had more time for God and prayer and church, but times are tight and I have to work more and spend less and figure out how to make ends meet and if I had more money we could do more and have more time for church, etc. etc.
And into the midst of this Jesus’ voice echoes down through the centuries, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.”
So, the Good News is that when we know that our true value and worth come not from what we have but from the fact that we are beloved children of God; we are freed from the anxiety of proving our worth through earthly attainments and we can then turn our attention and effort to truly worshiping God by loving and serving our neighbors in all that we say and do; which is what seeking the Kingdom of God is all about anyway.
Amen and amen.

Year A — The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for February 20, 2011
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Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

I know I may get in trouble for saying this, but I’ve always kind of liked the Leviticus version of the “Ten Commandments” better than Exodus 20. I know that, technically, this is not the Decalogue; these are not the Big Ten that we should actually know, revere, and practice. (In an amusing sidebar — have you ever noticed that many of the people who are most passionate about their “right” to post the Ten Commandments in schools, public buildings, etc., often couldn’t name even five of them if asked to do so?)

But this particular passage puts a somehow more “human” spin on the things God wants us to know and do. To wit:

* Don’t hog all of your own harvest; leave a little for those who don’t own any land and who are not part of the means of production. (Nah, maybe that’s too “socialist” to be practical in 21st-century America!)
* Don’t steal; don’t deal falsely; don’t lie. (Straightforward and simple enough, though, again kind of challenging in the moral/ethical/political climate of contemporary society.)
* It’s not nice to fool your neighbor (OR Mother Nature!) — a second time we are told, “Don’t steal!” — and don’t hold on to the money you owe someone else in order to earn a little extra interest yourself.
* My absolute favorite — and proof that God most definitely has a sense of humor — “Don’t cuss at a deaf man, and don’t stick your leg out in front of a person who is blind!” (You’d think we could figure that one out on our own…but, well, there you go. Must have something to do with that whole depravity issue.)

Basically, all of these are extensions of that opening sentence: “Be holy, in the same way that God is holy.” Dare to be different! Go ahead and confuse the heck out of those around you by being nice without a cause! Share a little extra with those less fortunate — without being asked or even “panhandled!”

Psalm 119:33-40

Another beautiful section of Psalm 119. I like the “sensual” detail of this passage; by that, I mean the attention to the senses.”Turn my heart…open my eyes…fill my mind with understanding.” God’s words really do affect us at every level.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Another succinct summary from the Apostle, reinforcing the previously-addressed issue of petty jealousy in the church. “Look, people, we all share a common foundation in Christ. God calls different members of the body to do different things. Paul works this way, Apollos works that — and Cephas! Don’t get me started on Cephas! They’re all different but all valuable!”

The bottom line: we all belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Maybe a little patience, compassion, and understanding are in order while God’s way in our midst is being revealed?

Matthew 5:38-48

Perfect? Are you kidding, Jesus? Be perfect?

Sure, we all know that God is perfect, but how can Jesus really expect us to be and do and act and think in the same ways as God?

I’m not the world’s most proficient Greek scholar, but I think Matthew’s choice of the word teleios here has something to do with the “process of coming to maturity” that Jesus expects of his followers. As we have been invited to follow Jesus – to join him on the road of discovery and discipleship, as it were — this is about keeping our feet moving forward on the path. Don’t stop too long to rest; don’t turn back; keep working with the tools you’ve been given. That sort of thing.

Those tools have proven to be pretty powerful over 2,000 or so years. The image of surrendering cloaks, marching for a mile with a soldier’s pack, getting struck on the cheek, etc., come straight out of the everyday experience of Jews who were compelled by Roman soldiers in all of these ways. God’s people — Jews and Christians alike — are still around. Last time I checked, Roman soldiers: not so much!

by Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago a Supreme Court judge in Alabama tried to place a monument with the Ten Commandments on it in the State Supreme Court building in Montgomery.  Of course all sorts of publicity and lawsuits and legal wrangling ensued.
One day there was a huge rally in support of the Ten Commandments monument being placed in the courthouse.  A radio reporter went through the crowd, asking the rally-ers to name the Ten Commandments.  The average person in that crowd new less than four of the ten.
What if you read the lesson from Leviticus 19 to the average American crowd?  How many would think you were reading the Ten Commandments?  Perhaps they would think to themselves, “Gee, that doesn’t sound exactly right, but it has that bit about parents and not stealing and it does say “you shall not” a lot, so it must be them.”
Whenever the subject of human sexuality comes up in the church, Leviticus gets quoted very frequently.  It is fascinating that the same people who are so fond of Leviticus and going by the letter of the law about that subject seem never to quote Leviticus or want to obey it when the subject is economic and social justice.
Few are anxious to hear and obey words about being generous to the poor and especially not to the “alien,” the “immigrant.” And most of us would rather listen to Donald Trump’s first ex-wife when she says, “Don’t get mad, get even,” rather than hear the word of Leviticus when it says “You shall not take vengeance of bear a grudge.”
Yes, it appears we have a selective approach to hearing and obeying the word of the LORD, and that’s not really a bad thing; if we know we’re doing it and we know how we’re doing.
The trouble comes when we vehemently quote and insist on obedience to that part of the bible we happen to agree with and ignore or dismiss those things we find distasteful or inconvenient or out of line with either our politics  or our economic self interest.
This has been a long Epiphany and a long stretch of examining what Jesus had to say in the Sermon on the Mount. Week after week we have heard Jesus raise the ante on what it means to obey God’s Law.  “You have heard it said but I say to you,” has been a constant refrain.
This week we read “You have heard it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” But I say to you, “do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” The rest of this lesson explores this radical call to love and non-violence. 
Here we see Jesus reinterpreting the Scriptures in a new way. It will not do for us to simply say, “Well, he could do that, after all he was the Christ, the Son of God, so it was his prerogative.” There is more to what’s going on here than that.
For most of the time period in which the Hebrew Scriptures were formed, the vision of what it meant to be a people of God had to do with the unique nation-state-tribe that was Israel and many of the commandments and rules were influenced by the need to shape that tribe into a godly people.
The coming of Jesus as the Christ and the proclamation of the Kingdom of God is both a continuation of that project and an expansion of its purpose to the whole world.  So what has been proclaimed before is recast in a new way because of a new reality.
This is why Jesus can both say, “I did not come to destroy the law but fulfill it,” at the same time he is saying, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.”  Jesus sees himself as obeying the law and commandments by finding new ways to live them out.
This is always a difficult tightrope and in every generation we in the church find it difficult to keep from slipping off.  It is also a tightrope we have been walking ever since the council at Jerusalem reflected in Acts chapter 15, when the early church decided which Hebrew Scripture dietary laws applied to gentiles who became Christians and which did not.  It was an imperfect compromise and we have been struggling with it ever since.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount and especially in today’s lesson Jesus calls us back to the Hebrew Scriptures underlying vision of the people of God as agents of God’s love and holiness in the world. 
A golden thread of God’s mercy and steadfast love weaves its way through the Old Testament stories.  It is sometimes hard to follow the thread, but it’s always there, lurking in the background or beneath the surface occasionally bursting into full flower in the prophets and the psalms.
As we read and try to live out the Scriptures in our day  and in our lives, this golden thread of grace, this constantly pulsating rhythm of mercy, this undying stream of divine favor and love; must be at the core of our reading and our living.
Amen and amen.

Year A — The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for February 13, 2011

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Deuteronomy 30:15-20

One of the much-bandied characteristics of the “postmodern” age (a term that has been attached, by the way, since no one has figured out exactly what to call this age after the modern age just yet) is the propensity for “both/and” thinking, as opposed to “either/or.” Most of the time, I am fairly comfortable with “both/and” thinking — it’s kind of like another warm and fuzzy contemporary creation, the “win/win” scenario. Nice when it works out that way.

But the ancient text of Deuteronomy reminds us that, sometimes, “both/and” is just not possible. It is not possible both to worship Israel’s God alone and bow down to other gods; it is not possible both to choose the way of death and the way of life. It is not seemly both to bless and to curse, nor to obey the commands of the LORD and to turn one’s heart away.

We are called to choose one of the ways set before us. One path leads to blessing and long life, the other is apparently much, much shorter and far less pleasant!

Psalm 119:1-8

Speaking of postmodernity, perhaps no one ever captured the pure euphoria of exultation quite like Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi who, assisted by Charlie Brissette and Christopher Reccardi, penned the lyrics to the song, Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy! (If you are not the proper age to have grown up watching Nickelodeon, or to have children who watched Nickelodeon, you can get the skinny here.)

Not quite sure that this is what the psalmist has in mind in vv. 1-2…and I probably wouldn’t use the video in worship (if I wanted to keep my job!)… but it does help us get behind the all-too-churchy word, “blessed.” What is the reward for those who do manage to choose the right and follow the precepts of the Lord? It certainly has something to do with joy, enthusiasm, peace, contentment, wholeness, favor and good fortune.

Or it could just be a song about a whale — NO!

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

The Apostle is concerned with church members who seem never to have left the nursery. “You are infants in Christ…I fed you with milk…for you were not ready for solid food!” Almost reminiscent of Jack Nicholson blasting Tom Cruise with the famous line, “You can’t handle the truth!” (A Few Good Men…check the clip here.)

Certainly, petty jealousy and “allegiance” to this pastor over that one, this teacher or leader as opposed to another — these things have no place in the body of Christ. We are reminded that our allegiance is to Christ alone. As preachers, we too need to remember that whatever our role — seed-planter or crop-waterer — it is always God who gives the growth. We must faithfully render our service to the Lord and trust God for the increase.

