Thursday, February 16, 2017

Combatting Evil

Amidst the familiar, over-the-top statements we read in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:38-38) like "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies" is a little line that Jesus says that could be a throwaway but I think deserves a little more attention: "Do not resist an evildoer." In the context of this passage, it serves as a summary explanation for the rest of the counter-intuitive instructions, but, on its surface, that seems to be a particularly ridiculous statement. Do not resist an evildoer? Then what are you supposed to do?

In this case, the Greek word rendered as "evildoer" is "πονηρῷ" which is the noun form of a word more often used in the New Testament as an adjective. The noun means "evil," but it implies an evil thing or person and not necessarily evil itself. (One might wonder whether they were different after all.) The King James Version tells us "resist not evil," and versions like the CEV and CEB take the evil out and tell us not to "get even with a person who has done something to you" or to "oppose those who want to hurt you" respectively. In those cases, I lament the loss of "evil" from the text altogether. On the whole, it seems that "evildoer" is a good translation, but it's worth remembering that, in this case, that evildoer is specifically targeting you. I don't think Jesus is asking us to lie down in front of evil itself. We are to stand up against those who stand against the people of God. But we are not to resist evil for our own sake.

Passages like the Sermon on the Mount were particularly important to those first Christians who risked their lives for the sake of the gospel. Getting slapped or robbed or tortured or killed was part of what it meant to be a disciple. Nowadays, those of us who live in the west risk so little culturally to follow Jesus. Imagine, though, what it is like to be a Christian in Iraq or Pakistan or Egypt or Somalia. What is it like to be a powerless minority that is constantly persecuted for its faith? How do you remain encouraged when you have no ability to appeal to a higher earthly power for justice?

"Do not resist an evildoer," Jesus says. Notice that he identifies the one who would strike you on the cheek or take your cloak or make you walk a mile as an evildoer. Isn't there comfort in knowing that the one who opposes us is also one who opposes God? Haven't God's people understood that the forces that seek to destroy them also seek to destroy God--a futile effort that will always, always lead to God's vindication of God's people? Also, in a system in which there is no appeal for earthly justice, Jesus defines faithfulness as enduring the persecution for Jesus' sake. For those persecuted Christians, there is no hope for vindication in this life, but there is a clear and definite promise of vindication in the next. God is on their side. Those who can do nothing are told to turn the other cheek as a means of embracing God's promise of redemption in the future.

"Do not resist an evildoer," Jesus tells us. That does not mean to give up. Turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile are not acts of resignation. They are acts of defiance. Through them, we defy those who think that they can defeat by persecuting us. By following Jesus' example, we claim a promise that is to be fulfilled in the next life. By letting God be our resistance, we proclaim our faith in God's power to give us what we cannot achieve on our own: vindication for God's people.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Belonging to Perfection

My wife and I have been parents for nine years. Each day brings something new, and we're still learning. We're learning what it means to parent a preteen who is beginning to feel the emotional swings that accompany a changing body. We're learning how to balance the demands of school, church, sports, music, and friends. We're also still learning how to make time for one another through all of that. And we're also learning what it means to raise preacher's kids (PKs).

Everyone knows that PKs have a bad reputation. And sometimes its well deserved. Some PKs are total little $%#&s. But so are other kids. Not all kids, of course, but there are plenty of crappy children who belong to doctors and nurses and teachers. Some of the misbehaving tendencies of PKs is because they're PKs, and some of it is pure projection by everyone else. The scrutiny of belonging to a preacher's family, in which kids are expected by their parents to be perfect and expected by everyone else to be terrible, can send even a well-wired child into disarray. But sometimes kids are just kids. Five-year-olds have a hard time sitting still, and PKs typically go to church EVERY week, which gives the congregation a greater sample size of squirmy PKs than other kids. As parents of PKs, we're still learning how to relax more than our instincts would allow, how to expose our children a modest dose of pressure from others, and how to shield them from some of the unfair criticism. It's a tough line to walk, but it's nothing compared to the perfection that is demanded of everyone who belongs to God.

