Clouds of Contagion

Preached on February 12, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Have you seen that commercial – it must be for a cold medicine or something?  It asks the question, what if you could see your cough?  And then it shows people coughing with dark clouds spreading out from their mouths, filling the space around them.  That image seems to really fit what we’re talking about today.  What we do, what we say, even what we think and feel extends beyond ourselves and affects others – for good or ill.  So, keep that image in mind.

We’re still in chapter 5 of Matthew.  Today it’s paired with a passage from Deuteronomy in which Moses is offering last words of wisdom before the people cross the Jordan into the Promised Land – without Moses.

In chapter 5, Matthew lays out a foretaste of what is to come.  He’s making his basic claims about Jesus as the Messiah and about what discipleship means.

Jesus is a Messiah who has come to be with “the least of these.”  We heard that in the Beatitudes a couple weeks ago.  He is a Messiah who blesses and teaches.
He is squarely within the culture, practice, and tradition of Judaism.
He takes the law seriously, and is a teacher and interpreter of the Law, Torah.
Today, we see him continuing the tradition of and claiming the authority to interpret the Law in light of the current context.  And I want to note that throughout Scripture, we find the law reinterpreted for changing contexts.

Here’s what we’ve heard about discipleship.
In Matthew, Jesus sets high expectations.
It is being called into a community; we don’t do discipleship alone.  Disciples are invited to participate with Christ to manifest the kingdom of heaven, where the well-being of all of Creation is God’s desire.
It is being with “the least” because that’s where we find Christ.  It means making Christ present in the world.  It means being salt and light; God has gifted disciples to the world, making in them what the world needs.  It may even mean persecution for righteousness’ sake.
And it means taking the Law seriously.

What do I mean by that?  I don’t mean pointing to book, chapter, and verse and scrupulously and literally doing what it says – or worse, demanding that someone else does.  Rather, it is to be willing to spend time with it, think about it, question it.

Now first, in the Episcopal Church, we understand the Bible to be written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit.  We make no claim that it is dictated by God and written down word for word by men.  We recognize that they interpret what is revealed by God through the lens of their own experience, culture, and context.  And because of that I think sometimes they just flat-out got it wrong.  Sometimes we misread God’s revelation – and so did they.

All through Scripture and history, the law is interpreted and reinterpreted in light of the whole of Scripture and changing contexts.  God continues to reveal God’s self.  That’s why we call it the Living Word of God.

When the Hebrew crossed the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, the law they received at Sinai was reinterpreted for the next context.  That’s what we hear Jesus doing in today’s gospel – reinterpreting the law for a new context with a series of antitheses: “You have heard it said, …  but I say to you …”  And I’ll get into that in more detail in a minute.  First, I want to draw your attention to the reading from Deuteronomy.

This is Moses final discourse.  He’s reminding them of all they have learned in the desert and what they need to know for their new life, settled in a homeland.  A few verses earlier, this is what he says:

“For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.   No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

He goes on with what we heard, setting before them a choice: life and prosperity, death and adversity.  Choose Life, he says.  Choose life.

The law is not some arbitrary set of rules to trip us up.  God delights in prospering you; in your well-being.  The Law serves Life.
So, when we look at how to interpret law, that’s a pretty good lens to use.  How might this have served life in that context?  How does a particular interpretation serve life now?  And not just my own life and well-being, but the life and well-being of my neighbor?

And it’s not “too hard,” Moses says.  It is very near you, in your heart and in your mouth.  God really doesn’t say, “Be perfect or be damned.”  But God does say, “Choose life.  Here’s how.”

How does Jesus say it?  Well if today’s reading doesn’t make you sit up and pay attention, I don’t know what will.  Jesus’ teaching shows the far reach of the law.  How does this interpretation of the law serve Life in his context?

Let’s start with the most startlingly graphic part – gouging out eyes and cutting of hands is awfully extreme.  But you know what?  It’s not your eye or your hand that causes sin, is it?  Remember when Jesus said that it is not what goes into your mouth that defiles but what comes out of it?

Remember that image of the cough cloud?  It is not our eyes or hands that cause us to sin but our thoughts and intentions, the content of our hearts and minds:
fear, hatred, jealousy, greed, vengeance.  That’s what causes us to sin.  That’s what we need to root out, gouge out, cut off.

Easier said than done, in part because we don’t even want to see those things in ourselves.  But we need to look for them, find them, examine them – and then heal them.  They are not something foreign that can be cut away; they’re wounds that must be healed.

Then there’s Jesus’ teaching about divorce.  Remember, at that time (and to be honest, until very recently) women were property.  A husband could divorce is wife, abdicate all responsibility for her for very little reason.  And then she was pretty much sunk.  A certificate of divorce only meant that another man was free to marry her – if he was willing to take on that responsibility.  But if not, well, she had few resources available to her.  Jesus is saying, you have a responsibility to support and care for your wife; you can’t just throw her away.  So, in that context, his interpretation of the law served life; it offered dignity and protection to women.

Now, what about now, when that very same teaching is used to tell women that they have to stay in a destructive or abusive relationship?  Does that serve anyone’s life or well-being?  What do you think Jesus would say to people today?  I wonder how he would interpret the law today to protect women and children?

These antitheses show the far reach of the law.  It is not good enough to simply not kill your neighbor, you shouldn’t be angry with them, or insult them, or call them names.  And if you do have a falling out, do your best to be reconciled.  Our lives and well-being are that closely tied to theirs.

It’s not enough that you don’t sleep with your neighbor’s wife; don’t treat women like objects.  They’re people.  And in our own context we can extend that to many areas of our life: from co-workers to employees, to the person who waits on you at a shop or restaurant, to the people who harvest our food and make our clothes.  They do not exist simply to serve your life.  Each one of them is a person, a human being with a whole life.  The far reach of the law that Jesus teaches us is that we are responsible not only for our own life, but we are accountable to and responsible for the life and well-being of our neighbor as well.

It brings to mind words of a poem I read by Marilyn Maciel

if words could be seen
as they floated out
of our mouths
would we feel no
shame
as they passed beyond
our lips?
if we were to string
our words
on a communal clothesline
would we feel proud
as our thoughts
flapped in the
breeze?[i]

Now think about that cloud.  I kind of think of it as a cloud of contagion.  When we spew hatred and bigotry, jealousy, anger, greed, vengeance, disdain it spreads and destroys life.  But it is also true that when we exude a cloud of love and caring, mercy and justice, kindness and compassion, that too is contagious.  It serves life.

The fact is, we each have a cloud and we each have a choice. We don’t live in an isolation chamber.  Our cloud spreads and touches the lives of our neighbors.  Which will you choose?

[i] “clothesline,” poem by Marilyn Maciel. Published in Patti Digh, “Life Is a Verb: 37 Days To Wake Up, Be Mindful, And Live Intentionally.” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 42.