Murder, Divorce, Adultery, and a New Ethic

This sermon was prepared for the community of Wesley United for their Sunday morning service on February 12th, 2017. The Lectionary readings for the day were Deuteronomy 30:15–20, Psalm 119:1–8
1, Corinthians 3:1–9, and Matthew 5:21–37 (Epiphany 6).

When seminarians dream of their first pulpit supply, this is not the passage they think of.  Murder.  Divorce.  Adultery.  And oath keeping.  Our gospel passage today is a difficult one.  And, it seems to be such a different tone to last week’s Gospel reading, where Jesus proclaimed that we are salt and light.

This passage is a teaching on Jewish law, covering topics that were hotly debated by different Jewish sects who were Jesus’ contemporaries.  In fact, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is the largest section we have of Jesus’ teaching on Torah and gives us the greatest insight into Jesus as a rabbi–as a Jewish teacher.

Now to understand Jesus’ teaching on Torah we must also understand the basis of Jewish law.  Our lectionary helpfully pairs a passage from Deuteronomy with this gospel passage, shedding light on the purpose, or ethos, the Law.

At this point in the story of Deuteronomy, Moses has gathered all of the Israelites at Moab: the leaders of the tribes, elders, and officials, all the men of Israel, their children, women, and the aliens who live in the camp, and the slaves.[1]  He is renewing the covenant God made with Israel and is explaining to the people what is required of them.

If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess[2]

Moses calls the Israelites to embrace the Law not just as a legal document but as a way of life.  It is also a call to follow it by virtue of a deep and abiding love of God.  We hear a call to live out the Commandments, but also a call to right-living.  “By loving the Lord your God” and” walking in his ways.

The Hebrew word for Law is Torah, which means “the way”.  To follow God’s Law is to follow God’s way.

Now, returning to our Matthew passage, we hear Jesus discussing some of the Laws of Torah.  However, he moves beyond mere legal precedent and shares some pretty outlandish instructions, and they can be hard to swallow.

Jesus suggests that meditation on a sinful action is as bad as completing that action.  Let me tell you, friends, this particular teaching used to haunt me as a child.  Churches have succeeded in terrifying people, in convincing them that they are bad, sinful, people because an unkind thought, an angry response, or a primal urge has fluttered through their mind.

So. Why does Jesus seem to insist that a sinful thought is as damning as committing a sinful action?

I would suggest to you that the dramatic language of Jesus speaks to the concept we read about in the prophetic writings.  Isaiah 57 speaks of those who are humble with contrite hearts.  It is in the prophetic writings we see a movement that advances the concept of not just obedience to the Law but also a shaping of our inner self to God’s ethic.  Jesus, then, does not allow his listeners to get away with merely following the rules.

Last week we heard Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish but fulfill the Law”.  He did not come to reject the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures but to re-orient the children of God back toward the heart of God.  As he tells us later in Matthew 22:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.[3]

To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And, to love your neighbor as yourself.  With this lens, we hear the words of our gospel passage as instructions to commit ourselves, to commit our lives, to the love of God and to love of God’s creation.

In the first few verses in our gospel passage, we read that he calls us not to simply pat ourselves on the back because we have not murdered, but to seek reconciliation within our community.

He calls us not to merely live lives where we honor our vows, but to think seriously about the things in our lives that prevent us from honouring those vows.  He encourages us to actively remove those barriers, or to question our motives before we enter into contract with one another.

Jesus calls us to take responsibility for our own sinfulness.  The Greek word for sin is Hamartia, meaning a “turning away of the mind”.  He calls us to take responsibility for our own desires, our greed, our anger.  Jesus doesn’t say if you lust after a woman tell her that her skirt is too short!  No, instead he calls us to take responsibility for our own lust.

The Law of Moses was always more than just rules.  It was, and is, about living a life of integrity.  Certainly, this is what Jesus calls us to; to live with our minds turned towards God’s way.

And, today is the first week of Black History month in North America and our Church.  For Black folks in our communities, this month is one of remembrance and celebration.  For those of us who are White, whose past and present realities benefitted from the centuries of subjugation of Black people, it is also a time of confession.

White society, our ancestors, my ancestors, did not live their lives with integrity when it came to their Black siblings.  We did not take responsibility for our own greed, anger, and fear.  And, now, though we don’t commit the same actions of racism that our ancestors did, our hearts are still hard.  We continue to live in a world where systemic racism is a present reality.

We must continue to question, challenge, and most importantly listen.  To listen, to reconcile, and work to reshape ourselves, and our society, from the inside out.

In the following weeks we will hear the continuation of this sermon, and the instructions Jesus gives on how to shape our lives to be an inward reflection of a God-inspired ethic.  Thereby shaping our actions to be an outward reflection of this same God.

And, I challenge, as you go about your week.  To reflect on the ways you invite God into your daily life.  How you allow God to mold your inner self in God’s ways.  Ask yourself:  Where do you feel Jesus’ words challenging you?  Who do you need to reconcile with?  Where, do you need God’s redemption and strength. For, I assure you, friends, that this God of justice and love: waits for you to draw, as God waits to draw close to you.

