Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany Sermon

February 12, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

Well, everyone, I know the passage we just heard from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was full of bomb shells. There was something for everyone to feel uncomfortable with. For many of you, it was the divorce passage. Either you’re divorced, or someone you love is divorced, and Jesus’ words feel like a stab in the back. But if you don’t mind, I’m not going to focus on that this morning. Because I think the real wisdom from this passage is better seen at 30,000 feet than it is down on the tarmac. So I’m going to stay way up here this morning, looking at the big picture.

So stick with me. And if you need to talk about faith and divorce, please, come see me. And let’s talk. Alright?

So here we go.

This section of the Sermon on the Mount comes on the heels of Jesus proclaiming, “Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the law or the prophets. Quite the opposite, in fact; I haven’t come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” And in what we just heard, that’s exactly what Jesus begins doing. Six times he says, “You have heard that it was said….” And then he goes to quote one of the Old Testament laws. (Our reading only included four, but the text itself has two more).

“You have heard that it was said…”

Do not murder.

Do not commit adultery

Do not get divorced (Well, that’s the implication. The actual law says, “When you get divorced, do it this way.”)

Do not swear falsely

And so on. He quotes a whole bunch of laws.

And, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, the law of the Old Testament is basically about just two things: How to be in relationship with God, and how to be in relationship with the rest of creation, particularly other people. That’s it. And given that, what’s glaringly absent here? What’s missing in this list of laws Jesus quotes – these laws he come to fulfill? Not one of them says anything about God. Every single example he draws from is about our broken relationships with one another. Now, later in the sermon, he’ll talk about God. But here, where he starts, the more urgent matter for him, is the nature of our human relationships. Or, to be more specific, the broken nature of our human relationships.

In fact, in the one reference he makes to worshiping God, he says, “Don’t even go to worship until you’ve repaired your human relationship first.”

The way the law was written, it simply presumed that human relationships will fall apart. And when they do, what the law does is to put boundaries on our behavior: No matter how furious you get with your neighbor, you’re not allowed to kill him! Nor are you allowed to give a false testimony about him.

But Jesus comes along and says, “The law may tell you what behavior is unacceptable, but I say to you, the more important matter is the condition of your heart. That’s what I’m concerned about.” Then he goes on to say, “And I’m telling you this: do whatever you need to do to deal with the problem in your heart, because the longer you wait, the worse it’s going to get.”

Jesus’ teaching here may make us uncomfortable. We may want to avoid it or pick it apart it. But at its core, we know he’s right. We all know the longer things go undealt with, the uglier they get, and the more it will affect the people around us. It’s not enough simply to put a boundary on our behavior when those forces within us are building up. They’re going to escape, one way or another.

So do whatever you’ve got to do to deal with your brokenness before it reaches a point where there’s nothing left that can be done.

And for most of us, that means dealing with our hidden sins, our hidden shames. We’re all sinners. We’ve all got things within us that, if anyone else were to know, would mortify us.

But you know what? Although that’s our fear, it’s rarely the reality. Time and again, my experience has been just the opposite. When we choose the courageous work of being vulnerable with someone we know and trust, it’s always met with compassion – with a spirit that says, “Oh, my friend, I am so sorry you carry this burden.”

And you know what else we discover? Our friends are not nearly as threatened of our tormentor as we are. All these years it’s been growing in us, getting more and more powerful and frightening. But when they see it, they see it for what it is, wearing clothes too big for its form. Yes, it’s a real torment to you. And in our shame, we’ve allowed it to define us. But for those who love us, the substance of our worth far outweighs the boogeyman of our shame.

And so for many, the first act of confronting our inner brokenness is admitting it’s there and then choosing to open the door to let someone else see what’s been hidden for so long.

