Epiphany 6A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I saw hearts everywhere this week. Hearts, flowers, cupcakes, and balloons in shiny red and white colors. The playgroup had a Valentine’s Day party. I stumbled on another at Wesley Place. The Tuesday night Compass kids sent Immanuel a Valentine’s card on Facebook. Kari’s cousin is in town. We had a hard time finding a restaurant Friday night that wasn’t filled with dating diners. And now, in the romantic afterglow of Valentine’s Day, we hear Jesus’ talk about lopping off limbs and poking out eyes.

Yikes!  This would be bad enough, but added to that, Jesus’ sermon sounds so transactional—like if you’re good enough God will protect you. If you’re pious then you will be comforted.  If you want a long life make sure your prayers are long too.

Of course, we know this is absurd. God is not an ATM machine. Thankfully, more and more people also understand God is not a rule-obsessed tyrant waiting to zap us if we make a mistake. Yet most of us harbor one or two misconceptions about God lurking in our hearts. We try to get rid of them. They cling to us like bad habits we can’t break.

So, what’s going on here? How do Jesus’ words about anger, adultery, the careless severing of marital bonds, and frivolous oaths add up to the Word of God, word of life? Remember those little candy hearts with messages on them “Be Mine,” “Yours Forever,” “BFF?” Well, it turns out, Valentine’s Day has it partly right. The answer is written on our hearts. Read what God has written there. I am your God. You are my very own beloved child. God pours love into our heart like a mighty river and an ever-flowing stream. God is the headwaters of every kind of love—be it romantic love, the love of friends and neighbors, but most especially the capacity we have to love humankind and all life.

The problem is that as 21st century Christians living in America, we tend to hear Jesus’s sermon the same way we hear everything else—through an individualistic bias. Those who first heard Jesus would have felt the weight of his words fall upon them, not as individuals, but as a group. They would have rightly understood Jesus calling forth a new community.  A blessed community.  A beloved community.  A community to initiate a radical way of doing life on earth. A community to follow in his footsteps and incarnate divine love in world hungry for hope and healing.

Directing Jesus’ challenging words at our community and not only at ourselves provokes different questions. “What would it be like if the children of God helped each other to succeed in all the ways Jesus’s sermon describes?  Imagine what that community would look like!  Jesus words become instructions for building and sustaining a community that is both blessed and commissioned to bless.

Jesus said, I say to you so much more is possible than you have yet comprehended.  “Reach for it.  Walk into it.  Sustain it.  You are loved and you are blessed, right here, right now. It is written on your heart. There is nothing left for you to earn, but there is everything left for you to share.  Be the beloved community you long for.” (Debie Thomas, “But I Say to You,” Journey with Jesus, 2/09/20.)

You may say to yourself –that sounds nice—but not at all realistic. You’d be right, but for grace. Fortunately, Lutheran theology helps us hear these stern words of Jesus, rekindle our imagination, and lead us from cynicism to hope. As Martin Luther taught, whether we’re talking about the Ten Commandments, or the teachings of Jesus, scripture intentionally sets the bar too high for me. A policeman may cite me for what I do, not for what I think, and certainly, not for what I feel.  But that’s not enough for the bible. God wants what’s in my heart too. See what’s written there. My rage, pettiness, and selfish thoughts disqualify me from laying claim righteousness on my own.  Playing by the rules Jesus’ outlines, means everyone loses—and that’s the point. Each of us is stuck in sin. The beloved community would be an impossible dream. But God, who is good, pours out love to cleanse our hearts and renew our spirits. God’s abundant gift of grace makes the impossible possible. There is no one who is good but God alone (Matthew 19:17).  We all stand in need of the grace God pours gives in abundance. Just read what’s written on your heart.

The prophet Isaiah wrote, ‘the ox knows its owner, the donkey knows its master’s crib, but my people do not know’ (Isaiah 1:3). Sheep hear the voice of their shepherd. They trust and follow. The natural world is a wonder of balance, harmony of contrasts, collaboration, and beauty. All things living participate in a symphony of life, not merely as individuals but as part of an entire ecosystem. What might we learn from all living things about being faithful?

Recently, I read that “Before it dies, a Douglas-fir [tree], half a millennium old, will send its storehouse of chemicals back down into its roots and out through its fungal partners, donating its riches to the community pool in a last will and testament.”  Some call these ancient benefactors “giving trees.” (Richard Powers, “The Overstory: A Novel.)

See, the beauty and brokenness in ourselves and in the world are intertwined. The way of Jesus brings an end to the bitter divisions afflicting our lives and reorients us toward the needs of our neighbor. Jesus our great teacher has taught us how to live in love, as the natural world does, so we don’t have to keep going down the disastrous roads that our anger and lust lead us on.

We may try to do this by skill, or will, or the power of our minds alone, but we cannot. There is a missing ingredient and intuition that comes from our heart and body called wisdom. Wisdom brings our heart and mind together in a focused way. Wisdom joins individuals into a community that continues to preserve and celebrate our differences. By wisdom we learn to love as God has loved us.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Through violence you may murder a murderer but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.”(Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?) Only wisdom can do that. See what’s written there on your heart.

Jesus has opened the way to life and love. It’s the perfect life for imperfect people.  We are called and equipped for this absurdly blessed life. May God bless this house from roof to floor.  God bless each pilgrim who seeks refuge at our door.  God fill every room with peace and grace, that all who sojourn here find healing [of heart, mind and body] in this place.” (from This House of Peace, Ralph M. Johnson, Earthsongs.)