Getting to the Heart of the Matter

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Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
Deut. 30.15-20; Psalm 119.1-8; 1 Cor. 3.1-9; Matt. 5.21-37
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

Grace to you and peace from the one who is reconciling us to God and to one another, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I thought I’d take this opportunity for confession. I stole a candy bar once…I did. And so did my younger brother and my younger sister. I don’t remember it, and either do they, but my mom likes to remind us every once in a while of our misguided attempt to confiscate and consume a delicious Snickers Bar. Apparently my brother, sister, and I all tried to steal a Snickers from the Garrison Super Value independently of one another when each of us were three. I am 2 years older than my brother and 6 years older than my sister. In my attempt, I only made it to the car with my candy bar before my mom caught me. My brother, on the other hand, made it to the car, opened it and managed to sink his teeth into it once before my mother’s wrath came down on him. My sister must be the sneakiest of us all because she made it all the way home with the candy bar, and ate half of it before getting caught in the act.

My mother responded the same to all of our attempts of thievery. She made each one of us go back into the store, give the candy bar back (1/2 eaten or not), pay for it, and say we’re sorry. What a deal, right?! And each of us responded in the same way, again, independently of one another. We had money in one hand, the candy bar in the other, and through our blubbering sobs, managed to hold them both up to the cashier and say, “I’m sorry.”

I would venture a guess to say that the vast majority of us would conclude that stealing, on one level or another, is wrong. Thou shall not steal is a law set in place by my mother, Joleen Splichal… and just happens to be one of the 10 Commandments.

Scripture is full of laws and commandments by God. Today in our Gospel reading Jesus reminds us of laws we should follow, but also reinterprets them and leads us to find the deeper meaning and purpose behind each law. Jesus directly addresses the tough realities in our lives and gets right to the heart of the matter of human life because God cares about what makes our lives messy. A few of the realities in life addressed today by Jesus are anger, lust, divorce, and swearing.

I need you to stay with me here today because we’re going on a journey. First off, Jesus starts out by saying, “You shall not murder,” then expands this law by saying, “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment (Matt. 5.22).” I don’t know about you but I have never been angry at anyone my entire life. Yeah right. I mean, this is scary stuff. The brother and sister language means any human being and not limited to your biological brother or sister. So what does this mean?

Well, “Jesus words are not for terrified consciences, but for those who would congratulate themselves because they haven’t technically broken a law (back of bulletin).” For example, one might have some self-righteousness about them by saying, “Well, I have been angry with someone, but at least I haven’t murdered anyone. At least I’m not like those people in God’s eyes.” Jesus just flips this sort of thinking around and says, “Lest you think you are more holy than another, you must know that all will be judged regardless of the severity of the offense.” In other words, Jesus really levels the playing field.

He is getting at the root of what causes actions that are destructive for human life and community. Anger, if it is not dealt with properly, leads to all kinds of things that hurt others and ourselves, including murder. It is the same with lust. Adultery isn’t simply adultery; it begins by lusting for someone who you have not given your life to in marriage which leads to adultery.

I know the paragraph about divorce can be confusing and condemning and I’m not going to go into the details of it today other than this: We know that God desires wholeness, mutuality, and love in all of our relationships. No one when they get married hopes their marriage will end in divorce, but we all know that it happens and it happens often, and that it is so very painful for those involved. I need you to hear this and hear it clearly: Marriage and divorce are not matters of salvation. There are other options than staying in an abusive or un-healthy marriage because the law forbids divorce. If marriage is not a mutual life-giving relationship, it is not what God intends for marriage. This doesn’t mean we don’t try hard to work things out, but it does mean that if divorce happens, God is still faithful in God’s love and design for creation and human beings. God continues to be in the messiness of our lives.

Now when Scripture mentions “swearing,” it is not what we think of as four letter words we say when we slam our finger in the car door. Swearing means taking oaths, or following through with what you say you are going to do…more plainly, making promises and keeping them. If you can’t be honest in one area of your life, you can’t be honest in the rest. In other words, don’t be a hypocrite because it only leads people to not trust you.

All of these things Jesus is talking about have to do with being in relationship with one another. Not just relationship, but right relationship. What God desires for us in our lives with God and with one another is reconciliation. Reconciliation means forgiveness and a restoration of relationships that have been broken, separated, or damaged.

This is why we begin worship with confession and forgiveness. Confession isn’t to get you to feel like a crappy old sinner. Confession is first and foremost admitting to God, to those around you, and to yourself that relationships in your lives are broken and that you need help in restoring them. We do this together so that we can then hear what God has already done for all of us so that we don’t have to keep on worrying about that word we heard three times in our reading today: hell.

Do you believe that you are forgiven or not? If you don’t I will keep telling you that you are. If you do, then you have nothing you need to atone for in your past and there is thing you need to fear in your future. There is incredible freedom in confession and absolution because it means that we don’t have to spend all of our time worry about our salvation. God has taken care of that. Because of God’s love for us, we are free to spend our present time and energy working on our relationships with one another so we can engage in mission together for the sake of our community and world.

What is amazing is that God desires reconciliation between people before God desires worship. Listen to Matthew 5 verse 24 again: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

You know in the service when I say, “The peace of the Lord be with you all,” and then we share the peace with one another. This comes from an ancient practice that allowed time in each worship service for people who were angry with one another to make amends before taking Holy Communion together. Can you imagine the possibilities for forgiveness if this is what actually went on during the sharing of the peace? It’s tough, but this is what God commands us to do.

The commandments of God are not there to weigh us down and confine us, but rather they are meant to build trust in our relationship with God and with one another. The law and the function of law is a gift to us all, in order that we might come to God in our deepest longings for healing and wholeness, and that we might not use one another for selfish gain.

Matthew 5 has many layers in it, just like that delicious Snickers Bar I never got to eat. My mom laid the smack down on stealing, not because she was a wrathful, unfair, tyrant of a mother, but because she cared about the people who owned and worked at Super Value, and because she loved me and was concerned about the person I would become. Just because my mom judged my action as wrong and disciplined me, I still knew she ultimately loved me and what I did would not change her love for me.

When you understand in the tiniest way the depth of love God has for you and the world, you have no need to be afraid of this text, hell, judgment, or even death. It is true that the law exempts no one. Everyone is liable to judgment. We do not know the outcome of judgment, but we know our judge. Our judge is Jesus, the One who gave his life for you and for me, and because of this there is no need to fear.