[1] Deut. 29:10-11 NRSV

[2] Deut. 30:16 NRSV

[3] Matt. 22:37-40

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Temptation in the Church // In Honour of Sexual Assault Awareness Month

I titled this blog post Temptation in the Church because I think it keenly speaks to the fallacies our communities have adopted when we talk about sexual assault/harassment. May is Sexual Assault Awareness month, so I feel now is an appropriate time to share some of my thoughts on this dangerous fallacy.

When we talk about sexual harassment we tend to focus on two key points: Temptation, and Intention. This first piece will focus on Temptation.

Temptation

I love the Young Clergy Women Project and their blog “Fidelia’s Sisters”. Recently, Rev. Katie Chullino wrote a piece entitled “Making Church a Safe Place for for Everyone” in response to a piece from Pure Freedom, a purity culture ministry in the USA. “How Women Can Make Church a Safe Place for Men” by Dannah Gresh. It speaks to how women must minimize their role as ‘the temptress’ in the church. The article begins with the catchy first line:

When we dress provocatively, we dishonor God and display a lack of regard for His holiness. We can also become a distraction for our brothers in Christ.

The article includes confessions from church-going men who express that the greatest pitfall to their struggle for sexual purity is not freely available pornography or over-sexualized media and advertising, but…

I’m struggling with the way women dress in church,” they groan. They are specific in adding those two words—in church—because the location is what makes them feel so vulnerable.

The article continues to say:

After all, isn’t church supposed to be a place where they can go to be free from temptation? What’s a guy to do when the woman in his Sunday school class keeps showing up in a tight shirt and miniskirt, announcing it was a little cold in the parking lot?

Unfortunately, the piece continues to degrade into a rant which shames women into disguising their body, covering up lest they act as an object of temptation to their “brothers” in Christ. Yet, as Rev. Katie puts it so well, The church isn’t laden with impurity because of a low-cut shirt, but because of our condemnation of those we are called to love.”

In choosing to view women as temptresses, we are choosing both to view them as the cause of lust, removing responsibility from the one lusting, and lastly as sexual objects. Our churches cannot be void of temptation because they cannot be void of our own messy human essence; this is why we pray, as Jesus taught us, for God to “deliver us from temptation”. We also believe that God is capable of doing so, that God can strength us when our own will is too weak. God does not simply remove the object of our temptation but works with us to build our discipline, dignity, and to free us from the shame of our struggle. We must empower the one struggling, to build right relationships centered on true love, not blind lust. By blaming women for the sexual struggles of men we are blaming the victim for the transgression of the perpetrator and propagating an unbalanced, unhealthy style of gender relations.

Now, don’t think I don’t have sympathy for all those struggling with the desire for purity. In fact, I have a great deal of empathy as I have struggled to navigate God’s intention for my sexuality as both a single and married person. The one lesson I have learned, which Rev. Katie speaks to in her article, is the idea that right relationships, build on love and respect for both parties, are the best combatant to impurity. Yet, to have these relationships we must affirm all people, all individuals on the spectrum of gender, as full persons. We must all honour our own bodies and the bodies of others. We must affirm all people in their beauty and value; their depth and richness in the image of God as a sexual, spiritual and emotional being. We must avoid devaluing our bodies as things to be ashamed and fearful of because they are made in the image of God and they are good and holy things.

I do believe in modesty, but not the kind Gresh is preaching. Gresh refers to “leather pants”, “low-cut blouse”, and a “tight-skirt”, not nakedness. The women she is shaming are all covered, and frankly, are probably wearing clothing I enjoy myself (and I grew up Mennonite!). I recognize in our culture we have shame around our bodies, which stems from the sinfulness humanity entered when it turned away from God’s purposes (in the Garden, if you will). In our social environment, we can only see nakedness as private, which is a damn shame. But, collectively, we have chosen that nakedness is an intimate rite reserved for intimate relationships–in same gendered, family, erotic or medical settings. I do not believe nakedness is bad, only that we require trust in our nakedness. We reserve nakedness for intimate settings, since trust leads to intimacy, but not necessarily eroticism or sexuality. I believe in modesty when it comes to nakedness, but Gresh is not referring to nakedness. Gresh is referring to styles of clothing–she is shaming fully dressed women into believing they are tools of sin instead of the image of God.

Let me conclude with a final quote from Rev. Katie, a centering idea that should lead us into right relationship with our creator and fellow creation.

Women and Men, God has made you in God’s image and when you stray from that image God re-creates you in the image of Christ. Brothers and Sisters, hear the good news: you are more than skin and bones. Brothers, you aren’t helpless. Sisters, you aren’t temptresses.

[…]

Put on clothes which show you are God’s own image — as beautiful and beloved, created and re-created sisters and brothers in Christ.

Amen.