Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

 

 

Let’s begin this morning with an exercise. I’d like to invite you to do a mental inventory of those occasions when you have responded to another person in anger. Maybe the anger came in a flash, as it does sometimes when you are driving a car and someone cuts you off. Maybe it took longer to build, gradually growing over months or years. Perhaps the result of your anger came out in words or in actions or just in a stomach twisted into knots.

You probably won’t be able to remember your every instance of anger with another human. But, if you are like me, I bet that you will be able to remember a lot of them.

Now, holding those incidents or altercations in your mind, I’d like to ask you a question.

Looking at all of those incidents put together, roughly what percentage of the time would you say that you were in the right, that your anger was justified and fair, that the actions or words that flowed out of your anger were reasonable? What percentage of the time would a neutral third party – a judge wearing a robe, a scientist wearing a lab coat, maybe even a priest wearing an alb – say:

Yes.

Your anger is justifiable and good. Yes, you are right.

I will share my own first-blush answer to that question. Looking at the inventory of those times when I acted in anger, maybe even those occasions when I felt and acted in rage – here are childhood encounters with bullies, here are teachers whom I feared and sometimes hated, here is the bureaucrat writing the letter denying my complaint, here is the man shouting out his car window of his intention to run me down – I would say that I was in the right about 90% of the time.

The 10% represents those occasions when I was short-tempered with my kids or my parents or Phoebe or my friends. I’m sorry for my actions in those instances. But they are the minority.

I don’t know if 90% is typical for this crowd. Maybe it’s high. But my guess is that your answer is well over 50%.

Now here is my follow up. Imagine the persons with whom you were angry, perhaps with whom you traded recriminations.

How do you think that those persons would answer the very same question? How often would they say that they were right?

My guess is that their answer would be similar to mine. My guess is that most of us think that our anger is reasonable most of the time. That in a battle in which both parties have lost their temper, the odds are approaching 90% that both of them will say:

I am right.

We are now three Sundays into the Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus’ preaching is as inspiring and as beautiful and as confusing as ever. In this section of the Sermon, we hear a series of six statements – Ken read four of them for us just now, we’ll hear the remain two next Sunday – each built around a thesis followed by a response to that thesis. Each of the six theses begins:

You have heard it said

(or, once)

It was also said

To which Jesus then offers the response:

But I say to you

These six theses are all drawn from the Torah, from the Law, from what we sometimes call the Five Books of Moses. These five books are foundational for Judaism, both in Jesus’ time and in ours. And they are foundational for the Christian tradition as well: leaf past the index, open up your Bible to page one, and you will be looking at the first page of the Torah. Jesus’ words, his “you have heard it saids,” come to us from here, from Deuteronomy, from Numbers, from Leviticus.

Because of the Jewish origin of these theses – and because of the long and shameful history of anti-Semitism within Christendom – there is a huge interpretative danger waiting for us here. The danger is that of reading Jesus “but I say to you” statements as a series of refutations of the Torah.

You have heard it said. But that’s all nonsense.

But that isn’t where Jesus is going at all. Remember what we heard him say last week. Here are the words from the Sermon on the Mount that come immediately before the ones that we hear today:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;

I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

These six statements and responses, therefore, are not rejections of Jesus’ Jewish identity and his Jewish piety. They are fulfillments of Jesus’ Jewish identity and his Jewish piety. When Jesus quotes these words and then says, “but,” he means something similar to what a Christian might mean if she were to quote the words from Jesus that we will hear next week, if she were to say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” and then she were to add, “But that is way harder than it sounds.”

What Jesus is talking about in these six stanzas is how incredibly difficult it is – and how incredibly transformative it is – when we take the commandments of God seriously, when we seriously honour and obey them.

Let’s concentrate in particular on the first thesis and its response.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder.’ But I say to you, if you are angry with a brother or a sister, if you insult a brother or a sister, if you call a brother or a sister cruel names, you are in trouble.”

What Jesus – the faithful Jew, the Rabbi – is doing here, is drawing out the full implications of God’s command. God prohibits us from engaging in violence. And Jesus is making it clear that God’s prohibition is not limited to physical violence. Yes, it is wrong to harm another person’s body, it is especially wrong to kill. And it is wrong as well to harm another person’s psyche or heart or soul.

A couple years back, I read an article in which the author followed around the comedian, Doug Stanhope. I wasn’t familiar with Stanhope before reading the article. And the author pretty much convinced me that I didn’t want to become familiar with Stanhope. While some of Stanhope’s work is insightful and clever – his observations about addiction, for instance, brilliantly and painfully name the darkness of a pathological relationship with booze or pills or sex or gambling – a lot of his work dark and even cruel. A lot of his humour is reminiscent of the worst and nastiest corners of the schoolyard, the corners in which we delight in the suffering and the weakness of others.

