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First Lutheran OTR

sunday's sermon--Matthew 5:21-37

Baruch attah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam. Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of all possibilities.
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My daughter Abby is 2. It’s delightful. Except when it’s not. They talk about the terrible twos and you think, “yeah, it’ll be tough, but we can handle it” but you don’t know what that’s like until you’re in it. You really don’t. It’s more like the Sudden Unending Wailing for no Good Reason twos.

Basically, Abby wants what she wants when she wants it. She doesn’t like no. And she doesn’t like rules. A limit of one hour of television does not go over well. I once heard that toddlers are just like us grown-ups only without anything holding us back.

We don’t want rules and restrictions any more than Abby does. And so today’s lessons put us in a bit of a bind. The Old Testament lesson tells us if we obey, we’ll be prosperous, and if we don’t there will be only death and misery. Matthew talks about self-mutilation and extreme interpretations of the law. Even the Psalm talks about how delighted we are to be under the Law of the Lord, that we delight in God’s rules.

Do we? I mean, really?

How many rules govern Washington Park? Or maybe I should say “Governed”? No sleeping over night, no soliciting, no spitting, no standing, no doing anything. Awhile back, my friend Bob McGonalgle was trying to get arrested for distributing food here to bring attention to the plight of the homeless and the ridiculous laws around them. How many more rules govern the park now that it’s a construction zone, do you think?

It’s not that rules themselves are bad—I think we can all agree that having traffic lights is a helpful thing for our safety and civility—and it’s not that a given law, whether Cincinnati’s or God’s is unnecessary or too much. But they can seem so at times.

The most popular book and movie series in recent years is Harry Potter—and how often does the hero Harry follow the rules? How often does he do his own thing and delight in doing it? This is, of course, why many folks didn’t like it—because Harry wasn’t a good little boy, following the rules and doing what he was told. But if he hadn’t been creative and curious and determined not to let the people he cared about get hurt, evil would have won. Within his world, rule-breaking was the heroic response. It’s not the Bible, sure, but it is human nature writ large…

And just last week we heard Jesus say that he’s the fulfillment of the law, not the destruction of it. He even goes so far as to say not even a single cross on a T in the law will be removed because of him. So much for the kinder, gentler Jesus, the Jesus who says, “it’s okay, man—come hang out with the tax collectors and prostitutes, the tattoo artists and people who live in “bad” neighborhoods—they’re more fun anyway!”.
And this week, he says, if your eye offends you, pluck it out. Sorry, this is not PG rated, folks—this is the gross part, the angry, judgmental part of the New Testament we like to forget. Jesus says pull out your own eye if you look at something you shouldn’t. And cut off your own hand if it does something it shouldn’t. Now, as Lutherans, we don’t read these things literally—you know that right?—so don’t go home and mutilate yourselves after church. But how are we supposed to take this?
He follows that up with saying that adultery is not just sleeping with someone you shouldn’t but the very thought of it—your fantasies themselves are adultery. As is divorce. This is extreme, man. Kind of like taking the Pharisees—the literalistic, religious establishment—even more seriously than they take themselves. It makes the Law pretty much impossible to follow, you know? And maybe that’s the point.

My husband says, Jesus was saying it’s not enough just to follow the rules, that following him, loving God, it’s a way of life. Can’t just check off the boxes, it’s about constant effort/work. Jesus is saying it’s about a different way of life. Being a Christian is not about rule-following—though there are certain things that we do and do not do—being a Christian is about living a different life. It’s about seeing hope where others see only failure. It’s about connecting to one another when the world says just do it for yourself. It’s about seeing something beyond our current situation, about seeing something bigger in everything we do—whether it’s raising our kids or tutoring someone or asking for change. It’s about not being alone and it’s about trying to be better.

And, more than that, it’s about God knowing that we can’t possibly fulfill it all. Jesus makes his point so extreme to point us towards God’s grace. It’s not about checking off boxes but about relying on God completely.

In my daughter’s case, she’ll figure out what rules she can break and what she can’t, just like she’ll figure out that no matter what she does, I will always love her. Seems like that’s the point of these lessons, that’s the point of talking about God as a Father, as Divine Parent. As human beings, we know what it is to be loved, but when we become parents, we know what it is to love so deeply that we are brought to our knees.

In another place, Jesus says he came to give us life and life abundantly. THIS is life abundant—to live for one another, to live with one another, sacrificing ourselves for each other and receiving each others’ sacrifices. THIS is life abundant—to return here every week to be filled with the bread of life. THIS is life abundant—to love one another as a mother loves her baby, to love one another as God loves us.