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Loving Uncle Jack

Rev. Kate Layzer
Sun, Feb 16

Text: Matthew 5: 17- 37

Do you have an Uncle Jack?

I don’t mean a literal Uncle Jack—and I apologize to all the Jacks out there for picking your name at random…

I mean the difficult uncle you run into at major family events, like weddings and funerals… opinionated, a little bit loud, a little too quick with the blanket statements… a little too ready with the unsolicited comments about your life choices. But still—a member of the family.

You can’t hate him, exactly—at least you know you’re not supposed to. He’s a family member, after all. He’s your kin. You’re just never sure how to deal with Uncle Jack.

That’s how I feel about this morning’s scripture passage.

It’s family, because the whole Bible is family to me—a deep, enduring relationship that has nurtured and rooted me in our tradition, that’s helped to shape me and tell me who I am.

But that doesn’t mean I have an easy time with every member of that family.

This passage from Matthew is like Uncle Jack for me. Every encounter feels awkward and difficult. Every time we run into each other, I feel like I’m listening to an angry tirade about kids today.

And the worst part is, I’m one of those kids. In case you’ve forgotten, Uncle Jack, I’M a woman who’s been divorced and remarried. I’m sorry, but this is my life. I’ve had struggles. I’ve made mistakes. It feels like you don’t understand that. It feels like you don’t really see me.

And what’s so confusing about all this is: I don’t know whether the Uncle Jack in this passage is Jesus, Jesus to whom I’ve entrusted my very heart and soul—or Matthew, the gospel writer. Or some combination of both.

How could the same gospel that tells me, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy,” and “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world” —how could that same gospel tell me, “Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny”?

Did Jesus say both those things? Or was the part about paying the last penny Uncle Jack putting in his (ahem) two cents? (…Sorry.)

So when I checked the lectionary to see what I would be preaching on today, my heart sank. It was like I had gotten to the wedding reception and discovered that I’d been seated next to you-know-who.

I had to do something. I couldn’t not be at the wedding. So… Uncle Jack and I went to family therapy. Or something like it. I took the passage to Brent Coffin and said, “Help!”

And, of course, he did.

First, he wonderfully and graciously helped me appreciate the context in which this hard passage had been created.

We talked about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 c.e., a dozen or so years before the gospel was written. How Jews had to wrestle with what Judaism was to be, now, with the Temple gone and the memory of this catastrophe hanging over everything.

What had gone wrong? Why had it happened? Without Temple sacrifices and offerings, how were God’s covenant people to live out their religious commitment?

Matthew’s community had a powerful vision of Jewish renewal centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But other groups had a vision for renewal too. The Pharisees’ vision was focused on Torah, on the commandments and the interpretive traditions that had grown up around them. For the Pharisees, rebuilding Judaism meant a renewed focus on keeping the law as a way of life, a way of being in the world.

So we have at least two competing visions in a time of national crisis and redefinition for the Jewish people. If you think about the heat that gets generated every time we have a national election in this country, when people are feeling as if the future is at stake—indeed, the very soul of the nation—well, I think we get some of that same heat in the gospel of Matthew.

As Brent put it, there’s a lot of “They do it that way, we do it this way” going on the gospel of Matthew.

On my Facebook page too, come to think of it. Not that much has really changed.

We all have contexts, don’t we? Our imperfect parents, our imperfect families. The place we come from, and the time we were born into. The people and events that shaped our experiences.

Each of us is a complicated mix of self and circumstance. The part of us that’s pure creation, God’s free and joyful gift—and all the confusing interactions of people and events that we all have to navigate in our lives.

“Only God sees everything that has happened to us,” a spiritual director told me once. “Only God sees the choices we’ve had to make at every moment.”

That’s why, as Meister Eckhart says, “Whatever God does, God’s first outburst [toward us] is always compassion.”

