To choose life

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Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, Feb. 16, 2014

Deut. 30.15-20; Psalm 119.1-8; 1 Cor. 3.1-9; Matt. 5.21-37

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I have been thinking a lot about what it means to live, to exist, to have consciousness; that I am alive and I know it and so are you.  It is clear to me that I did not dream myself up and give myself life.  My being came from something else, this One I might call Creator, or life breath.  I do not choose whether or not my lungs rise and fall with breath, whether or not my heart continues to beat, whether or not I woke up this morning to live a new day.  My body just does it…it lives.  Life, whether I chose it or not was given to me; it is given to you. 

Our Gospel reading then, is about choosing how you and I are to live.  There are things we can choose that cause death and things that we choose that can bring life.  At first glace it may seem that Jesus is laying down the law, hard.  His words and warnings are difficult to swallow.  If you didn’t feel like a sinner before this morning, welcome now to the club.

It is pretty easy for us to see why one should not murder another, but we all become convicted when Jesus says, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.  Everyone who looks at a woman (or man) with lust has already committed adultery in their heart.”  Divorce and remarrying after divorce.  Even not following through with what you said you were going to do makes you liable for judgment.

A Lutheran understanding of the function of the law, why we even have it and read Gospel readings like the one today, is so that we can all recognize our need for God: for God’s love and mercy, for God’s help in the way we are to live, for God’s peace in knowing that we can never succeed in saving ourselves.  It is to realize that we are broken people living in a broken world where we hurt one another, where promises don’t last, where we don’t follow through with what we say we are going to do.

Jesus takes the law a step further because he knows that harbored anger can lead to murder even events like the Holocaust where over 6 million innocent people were killed.  In turn, lust can lead to adultery and the objectification of human beings, where only one’s own needs and desires are satisfied.  Jesus is not threatening us with hell and judgment; he is stating what is and what happens when we disregard human life, when we use other people, when we cannot let go of our anger towards another and be reconciled.

It is in the harboring of anger, the refusal to have forgiveness in our lives, and the ways we use others for our own gain that we have the potential to create our own hell on earth.  In clinging to grudges, and not valuing our own self worth and the worth of others is like choosing death again and again until it’s like we’re living in hell while our hearts are still beating.  I know nothing of hell after death, but I know about hell on earth and people live in it all of the time…some by their own choices and some by the choices and actions of others.

More often than not the talk of or the threat of judgment and hell gets our attention.  Let’s talk about verses 29-30…every commentary I read said pretty much nothing about it.  Some commentaries skipped it all together, which is what I was tempted to do this morning.  However, I am cursed with not letting tough passages in Scripture like this go. These verses are not meant to be taken literally.  There have been people who have cut out their own eyes or chopped off their hand because of this passage.  Do not do this!  If you do you will not have a body part left to cut off or out.

If we can think about what Jesus is saying in medical terms it might be helpful.  If a tumor is found in a body or if someone is suffering from gangrene, doctors know there needs to be a decision to amputate or cut out what will eventually kill the body if it is left to metastasize or rot.

We probably don’t need to use our imaginations too much to then understand things like anger, lust, and lying, as cancerous tumors growing inside us.  How does God help us get rid of such things in our bodies and in our lives?  The way to heal these wounds, these cancers that grow inside us through hate and anger is to reconcile with one another.

What Jesus is talking about today are very serious matters and they all have to with our relationship to one another.  It is about the seriousness in how we are to treat our fellow human beings and creation and how seriously we are to work at loving people to the best of our abilities through God’s help.  If only we could understand how precious each one of us is and how priceless our relationships are to one another we could hear Jesus’ words today as not tireless, hardline rules that we must obey, but rather a way to live life so that we and all others can have joy and thrive.

What Jesus does is redefine who we are to one another.  In verses 21, 22, and 23 he helps us to recognize how we are to see one another: as brothers and sisters, created in the image of God.  Things like anger and hurt are not to stand in the way of our relationships.

You know how we share the peace of Christ in worship every Sunday?  This is an ancient tradition that is a practice of reconciliation and forgiveness.  If you were angry with someone or someone was angry with you, sharing the peace was a way to help people forgive one another and be reconciled before coming together at the table for communion.  This is how important reconciliation is that it is built into our weekly routine of worship.

A few years ago I read the book, No Future Without Forgiveness, by Desmond Tutu.  It was a book about the atrocities of Apartheid in South Africa.  The racism, murder, and hate that consumed people’s lives were atrocious.  When Apartheid ended a group of people was formed called the “Truth and Reconciliation Committee.”  Its purpose was to help the country heal and the people heal.  They did things like bring in people who killed others to stand face to face with a family member of someone they killed.  Again and again people forgave and it transformed their hearts, both the forgiver and the one being forgiven, and made it possible for the country to live in peace.

This is why letting go of grudges and anger is part of the 12-step program.  Forgiveness and reconciliation has a power in our lives to heal like nothing else and we ask God to help us do it because it is hard.  We can choose to be reconciled or we can choose to harbor anger and let it eat us from the inside out.

Just in case we get too anxious or caught up in the details of what Jesus is saying, let’s hear from Matthew 22.34-40:

“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ he said to him, “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.”

If we strive in our lives to love God and love those around us we fulfill all of what is required of us to choose and have life.  These two things in and of themselves will take us a lifetime to work on and God is helping us do it.

A Jewish Rabbi by the name of, Rami M. Shapiro, wrote a short story and I’d like to read part of it for us today:

Listen children, listen. For a great mystery is about to be revealed to you. In the beginning, God made a single human from the dust of the earth. This one was red, yellow, brown, black and white, for all the sands of creation were used to fashion it. Male and female, it was, God had not yet separated the sexes. And God said: This one is in My Image, for this one includes all creation in one being. 

God had thought this being would be happy, but it was not happy. It was lonely. So God divided the one human in two, female and male. And then these two divided themselves even further until the unity of the first person was lost in the divisions created by the many people who followed. 

And God was saddened by the false divisions. So God called all the people together and stood them in a great valley. God called each person to stand before a divine mirror in which each person saw reflected not her own image, but the images of everyone else. 

Many people were frightened by the strange mirror, and ran away to hide. But others understood that God was reminding them of their unity. And these people see themselves in each face. God helped them. God took the great mirror and made millions upon millions of tiny mirrors. God placed these tiny mirrors in the eyes of every human being, even you and me, so that if you look in another’s eyes you will see reflected there the whole world and the One who created it…

To see God is to see your neighbor.  To love God is to love your neighbor.  To feel God is to stretch your hand out in peace.  To love and be loved is to choose life.