Today’s lesson from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament is one of the parts of the Bible that makes it sound like choosing right, choosing good, is very straightforward.
You just do the good thing and not the bad thing.
You do the thing God tells you to do and not the thing God tells you not to do.
How hard can it be? It’s simple.
It’s not simple.
We are complicated, and the world is complicated.
We don’t fully understand ourselves, let alone others;
and we don’t fully understand the motives or consequences of our actions and choices.
Doing good – choosing good – is hard.
Our Psalm names that in one evocative line:
Oh, that my ways were made so direct
that I might keep your statutes, your commandments!
To paraphrase loosely:
If only my path were clear enough, and my steps steady enough,
for me to consistently follow God’s ways!
Deuteronomy says, Just do what’s right!
Psalm 119 says, I wish it were that simple.
And then … there’s today’s Gospel.
Believe me, if most preachers could make our peace with just skipping this chunk of the Sermon on the Mount, we would.
The divorce stuff is extra tough but all of it is tough.
The idea that if you hate your terrible co-worker, that has profound consequences for your soul?…
Jesus is using hyberbole and exaggerated language to make his point, here, as he does elsewhere.
He likes to use big images that really get people’s attention.
I don’t think we’re being faithful to his intentions if we try to take all this literally. I’m very sure that he doesn’t really want people to cut their hands off. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean that you’ll go to hell for hating your worthless jerk of a co-worker.
Let me take a brief detour here to talk about Hell.
The phrase Jesus actually uses here is “Gehenna of fire.”
Gehenna or Hinnom is a valley south of Jerusalem, just outside the city. Its name in Hebrew means Valley of Lamentation.
It seems to have been a place where the garbage of the city was thrown, over the centuries, and sometimes burned.
By Jesus’ time the word Gehenna has taken on other meanings. It’s not just a trash-polluted gully but a symbolic place of dread, of punishment and perhaps of purification.
What we need to understand about Gehenna is, first, that this term does NOT mean Hell, an underworld of eternal punishment ruled over by Satan.
That is a later idea built upon some fairly thin Scriptural foundations.
And, second, that we don’t really know what this term meant to Jesus. He only uses it a few times.
Bible translator and theologian David Bentley Hart says that in other writings from around the same time, Gehenna seems to have had many varied meanings – historical or cosmic; eternal or temporary; punishment or renewal.
Given all that, we just don’t know what Jesus has in mind here, or how his original audience would have heard it.
Hart also points out that there’s basically nothing about Gehenna, or eternal punishment in general, in our earliest Christian texts, the letters of Paul.
He himself found that his close study of the New Testament, among other things, led him to universalism – a belief that everyone will be saved.
That’s a sermon for another day!
The point right now is that these references to Gehenna or hell seem to be more a way to convey the seriousness of the subject than an actual statement about ultimate destinations.
What Jesus is talking about here, in this difficult passage, is the fact that being good is hard – and that one reason it’s hard is that insides matter just as much as outsides.
We know this.
We know that we are kidding ourselves if we think that hating our jerk co-worker doesn’t matter, as long as we are polite to them in public.
Or that any other toxic or life-sapping relationship or situation is FINE as long as we all keep showing up and getting on with things.
Hear me clearly: I am not saying that changing stuff like that is easy or light or even safe!!!
I’m just saying what I think Jesus is saying: Insides matter.
What we’re thinking and feeling matters, even if on the surface everything looks fine or at least OK.
Our Isaiah text from last week was about the same issue with respect to humans and God. People were complaining: God, we’re doing all the stuff we’re supposed to do, why aren’t you blessing us? And God says through the prophet: Look! You’re using your religious observances as an excuse to argue with your neighbor and oppress your workers.
Your insides don’t match your outsides.
Your goodness, your rightness, is only skin-deep.
Jesus knows – as Isaiah knew – that we can meet expectations about correct or appropriate behavior on the surface, while all kinds of messy or deeply corrosive stuff is going on underneath.
Oh, that my ways were made so direct
that I might keep your commandments!
I waffled on whether to include this in the sermon but I decided a concrete example might be helpful.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a local faith-based summit on the housing crisis, to educate us and help us start to imagine ways that faith communities could help.
I knew we had a housing crisis, in Dane County, in Wisconsin, nationwide, but I learned that it’s much worse than I realized.
And of course it’s hardest for the poor, for people of color, for people with any kind of spotty employment or credit history, and for young folks who want to move into stable housing and build their lives.
One thing I learned at the summit is that Dane County has a lot of good jobs, and people WILL move here for the jobs, whether there’s housing or not.
If there isn’t housing close, they’ll live farther out – even in the next county – and commute.
So to deal with that reality, we can either build more dense housing near jobs and along public transit routes; OR there will be more and more people with long commutes – with negative impacts on their quality of life, our traffic, and the environment.
Here in Madison, the Council recently passed some new zoning that will allow construction of duplexes in formerly single-family home neighborhoods along certain transit routes.
It’s intended to help add some more entry-level housing, and to reduce traffic and the environmental harm by making it easier for folks to use transit.
And we heard some pushback about that.
Some people who live in those neighborhoods were pretty upset about the way this might change the character of their neighborhoods.
They don’t like the aesthetics, they’re worried about their property values, and I think there’s probably also some concern about who these duplex-dwellers are going to be.
