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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
In the 1980s, I was a pastor in Rowan County, NC. The local afternoon daily paper, the Salisbury Post, ran a weekly church page. They listed things like address, worship times, pastor’s name, etc. – all in really tiny print. The Post was different from most newspapers that I had dealt with – it asked you to supply a sermon title or they wouldn’t publish your church’s information.
My titles were never very good, I just don’t have a talent for titles, but one of the other Lutheran pastors in town 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 his title for a sermon on this gospel lesson – “Things I Wish Jesus Had Never Said.” Can I get an amen?
There are several things in this text that many of us might well wish Jesus had never said. Even though we take the part about “whacking off limbs” and “poking out eyes” as metaphor and hyperbole and “exaggeration for the sake of emphasis,” Jesus still sets out a personal 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-addicts, or people who find themselves trapped in a relationship with someone who refuses to even pretend to pull their weight in the marriage? Was he serious about that? Well yes; yes he was. Jesus was digging beneath the surface of the letter of the law into get at the spirit, the intention, the principle undergirds it. Jesus was 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?
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.”
Here, Jesus declared that “Thou shalt not murder,” was not only intended to keep people from bashing each other’s heads in – but was rather to call for people to restrain their anger and seek peace in all their relationships.
But most people, then and now, decide that the minimum is enough. We think something like – “The fact that I hate my sister-in-law and treat her like dirt on a regular basis, that I passive-aggressively make her life miserable every chance I get, is not a moral issue because I have not murdered her.” Jesus said to this, “You have not killed her but you have killed the relationship, you have slowly poisoned a sacred connection with the toxicity of your hateful 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 us to be may require us to painfully and carefully control, or even remove, some part of our life that we are not sure we can do without.
Here are a few very difficult questions Jesus’ words raise for us on this day. What is killing your spirits and keeping you from giving yourself completely to Christ and the Kingdom of God? Is it something so valuable that you cannot bear to part from it? Even if keeping it means losing your very soul?
Lent is only a month away; Ash Wednesday is March 1. Perhaps now is a time for all of us to take an inventory of our lives, to see where it is that we are living by the letter and not the spirit of God’s way; to discover what things are weighing us down and keeping us back from living fully into the joy and hope of our new life in Christ.
Rather than giving up chocolate, or red meat, or drinking, or smoking – perhaps we could consider giving up some lingering hurt, or an unresolved anger, or a judgmental and critical attitude, or a closely nurtured resentment, or a festering hurt, or an inappropriate desire, or anything else that we hold so close and dear so that our hands and hearts are not free to reach out to God and to one another in love.
Amen and amen.