Feb. 16, 2014: Matthew 5:21-38

February 16, 2014

 Year A, Epiphany 6                            

            When I started at seminary, I was a Roman Catholic.  Converting to another denomination was on the table, but the stubborn part of me really wanted to stay Roman Catholic.   I remember in one of my first classes, we went around the room sharing why we were at seminary.  Princeton was kind of unique in the sense that the students there weren’t all planning on being ordained.  It was a bit of a hodgepodge.  When it was my turn I said, “I’m a Roman Catholic and I am here looking for a loophole.”  I was joking, but part me was very serious.  I was going to stay Catholic until they kicked me out. As I continued in my studies, I got to know women who were seeking ordination in Protestant denominations.  It became more than just some ridiculous possibility; it became a calling with potential.  Then a funny thing happened. Instead of becoming full of hope, I got bitter.  When I went to Catholic church, I was just mad.  I would go up for communion and glare at the priest as he gave me communion. I thought, “He doesn’t even appreciate what he has…”  It was not the healthiest state of mind, especially when receiving communion. 

            The Gospel reading for today is one of those tricky ones.  When I was an associate, my boss and I switched back and forth on preaching.  When this reading came up every three years, whoever was not preaching would gloat a little because they could avoid it for another three years.   Now that I am the only preacher…it’s a bit harder to avoid.  Jesus seems a little over the top in the Gospel reading today, a little unrealistic in his demands for the people listening.  “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.’”  “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…”  When you read commentaries on this text, you will see the word “hyperbolic” tossed around quite a bit.  Either the commentators are breaking out their SAT vocabulary words, or they are referring to Jesus’ tendency to use hyperbole to make a point.  Jesus was a story teller.  Sometimes to make points, he would exaggerate a little, use hyperbole.  If he wanted every sinner to throw out their eye, there would be a lot of one eyed people in the world, and I am fairly confident that was not what he wanted.            

            That is not to say that what he was saying wasn’t important, perhaps even essential to our life as disciples.  In fact, when Jesus uses hyperbole, you can pretty much count on the fact that what he is saying is very important.  However, it is important not to get too caught up in the details of this text.  If you look at it more broadly (instead of with that one good eye you have left), you will see one common theme in all Jesus’s statements: relationship.  All of these laws that he is referencing are laws regarding how we treat one another. 

He begins with, “You have heard…. ‘You shall not murder…’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” Before all of you only-children out there breathe a sigh of relief because you don’t have a brother or sister, I have to warn you that he wasn’t actually talking about siblings. He was talking about our brother and sister in Christ, which means everyone.   He is talking about that person who hurt you 20 years ago and you haven’t spoken with since.  He is talking about the friend you heard talking behind your back who you never confronted.  He is talking about those people who really deserve our anger; at least we think they do.

            I have been known to tell people that anger is a healthy emotion.  I have even counseled people that it is ok to be angry with God.  The Psalms are full of anger towards God.  Yet there are different kinds of anger.  The Psalmist never stays angry at God for the whole Psalm. There are two Greek words that are both translated to anger.  One of them deals with that anger that comes like a flame, but soon burns out. The other is the anger that starts as a flame and then smolders in our hearts for long periods of time.  It festers because we cannot forgive and we cannot reconcile.  It affects the way we treat others.  It even affects the way we treat God.  Perhaps you have experienced that kind of anger.  I have.  That was the kind of anger he was referring to.  He wasn’t talking about your reaction to the person who cuts you off in traffic.  He was referring to the anger that eats away at you like a poison.  Augustine of Hippo, a great theologian of the 5th century once said that, “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.”  That is the kind of anger that Jesus is talking about.  That is the anger that leads to God’s judgment.

            Thankfully, Jesus had some suggestions about how to deal with this anger.  He said, “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.”  What Jesus was referring to was the practice of bringing animal sacrifices to the temple.  Those were offerings to God.  We no longer sacrifice animals…which is a big relief I can assure you (to both me and the altar guild).  Yet we still offer things in our service.  We offer our sins to God when we say the confession.  We offer ourselves to one another in the exchanging of peace.  We offer our prayers in the prayers of the people.  We offer ourselves to God as we kneel before the altar and receive communion. 

Imagine if we followed Jesus’ advice.  Imagine as the choir sang the offertory anthem, I came down and squeezed into a pew and apologized to someone for something I said, or told someone how they had hurt me.  Imagine if every one of us did that.  That used to be the purpose of the Peace.  It was a time to reconcile with one another before receiving communion.  People were even discouraged from receiving communion if they were angry with a brother or sister in Christ.  Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it?  Does it sound as crazy as tearing out your eye or throwing away your hand?  Not really.  In fact, it’s starting to make sense, isn’t it?  And there is the art and brilliance of Jesus’ hyperbolic statements.  We could tear our eye out, but how about we ask for forgiveness instead…how about we let go of our anger instead?

            One of the reasons I left the Catholic Church was because I didn’t want to be angry for the rest of my life…especially not in church.  The week before I formally became an Episcopalian I went to Catholic mass one more time and took communion.  Afterwards, I wept.  I was heartbroken, but I wasn’t angry anymore.  I think what helped was knowing that while I was releasing something, I was also accepting something at the same time. I was being welcomed into the Episcopal Church.  Sometimes it is hard to release something, (even when it is painful) until we have welcomed something else into our life.  So that is my prayer for each of you.  As you give your offering today (whatever it might be), consider what you might release with that offering.  Consider what has been chafing at your heart and keeping you from a full relationship with your neighbor and God.