It is good to be back in worship with my tribe today, but I do have to thank you for the time away. Gathering with nearly 60 other female clergy from all over the world for a week of learning and fellowship is always good for my soul; and having an opportunity to spend the week with Rev. Carol McDonald, who sends her love to all of you, was also a tremendous blessing. However, the most surprising and best thing about the conference was the keynote speaker, Rev. Casey Fitzgerald who led us in a series of workshops on Biblical Storytelling.
During our time together, we were challenged to embrace the stories of scripture...to take them into our hearts...and to tell them to a world that seems to have lost touch with them. We learned techniques for internalizing the scripture and for communicating them to others. I can't begin to describe how inspiring this was, but suffice to say that I have personally deemed this year with a theme: The Story is Enough. These stories of the Bible...the nice ones, the tough ones, the shocking ones, the ones we've heard and the ones we always skim over...they truly are enough. They are the revelation of our God who is, by all means, enough.
One exercise we did during the workshops was to read a specific passage multiple times, incorporating different emotions. In each reading, we would have a single emotion that increased as we read. So, for instance, we read the story from Mark's gospel where Jesus rebukes the wind and calms the seas with the emotion of increasing fear. Then we read it with the emotion of incremental anger. Then we read it with the emotion of growing amusement. The goal, I believe, was to help us appreciate how the storyteller interprets and communicates theology even by which emotions they decide to express.
Of course sometimes the emotions were completely incongruent with the text, but there was still something to be learned in that as well. Usually, the thing that struck all of us novice storytellers was how difficult it is to put emotions to Jesus' words. To try to put ourselves in the role of Jesus. Yet...that's what makes it so powerful to tell the stories verbally rather than to read them from a page. Now, I so wish I had given myself time to learn this passage today so I could have told it to you by heart...but alas, that's what happens the first week back after being out of the office...there's not enough time to get everything done. Still, I wonder, what emotion do you think was present when Jesus said these words to the disciples: you have heard it said...but I say to you...
Was he being didactic? Like a teacher just giving instruction? Was there a hint of arrogance or maybe there was just an abundance of confidence...dismissing the old law and giving the newer and better law?
Was he annoyed? Perhaps he chose these laws because he was frustrated at how they were being carried out?
I think it would be interesting to consider how this might sound if we read it as if Jesus was preaching fire and brimstone to the disciples...and you know, the stuff in there about gouging out your eyes or cutting off your hand could definitely sound threatening.
However, given that all of this legal-speak is in the middle of a sermon...we may want to hear them as words of affirmation and assurance...much like the Beatitudes earlier in the message. Jesus spoke those blessing statements not as a checklist of things you have to do to receive God's blessing, but as an assurance that God has a special blessing for those who are outcast, poor, and meek.
In the sermon he also reminds his followers about their role in the world. Be salt...be light...don't hide under a basket. Definitely assurance and encouragement there. As well as a bit of a challenge. So it seems plausible that these legal statements would carry the same tone.
Encouragement. Assurance. And challenge.
You have heard it said...but I say to you...
Jesus is gently pushing his followers toward a re-interpretation of the law...not one that eliminates or contradicts the original law...but one that expands it as a way to reclaim its intent. He re-directs them from a checklist of do's and don't(s) to a way of being and interacting with each other. Jesus moves the followers from a fear-based code of segregation that separated people from each other toward a grace-based law of relationship that sought to reconcile, heal and restore dignity and community.
Keep in mind when God handed down the original law to Moses, it was to help the Israelites - who had known nothing but slavery - to learn how to become a people...more specifically to become God's people. The commandments, as well as the Levitical code, were put in place in order to facilitate the health and well-being of the whole community. The purpose of the law was not to distinguish good guys and bad guys...but instead to create a holiness that would not only set apart God's people, but would bless their relationships with God and with each other..
However, throughout the centuries the use of the Law became perverted...with layer upon burdensome layer added in such a way to further divide those who were "in" and those who were "out". Not only did the laws grow in number and complexity from when God initially set them out, they wbecame increasingly impossible to fulfill too. The focus shifted from that which unites and protects the community to that which creates insiders and outsiders...clean and unclean...worthy and unworthy. They were manipulated to create a holy hierarchy which heaped humiliation and shame on any and all who were not standing on the higher rungs of wealth, power and position.
The good news of Jesus' gospel is that he came to reset that perversion. He says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. In other words...Jesus was telling those who would hear that he has fulfilled the purpose of the Law...he is the one who reconciles, heals and makes us whole. Not the law.
Make no mistake, Jesus doesn't let the disciples off the hook. He doesn't just throw out the law. Not at all. Instead he goes beyond the letter to lay out a higher standard and holier intent. He restores the law back to God's purpose - keeping right and loving relationships with God and each other.