Compassion first is an important reminder to hold on to. And another is this—

that beneath our complicated personalities, our mistakes and the choices that turned out badly, the defenses we’ve built up, the bad habits we’ve accumulated… beneath all that, the self created by God abides: whole, beautiful, radiant as the day God called it into being and called it beloved.

Even Uncle Jack.

That’s who Jack is: not in theory, but in actuality. He is that perfect and beloved self—even if I have a hard time seeing him. God dwells in him as God does in me and you, and indeed at the heart of all creation, everywhere and always, if we are willing to pay attention; if we are willing to open our eyes, our ears, our hearts.

Sitting with Brent in the Hastings Room reading today’s passage together havruta-style—and if you don’t know about our havruta Bible study yet, please ask me later—or better yet, ask Brent!—

sitting and talking over what troubled us or jarred us, and where we felt Jesus speaking to us, I felt my relationship to this old family nemesis of a passage begin to shift. I felt a sense of warmth and life begin to flow through it that had never been there before.

What an amazing thing to have happen.

To start with, Brent pointed me back to the beginning of the chapter, to the Beatitudes.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.”

Spirit. Meekness. Hunger. This teaching of Jesus is about the inward experience of the heart. Humility and longing, mercy and purity of heart—what today we would call authenticity.

And then, as the sermon unfolds, the shadow side of that same heart. Anger. Lust. Hypocrisy. Indifference.

You want to be right with God? Jesus says. Look inward. Pay attention to what’s going on in your soul. Don’t just work on your behavior and ignore your destructive impulses.

For Matthew’s community, the path to God isn’t about what we’re doing. It’s about who we’re becoming.

 

The doing part—our choices, our behavior, the ways we relate to each other, the ways we treat each other—it all begins with the heart. Or as the poet Yeats put it bluntly,

“I must lie down where all the ladders start 

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

Not the heart we wish we had, not the one we would like others to think we have, but our real heart. The place of our real needs and joys and desires and hurts and resentments and shame.

To lie down there, in Yeats’ phrase, to start in that place, is to begin in total humility by being real with ourselves and real with God. No pretending. No bargaining. No empty promising. Just the plain truth of who we are, held in compassion in the loving gaze of God, who already knows all about us.

The Beatitudes gives us a vision of life lived with this kind of authenticity, the shelter of God’s grace. The verses we heard last week about being the salt of the earth, the light of the world, remind us that when we begin to live in this heartfelt way we change the world, simply by being who God made us to be.

When we live from the heart, we make everything more alive. We shine with the brightness of God’s glory in us.

Today’s passage brings us back to where human beings actually live most of the time.

It’s not enough to resist the urge to club your neighbor in the head, Jesus says. If you’re carrying around rage in your heart, that rage is going to affect everything you do and say, even if you don’t actually kill anyone.

It’s not enough to refrain from having an affair with your married co-worker if you’re always thinking about sleeping with him.

And speaking of unfaithfulness, how can you and  your wife be thinking about divorce when you haven’t yet tried fully living into your covenant together? Try being deeply faithful to each other first and see what happens.

Listening to these verses with heartfelt attention, we can start to hear, beyond the language of hellfire and prison cells, an urgent call to be real. To cultivate a deeper honesty in which to encounter the grace of God.

When Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and the scribes, he means that obedience to the commandments calls for our whole selves, heart, mind, soul, and strength. It demands that we be willing to drop our defenses and let the Spirit to search us and know us. In a word—to go deep.

Now we need to be careful here. Just because Matthew had an argument with the Pharisees in his time and place doesn’t mean we have to have one. Let’s not fall into the trap Christians have been falling into for 2,000 years, and imagine, God forbid, that we know something about the Pharisees or their practices or their hearts. We can’t, and we don’t, and may God forgive every smug thought we’ve ever had about how much holier and more authentic our rabbi is compared to THOSE PEOPLE. This is Matthew’s family fight; it doesn’t need to be ours.

