Epiphany 6A Sermon (2014)

6th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Matthew 5:21-37;
Deut. 30:15-20


This is one of those Gospel readings — which actually happens more often than you might expect — where I finish reading and want to say, “The gospel of the Lord?” [making the question inflection in the voice obvious] And you might want to respond, “Praise to you, O Christ?”

Let’s quickly go over some of the ‘downer’ stuff we just heard about:

  • going before a judge and jury
  • hell fire — not just once but three times
  • being thrown into prison
  • lusting in your heart as committing adultery
  • gouging out your eye or cutting off your hand
  • and harsh words against divorce.

Is this Good News? What’s going on here? Twenty years ago, in my early years as a pastor, a passage like this might scare me off. I’d preach on something else.

But this morning I’m actually looking forward to preaching this text to us as Good News. It’s from one of the most important chapters in the Bible, and it involves the part of Jesus’ message that is most difficult for us to hear. I firmly believe that it has a profound, if challenging, message to us — which, in a nutshell, is this: Jesus came to teach us how to live in God’s love, so that we don’t have to keep going down the disastrous roads that our anger and lust lead us on. We know the roads of anger and lust, don’t we? Even if we haven’t personally gotten trapped going down those roads ourselves, we know and love people who do. Still today, when our anger and lust get the best of us, we can end up appearing in court and landing in jail. When our anger and lust goes unchecked and untreated, we can end up with broken relationships, with divorces. We know these things.

What we might not be aware of is that things like court, jail, and divorce are part of what Jesus came to reveal as sacred or good violence.1 This is the violence we are willing to live with in order to keep the bad violence away, the violence where it seems like everyone is against everyone and so social order becomes lost. Chaos ensues. That bad violence is what we humans have always been the most afraid of — so much so that we have been willing to live with various forms of good violence for the sake of keeping law and order. Courts, jail, and divorce are still a part of good violence in our day — the violence we live with to forestall the bad violence. It has kept us human beings from extinguishing ourselves with bad violence for the first part of our history.

To be clear about this term “good violence,” it’s not the violence itself that’s good. Going to prison and divorce are not good. But we resort to them for what we see as the greater good of keeping order, of avoiding worse violence. We resort to divorce, for example, when we believe that staying together would bring more harm in the long-run than separating. It’s “good” in a “lesser evil” sense. It is “good violence” compared to “bad violence.”

But the point, I think, of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is this: good violence is not the ultimate answer. It’s still violence and so it will end up blowing up in our face. If good violence has worked to help us survive throughout the first part of our human history, it may not continue to do so. We’ll see Jesus’ alternative to good violence in a big way in next week’s installment, where Jesus goes beyond our normal solutions of good violence to say that any violence and hate is wrong. We are to turn the other cheek when others strike us, and to love even our enemies. Shocking!

But first let’s finish hearing what Jesus has to say in this week’s installment. We’ve talked about jail, court, and divorce as good violence that intervenes when we are heading too far down the road of bad violence with our anger and lust. But what is Jesus talking about when he speaks of cutting off hands and hell fire? In order to understand this, we have to tackle the thorny issue of hell (not a simple business when you see the kind of firestorm Rob Bell raised by asking good questions about our concept of hell in his book Love Wins).

The first important question is, What is our concept of hell in recent generations of Christians? Isn’t it exactly what we’ve been talking about with this idea of good violence? Except here the good violence is made ultimate and sacred by making God the keeper of this good violence. If the justice of human courts and prisons haven’t exacted the right punishment on earth, then God will get them in the afterlife with the torment of an eternal, fiery prison called hell. Isn’t that the concept of hell we’ve come to? It’s the ultimate good violence wielded by God in order to exact in the afterlife any punishments we may have missed in this life. If we don’t get the bad people, God will. It’s our trump card, really, when the threat of human prison doesn’t seem to be enough to keep someone from going down the road of anger and lust.

The crucial question we have to ask, however, is this: Does Jesus mean the same thing we mean by that word hell? In fact, our first clue is the fact that hell is not the word that Jesus uses, in the first place. And it’s more than just a matter of differing languages. What we translate as hell is the word Gehenna, which was the name of a valley south of Jerusalem.2 Why would Jesus use that name? What was Gehenna famous — or infamous — for? This. In Jeremiah chapter 7, the prophet names Gehenna, the valley of ben Hinnom in Hebrew, as a place of child sacrifice. That’s right, we’re talking about the religious practice of killing a child on an altar. The word we translate as hell was for Jesus not anything close to our idea of an ultimate punishment from God in the afterlife. What Jesus was naming as Gehenna anticipates a return to a form of good violence that the people of Israel had already given up as something God never wanted. It’s hard for us to imagine how killing a child on an altar could be considered good violence. But in its time and place, it was. It was a violence commanded by the gods.

So what Jesus is doing in this passage is lumping all the forms of good violence together, the ones we no longer use, like child sacrifice and cutting off someone’s hand, with the forms of good violence we still use, like court, jail, and divorce. And I think he’s throwing them all into question as not providing the ultimate answer. I don’t think he’s saying we need to immediately get rid of all good violence. We still need police, and courts, and prison, and, yes, divorce. There are friends here today who know the pain of divorce. In an imperfect world, divorce is a painful reality, but one that can lead to healing instead of ongoing pain. The pain of divorce signals the violence, the breaking of a relationship, but there can follow some genuine goodness, too. Sometimes divorce is the best that we can do, and the Good News is that God is present with us to offer healing.

