6th Sunday after Epiphany
16 February 2014
Elizabeth M. Deibert
Well, 150 million Valentine’s cards have been exchanged, and the average American has spent $130 dollars to celebrate romantic love. But are we building integrity in our relationships or is this a rather empty display, an attempt to make up for short-comings or a short-lived fantasy? We are not entirely sure who the original St Valentine was. Some say he was a 3rd century Roman bishop who got in trouble for conducting weddings of young couples when the Emperor wanted to keep young soldiers single and focused. So Valentine was thrown in prison, where he healed the jailor’s daughter, and left her a love note when he died, signed “your Valentine.” It was in the 18th century England that Valentines card production exploded. Valentines have every kind of image imaginable now, but Cupid, the ancient mythological god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection is one of the earliest image for Valentine’s cards. Some would say “cupid is stupid” but I say that Cupid (this attraction/affection) gives us the courage to enter a relationship. What’s stupid is thinking that attraction/affection can sustain a relationship.
You know what Richard and I watch on Valentine’s Day? The French film Amour. Sounds so romantic, but guess what it is about? It is the painfully slow story of how an old man takes care of his dying wife. It wasn’t very exciting but it was an interesting look at love. Jesus calls us to a higher love than romantic affection. He calls us to agape, the love that gives and forgives. In the section of the Sermon on the Mount we are reading, Jesus challenges us to apologize and forgive, and to keep our relationships whole by keeping our eyes, minds, and hearts in the right place. Jesus is speaking to his disciples about right relatedness. He is not really talking about couples. He’s talking about Christian community. In the verses just prior to this teaching, Jesus said to his disciples, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” He says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”I believe he is talking about a kingdom here and now, a realm that we can live in, if we live like Christ. He goes on to explain what he means about fulfilling the law. He wants the disciples to understand the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law.
Matthew 5:21-30"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
(New Revised Standard Version)We want easier answers. We want to be able to justify ourselves by saying, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” “I never killed anyone. I never had an affair. ” But Jesus says that it is not so much what we did wrong but what we did right. Did we say we were sorry? Did we make amends? Did we forgive? Did we cultivate love or did we allow our minds to wander away from real love to some image on a computer screen or television?
If we really want to love, we have to learn how to forgive. (Mother Teresa) The first to apologize is the bravest. The first to forgive is the strongest. The first to forget is the happiest. Of course forgetting means laying it aside, not having amnesia. Forgiveness is not forgetting an injustice done. It is an understanding that allows us to set aside the emotional impact of that injustice. When we no longer hold these emotions, and when we have understanding for the person, then we have forgiven them.Anyone can hold a grudge, but it takes a person with character to forgive. When you forgive, you release yourself from a painful burden. Forgiveness does not mean that what happened was okay or that the person is welcome in your life, but that you have made peace with the pain and are ready to let it go.
Apologizing does not mean you’re wrong and the other person is right. It means you value the relationship more than your ego. I have seen and have participated myself in so many debates in family and church where ego gets in the way. Usually both sides have some piece of what is right, which is why we must move away from determining who is at fault, to empathy, to identify our own and others’ needs. We must understand that everyone has a need for belonging, purpose, meaning, integrity, and love. When these are threatened, we often respond with anger or distance. But the best way to move through conflict -- whether between parent and child, or a couple, or two members of a church) is to identify and try to meet needs. There can still be irresolvable differences, but the process of handling those is much less hurtful when needs are respected.Anger makes you smaller, while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you are. Forgiveness takes a lot of energy and self-awareness, but bitterness will truly take the life out of you, and leave you in a hell of sorts. The word Jesus used was for a real place of dead bodies. As you are coming forward today to receive communion, lay down your bitterness. Let it go. It’s not that you are saying they are more right than you. It is that you value life and right-relationships more than you value your own ego.
You can identify their needs and have empathy for them, and so you stop rewinding the event to churn yourself up again. You stop re-playing that video – the one in which you were right but got hurt. You start looking forward instead of backward. To call someone a fool is to demean their humanity and land yourself in hell here and now, Jesus says. It is better to lose part of yourself than for your whole self to land in the place of the dead. We need integrity – holding the whole thing together. Being the same person inside and outside. Being the same person no matter where you are or who is watching you or checking your internet history.The thing about unresolved anger and lustful, wandering, unfaithfulness in relationships is that much of this is unseen. If you kill someone, everyone knows. If you commit adultery, it usually comes out. But bitterness and unfaithful desires can be hidden from everyone. Internet porn is doing unspecified damage to relationships everywhere. No one but you and God know, but it slowly poisons. We had a friend, who ended his own life because of despair over ruined relationships due to an addiction to porn. The scary thing about undiscovered ills is that they have greater power to diminish us than exposed ones.
I’m not recommending that you announce all your lustful thoughts or grudges. But I am saying that when your anger or lust stirs up, take a serious inventory of your feelings and needs, and how you might get your needs met without hurting or objectifying other people. Think about their needs too. Even as someone is expressing anger toward you, you can be helpful by trying to hear their needs rather than their criticism. Real love, you know, is not a feeling, it cares about feelings, it identifies feelings, and responds to feelings with responsible behavior. To love God and love neighbor cannot be reduced to a set of rational rules. It’s a life of relational integrity – of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. It is a life of peacemaking – of one another-ing, of doing the messy work of caring for real people (not fantasy people) real people with real problems just like you. Real love works to appreciate another’s perspective. It asks for forgiveness and offers forgiveness. Integrity – real love lived out in all the relationships of life.