Take a moment to read all of Leviticus 19, sections of which we will read as the first lesson on Sunday. It's a strange collection of commandments and prohibitions. Some of them make great sense to us (e.g. "You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him"). Others are a little weird (e.g. "Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute"). Although there's debate over which ones should still be kept, there is no debate over the logic behind them. Over and over, we are reminded, "I am the Lord your God." We are to be holy because our God is holy.

Set aside the impossibility of that for a moment and just sit with the implication of that. The Lord is our God. By that, we mean that we belong to God (not the other way around). The Lord has called us, named us, designated us as God's own. That has implications for us and for our life. Because we are the Lord's, we don't participate in idol worship or child sacrifice. Because we are the Lord's, we take care of the needy, remember the orphan and widow, and provide for the common good. Because we are the Lord's, we model our family life on the love God has for us .We do those things because we already belong to God (not the other way around).

The gospel lesson for Sunday (Matthew 5:38-48) is the end of Jesus' own version of the "Holiness Code." He concludes by saying, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." This is his recapitulation of Leviticus 19. He's telling us that the bar is set to perfection. We are to be holy because God is holy, and we are to be holy just as God is holy. Our holiness is a reflection of his holiness. God's ways must be our ways. If we fully embrace our identity as belonging to God, if he is our heavenly father, then we will be holy and perfect just as God is holy and perfect. How? Through the one who makes us holy, the one who makes us God's children, the one who is our perfection, Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Snakes: To Handle or Not?

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I often overlook the end of Mark's gospel account. In some sense, I was taught to. Manuscript studies have indicated with overwhelming confidence that the best, oldest, and most authentic manuscripts of Mark only go through Mark 16:8: "And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." Because of its linguistically and theologically abrupt ending, however, textual scholars disagree whether that's the original ending or whether the original final bits were torn off and lost at some point, but almost everyone agrees that what we currently have in Mark 16:9-20 isn't original.

But that doesn't make it real. It's doesn't mean it's not God's word. Inconsistent human origins do not prevent us from reading, making, learning, and inwardly digesting what God is speaking to us through this text. And today we are asked to consider it again.

Today, we remember the lives and witness of Cyril and Methodius, brothers who invented the precursor to the Cyrillic alphabet, bridging the gap between the Slavs of eastern Europe and the Latin and Greek speaking church of the West. During their lives, they were not universally popular. A lot of that had to do with church politics--the Pope disagreeing with local princes and kings (where have we heard that before?)--but a lot of it had to do with human nature. The Slavs were thought of as uncivilized. They spoke a language and used an alphabet that wasn't like anything the Greeks or Romans knew. When Cyril and Methodius worked to translate the language of the worship of the Church into the language of the uncouth Slavs, people were unhappy. One ruler insisted that such barbaric speech be limited only to the sermons and not to the rest of the rite. Another felt that the whole service should be conducted in a language understood by the people. (Where have we heard that before?) Historically, when a culture was Christianized, that culture was forced to conform to the language and traditions of the Church, but this time the Church was being asked to conform to the language of the heathen. Cyril and Methodius did their part to make it possible for a continent and a church divided by language to share common worship, but it wasn't (and still isn't) universally accepted as the "right" way to do things.

In the gospel lesson appointed for today (Mark 16:15-20), I encounter another reason I shy away from the longer ending of Mark: snakes. Well, not just snakes, but also speaking in tongues and drinking poison. The laying on of hands and healing I can get behind, but it's hard for me to take the bit about snake-handling seriously. Sand Mountain isn't that far away from here, and, as much as we joke about churches where people handle snakes as a sign of their faith, it's real. It happens. For some, it is the sign of true faith. And there it is, plain as day, authentically Markan or not, in the Bible for us to read and wonder, "Did he really mean that?"

I don't want to handle snakes or drink poison, and I do not recognize that as the test of my faith or even a manifestation of faith that I am called to demonstrate. I trust, however, that others feel so called, and, even though I'd strongly disagree, if they want to look down on me and my non-snake-handling faith, that's ok, too. I'm fairly confident that all of us will go to heaven whether there's a different section for them and us or not.