Jesus is lifting up for us, though, that no instance of “good violence” can provide the ultimate answer, if we are to avoid more drastic episodes of our hellish good violence. There is a spectrum of “good violence” that is acceptable in different times and places. Fifty years ago, divorce was frowned on in our culture. Today it is accepted as a decision that can ease pain and lead to healing. Prisons are viewed as a necessary evil today; but in our American culture you can make a case they are overused. In many Scandinavian cultures the use of prisons is minimal, because they have worked much harder to restore criminals to healed and productive lives. It stands as a contrast to our “War on Drugs” that has led to mass incarceration — a sevenfold increase in prison population over a decade’s time — and an explosion that has burdened communities of color way out of proportion.

What Jesus is striving for in this passage is for us to learn to live in God’s love to be able to avoid “good violence” altogether. We are emboldened to look at our measures of good violence in our time and place and begin to imagine and work for ways forward based in love and compassion. But Jesus is also laying out the ‘big picture’ of what’s at stake in lessening our good violence, because in most cultures times of crisis often lead to uses of “good violence” that turn into bad violence. There will likely be future Gehennas that are more deadly than the ritual child sacrifice of Jeremiah’s day.

What could possibly be worse, you ask. How about if instead of saying Gehenna, I might say Auschwitz. Or I might say 9-11. Should we also mention something like Hiroshima? Do you see? We certainly don’t see Auschwitz or 9-11 as instances of good violence. They sicken us. But rest assured that the people who perpetrated these acts did see them as good violence. They saw themselves as destroying the bad people that God wanted them to exterminate. And so we need to risk getting closer to home with something like Hiroshima. Didn’t we consider that an act of good violence used to ward off even worse violence — even though the bomb killed mostly civilians, including thousands of children?

Let me risk something even closer to home. In Kalamazoo County, conservative estimates of the children who are currently homeless is over a thousand. In this harsh winter weather, it’s a wonder one of them hasn’t died from exposure. Perhaps there has been a homeless child that has died from a disease that it might not have been fatal had they had proper shelter. I think that Jesus lumps together in this passage the normal and abnormal forms of good violence in order for us to question the ultimate effectiveness of all of them, normal and abnormal. In raising the case of homeless children, I’d like for us to question and consider: is allowing children to continue to be homeless a lesser form of violence we are willing to live with for the sake of order in our society? Again, there’s no way any of us consider homeless children to be a good thing. But we continue to allow it. Why? Isn’t it for the sake of a greater good in the sense of maintaining our economic order? Don’t we allow homeless children because we feel it’s the price to pay in a capitalist society? The question Jesus is pushing us to ask, then, is: Might there be a way to continue good order as a community based on compassion so that we find the resources to stop homelessness once and for all?

I conclude with three brief glimpses of Good News. First, if learning to live in the love of God is the only ultimate answer to things like anger and lust, how is that possible? Might we answer with the Incarnation, God become human? Isn’t that part of the Good News of Jesus being truly human? He is a human being who learned how to live fully in God’s love, and I think his call to discipleship means that we can learn it to. St. Paul’s favorite phrase and topic is about living in Christ, living in the Spirit. I’m confident that he was convinced we can do so. In my own experience, I see miracles of people who have experienced tremendous healing from the anger or lust stemming from childhood trauma that had them previously trapped. We can find our anger or lust redeemed and learn to live in God’s love.

Another hint that we can learn to live in God’s love is what comes right after this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6, which we’ll read in a few weeks on Ash Wednesday: Jesus tells us to get serious about our spiritual disciplines: almsgiving, fasting, and above all prayer. Constant prayer is the key to living in God’s love. Renewing our prayer life needs to be a part of our Worship Track of Work (part of our current parish Strategy Plan).

Second, if you remember nothing else from this homily today, please remember that for Jesus hell is Gehenna, not the place of eternal punishment it has come to mean for us. Perhaps Rob Bell wasn’t clear enough, so please also remember that, “Pastor Paul definitely believes in hell.” I’m not advocating doing away with hell. But, following the lead of Jesus, I believe in hell as our violence, not God’s. I believe in hell as Auschwitz and 9-11 and Hiroshima — or whatever big conflagration comes next if we don’t let Jesus empower us to live in God’s love.

Finally, I also believe this: the Apostle’s Creed says that Jesus descended into hell. This happened on Good Friday. Do you see how the cross, after a trial before judges, and as an official execution of the state, is part of our good human violence we use to keep order? Yes, Jesus descended into the hell of our sacred violence. But there’s also a tradition that on Holy Saturday he was rounding up all our victims of sacred violence to safely take them to God’s home until the New Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth. So the last word today comes from Revelation 7, where all the victims of our sacred violence gather around the throne of God. It is a wondrous scene. Victims of violence are gathered from every nation and time in history — from ritual altars of human sacrifice, from Auschwitz and Hiroshima, from the poor streets of our cities. They are those who have come through the ordeal, praising God in white robes, where death and suffering will be no more. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 16, 2014

1. “Sacred violence” is a term that derives from the work of René Girard, beginning with his book Violence and the Sacred. I develop the same concept here as “good violence,” to be able to more easily extend the sacred violence to include our modern secular forms of it.

2. For more on hell as Gehenna, see the notes on my webpage for Epiphany 6A.

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