As I sat in the housing summit, I thought about those folks and their discomfort and anxiety.
I’m sure they are mostly people with genuine concerns about the wellbeing of less affluent community members. They don’t want young couples or lower income families to be unable to find homes.
And I’m sure they are mostly people who really care about climate change, and about driving less.
I’m not an expert on urban design or transit or real estate.
But I do have some training in matters of soul and conscience.
And I think what those folks are facing is a difficult situation of choosing good.
They have competing values within themselves.
Maybe they haven’t thought it all through, laid all those values and hopes and desires out on the table; but even if you do that, even if all it’s really clear in your head, sometimes the right action remains unclear.
Sometimes – maybe often – we are conflicted. Our values and intentions and wants and needs can be at odds.
It’s hard work to untangle it all and decide – discern – what to weigh most heavily in a given situation.
Hard work – but such essential work.
Doing good, choosing good, knowing good is complicated.
If we want to be clear with God and honest with ourselves, and get things square with other human beings, let’s acknowledge that our insides and intentions matter.
And they matter – in the words of Christian writer Kathleen Norris – not because “God is a great cosmic cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us.”
God isn’t profiling us as likely sinners, looking for any excuse to pull us over.
God loves us, and what matters to us matters to God.
God loves us, inside and out, including our messy and conflicted intentions and needs and desires and hopes.
Let me take another brief detour – about divorce.
It seems like the historical Jesus took marriage pretty seriously, and didn’t like the idea of a marriage ending.
It’s true that he was concerned with the vulnerability of abandoned women, but I don’t think that’s all that’s going on.
It wasn’t the main thing for him by any means; he talked about other things much, much more.
But this is heart- and life-stuff for many folks in this room, so even though it’s small in the Gospels, it may feel big to you.
Matthew’s source here is the earliest gospel, the gospel of Mark. In Mark Jesus is talking specifically about remarriage, and this teaching reads more like a warning against leaving your spouse for somebody you like better.
Matthew drops out the remarriage aspect, which makes this sound live more of a blanket condemnation of divorce.
But even if we read this teaching of Jesus as, “Don’t leave your partner for somebody new,” it’s not easy to take on board.
I bet most grownups know somebody who was betrayed and deeply wounded by a partner who fell in love with someone else.
I bet most of us also know somebody who left a difficult or life-sapping relationship and eventually found a new partnership that has brought them renewal and joy.
I definitely have some questions for Jesus about all this.
But I also think that the main upshot of this whole passage is that we should try to live with clarity and integrity.
And that probably means bringing our conflicts and hurts and grudges and unmet needs out into the open, and trying to deal with them as clearly and kindly and fairly as possible.
And sometimes the clearest and kindest outcome is that a relationship ends.
My Jesus understands that.
Oh, that my ways were made so direct
that I might keep your commandments!
Being good, doing good, choosing good is complicated.
That’s why we named Turning as one of our core discipleship practices, back in 2016 – and in fact Turning is also one of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s Ways of Love.
The Way of Love materials say: “With God’s help, we can turn from the powers of sin, hatred, fear, injustice, and oppression toward the way of truth, love, hope, justice, and freedom. In turning, we reorient our lives to Jesus Christ, falling in love again, again, and again.”
Here’s what we said about turning in our discipleship practices: “We follow the teaching of Jesus Christ by being open to repentance, transformation, and call. The word “turning” springs from the New Testament word “metanoia,” meaning a change of mind that bears fruit in a changed life.”
Turning is a foundational Christian practice.
It’s like a fractal, the same shape at any scale – there are tiny opportunities on a daily basis, and great big life-transforming moments and seasons too – for individuals and institutions alike.
Being open to repentance, transformation and call is always part of Christian life, but we are approaching the season of Lent – it begins in about a week and a half.
And our Sunday lessons are starting to lean towards it.
Lent is the season when the church prepares for the mystery of Easter, and it has long been observed as a season for self-examination, reflection, and intentional turning.
Often people try on some disciplines or practices that they hope will become habits that make their lives more fully reflect their values and convictions.
Now is a good time, actually, to give that a little thought and prayer, if you feel called to take on a Lenten practice this year.
Let me know if you would like a conversation partner.
Choosing good – for ourselves, others, the world – often is not straightforward.
If there’s anything I can wrestle from this difficult Gospel, it’s that we have to try to be as honest with ourselves as we can about what’s going on inside us – our sometimes-conflicting values and desires, intentions and needs.
It can help to have a community, people who are in it with us.
Maybe it helps to have a season like Lent that invites us to acknowledge that we all have stuff we’re figuring out and working on.
And it helps to be kind – to ourselves, to one another.
In our Epistle today, Paul says: You are God’s field, God’s building.
Paul is talking about how the church in Corinth – like every Christian community, like every individual Christian – is a work in progress. A growing field that’s been planted and watered, but is still needs lots of sun and rain and time to reach maturity.
A structure that’s being built up slowly up from the foundation – that’s in the next few verses beyond today’s text – and needs a lot more stone and mortar and work and care to be complete.
It’s okay that we’re unfinished, imperfect, still working on it.
We’re still growing, still being built. Each and all.
And we belong fully to God in our incompleteness, our working-on-it-ness: God’s field, God’s building, God’s work in progress.
Let’s hold that as we turn together towards Lent; towards wherever God is calling us. Each and all.