But just a word of advice: in choosing who to confide in, sometimes the safest or wisest choice is someone not directly affected by this particular aspect of your brokenness. Pick someone with no reason to be threatened or alarmed by it. Because, when you’re sharing for the first time, you’re a bundle of nerves; you’re just so anxious about how it will be heard; you hardly have any clarity on this tangled web within you. Your task at this point is simply to get it out, and then to breathe, and to let that person receive you in peace. And once the door is open, and the spring air can blow through, there’ll be time to get used to speaking it out loud and surviving it. There will be more steps to understand what this thing is and why it’s had such power over you. And there will come a time to open that door to those who are affected it – to those who have been living in relationship with you, feeling the consequences of this “thing,” with no understanding of its source.

For many people, that’s why Twelve Steps programs have been so useful. It’s a safe place to name your shame out loud, and to be received by a roomful of people who understand, who have been in the same place, who aren’t threatened or surprised by it, and who have a plan on how to work it through.

I have one friend, a lifelong Christian, who – after joining a Sex Addicts Twelve Step group – found it difficult to continue enjoying church. The quality of his relationships with the other Sex Addicts was so much more honest, and therefore so much more filled with the gospel. In them, he found community. In them he found light and hope. Church, on the other hand, just remained a community of the pious, where no sin could be permitted.

And let me also say, if you need any more convincing on the Power of Vulnerability, watch Brené Brown’s Ted Talk by the same title. It’s the one with over 60 million views. Everyone is carrying shame.

The invitation to discipleship is always an invitation to honesty – an honesty that is done with excuses and torturous rationales. It is an invitation to say plainly and honestly, “This is how I struggle; this is how I’m learning to handle it; and this is the path of Jesus I want to follow.” No excuses. Just let your yes be yes, and your no be no.

Words that seared themselves into my memory.

They were once hurled at me by a girlfriend I was breaking up with, soon after we’d started dating. She was full of righteous indignation. And the thing of it was, she was righteous in her indignation. She was fully justified in her anger. “Don’t say you want to be my boyfriend; don’t say you love me, if – in fact – you don’t have the wherewithal to follow through with it. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Go work out your issues without dragging women like me down into your mess.”

Bless her. You can see why these words are so strong in my memory. She was speaking a harsh truth I did need to hear. And, indeed, her rebuke was formative for me “working out my issues” as she so eloquently recommended.

And I tell this story – not just as a striptease of my early dating failures – but because her stern rebuke was so like that of Jesus, who she was quoting. Her message was pretty much right in line with what he is saying in the Sermon on the Mount:

Don’t say you want to be my disciples; don’t say you love God, if in fact you have no intention of doing the hard work to walk in the ways of God.

Now, I don’t mean to run you out of church. Quite the opposite. For beneath Jesus’ firm teaching here, is nothing but love – nothing but his desire for us to be set free from the power of shame and fear that drives us, which is already harming those we most love.

It’s such a sorrow that people often disappear from church right when they need it most, right when their inner demons are escaping and things are falling apart. If church is being what it ought to be, we will be here to catch you in love. Don’t let shame prevail and run away, afraid of the rebuke of the pious community.

Pious indeed.

The church is a community of sinners – each broken in our own way – learning to be honest about it, and learning to show compassion to one another. And if I may, it’s a lot easier being compassionate to someone who’s honest about their shame than to the one still flailing in denial.

As for that girlfriend I told you about: It’d been years since we’d seen each other. But a few summers ago, she and her husband and children were vacationing in Olympic National Park. They stayed with us along the way. Their kids played with ours – climbing trees, swinging on the rope swing. The adults sat on the back patio – drinking wine, laughing, sharing stories. And as the visit ended and we hugged good-bye, I could say with gratitude and joy, how grateful I was for her and the role she played in my ongoing encounter with the healing power of God and God’s love.

The struggles don’t leave altogether. They have tremendous sticking power, especially during seasons of transition or instability. But as we grow in our understanding of them, we can see them for what they are, and can even learn to have compassion on ourselves – having learned it from the God and community who first showed compassion to us when we were so ashamed.