Regardless of them and their practice and attitude, what it's not right for me to do is to dismiss their faith out of hand because it is manifest in a way I find primitive. Whether or not Mark said it, the same Spirit that breathes life into me certainly has the power to protect them from venomous serpents. Even the most reserved among us would not deny the Spirit that ability. I may be sure that the Spirit isn't giving me that ability, and I may even question whether the handling of snakes is really empowered by the Spirit or is mere psychological absurdity, but I cannot deny God the power to protect his servants from things like snakes and poison. And, if I'm so put off by the strangeness and primitive nature of that practice that I refuse to acknowledge the awesome power of God, I've missed the point.

We're not all the same, but the same Spirit unites us. We don't have to worship the same way, but we still believe in the same God. Jesus died to reconcile all peoples to God--Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, Slav and Greek, Appalachian snake-handler and uptight Anglican. All of us. If I won't allow the power of Christ's death to be translated into the language and culture and experience of others, I'm the one who doesn't understand it.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Serious Discipleship

You know that Jesus is getting serious when he tells his followers to turn the other cheek. It's one thing to tell them to refrain from anger, avoid lust, and take marriage seriously. But, in this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:38-48), he tells them to give up the right to strike back at those who strike them first. Is there any more difficult teaching in the gospel?

He's still in his "You have heard that it was said...But I say to you..." pattern of questioning the way that his contemporaries understood the scriptures. Everyone knew, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." That is basic reciprocal justice. If you kill my horse, I get to take one of yours. If you get unjustifiably angry and knock out one of my teeth, I get to pull one of your teeth in response. It's how things stay balanced. I like my teeth, and you like yours, and that's what keeps me from knocking your teeth out and, if I do, it's what makes you feel better when you get to pull out one of mine. No, you can't put it back in your mouth, but you get to smile at me from across the street because you know that both of us bear the mark of my stupidity. But does that really work?

Nowadays, we're familiar with the quotation attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Although there is no evidence that he ever said or wrote it, it remains an effective repudiation of reciprocal justice. What good does it really do for me to pull your tooth because you've knocked mine out? It might make me feel better in the moment. Perhaps every time I see you with your gap-toothed grin I'll get another taste of that satisfaction. But what sort of satisfaction is that really? Am I really better off because you're worse off? Does the balance of justice really tip back and forth like that? Is the world a better place because we're both down an eye or a tooth? The Gandhi-esque wisdom exposes that, but it still comes up a little short. If I'm not supposed to pluck out your eye, what am I supposed to do?

Jesus goes a remarkable step further. Not only does he reject the notion of an eye for an eye, but he asks his followers to embrace their injury and expose themselves to further harm. To turn the other cheek is not only to forego the right of vengeance but also to make oneself vulnerable to further suffering. Not only does he tell us to yield to the one who sues us for our coat but to go a step further and live him/her our cloak as well. If forced to go one mile, we are told to go the second voluntarily. Why? For our sake and for the world's sake.

Jesus says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" This isn't about a reciprocal or even a restorative justice. This is about tipping the balance in favor of the other no matter who the other is or what the other has done to us. Why? Because that's how God works, and, if God works that way, we must work that way, too, or else we cannot know God.

It doesn't make sense to love one's enemies. It doesn't make sense to turn the other cheek. But Jesus shows us that God's love doesn't make sense either. God sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. His blessings and love fall upon sinner and saint alike. God does not demand justice. He foregoes vengeance. He accepts us despite our betrayal of his love. Want to make sense of that? The only way is to practice it. We practice it not to receive it but to understand it. God loves us whether we love our enemies or not. But, if we want to know God's love, we must do as Jesus has done--turn the other cheek in the name of senseless love.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Right With God, Right With Each Other

February 12, 2017 – The 6th Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

There is a joke among clergy that anytime Jesus says something about divorce we should probably preach on one of the other lessons. Jesus never has anything nice to say about divorce or people who are divorced or people who marry someone who is divorced. As a single man and pastor of a loose affiliation of followers who came and went as they pleased, he had that luxury. He wasn’t worried about whether the offering plate would come back a little lighter than usual if he upset the really generous givers by calling them adulterers. Nowadays, clergy know better. We have sat and cried with too many people whose marriages ended long before the divorce papers were signed. Many of our parishioners are divorced. Sometimes ex-spouses still sit in the same pew, each one refusing to budge to make the other one and his or her new spouse comfortable. Many clergy are divorced, too, so how are we supposed to preach with any authority on the subject? For the most part, anything Jesus has to say about it is a landmine we’re better off avoiding.

