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15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 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, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder’; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Well, happy Valentine’s day week. Nothing screams love and affection quite like a gospel reading about lust, adultery, and divorce. But maybe that’s okay – Valentine’s Day isn’t everyone’s favorite holiday.
But we have our work cut out for us this morning. And we will see what we can do with that. But for now, let’s set that reading aside.
Instead, I want to engage your imaginations. I want you to imagine with me for a moment that you are a police officer and you are on the night shift. And you know, it’s Northfield, MN -things are pretty slow. But you like to hang out in the Culver’s parking lot, right there on Highway 3. You have a good view of the intersection, access to the highway in either direction. Plus, the custard flavor of the day is Chocolate Oreo Volcano. It’s a win-win.
Now, it is the middle of the night. A couple of cars come by here and there. But then you see this car coming down Woodley St. It’s a green Ford Focus and you just have this sense that something is about to happen. And as the car approaches the red light, it slows down a little bit, but then without stopping, turns right and accelerates quickly on to the highway.
“Aha!,” you think, “That car just ran a red light. They broke the law.” Plus, you figure it is a bored teenager with a new license and this is a good opportunity to teach them the rules of the road. So, you put down your Chocolate Oreo Volcano, and you quickly follow the car. Eventually, you catch up to the car right around Kwik Trip. Turn on your lights, pull the car over, and you take your time registering the license plate number. Let them sweat it out a little bit. And then as you approach the car, you can see that there are two people in the car. The driver rolls down his window, and you can tell from the size of his eyes that he’s terrified and nervous. And then you glance over at the passenger and you notice that not only is she sweating but she’s also breathing deeply, over and over again. And then as you notice the woman’s round, firm belly, you hear the driver say, “Officer, I’m sorry I rolled through the intersection back there. I looked both ways, I promise. My wife is in labor and I’m just trying to get her to the hospital.”
And now, you have a choice to make: do you either give this driver a ticket for running a red light – which is the law! – or do you let this couple go, and in fact, usher them to the hospital?
So, show of hands, who here would still give the couple a ticket for running a red light?
Who would let the couple go on to the hospital, and in fact, maybe even lead the way?
Exactly. Because while the driver did break the law, the real crime in that situation would be ticketing them and delaying these people in need. Because, what’s at the heart of the law of red light? Why do we stop? To keep us from hurting each other. That’s the heart of it. But then once you saw that the woman was in labor, in order to keep with the heart of the law, in order to not hurt the child or the mother by delaying them, the real law, the law of compassion leads you to get them to the hospital.
So, we can see that we have laws that govern our land and our life, but we have to work the law in the context of a situation in order to uphold the heart of the law. If you just apply law without any nuance to it, you could end up keeping the law but missing the heart of the law.
Our readings this morning take up the law of God and how we are called to use it. To work it. How we are called to understand it. And I think for most of us, most of us think of the law of God as this firm, steadfast thing that never changes. As if it is written in stone. I mean that’s how the 10 commandments came, right? Chiseled in stone.
But we are going to see that even God’s law needs to be worked in order to uphold the heart of God’s law. To begin, we start with Deuteronomy and Moses’ farewell speech.
In our reading, Moses is coming to the end of a very long speech. In fact, it is his last speech – the Israelites have arrived at the border of the promised land. He knows that he doesn’t get to go in with his people. He’s tired, he’s old. This is it for him.
He’s been speaking for about 25 chapters, beginning with the 10 commandments, and then he’s given commentary on what it means to live those commandments out. And now he’s coming to the end of his speech, with a strong climactic point. It is almost as if Moses is saying, “If you remember nothing about what I’ve told you, remember this. Before you head into a new land, remember this about God’s law: I have set before you life and death. Choose life – so that you and your descendants might live.
Choose life. I think from just those two words, we learn two things about God and about humanity. The first thing we learn is from that word “choose.” And what we learn is that God gives us freedom of choice. God gives us power, God shares power with us. Which is a sign of God’s love, right? Any relationship in which only one person holds all the power is an abusive relationship – and that is not the kind of relationship God has with God’s people. So God shares power. God gives us choice. Out of love for us.
The second thing we learn from the words “choose life” is that God has an opinion about our choices. God has a preference. God wants us to choose life. And clearly, life in God’s eyes is more than having a pulse. God is talking about the way we live our life. And does it bring life? Does it lead to “abundant life, extravagant life, my cup-runneth over life”? And not in the sense of do you have a life of comfort, and security and power and prestige. But do we live life in a way that lets life flourishes in the world for myself or for my neighbor, or do we live life in a way that brings death and destruction for myself or for my neighbor. Let me put it this way – every time I choose fear, or dishonesty, or revenge, or resentment. Or every time I think too highly of myself or too lowly of myself, I’m not choosing a way of life that brings life, I’m choosing a way of life that brings death.
Now, is it easy to always discern what is the way of life and what is the way of death? No, it isn’t. We face incredibly difficult situations in this life, and it can be very difficult to figure out which option God longs for us to choose. But as our guide we have those words from Moses – choose life.
