Thank God

“Thank God”

Psalm 119: 1-8, Deut. 30: 15-20 and Mt 5: 21-37


These last few weeks and through next Sunday, we’re studying the 5th Chapter of Matthew and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Two weeks ago, JC’s sermon focused on the Beatitudes and our blessing from God. Last Sunday, Scott and the Miriam’s Kitchen staff reminded us that we are the light of the world. The lectionary reading also told us that we should not lose our saltiness – which is a sermon series, in unto itself. This Sunday, we move into an exploration of the first of what are commonly referred to as the six antitheses. These are unique sayings to Matthew’s Jesus, not found in Luke (who also writes of Jesus’ sermon).

Through these verses read today and into next Sunday, Matthew’s gospel is intending to present Jesus not as one who disavows the Torah or how God’s will has been understood. Jesus is not implying that previous expositions on the law are wrong, per se; nor is he condemning the commandments given through Moses (including those we heard Julie read earlier). It’s more like Jesus and Moses are conversation partners – Christ lifting up the important laws of the land but going one step further to honor all people on a much deeper level than a legalistic society would require. Jesus broadens the definition of what is expected of us all. He tells us to go the extra mile, you might say. He sets the bar high.

We could easily become discouraged hearing Jesus this time – or dismissive, if we’re not careful, by what might sound like hyperbolic ideals. But Matthew’s gospel shares with us that Jesus’ teachings fulfill the law – that’s so easily dismissed – with perfect mercy for those who have done wrong and more perfect grace that informs that we are good – and loved by God in spite of ourselves. He calls upon us to be holy. Like a braided narrative between what is required and what is expected, we move from being a people who are wandering toward the Promised Land into becoming a people who are striving toward the beloved kingdom which has its gates open wide.

When we read lessons like these from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, most of us are pretty good up to a point. We’re pretty good about keeping ourselves in check from becoming too angry – and we can always vow to be better the next time. Against using God’s name in vain? Same. But when we get down to the section about divorce, some things just can’t be reversed. Joe and I speculated over dinner on Valentine’s Day, that maybe even a quarter of us here today (Joe and I, included) are divorced. And if you aren’t divorced, you probably know a good many men and women – Godly men and women – who are.

I remembered in the course of our conversation a New York Times Magazine cover article from a few years ago. After dinner, I used some key words to surf through Google and found it. The article is titled: “Infidelity Keeps Us Together” written by a guy named Mark Oppenheimer who has his PhD in Religious History and teaches at Yale. Oppenheimer began his article with a brief exposition on that infamous case involving former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, when Congressman Weiner was Tweeting and emailing racy pictures of himself all over the place. I’m guessing I don’t need to give you too much more to remind you of this situation, now even a few years later.

What Oppenheimer theorized in his article was “that there was something not weird, but too familiar about Weiner.” He went on to say that Weiner’s style might not be for everyone, but the impulse to be something other than we are in our daily, monogamous lives, the thrill that comes from the illicit rather than the predictable, is something (Oppenheimer) imagined many couples identify with… He said that Weiner’s “style” forces many to consider particularly uncomfortable questions, like “what am I capable of doing?” and “what have my neighbors done?” …Night after night, (Oppenheimer wrote)… we think about whether we make unrealistic demands on the institution and on ourselves.”[1]

Reading through the article again Friday evening with today’s gospel lesson in mind, this is what else I learned: 1) Apparently it is the case that more than a quarter of the married population has had at least one full-blown affair; 2) One noted relationship columnist Oppenheimer interviewed suggested that “honesty in infidelity” is a good idea for improving a less than satisfying, monogamous marriage; and, 3) The prevailing belief among married people today is that one person can’t meet all of another’s emotional, spiritual, friendship, and physical needs.

Walter Wangerin, a Lutheran pastor and prolific writer, wrote As for Me and My House[2]. (Its title stems from the passage in Joshua 24 that reads, “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”) Chapter 14 of Wangerin’s book critiques how some people prioritize their fleshly selves to their spiritual ones. He names what he sees as the basic self-centeredness of one who clearly believes, whether consciously or unconsciously, “that he or she is the god of the relationship, whose desires are its priorities.” Wangerin goes on to name the process through which a one slips over to the dark side to have an extra-marital affair. He says that it’s like a drama unfolding that’s neither spontaneous nor unexpected. The drama might be spiritual or physical, emotional or psychological. It’s usually exacerbated by an element of Maybe that creeps into our most casual relationships. “We’re only friends” leads to Denial, which eventually becomes a light form of personal Permission to look at someone a little longer, stay in his company for an even more extended conversation than usual, or even care-freely allow him to pat you on the arm without pulling away or saying something clearly identifiable as a No. Drama leads to Maybe, which leads us away from No toward that awfully Slippery Slope.

Wangerin tells us to think of ourselves less as individuals and more as a person bound-up in her spouse. Life in this way requires that every encounter becomes an encounter as a couple, even if your other half is nowhere to be seen. The more we become accustomed to thinking as a couple and not as an individual, the more we will see the Maybe moments before they become uncomfortable, Permission-filled ones. Wangerin suggests that we look at all of our friends through the eyes of our spouse in order to see more clearly the warning signs in our casual relationships and become unblinded to our vane tendencies.

Because while a Christian cannot become Christ, himself, a Christian can live into the kind of life that Jesus was describing for us all in his message to the disciples that day on the Mount. Jesus set the bar so high that day because he knows that we will never be able to achieve it. This is not to dismiss the law of the Lord, in all of its complexities – legalistic and loving. It’s that once we grow tired of striving for the impossible however God-commanded goal of the level of mercy and grace that Jesus calls upon us to extend each and every day, we can more readily accept these free and boundless gifts from God as inextricably intertwined as they are for us all. On the one hand, this keeps us humble and always thankfully reliant upon God. On the other hand, it helps us – in an Andrea del Sarto kind of way – to strive for what might be. It is to remove the pressure of perfection from our hearts, freeing us to look more faithfully toward Christ who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith[3], and who for the promise of the beloved kingdom of God, endured all of the suffering of the world that we might find ourselves in this eternal resting place with him.

This takes us beyond the conversation of murderers and married couples and divorced ones, and all those people who “swear to God,” and point us all toward an examination of those natural human inclinations, personal desires, personal needs, personal ways of thinking, the orientation of our will, the intentions of our hearts, in so far as they are separated from the Spirit of God and are hostile to it.[4] So we might come to say that Jesus’ teachings become a metaphor for all of those times we direct our human nature toward gratification or adoration of the self over gratification or adoration of the divine. His teachings become a metaphor for all of our personal choices that direct us toward glorification of anything or anyone other than God – any of the choices we have before us that require that we choose between the ways of the world and the way our lives in Jesus Christ should be – and examine all of our own behaviors through the eyes of Christ who binds us together and calls us blessed.

When we come to be bound on God’s mercy and grace to see us through, what a relief that is!

As we move through this reading today, let us consider how we might reflect on our lives in the context of Christ’s law of perfect grace and consider what it means to be holy – set apart for God’s purpose to ameliorate the sadness and pain of the world. Let us consider how we might learn from our Lord and all of his righteous teachings to extend a taste of mercy and grace to those who need it most. And let us thank God for these gifts which we are also given, extending to us the ultimate gift of eternal life.


[1] Oppenheimer, Mark. “Infidelity Keeps Us Together,” found in The New York Times Magazine, June 11, 2011.

[2] Walter Wangerin, Jr., As for Me and My House, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990).

[3] Hebrews 12:2 (NRSV)

[4] With reflection upon the writing of Paul Tillich, as found in The Shaking of the Foundations especially chapter 16. (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1949).