Matthew 5:21-37

In last week’s lesson, Jesus urged us to “practice” the commands of God and teach others to do the same. As the Sermon on the Mount continues, Jesus illustrates with practical examples that show how his interpretation of God’s kingdom commands go much deeper than mere surface obedience. As Jesus’ people, we are called to examine the intent and motives of our hearts.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton

I have a book on my Bible resources shelf called: Hard Sayings of the Bible.
This text certainly contains a lot of them, doesn’t it?
Back in the 1980s I served a church a few miles from the town of Salisbury NC.  The local afternoon daily paper, the Salisbury Post, ran a weekly Church Page.   You know the sort of thing; location, worship times, Sunday school, pastors name, etc. all in impossibly small print.  The Post was a little different in that it asked you to supply a sermon title or they wouldn’t publish your church’s information.
My titles were never very good; usually something like A Sermon About Jesus, but my friend Glen Zorb was really good with titles.  One of my favorites was “You Can Rust-Proof Your Car; but Can you Rust-Proof Your Soul.”
I still remember Glen’s title for a sermon on this gospel lesson; Things I Wish Jesus Had Never Said. Can I get an amen?
There are a lot of hard sayings in here that many of us might wish Jesus had never said.
Even if we take the business about whacking off limbs and poking out eyes as metaphor and hyperbole and exaggeration for the sake of emphasis (which I am assuming all of us do), Jesus still sets out a moral standard higher than anyone I know could actually achieve.
No anger, no lust, no swearing, no little grudges and resentments and petty drama with siblings or co-workers or fellow church-members or all of the above?  Is he serious? 
And no divorce except for adultery?  What about people in abusive relationships, or people married to alcoholics or drug-users or people who find themselves trapped in a relationship with someone who refuses to even pretend to pull their weight in the marriage?  Is he serious?
Well, yes he is.  Jesus is to be taken seriously here, but not literally.  Jesus is digging beneath the surface of the letter of the law in order to get at the spirit, the intention, that undergirds it.
It is the peculiar; one might say “fallen,” nature of human beings that we seek out two contradictory things at once:
1) We want things broken down into “simple to follow” rules or instructions; and
2) we usually then try to circumvent those rules whenever possible.
In this text Jesus is inviting his hearers to think with him about the why of the rules they have been given.  Most people, then and now, don’t want to do that.
We want to know the rules, the facts, the guidelines, what do we have to do. 
The Bible is full of people asking these types of questions:
 What must I do to be saved?  What does the Lord require?  What is the greatest commandment? Etc. etc. 
And the always difficult to comprehend part is that when we find out what the rule or law or guideline is, many of us seem to then want to find a way around it.
“What’s the speed limit here?  It’s 55.  Hmm,” we think, “I can probably get away with 60 at least, probably a little more.” 
In this text Jesus takes head on the fact that “Thou shalt not murder,” was intended not only to keep people from bashing each other’s heads in or slipping a knife between the ribs every time there was a disagreement; but rather to call people to restrain their anger and to seek peace in all their relationships.
But people, then and now, decided that the minimum was enough.  “The fact that I hate my sister-in-law and treat her like dirt on a regular basis, passive-aggressively making her life miserable every chance I get; is not a moral issue because I have not murdered her.”
Jesus says to this, “You have not killed her but you have killed the relationship, slowly poisoning a sacred connection with the toxicity of your feelings.”
And so it goes with each of the things Jesus talks about in this part of the Sermon on the Mount. 
Adultery, divorce, lying; in each of these things Jesus asks us to look behind what is required to find what is both possible and preferred.
The language about gouging out eyes and sawing off limbs is not an invitation to self mutilation; rather it is a reminder that being the person God made and wants us to be may require us to painfully and carefully control or remove some parts of our life that we were sure we could not do without.
There is a movie out now called 127 Hours. (I am not advising you to go see it.  I hear it’s very good, but a bit rough on the stomach.)  It is the true story of a young man whose arm got trapped under a rock while he was hiking.  After days of trying to get the rock off his arm he decided he couldn’t and that he was going to die.  Then, he says, he had a moment of clarity, he didn’t have to die, but he did have to lose his hand and part of his arm.  And with a pocket knife, he cut off his own arm.  And lived to tell the tale.
It is a frightening, hard image isn’t it? And yet Jesus in the Gospels calls us to take our spiritual lives that seriously. 
What is the rock that is weighing us down, killing our spirits and keeping us from giving ourselves completely to Christ and the Kingdom of God?
Is this a thing that is so valuable that we cannot lose it? 
Cannot lose it, even if keeping it means losing our very souls?
Lent is only a few weeks away, Ash Wednesday is March 9.  Perhaps now is a time to take an inventory of our lives, to see where it is that we are living by the letter and not the spirit, to discover what things are weighing us down and keeping us back. 
Rather than chocolate, or red meat, or drinking or smoking; perhaps we should consider giving up some of those things that we hold so dear so that our hands are free to reach out to God and one another in love.
Amen and amen.