But you know what? The teaching on divorce in today’s gospel lesson isn’t even close to the hardest thing Jesus has to say. “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.” I can’t even make it to church in the morning without calling an inattentive driver something worse than “you fool.” What about you? When was the last time you got angry with a brother or sister? When was the last time you spouted off about some “idiot” on Facebook? When was the last time you sent a text message or an e-mail to a couple of friends about that one person whom none of you can stand?

And let’s not get started on lust! Even sweet Jimmy Carter squirms in his seat a little bit when he hears Jesus say that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” If we took Jesus’ instructions seriously—“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”—there’s be a lot more one-armed, one-eyed, one-legged people hobbling around.

And what about oaths? I know the courthouse will let you affirm instead of swear when you take the stand, but I don’t think that fully addresses what Jesus had in mind when he told us to “let [our] word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” How would our legal system survive if we didn’t have affidavits or notarized signatures? How would homeowners and businesses know which contractors to hire if they weren’t bonded? Does marriage itself become meaningless if we eliminate the solemn vows associated with the rite? I guess it all boils down to whether we can really afford to trust one another, and most people I know—including me—are no dang good.

But there’s a reason Jesus says all of these things. There’s a reason he takes the presumptions of religious and civil society and turns them on their head, calling into question everything that everyone had assumed for generations. Notice how Jesus repeatedly says to the people, “You have heard that it was said…” And each time he then twists their assumptions into a new direction by saying, “But I say to you…” The problems that Jesus raises are not with the Old Testament texts themselves but with the way that people had been hearing them. Everybody thought that they already knew what Moses meant. They had been hiding behind common wisdom, and they had let “you know what they say” become a substitute for what God was trying to say to God’s people. But, if we take a moment and sift through these statements and look for the real hyperbole among a field of outlandish claims, we will discover what Jesus had in mind.

Of all the over-the-top things that Jesus says about anger and lust and divorce and oaths, the most ridiculous is what he says about brining your offering to the altar: “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.” Now that might not sound crazy because we’re used to bringing our checkbook with us when we drive six blocks to come to church, but I want you to imagine the look on my face if you walked into St. John’s and handed me a lamb or a pigeon or a calf and said, “Would you hold onto this for me? I just remembered that I said an unkind word to my brother-in-law in Sarasota, Florida, and I need to drive down there and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ This will only take a couple of days.” Because, back in Jesus’ time, leaving your gift at the altar meant leaving some livestock at the temple in Jerusalem while you walked back to Galilee to make amends with the one you had hurt. There ain’t no priest in first-century Palestine or twenty-first-century Decatur who’s willing to do that. And, as usual, the thing that Jesus says that makes us laugh and scratch our heads at the same time is the part that we really need to pay attention to.

This whole passage is about remembering that we cannot be right with God if we are not right with one another first. No one leaves his offering at the altar and turns around and walks all the way home just to say, “I’m sorry,” but that’s what Jesus is telling us to do. We are fooling ourselves if we think that we can come here and kneel down and say our prayers and receive God’s forgiveness if we are not serious about seeking forgiveness from one another. We are living a lie if we think that we can approach this altar and receive the body and blood of Christ and participate in the sacrifice of God’s Son as the redeemed and reconciled children of God if we are not willing to address the brokenness that exists among us and between us.