Especially striking for me in the article was the moments in which the author spoke to Doug Stanhope’s fans. As I recall, these fans were predominantly men. And more than one of them lavished the praise on Stanhope:

He says what I am thinking.

I had a kind of dual reaction when I read those words. Because, on the one hand, I totally understand the power, the validation, of an artist or a performer articulating something that is in my head. There is something freeing and affirming when you read a poem or hear a song or see a play in which you see your fears or longings or love are given voice. I adore the moment when I encounter art and I say: that’s me on stage! I have thought or experienced that very thing, but I have never expressed it so well or so beautifully.

On the other hand, the things that Doug Stanhope was saying were just so cruel. And I struggled to see how the world or any individual was enriched by hearing these thoughts spoken out loud on a stage. To the contrary, it seemed to me then – and it seems to me now – that given these thoughts that platform lends them a power and a credence that they don’t deserve.

One of the curious – and I would say largely unexamined – popular psychological notions of our time is the idea that there is just nothing worse than self-restraint, than repressing yourself, than holding things in. The British psychiatrist and author, Theodore Dalrymple, who is particularly interested in mob violence and domestic violence, says that he will interview people who have participated, for instance, in soccer hooliganism and he will say: Why? Why did you do that?

And people will reply: Well, you have to let your hair down.

To which Dalrymple will push back:

Why do you have to let your hair down?

I think you should keep your hair up.

I have selfish thoughts with some regularity. I have cruel and stupid thoughts with some regularity. There are probably things in Doug Stanhope’s act that I would recognise, about which I might say: He says what I am thinking. But I’m not convinced that the world is poorer because I don’t name those thoughts out loud. I actually don’t want hear someone announced those thoughts from a stage. I don’t to give my thoughts that power. Following the advice of the spiritual masters who advise us of what to do when something unwelcome or unpleasant shows up in our heads, I want to quietly acknowledge those thoughts.

And then I want to let them go.

I want to let them go because, as Jesus teaches us in this first of his six theses, letting these thoughts out into the world is corrosive. Letting them out is the beginning of violence. It is harmful to ourselves and it is harmful to our neighbours. Anger and insults and cruel words are themselves a kind of assault. Jesus knows that they set the stage for physical violence, they set the stage for murder.

If you have any doubts that Jesus has this one right, I invite you to engage in conversation with one of our Muslim brothers or sisters. (If possible, have an actual conversation. Articles and videos on YouTube are great, but they are no substitute for direct human connection.) I spoke with a group of Muslim women a couple of weeks back, and it was immediately clear that the casual Islamophobia that has become a hallmark of so many Western countries is not an abstraction to them. These women are watching an upswing in hate crimes with real and understandable fear.

And they understand the direct connection between these crimes and letting certain thoughts out into the world, certain words out into the world, certain ideas out into the world. They understand the direct connection between this violence and the news reports, to give the example of the recent shootings at the mosque in Quebec, that play up racial and religious and national identity of the shooter for so long as we think that he is a Muslim. But that immediately begin using the language of “Lone Wolf” when it turns out that shooter is some white guy.

Imagine what that must be like. Imagine what it must be like for your faith or the colour of your skin or your gender or your sexuality to render you perpetually suspect.

I know that some of you don’t have to imagine. I know that some of you know that experience firsthand.

Jesus pushes us even further. Jesus refuses to be safe. My guess is that there are few or no people here this morning at Grace who find Islamophobia to be anything less than repugnant and immoral and broken. So I’m going to risk making myself uncomfortable and maybe you uncomfortable and note that Jesus’ prohibition on violence – on physical violence and violence of the heart – is universal. We are not to direct our violence at anyone.

That means that you and I can plug the person whom we like and respect least in this world into the equation – maybe that’s someone you know personally, maybe that’s a politician or another public figure – and you and I are still prohibited from sending violence their way. We are still not to send anger or insults or cruel names their direction, we are still not to engage in the psychic answer to murder. We are still not to forget that person’s humanity, that person’s status as a beloved child of God.

If my own answer to the question that I posed a few minutes ago is typical, then most of us believe that our violence is justified. Islamophobia is overwhelmingly framed in the language of freedom and common sense and patriotism, as something reasonable and necessary and good.

We frame our own violence the same way.

Every Sunday, near the beginning of the 8am service, we hear Jesus’ words:

You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it.

The second is the same.

You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Real Christianity, authentic Christianity is really hard. It is the hardest work that there is. But it is also the most freeing work that there is. This is the work that invites us, that calls us, that commands us, to put down violence in its every form, and instead, to pick up love.