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February 12, 2017

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5:21-37

Pr. Craig Mueller

Squeamish is what I feel if I’m watching a movie or TV show and there is a scene with a lot of blood and gore, or a gaping wound. I feel weird sensations in my body. Sometimes I peek through my fingers. It’s strange though: when I’m the pastor in hospital rooms, I’m usually OK. Maybe I have a “cool, calm and strong” switch. 

And now we have a gospel with an amputation scene. What a shock it must to the whole system to lose a limb. And what a shock it is to hear such language from Jesus. If your hand causes you to sin, lop it off. Better to lose a hand than have your whole body thrown into the fiery pit. 

This gospel is what I call a doosie. It sure sounds like hyperbole. We could try to understand the context. But on first hearing, it has all the negativity, judgment, and strict rules that propel people right out of our church doors. 

For those of us actually here in church, it may not make you squeamish, but it is one of the top gospels that make people squirm in their pew! My dad always comments when his pastor ignores texts like this and preaches on a different reading! 

So, let’s address why it makes us squirm. Jesus talks tough. No mincing of words. No worry that he might offend someone, then or now. In fact, it seems like it’s meant for shock value. 

After all, you’re doing the best you can, right? But now it’s not just murder. Jesus says that being angry and hurling insults is just as serious. It’s not just adultery, but looking lustfully gets a huge sin markdown. And then harsh words about divorce and swearing. Is there anything here for our lives today? If we trust the Spirit still guides us, what is the wisdom, the take-away, the application, the challenge, the good news, for this time in our country’s life, for this time in my life and yours? 

Jesus gets on a roll. You have heard it said in ancient times, well, I say this. You want to follow Jesus, then be righteous. But wait! When we hear the word righteous, don’t we think self-righteous. Who wants to be that? All ready people think the church is full of hypocrites. 

Yet Jesus seems to be handing out advanced-placement disciple certificates to those whose righteousness surpasses the ultra-religious. Maybe it helps to think of righteousness as being in right relationship with God, self, and others. Maybe it helps to hear it this way: unless your sense of justice exceeds that of the most pious, you’re not living in the reign of God. 

SIDEBAR from psychology. Hold on. We don’t want to admit it. It’s almost too shocking to consider for ourselves, at least. Being self-righteous seems to be the new normal. We’re usually sure we’re right and they’re wrong. The news and posts and tweets we read only confirms it. The problem is never me, never us. Oh, projection! We do it all the time. In our relationships with spouses and colleagues. In politics and religion. We externalize. The problem is always with someone else. 

SIDEBAR from family systems and addiction theory. When one person is out of control everyone is. Especially when it’s the leader. Think how that affects a family, a church, or a nation. Think of the constant news and social media cycle. Rather than getting away from our TV, computer, or phones, it’s a frenzy that never calms. Everybody gets worked up. Our anger boils. And insults fly. 

SIDEBAR from science. It’s the amygdala, the reptilian, oldest part of our brain, that gets us in trouble. It is all about fight, flight, freeze. Rather than thinking first, rather than taking a breath first, rather than cooling off, we are reactive rather than responsive. 

An amygdala hi-jack one speaker called it. So we blurt out. We push send. We act impulsively. We demean people. And we have news pundits shouting at each other. Or posts where everyone comes off as self-righteous. We think only of our own pleasure and take advantage of people emotionally, sexually, and in other ways. 

That is not to say that anger can’t be used for good. That anger can propel us to take stands for justice, for those marginalized, for refugees, for the poor, for the earth. Yet these days it seems even a Super Bowl commercial is politicized. It can feel so overwhelming. How will we ever move forward? How can we remain grounded, centered and calm when everything and everyone seems out of control all around us? 

SIDEBAR from spirituality. Maybe it’s this moment of helplessness that is the opening. Maybe we’re then like a person struggling with addiction who finally lets go. And we realize we can’t do this, we can’t solve this on our own. That we need something, someone, some divine love or grace beyond ourselves. 

The invitation is good news. Choose life. Don’t just externalize and blame someone else. It’s not just about following rules. It’s about going deeper. Going inward. Let the shock get your attention and then making a change. 

Last fall we heard, if they go low, we go high. But let me add: when they project out, we go inward. Rather than always casting blame, we discern the bold and humble and loving way that seeks the common good. 

So what comes next? In al-anon you learn to simply do the next right thing. And to take one day at a time. And I might add, turn off the news once in awhile. Yes, we need to be informed, but there is time to detach and find communion in this place, in nature, in art, in solitude, in community. 

And here’s the amazing, shocking thing. As Wayne Miller, our bishop says, God’s grace is the love of God that accepts you right where you are, as you are. It’s the radical welcome we proclaim in this place. 

Yet he goes on to say this: God calls you to be more than you’ve ever been before. That is the shocking hope we need to believe in change, for us, our nation, and the world. May it be so. God calls us, and gives us grace to be more than we’ve ever been before.