“At least I’m not a murderer,” we say to ourselves, “or a racist or a psychopath,” but we let our hatred and our anger control us just the same. Ours is a culture defined by anger, and this most recent election has made that abundantly clear. We no longer know how to have a civilized disagreement. We skip the debates and move straight to insults. There is a brokenness among us that can only be healed if we recognize that victory for our side isn’t as important as communion with the other. Lust is a problem not simply because sex outside of marriage mistakes union for pleasure but because people are not a means to an end, and, as long as we view another human being as a potential conquest, then we cannot know what it means to value the humanity of that person. In other words, lust presents the same problem as anger. Divorce, too, at least as a means to cut your losses and pretend that you can start all over, is the exact same problem because you can’t start over. And divorced people know that. Unless you deny the reality of that other person, once you’re united to someone, you can never fully be separated from him or her. Oaths, too, are a denial of our humanity because, when we rely on an oath and not on the person swearing it, we have lost sight of who it is that is giving us his or her word.
The truth is that we need help, and this gospel lesson reminds us that there is no escaping that fact. And thank God for Jesus Christ who is that help. We, in our self-absorbed fantasy of anger and lust and mistrust, allow our ego to displace the humanity of those around us, and that’s exactly why God takes that humanity onto himself in the incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God becomes that which we cannot become on our own—a complete, perfectly vulnerable, perfectly relatable human being. He is one with the “Great I Am,” yet in him there is no ego. And, by uniting us with himself, he makes it possible for us to become that which we cannot become on our own: truly selfless. Because of our egotistical weakness, we cannot accept diminution of ourselves for the sake of others until we find our true value in the one who makes us whole. As he takes our humanity onto himself, we lose ourselves in him. Together as the people of God, we are united with Christ, and, thus, we find it possible in him to care less about ourselves than about the life we share with others. As followers of Jesus, we know that there is no difference between being right with God and being right with one another. They are synonymous. And in Christ we find the promise of perfect union with both.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Impossible Possibility

Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:21-37) is packed full of over-the-top statements that demand the preacher's attention. Unfortunately, that means the other lessons are likely to be ignored from the pulpit, and I think that this week's collect and Old Testament lesson present a classical Grace vs. Law tension worth exploring in the current culture of "my success is my own doing" that the gospel demands that we reject.

Near the beginning of the service, we will pray, "O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed..." It's a complicated prayer that's easy to misunderstand. The good news is that we have a few more days to study it before we say it in front of our congregations. The key to understanding the collect and not praying it with an intention other than the one expressed in its text is to separate the petition from the aspiration.

The petition is the thing we're asking for, and it comes in two parts: "mercifully accept our prayers" and "give us the help of your grace." Read the collect again and focus on the things we're actually asking God to give us. We're asking him to hear our prayers and give us help. Isn't that the focus of all our prayers? Tucked in there along with those two pleadings is a bonus statement of need that isn't actually what we're asking for: "because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you." It's more of an acknowledgment buried within the petition. It's the reason why we're asking for the thing we're asking, but it stands in direction tension (perhaps even opposition) with the aspiration of the collect, and that's where things get confusing.

The aspiration is the reason we're asking for the thing we're asking for. It's the vision of the way things could be if God grants us our prayer. In this collect, the aspiration is a statement of our fulfillment of the Law: "that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed." The vision behind this prayer is a world in which God's people are faithful. "What a world that would be!" the author of the collect seems to suggest. But don't forget that this isn't the petition. It's the aspiration. We're not even asking God to help us keep the commandments. Perhaps that would be too forward, too bold. Instead, we're asking God to give us the help of his grace because we cannot do anything good without God's help. Then, once the grace has been given, it becomes possible for us to keep the commandments. Only and always in that order!!!

And then we get to the lesson from Deuteronomy. In it, Moses presents to the people of Israel a choice. I don't blame Moses, but the choice he gives them--at least on the appearance of it--is an impossible temptation to be perfect: "If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous...But if your heart turns away and you do not hear...I declare to you today that you shall perish." That's like telling a six-year-old that if he can behave for the next twelve years you'll love him. What trickery! But, of course, there's more to it than that.

God's people need God's help. And God always, always gives it. Deuteronomy 30 cannot be read in isolation. It must be read along with the story of the Exodus, the shepherding of God's people through the wilderness, the establishment of the kingdom of Israel, the dissolution of that kingdom through exile, and the reestablishment of the presence of God's people in Palestine. Our prayer--"mercifully accept our prayers...and give us the help of your grace"--is the prayer of God's people throughout the centuries. Jesus taught us how to pray that prayer with renewed focus--that God's love transcends our misdeeds and that, through the gift of God's grace and only through that gift, we can be the children God has called us to be. In short, we cannot choose good on our own. But,with God's help, we can choose the good God has set before us.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Falsehood of the Matthean Exception

If I get to Wednesday without writing on Sunday's lessons, I know it has been and will continue to be a tough week. And, when I look at Matthew 5:21-37 and read Jesus equate anger with murder and lust with adultery and, likewise, divorce with adultery, I realize I'm going to need more time than I have to fully digest this lesson. Today, however, the gospel reading in the Daily Office (Mark 10:1-16) is another version of Jesus' teaching on divorce, so, even though I don't think that will be my focus in Sunday's sermon, I can't help but start there.