Instead, I hope we can hear these words as in invitation to US to the blessing of life lived honestly and immediately—and a warning about the hellfire that breaks out on earth when we live with an eye on others living with an eye on us, back and forth.

How quickly that escalates… until we are all in captivity to anger, score-keeping, and retribution.

There does seem to be some editorializing on Matthew’s part going on here. Live life as authentically as possible—or else??! Do the right thing from the heart—or God’s going to punish you?

I'm reminded of the legend of the 8th century Muslim saint Rab’ia of Basra—that she was once seen running through the streets with a bucket of water in one hand and a torch in the other—

water to put out the fires of Hell, and a torch to burn down the rewards of Paradise. “They block the way to Allah,” she said. “I don’t want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of Allah.”

Amen, Matthew?

The wonderful thing about having a family argument with this passage is that the text itself invites us to engage this way.

“You have heard it said to those in ancient times…” Jesus tells us, and goes on to quote the Ten Commandments, one by one. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder… you shall not commit adultery. You shall not swear falsely.’ But I say to you…!”

But I say to you, don’t treat the word of God like a thing, like a lifeless relic. Or even like a crusty old uncle to be avoided at family events.

Love it. Grapple with it. Be in relationship with it.

Some of you know that my work on Mondays is with the homeless community of downtown Boston, through the Episcopal cathedral. That means doing church—and it IS church—with some pretty intense personalities.

It’s taught me—well, I can’t tell you how much. But among many other gifts that have come to me in this ministry, I’ve been blessed with the gift of learning how to pay attention.

Outward appearances can be baffling, off-putting, or just plain hard to read. Difficult behaviors are common.

But bit by bit I’ve been learning to look past the distractions and notice the holy calmly at home amid the confusion.

The man whose tantrums can sometimes be so exasperating turns out to be the one who is most sensitive to the pain of the one others pick on.

The woman who thinks her circumstances are being orchestrated by the FBI is gentle, kind, and concerned about the future of the church.

Chronic alcoholism and deep faith share a peaceful coexistence. Love for family and friends shines steadily amid transience, instability, and often violence.

How can God be so at home in such crazy surroundings? That’s the mystery. That’s the beauty of Incarnation.

And the Word was made flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth.

A lot of people, when they hear I work alongside the homeless, want to shower me with admiration. They must think I do it out of the goodness of my heart.

Listen. For most of my life, I did what most people do when they pass a homeless person on the corner: I hurried by. I averted my gaze.

Life on the street was an otherness I was too scared and intimidated to go near.

Crossing that border, dismantling those defenses, has given me such a profound sense of freedom and joy. The truth was there all along, but I hadn’t embraced it yet: That stranger over there, that other who scares me, is a person like me.

I work with sex offenders, former arsonists, people who get drunk and beat up their girlfriends. They’re a mess. Their childhoods were a mess. And there is such deep beauty in every one of them.

The goodness of my heart? No. I do this work because it makes me come more alive. It gives me a glimpse of the kingdom of God—that place where we are all welcome, where the heart is open to joy and pain, where we can be honest in the presence of God and each other.

What has changed you? What has helped you open your heart?

What helps you feel not only more alive, but more able to be present to others, and to God?

For me it’s been daily meditation.

Maybe for some of you it’s been havruta Bible study: the practice of doing what Brent and I did, sitting together with a text, wondering about it together, wrestling with it, sharing where it speaks to our lives.

With Lent approaching, now is the perfect time to begin thinking about taking on some kind of practice—just as an experiment—just to see what happens. We’ll be sharing a whole menu of spiritual practices suggestions in the next couple of weeks.

And if that feels scary and weird, remember: That might actually be a sign that God is trying to draw you into greater freedom, greater spaciousness, greater joy, greater connection, greater life. You never know.

Praise to the Lifegiver, the Mystery at the heart of everything. Praise for the gift of life, and for each other, and for this earth our home. And to God be glory and blessing and honor and praise, now and forever. Amen.

 

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