And this is the heart of God’s law – choosing life. The flourishing of life for God’s people. The law isn’t this burdensome command from an angry tyrannical god who just thirsts for obedience. The law is a gift from God to serve the flourishing of life in the world. But in order to keep God’s law, we have to work it, to keep asking – does this law still protect the flourishing of life or does it not?
That’s what Jesus and the rabbis would do. They would loosen and bind the law of God in order to keep the heart of it. They would loosen it, meaning making it less strict or easier. We see Jesus do that with the Sabbath Day. Remember Jesus breaks the Sabbath law in order to heal someone – he loosens the law for the sake of life. If you are that police officer, you loosen the law in order to let life flourish.
But now, in our Matthew reading, we are going to see Jesus bind the law, make it tighter, more difficult in order to keep the heart of the law.
So let’s take that idea that at the heart of God’s law is life, let’s apply that to the painful words we heard Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount. We will see that Jesus is working the law in order that the law might serve life.
So, Jesus says, “You have heard that it said, “You shall not murder’, But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” It sounds harsh and strict but perhaps Matthew’s community was struggling with anger issues but they saw no problem with it because it’s not like their murdering anyone? Perhaps people were taking advantage of God’s law by saying, “Well, I won’t murder you but I will berate you and demean you and shame you and embarrass you publicly. But hey, I’m not killing you, so I’m still within God’s law.” It’s only facebook. It’s only twitter. Which is where bullying happens these days. Is the heart of this law that you’re allowed to bring someone right up to the brink of death, but as long as you stop there, you’re okay? Is that choosing life? No, of course not. That’s choosing death. At the heart of God’s law is the flourishing of life, and so at the heart of this law is the respect, reverence, and regard for another human being as a child of God. Jesus binds the law in this context in order to keep the heart of it.
Or Jesus says, “You have heard ‘You shall not commit adultery’ but I say to you whomever looks at a woman with lust commits adultery.” Is this to say that none of us should ever be attracted to another person who isn’t our spouse as long as we live? No, of course not. We’d have to tear out our eyes, and removes our brains. But in this context, perhaps the men of Matthew’s community thought that as long as they didn’t commit adultery, they could still whistle at the women walking by. Still comment on their body and their beauty. Still objectify them. But hey, as long as they haven’t committed adultery, they were still within God’s law. No! That’s not choosing life for your neighbor, that’s choosing death. That’s taking God’s law too literally to advantage you and to hurt another. It misses the heart of the law. It is about not only about honoring and respecting a person’s marriage, it’s about honor and respecting that person. So, Jesus binds the law in this context in order to keep the heart of it.
And then one of the hardest one of all – divorce. Is Jesus saying that God want us to stay in broken, and miserable, and painful marriages? No, I just can’t believe that. I mean, I’m not saying that God likes divorce – no one likes divorce. But this world and this life are just too complicated to draw that line in the sand to say that God would never want you to get divorced. Sometimes, I think in order to choose life for us and for others, we have to choose the end of a relationship. So, what is Jesus saying? Well, remember that back then, women were viewed as property of the men. And perhaps some of the men were just divorcing their wives at the drop of a hat. But hey, they gave them a certificate of divorce like the laws says, so….I’m still good, right? Is that the heart of this divorce law? To keep the man’s hands clean? No, of course not. Divorce meant terrible, terrible things for the wife and the children, leaving them totally vulnerable with no way to support themselves, not to mention the public shaming and pushing to the edge of society to be forgotten. The heart of this law is to value and protect the woman.
So in that context Jesus made it more difficult for divorce to happen, for the sake of life for all. We live in a different context today. And today, sometimes the best way for life for all to flourish is for there to be a divorce. Please know, I do not think Jesus is condemning modern-day divorce. He is simply asking that our decisions as disciples of Jesus be oriented around what brings about the flourishing of life to our relationships, to our community. To our world.
In closing, what are we to do with all of this? Friends, we have just a few more weeks to this season of Epiphany. And this season isn’t about remembering how Jesus began his ministry back then, it is about acknowledging how Jesus’ continues his ministry now. Through you. The salt of the earth. What I take away from these readings, is that you and I, we as a y’all (if you heard the sermon last week), are invited to consider our relationships and how we are engaging in those relationships, and the rules and laws in our own life that govern those relationships. The laws of our government, the laws of our church community, and even the rules that we set up in our own life. And we are invited to put God’s law to work in those situations: are we choosing life, the flourishing of life for me and for my neighbor? It is about being a faithful disciple for the sake of life for your neighbor. Or to put it another way – what’s the most important thing that is happening in your life right now? Not what is the best thing or the worst thing, but what’s happening in your life that feels like it is the most important? And in that situation, what choices do you have? And among those choices, which ones do you think bring life and help and healing and service to the world? In the name of God, make that choice. Choose life. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor.
 Matthew Skinner, Sermon Brainwave.