You see...Jesus' law is the law of love. Everything Jesus says and does is interpreted by what he calls the greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength...and love your neighbor as yourself. To love is to obey God. Love is what makes us his people. Following the example Jesus sets -- seeking justice and showing mercy and offering compassion that extends far beyond the letter of the law -- is how we love God and love each other. As a wise person once said to me, and as I shared with the children this morning, the most loving choice is always the right choice and vice versa. In retrospect, it's just a paraphrase of God's words to the Israelites: I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live
Choosing Christ is choosing life and love. Following Christ means we seek the type of relationships with each other that he offers to us...those of radical reconciliation, complete restoration, and unconditional love. It doesn't mean we ignore right and wrong, it means that we choose to obey the much more difficult law of love and relationships. And it is almost always more difficult to choose love than to settle for technical obedience.
I mean, think about it. It's pretty easy to not murder...but it's really difficult to not be angry with someone...or to not insult them...and it's even way more challenging to be the one who takes the initiative to seek reconciliation.
This challenge, though, is what Jesus is really getting at with all these statements. His followers are called to live beyond the letter and into this holy intent. To seek reconciliation. To treat people with respect. To protect one's dignity. To value honesty, integrity and truth. To be a people of our word. To live the life-giving law of love...which is truly the law of relationships.
All of these legal statements that Jesus offers are about treasuring our relationships. To value them more than we value our need to be right or to prove another wrong. To find life and joy and prosperity in our loving and relating to one another.
Over and again, Jesus pushes his followers -- then and now -- to set aside an individualistic and self-focused righteousness for one that is communal and relational. Just obeying the law is not enough. He calls us to love others the way he loves us...with humility...with a desire for reconciliation...and with a thirst for integrity and truth.
And folks, right now, in this truly frightening time of division in our nation...it's even more challenging for American Christians to choose to live within the law of love and relationship. Yet, it has probably never been more critical that we do.
There is too much hate...too much separation…too much shame...too much brokenness...too many ways of death and destruction. It's up to us, his church, to choose life. To choose love. To choose reconciliation and to treasure our relationships. We cannot rely on the elected officials to choose it on our behalf. We cannot depend on the media to do it for us either. It's up to us...Christ-followers...to stretch ourselves beyond ourselves...to reach out to each other...across the proverbial aisles...across ideologies...across differences...cultures...and lifestyles...in order to discover that remarkable healing place of God's grace...it's up to us to choose to follow Jesus' instruction of seeking reconciliation with those whom we have conflict...to work to restore human dignity...and to demand integrity and truth from each other. It is up to us to be sure that our yes is yes and our no is no.
Now here's the thing...Jesus lists a bunch of consequences for various failures of the law...most of which seem to be hyperbole - such as being liable to hell of fire or to cut out eyes or chop off our hands to keep from doing wrong. There is one, though, where he's so specific that he basically says don't come back to this place of worship until you have reconciled with those whom you have wronged. Don't bring offerings. Don't go through the motions of worship. To me, if there is an emotion that seems fitting for his statement, I believe Jesus is pleading...begging like a parent who wants what's best for his child: first, be reconciled to your brother and sister, then come offer your gift.
Apparently, according to author Howard Dorgan, there is a tradition in some mountain churches called the flower service that takes this to heart. It goes like this. On Flower Service Sunday, everyone in the church brings a bouquet of flowers and places them on the a table in front of the sanctuary. The preacher always preaches on this specific passage from Matthew. After the sermon, a truly amazing passing of the peace takes place in which everyone comes forward and takes back their flower offering. Then they all walk around the church approaching each other to apologize for any hurt feelings, harsh words or misunderstandings. Once the apologies and words of forgiveness have been spoken and heard, they exchange flowers, as a way of "sealing" the restoration of their relationship. All ages participate and it goes on for as long as it takes for all hurt and harm to be cleared. (see Howard Dorgan, "Giving Glory to God in Appalachia: Worship Practices of Six Baptist Subdenominations" University of Tennessee Press 1987, p 147.)
So, I have this big bouquet here... PAUSE
Don't worry...it's only symbolic. Although...it does seem fitting given that Valentine's Day is this week...it's all about love and flowers. What better time to partake in your own version of a Flower Service of reconciliation this week. Just think about it.
In the meantime...imagine what would that look like if all God's people...here...in our nation's capital...all around the world , chose to have a flower service...if we chose to reconcile with each other in love. You know, I think it would look like choosing life...like choosing kingdom life...and all glory would surely be to God.
Friends, let me leave you this quote from author and researcher LR Knost: Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. Amen.