A week ago I got to spend the weekend with a hundred and fifty high school Lutherans and their adults from all over New Jersey. As you might expect, we had plenty of fun and not enough sleep, and I was very blessed to be the chaplain for the event. But as much as I was teaching and preaching and ministering to others that weekend, I was also continually learning from, and being surprised by, and being MINISTERED TO by others.
Here is just one example. It’s a Saturday night tradition at that event to have an open mike night after evening worship, and normally kids sign up to sing their favorite song or play the guitar. But one act surprised us all. It was stand-up, and the youth who was “standing up” was a girl. That’s not a sight you normally see, not even on TV. You might be able to name one or maybe two famous female comediennes, and here was this young woman, taking a risk, standing up in front of her peers, and she was funny.
She began her routine by describing what it was like to ride down to this youth event with her pastor at the wheel. This pastor, like someone you may know, was not originally from New Jersey and was also still coming to terms with the interesting traffic on the turnpike. When being cut off, this youth informed us, the pastor might yell, “son of a… child of God!” … Or when someone would suddenly slow down for no apparent reason, causing her to slam on her brakes, she would say, “God… bless you!”
We “adult-type-people” sitting in the back were practically rolling on the floor laughing. It was nice to know that someone else also felt the same frustration that I did about some of the crazy driving I’ve encountered around here! But at the same time I was laughing, I was also cringing a little bit inside. Because I’ve been there. I’ve been the person being cut off, and I’ve said some pretty unkind things alone in the safety of my vehicle. We all knew what this pastor had wanted to say, and we all knew that at one time or another we all had said those things, or we at least thought them.
In that moment, according to Jesus, when we let our anger get the better of us, and say things we will regret later, we are breaking the fifth commandment, and murdering the personhood of our brother or sister in our minds.
And so we’ve come to the part in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that is not so fun to listen to. After building us up for two weeks after hearing about being blessed if we are poor in spirit or mourning or peacemaking, and after hearing about how we are light and salt for the world, we get to the hard stuff in Jesus’s sermon. The gloves are off, the rubber has hit the road, the other shoe has dropped, and Jesus is done with the appetizers and is ready to get to the main course. And this is a tough meal that is pretty hard to swallow.
You might say that this is where being light intersects life – after talking about letting our light shine in the world, Jesus here it telling us how that’s done, example by example. And it sounds surprisingly hard. Because Jesus here is asking us, not just to keep the commandments of old, but to exceed them in a way that sounds beyond human ability.
I don’t know about you, but I think that the 10 commandments are just fine, as is. For the most part where we live it’s pretty easy to refrain from murdering someone. In fact, it’s pretty easy to go down the list of commandments and think we are doing ok – yup, respecting my parents, nope, didn’t steal anything today, nope, not coveting my next door neighbor’s house, and thank goodness they don’t have any slaves or oxen I can covet, so – whew- I guess I’m safe on that one.
But Jesus stops us in our self-congratulatory tracks. It’s one thing to do the minimum, to refrain from causing someone physical bodily harm. But if you are angry with your brother or sister, if you insult them and call them names, they are as good as dead to you, and you as good as murdered them in your mind. It’s not enough to simply refrain from cheating on one’s spouse. Every time someone looks at a woman in the media as an object to be desired, as a collection of body parts instead of a whole person, the deed is as good as done.
We don’t normally think of Jesus as talking this way. We would rather think about the Jesus that is all about love and tolerance and all that good stuff. Like, you’re good, I’m good, Jesus is good, we’re all good. Jesus loves me, this I know, so it’s ok if I curse out my neighbor on the road if they cut me off. Or, as I’ve seen one bumper sticker read: Jesus loves you, so I don’t have to. Love then, becomes a blanket over all the bad stuff I do, and makes it ok that I keep doing it. But thinking about love this way is about as effective as roses and chocolate one day a year, and misery the other three hundred and sixty-four.
But what does Jesus have to say about this crazy little thing called love? Another time Jesus says, Love your neighbor as you love yourself. As in, you see your neighbor not as an object to be coveted or as a means to an end to get what you want, but as a human being with thoughts and feelings, with hopes and dreams, with flaws and needs. Love means that we should treat everyone as if they are a beloved child of God. Because that’s what they are: beloved children of God.
So what if Jesus is reinterpreting these commands, which hopefully you remember way back from your confirmation class, not to control every aspect of our lives and make us miserable, but to help us love one another better? Perhaps then instead a list of things to avoid, these commands become the means of living a life that is full of real love and real relationships.
But how can we choose that kind of life? The deck is stacked against us: we live in a throw-away culture, where anything and everything is disposable – cups, plates, clothes, furniture …friendships, marriages, family ties. We are constantly told - if it’s worn out, throw it away. If it’s not useful anymore, throw it away. If there is a newer and better model, throw it away. If it’s inconvenient or too much work to maintain, throw it away. Take that annoying promotional for the show The Millers that is always on TV; the one where, after the son gets a divorce after three years, he “inspires” his parents to split up after 43 years of marriage. If it doesn’t make you happy, throw it away.
God will never throw us away. There is no relationship too fractured to be repaired, no sin too grievous to be forgiven, no night too dark to snuff out the light. Even when we don’t choose life – when instead we choose isolation over connection, fear over acceptance, hate over love, death over life, death does not have the final say. Life has the final say – the life that Jesus not only tells us about but also shows us in every moment of his life on earth. Jesus came to show us that love has the final say.
And we who are following in his footsteps are going to aren’t going to get it right all the time. We will continue to be the angry ones and the ones who cause others to be angry. Sometimes we will be ones doing the cursing in our cars and at other times we’ll be the ones doing the cutting-off on the turnpike. But if we choose to look at those around us through the eyes of Jesus, as beloved children of God, we infuse a healthy and much-needed dose of humanity back into the world. We can participate in the Kingdom of God here on earth. We will be the light of the world. We will be the salt of the earth. We will be servants of the living God, we will be, as Paul wrote, God’s field, and God’s building.
We become a blessing to one another. That same pastor, the one with the standup comedienne youth, came up to me after I had prayed individually over a long line of youth during the healing service, and she came and prayed for me and blessed me. In that moment I remembered that I too was a “daughter of a child of God.” Because all of us need reminding that we are beloved children of God, especially ourselves. AMEN.