This is not the church of `good and proper’
Based on Deuteronomy 30:11-20 & Matthew 5:21-37
A number of years ago, in the Lakeshore News I read a letter admonished Sally Scales for an article in which she celebrated that being gay or lesbian no longer qualifies you as psychologically abnormal in the province of Alberta. In the verbal attack on Sally, the letter-writer said that all we had to do is read the Bible to know what Jesus did and said, and what he condoned and did not condone, and according to the writer he certainly didn’t condone gays and lesbians.
Really? We know that?
There are four books in the Bible that purportedly claim to be stories about Jesus, and in part, supposedly quote Jesus. We know them as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We know that they contain stories that vary significantly, but here is one thing that I assure you that they all have in common. Not once, anywhere, in any verse of any chapter, of any gospel, does Jesus have a word to say about sexual orientation.
The writer when on to say, and I quote, “It was Christ’s bigotry, narrow-mindedness and unpopular ideas that landed Him on the cross. His ideas are just as unpopular today…” What? Are you kidding me? I think Jesus had something else in mind when he was sharing the `sermon on the Mount.’
Well, I suppose if you took the gospel reading today literally, you might want to agree with the author of that statement. Mind you, if you took the gospel reading literally, you would all likely be minus at least one eye and one hand – having, I’m sure, in the context of your life, had at least one lusty thought, (don’t’ go there now), or done at least one sinful thing.
Why do we even read these scriptures that seem so awful? On years when Easter comes early, we can skip over them, but here they are – to be ignored or explored! We read them because others read them and interpret them in ways that allow them to feel smug and superior about being bigoted and narrow-minded, and try to co-opt Jesus into that mind-set.
I’m not okay with that. I believe that any time we read a biblical passage that we think suggests that it is God’s will to hate, destroy, condemn, or shun anyone, that the faithful response is to be very suspicious of it.
It was just this sort of literal interpretation of today’s gospel that caused my grandmother to be shunned by her church for marrying my grandfather, because he was a divorced man. It didn’t matter that his first wife left pregnant with their sixth child, leaving the first five with him. It didn’t matter that she (my grandmother) as a young woman took on the responsibility of raising these five children as her own. She was marrying a divorcee, and therefore in the eyes of her church was morally inferior -an adulteress according to the gospel. She didn’t belong in a good and proper church! How insane is that? She should have been given a medal for bravery; especially since she went on to have six more children – the fifth being my mother.
So why would Jesus say stuff like this? Was he really bigoted and narrow-minded? And is that apparently a good thing? Jesus lived in an “honour-shame” society, in which the defense of one’s honour could result in retaliation and revenge. Jesus shows a new way to live as a community of disciples. In each example, Jesus speaks not of punishment, but of finding a way to restore relationships.
Jesus uses exaggeration in his teaching: an escalating series of punishments for anger, advice to leave one’s sacrificial animal at Jerusalem temple and return after a 3-day journey to Galilee to restore a relationship; extreme suggestions of cutting off hands and plucking out eyes.
To choose life it to choose reconciliation, relationships, honouring the other…The words about divorce were not intended to condemn divorced people, but to say, especially to men who had the economic power in his day, “Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s right.” An easily attainable bill of divorce could leave a woman destitute. There is a relationship at stake here, and not just your own wants to consider. On the other hand, I do not believe God wants us to be in spirit-destroying relationships.
Jesus uses vivid language to impress on his hearers that they need to learn to deal with anger and jealousy, lust and broken relationships in new ways if they are to reflect the values of God’s realm. We all have these feelings, but how hard are we willing to work at not taking the easy way out – not making someone else the problem, or the enemy?
This is also at the core of the challenge to choose life, in the reading from Deuteronomy. Here, on the edge of the Promised Land, the people have to make a choice. How are they going to live in this world? This is Moses’ last chance to impress upon them that they are being given a sacred trust, not free rein to do as they please. The promise was a two-way street which included honouring their covenant with God, and honouring their relationships with each other.
Unfortunately, as history repeats, indigenous peoples have often been displaced by those who believe God has given them the right to the new ‘Promised Land.’ In Canada we find ourselves in an interesting spot – recognising our need to heal relationships with indigenous Canadians and welcoming those who wish to be new Canadians, many of them fleeing from horrific conditions in other parts of the world.
As individuals and as a church we face the challenge to choose not to align ourselves with bigotry, hatred, and the condemning of one group of people as being less human, less worthy than any other. We are all children of God, beloved and broken.
This is not the church of `good and proper.’
This is the church of broken and compassionate.
This is the church of questioning and considering,
This is the church of tradition and innovation.
This is the church that said, when given the choice to live or die:` We want to live, we have more to give, we want to grow in our faith and we want our faith to help us live lives of welcome and inclusion and generosity.’ And so you have. Thank you for choosing life. Amen.