“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 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. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Matthew 5:21-37

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 6th Sunday after Epiphany (February 16, 2020) on Matthew 5:21-37. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So yesterday, my entire family attended a funeral at Trinity Lutheran Church in Astoria, Queens. We loaded up our minivan, filled the kids with snacks, and prayed we would find a parking spot within six blocks of the church. When we finally got to Trinity, the service had already started. But since that church is my “home congregation,” I knew exactly how to walk in, take over an entire back pew, and get settled before the opening hymn was over. Trinity was the first church I ever really attended. It’s also the place where Kate and I were married; where Oliver was baptized; and it was that faith community that recognized what God had in mind for me before I even knew what being a Lutheran was all about. Trinity is one of the reasons why I’m a pastor. And one of those people who shaped my faith and my relationship with Jesus was a woman in her 90s named Virginia. 

Now, Virginia was an amazing person. She was tough as nails, with your stereotypical New York sense of humor and Queens accent. She knew Greek, was a former owner of a diner, and kept in contact with Kate and I through facebook right until the end. During the recession of 2008, I found myself with a lot of free time because my freelance web development work dried up. So on Tuesday mornings, I joined Virginia and a few others of the “old guard” to putter around the church, chat, and have lunch. Virginia was the type of person who, regardless of the situation, was always herself. She had no problems sharing her opinions. Yet she was also incredibly accepting of other people. She knew everyone’s business but she didn’t really gossip. Instead, people trusted her and she worked hard to build that trust with all people. It didn’t matter if you were 92 or 22 - if you needed help, care, or prayers - Virginia was the one who knew exactly what you were going through. She was, in a few words, opinionated, thoughtful, loving, and a little intense. And she made sure to fully invest herself into her relationships so that all of us could experience grace. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew is not the easiest to preach on. We find ourselves deep in Jesus’ sermon on the mount - a sermon that began with the beatitudes - where Jesus said that the meek and the poor in spirit were blessed. Last week, we heard Jesus declare that he came to fulfill the law and the promises recorded in the prophets and that those who followed him were the salt of the earth. Jesus used, I think, a figure of speech to help root us permanence of God’s promises. When God said “I love you” and claimed you as God’s own in baptism - God really meant it. And God’s giving of grace is like salt being salty - it’s just a permanent part of who God is. You can almost imagine being there with Jesus and feeling pretty upbeat since he told you how much God loves you. But then Jesus goes a little hardcore and, as we hear today, he started talking about things like murder. Now, Jesus’s speaking pattern in this passage was pretty common in the first century. Rabbis often debated by stating a traditional understanding of a law and then challenging it with an interpretation of their own. This wasn’t their way of trying to replace the law or the tradition they inherited. Rather, it was a way to dig deeper into it and, in the words of Eric Barreto, grab onto “the divine values these commandments [and laws] communicated.” Jesus, in this passage, wasn’t trying to replace the law. Instead, he intensifies it. And Jesus, I think, went heavy so that reveal God’s vision for our lives and for our world. 

So, instead of trying to unpack everything Jesus said in this passage - which would require a whole sermon for each verse - let’s take this passage as a whole. What thread weaves in and out of these seventeen verses - especially the parts that seem harsh, like Jesus’ comment on divorce? Where’s the grace in these hard words from Jesus? 

Well, for me, that’s where my friend Virginia comes in. She learned, over her many years, how to invest in the connections she had with other people. She knew how to ask questions, how to listen, and how a New York style wisecrack could let us know we were heard. Throughout today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus is focused on our choices in relationships. He’s not thinking so much about the people we have relationships with or what they’ve done. Rather, he asks us to be honest about what we invest into every human connection that we have. Do we invest in anger and in the brokenness that’s entails or are we faithful enough to admit how other people could rightfully have something to hold against us? Our coming before God is, according to Jesus, related to our relationship with one another. And how we connect is a sign of that faith and trust. For us to truly reconcile with one another, we need to be honest about the harm we’ve caused others. And in those situations where reconciliation is impossible, we can still use the gifts of community, connection, and therapy to not let anger, resentment, and disconnection be what defines us. 

It’s this work of investment, I think, that gives light to Jesus’ words that follow. Instead of objectifying people - especially women - and then blaming them for our gaze, Jesus told those who are doing the looking to invest in their connections by first disciplining themselves. Instead of letting men, who traditionally controlled the wealth in a household, divorce their wives and leave them homeless and in poverty, Jesus told us to invest in the life we’re building together. There are times when that investment in a marriage will be exactly what that relationship needs but there are other times when our investment will reveal that the most holy and healthy thing we can do is let that marriage. And instead of tying the promises we make to one another with some kind of collateral to make sure it actually happens, Jesus asked us to invest in making every word we say be honest and trustworthy. Jesus’ call in this passage is not focused on what others do or how they make us feel. Rather, it’s about how we can, right now, invest in our relationships and how that investment will actually grow us closer to God. 
Because the story of law, the prophets, and of Jesus himself is the story of God’s continual investment in God’s relationship with us. We, as humans, are made in the image of God and we carry a bit of the divine into the world. Those who follow Jesus are, through our baptism and our faith, invested into the body of Christ - a body that, at its core, is all about relationships and connections. We are not only in a relationship with Jesus; we’re connected to everyone else. And this connection and relationship is nourished through our worship, our prayers, and reinforced every time we commune at the Lord’s table. We are, as baptized followers of Jesus Christ, connected to a God who does not stop investing in God’s promises - and we are invited to be like God in all our relationships as well. This kind of investment isn’t easy or simple and it actually requires us to do the work. But when we do, the investment we make in our relationships ends up giving grace because it reflects the grace God has already given us. We can start this investment by naming our anger; by admitting all the different ways - either personally, systematically, or historically - others might have something against us; by being honest that we do objectifying others; by naming the different ways we take our marriages for granted; and by finally admitting how our comments - especially those we make on social media - do not embrace the care and the truthfulness God wants us to share. Because it’s only when we go heavy and deep into our actual lives that we are then able to fully invest into all our relationships. And its then when grace and love becomes a permanent part of who we are - something that we freely give because Jesus already has given that grace to us.