NB: I preached a version of this sermon on February 11-12, 2017 (Epiphany 6A) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Every person we meet and every thing we encounter and everything that exist is asking us a question: “Do I matter?”
And there are so many people, so many things, so much in the world, that we have to make choices about what matters. We have to set priorities to answer that question.
A slightly overdue medical bill
A task at work
A person asking for money
A feeling of unresolved guilt
A full moon on a clear night
Each one asks us, “Do I matter?” And each one gets a response of some kind. Yes, no, not now, only for a minute, didn’t notice.
We need ways to sort through all the people and all the stuff and decide what is really important. Do I matter? Well, do you benefit me? Am I obligated to you? Will anything bad happen if I ignore you?
We can figure out helpful ways to make priorities, to decide what matters. But then God makes it difficult. God made everyone and everything that exists, after all, each detail of this universe with infinite love and care. God gave our minds immense power. God made us for relationship with each other and with him.
And then God became human and lived among us. God took on our flesh and our mind and our fate, as if to say: “all of this matters.”
Today we hear some difficult words from Jesus about what matters. These are words that Christians and non-Christians alike have found hard to accept. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder;’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” So far, so good, right? Murder is bad. Murder matters. People can pretty much agree on that.
But Jesus says more: “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.”
And to make matters worse, he says the same thing about adultery: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
This seems excessive. Yes, murder is bad. Adultery is bad. These are really bad things. They are important. They matter. But feeling angry? Saying something harsh? Lusting in your heart? Do these things really matter so much?
Now before we get into that, I want to be clear: Jesus is not saying that words and feelings are the same as murder and adultery. By which I mean that if you get angry at someone, you should not think, “Well, Jesus says I’m already liable to judgment, so I may as well kill this guy.” Or, “I’ve lusted in my heart, so I may as well go the rest of the way.” Do not do that. I am responsible for preaching God’s word for you and I truly fear misleading you in any way, so I want to be perfectly clear about that. I don’t want anyone’s murder on my head.
Instead, think about it the other way around. Every act of violence, and every act of adultery, started with a thought. And the act, the crime, was somewhere inside that thought. Maybe the thought popped up a thousand times before the crime came out. But every time, it was there. It was ready for our weakness. It was ready for our cooperation. It was ready for the right moment. Because our thoughts are powerful. Our minds are incredibly powerful. We can imagine a million things that won’t come about, good or bad. Only some of those things we imagine ever do.
Now it’s no surprise that people object to these words of Jesus. Because people are in the business of making choices about what really matters. We are in the habit of setting priorities. And for us, it counts as a victory if we stop with imagining harm to our neighbor or adultery with their spouse. Because in the big scheme of things, thoughts don’t matter.
Think about how often you think of something you wouldn’t say. Or think about how often someone dismisses hurtful or inappropriate talk by saying, “he didn’t mean anything by it,” or “I’m just joking around.”
And think about how often that isn’t quite true. How often our thoughts and our words express real things—real hostility, real resentment, real desire. Think about how much they really would matter if we let them. If we followed them all the way.
There is a dog I encounter sometimes when I’m out for a run. One of those aggressive, loud-barking dogs. Sometimes when I see him I look around and think, “Where could I go to get way from this dog if I had to.” But sometimes when I see him I think, “Come and get me you nasty dog. Just try it.” For a while I found this kind of funny, because I don’t think of myself as an angry or hostile person. But over time I learned from this reaction. I learned that if I was harboring ill will toward this stupid dog, it was a sign that something in me needed healing. Something in me needed release and reconciliation. And before I go back to God’s altar to offer my prayers and my praise and my money, I need to find out what that is. Because if I don’t, whatever that anger is will harm me, even if it harms no one else.
It is shocking to hear Jesus say that if your eye causes to sin, tear it out, because it is better to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. But that’s because we’re not used to thinking that every bit of our lives matters so darn much. We’re not used to thinking that everything in us, that every part of us, is so important, so pregnant with power to bless or to harm. We are used to thinking the opposite: that it’s no big deal, that I didn’t mean anything by it, that it doesn’t matter.
These words of Jesus today call us to account. They call us to repentance and forgiveness and renewal of our lives. They are heavy words.
But these words show us who God created us to be. God created us to bless and protect our brother or sister, not to curse or harm them. God created us to support each other in our marriages, not undermine them. God made us to speak the truth simply and plainly. God made us to matter. And every part of us does matter. And every part of us always will. Amen.