Tuesday, 11 February 2014

lectionary leanings: 'well, that's awkward' - Matthew 5:21-37

Although I'm not preaching this coming Sunday - as I shall be in Israel [she said, casually!] - a conversation in a facebook group prompted some thoughts on the upcoming gospel text for the day: Matt. 5: 21-37. I love being a part of a group who are happy to engage in conversation both casually and deeply about the texts for preaching. I value the variety of approaches and insights - they both feed my soul and stimulate my own thinking. The verses concerned are:
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.’ 22But 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come 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. 26Truly 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.’28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If 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. 30And 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.’ 32But 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.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one
One of the group had posted a comment observing that she really did not like the text - which, given some of the content, is understandable. In response, another noted that, in sensitivity to some folk who'd be visiting the church that Sunday, the reading would be stripped a little - especially the 'divorce' stuff. Some said 'find another text to preach on, then', while others encouraged a 'don't shy away from the hard texts' approach. A couple noted that by omitting the text, the original poster could be storing up a homiletical problem a little ways down the track when the gospel unpacked some other matters that were based on this chapter. So, a nice diversity of opinion already, with regard to whether to preach on it or not. 

I think that I'm inclined to the view that when these so called 'hard' texts turn up, we should face them square in the eye.  And that it's completely okay to say to a congregation 'you know what, I struggle with this reading.'  Chances are, they do too - it may even come as a relief to know that the minister is also sweating somewhat with regard to the passage.  Given that, if I were preaching this coming Sunday, I'd still go for the gospel text - warts 'n all - and think my sermon title would be 'Well, that's awkward...!', thus acknowledging the difficult sounding stuff in the reading, and also the possible difficulty regarding what on earth to do with it.  However, having taken that communal deep breath with the congregation, I'd also acknowledge that the passage is a massively rich text and there are many ways in which to approach it.
Looking at the passage, my own tendency would be to try and stand back a little to try to see a broader theme and try to avoid the potential of becoming bogged down in the individual offences.  As I read it, this passage is part of a much wider discourse on how to love one's neighbour - the offences mentioned are all potential causes for dispute and disharmony undermining personal / familial/ community/ divine relationships:
murder, anger management, insults, adultery, divorce, false witness.
Thinking of John Calvin [as I often do] and his understanding of the godly community being an harmonious community - ordered and peaceable, and thus potentially at least, demonstrating a foretaste of the kindom of heaven - perhaps I'd invite folk to think about how to live in love/ harmony with one another?
For me, then, the key verses would be:

'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.'
We are called to be a community of reconciliation - as God has reconciled us in Christ, so we are to be reconciled one to another and as we do so, live into our calling as Christ's body in the world to bring the message of the gospel of peace to the world.  The challenge of preaching upon a 'hard' text is paralleled by the challenge it is to live as reconciled people...


And I am now filing that thought away for the next time the text comes around!! 

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