by Leigh Weber
For the last year almost I’ve been working with the homeless folks in Renton as their community pastor. In that time, I’ve heard a lot of stories. I’ve been told about prison life, I’ve walked in on a guy shooting up heroin, I’ve held the hand of a schizophrenic man while he sobbed that the man staring in the mirror at him wanted him dead. I’ve watched very young women deal with pregnancies for which they had no plan, no support and no healthcare. I’ve crawled under bridges, made pastoral visits to cars where they sleep and I’ve driven them to the hospital and recently been there when one was told he had late stage cancer.
And in all of those experiences and in all of this time, one thing has become very clear…these folks are living lives of brokenness and what separates them from me is their inability to hide it. Let me say that again before I go any further here…the biggest difference between us is their brokenness is visible and mine is hidden.
This morning’s gospel lesson is hard. It’s got some tough language. It uses words like judgment, sin and hell. It talks about adultery really harshly and about cutting off offending body parts. The language being used, even hyperbolically, is as hard to digest for most of us as is the idea of shooting up heroin in a restaurant’s bathroom. Most of the folks I work with can’t hide their life mistakes because they are just so visibly apparent and we live in a culture of extremes, very ready to label them as bad or sinful.
But what I think the gospel writer is telling us is that Jesus is redefining righteousness by redefining sin and he uses that phrase…you have heard it said…but I tell you…” You have heard about laws and clear definitions of who is good and bad but I tell you it’s about the journey not only with me but with one another. And Jesus knows how broken we are inside even if we keep up a tidy appearance outside.
Jesus is not just pushing his listeners to look at the law but at the intent behind it and the language used here gets our attention doesn’t it? I wonder what he might say to me sometimes…”you have heard it said that if you go to college and get a job and buy a house and take care of your family, life will go well…but I tell you that you can’t forget about your brothers and sisters in this world and really know me fully.
I don’t think this passage is so much a mandate for how to live individually as much as Jesus is inviting his disciples and us to go deeper and to unpack what it means to be in this communal journey WITH Jesus.
The passage is about the risk of relationship and the language is of community. “You have heard it said that if anyone murders…but I say if you are angry with your brother or sister…” Jesus isn’t throwing out the law here but instead he’s searching our hearts, asking us to search them, and he is holding onto the law at the center but moving the boundaries out more and more as to what it comprises. He’s taking the exclusivity of the law of holiness and saying quit focusing on who is out and who is in…this entire thing is actually about relationships and community. He isn’t saying murder and adultery and broken promises are okay, he isn’t throwing it out. He is identifying the real problem is actually that in which they are sourced.
Time and again when I am in conversation with the people I serve, I hear stories of addiction and abuse but when they start peeling back the layers of their stories in these conversations, every single time, I connect somehow. I connect with the brokenness; I connect with feelings of inadequacy. I connect with shame. And that’s what Jesus is talking about here. Yes, those who murder have to face the court system, just like those who suffer from substance abuse have to face the hard work of getting clean but underneath those outward acts that violate the law there is a story. And the communal life of being in this journey together happens when we stop drawing lines that exclude others we define as bad and realize we are no different. We are all disabled; it’s just that for some of us it’s hard for a stranger to see it.
Sin starts as an inclination of the heart. Folks rarely get to the point of committing murder, or adultery, without first experiencing a long and meandering journey in their heart from peace to violence, or contentment to restlessness.
What Jesus is saying to us is pay attention to your heart. Don’t let what starts as, perhaps even understandable anger, or disappointment take you to places where your actions will cause harm. Pay attention to what is going on in your heart.
This text, like so much of the gospel, is asking us to see the world in a new way. The source to avoiding arguing and crimes against one another is through reconciliation and care for our own hearts. Jesus told his disciples that before going to the altar, they should make sure they have resolved their conflicts with one another. Being in a full and intimate relationship with God involves justice and compassion for one another too. Life isn’t about never making mistakes; it’s about what you do when you’ve made them. Life isn’t about not having regrets, it’s about what you turn your regrets into. There is good news here: Christianity isn’t about perfection, but about the costly forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, I think independence is a myth. The reality of life is about dependence and working out who and what to be dependent upon. And that takes an awful lot of vulnerability. I don’t know about you but the law of holiness that Jesus was talking about…that “you have heard it said” part…it’s been far easier for me to keep that than to live into the “but I tell you” part. Not murdering has been easy but not allowing anger and other negative feelings to find fertile ground in my heart, that’s a challenge at times and it takes work and mindful attention. But Jesus came to broaden the definitions for us I think and he came to invite that vulnerability not only with him but with one another and to do the hard work of tending our hearts individually and together. You see I think he wants us to care for one another, to forgive one another in the same way that he cares, loves and forgives us. Because when we come to this table…he wants us FULLY at this table.
I’ve been taking a class on the Spirituality of Thomas Merton this quarter at SU and we’ve been reading his journals. Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk who lived at an abbey in rural
Kentucky. On March 18, 1958, after months of prayer and study in insolation at the abbey, Merton went out for the day, to the city of Louisville, where he was overcome with the awareness of our connectedness as human beings made in the Image of God. He wrote this in his journal later that night:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Thomas Merton had paid attention to his heart. Through prayer and contemplation and mindfulness of tending his soul, he had come to understand and embrace Jesus’ broader definition of the law…and it changed him. He had stepped out of the exclusive boundaries that human beings had drawn around that law and into the fullness of what Jesus was saying, when he said, “but I say to you…”
I need that…I crave that…to have that kind of heart when I come to this table. I need to be here with you, with nothing between us, meeting you in the immeasurable grace of the One who invites us to come…I need the eyes and the heart of God so that I can see you here with me…shining like the sun. I think that’s what Jesus is saying here folks, that it’s about our hearts and he gets that we’re broken and its okay.
What serving the homeless in Renton has taught me is that when you’re willing to be vulnerable and meet another person in the brokenness, you start paying attention more to your heart…because it’s bigger than the rules we have…it’s about coming together as the beloved children of God and shining like the sun.