Jesus says that anyone who divorces his wife or marries a divorced woman commits adultery. We don't like that, but it's what he says. And, if you use the Episcopal Church's policy that permits remarriage after divorce as the basis for your assessment, it would be hard to conclude that we care about what he says. But there's always more to it than that.

In Mark's gospel account, Jesus gives this teaching during a confrontation with the Pharisees. They approach him and ask, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" That they even asked him about it suggests that the religious teaching on divorce was either unclear or in flux. They were trying to trap him, Mark tells us, so we can conclude either that Jesus was thought to have offered some challenging or questionable teaching on the subject and they wanted to get him on the record for teaching something controversial OR that the Pharisees themselves understood there to be a dispute among the religious and political leaders of the day and that pinning Jesus down one way or another would get him into trouble. Jesus responds as he often responds--by asking them what they think is right. They quote the Law of Moses, which allows a certificate of divorce to be written, and Jesus responds by upping the ante: "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you...Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

Full stop. That's it. Nothing else. No wiggle room. No loopholes. No nothing.

Matthew's version is different. In his account, Jesus offers his teaching on divorce during the ethical portion of his Sermon on the Mount. He's on a roll and continues to offer observations on the traditions of the faith and his reinterpretation of those traditions: "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times...But I say to you..." Jesus introduces the concept of adultery in classical terms, quoting the Decalogue, but then he equates lusting after a woman in one's heart with committing the act. (The film Eyes Wide Shut is, among other things, an exploration of this concept worth seeing if you can handle the strong sexual imagery throughout the film.) I'm sure that everyone, including Jimmy Carter, winced a little bit when they heard this teaching on lust, but Jesus wasn't finished. He moved on to divorce, giving it similar treatment: "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."

Did you see it? Did you hear it? That's the "Matthean Exception"--the little phrase upon which traditionalist Christians have been basing their discipline on the remarriage of unfaithful divorcees for centuries. Except on the ground of unchastity. In other words, despite what Mark might recall, remarriage after divorce is NOT adulterous as long as adulterous behavior had preceded the divorce. But did Jesus say it? Did he mean it? Did he say it when Matthew was listening but not when Mark was paying attention? Where does this difference come from, and what does it mean to us?

I believe that the people who heard Jesus' teaching on divorce were just as uncomfortable with its implications as twenty-first-century Christians who see advertisements on television for cheap legal representation during a divorce. We might think that the world is a more immoral place than it was in Jesus' day, but I think the moral spectrum has simply shifted in some areas. We're just as sinful, just as judgmental, and just as hypocritical as we've ever been. So I think that when the followers of Jesus heard his teaching on divorce they reinterpreted it--in their minds, in their recollections, in their sermons, in their letters, and in their to-become-biblical texts--until we got the exception. I don't believe Jesus meant for there to be an exception, but I also think that worrying about one misses the point.

On Sunday, I plan to use our aversion to Jesus' teaching on divorce to reveal a deeper problem--that we care more about what he says about divorce than what he says about lust, anger, insults, swearing, and sin more generally. Whether focusing on Matthew or Mark, divorce is just a tiny slice of his ethical teaching. Jesus calls us to recognize the totality of our sin. Like John the Baptizer, he calls us to repent. He begs us to return to the Lord and live a life worthy of the daughters and sons of God that he declares us to be. Divorce? Yes, that's a problem. But so is everything else. This sermon and our reaction to it highlight that fact. Don't get lost in the Matthean exception or Mark's exclusion of it. Go deeper and see the sin that infects our lives and let the blood of Jesus wash it from you.