The following homily was delivered by Mike Sweitzer-Beckman at Sunday Assembly on February 13, 2011. The readings from the lectionary schedule that day were I Corinthians 2:6-10 and Matthew 5:21-37.
Mike was raised a Roman Catholic at St. Bernard’s in Middleton, and earned his Master of Divinity degree in 2008 from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. He now works with the sisters as their communications and IT coordinator.
Last January 12, I had a chance to go down to the state capitol and watch my wife, Erica, get affirmed into the state bar association inside the chambers of the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. Fortunately for me, it was my first time inside the state supreme court on the second floor, which is guarded overhead by a statue of a badger. Three justices, including Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, presided over the brisk ceremony. One of the justices talked about all the great attorneys from Wisconsin that had gone before these new attorneys.
One thing that wasn’t well-clarified was that incoming members of the state bar could elect to be sworn in or affirmed in. Because of Erica’s background as a member of the Church of the Brethren, an Anabaptist tradition in the same ballpark as Mennonites and Quakers, she elected to be affirmed into the state bar.
The nuance comes from today’s reading from Matthew, where Jesus says, “And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.” When Anabaptists were settling into this country in the 1600s, they took this passage quite literally. They believe that you should be affirming to tell the truth at all times, and to swear on telling the truth indicates that there might be times where you wouldn’t. Only one president of our country has opted to affirm his oath of office, and that was President Franklin Pierce in 1853. To my knowledge, Richard M. Nixon is the only president to be raised in the Anabaptist tradition, but he opted to be sworn in with hands on two different Bibles. And now we know how his presidency turned out …
There are some real treasures in today’s Gospel reading. I had a hard time reading it at first with the idea of having to share the good news about it. I mean, who am I to shed light on the passage where Jesus mandates that whoever “marries a divorced person commits adultery.” I suppose those who have remarried are in good company since so many people in our society have found much greater happiness in remarriage.
As is necessary so many times when reading scripture today, it is time to pull out our metaphorical and analogical toolboxes in understanding this section of the Sermon on the Mount. Interestingly for this time period, the burden for staying married is on men. As Amy Jill-Levine writes in her feminist perspective on the Gospel of Matthew: “Women are not seen as responsible for enticing men into sexual misadventures … For Jesus, as well as for the evangelist, adultery involves not merely the physical act but also the desire for it.” Lust has become as critical of a sin as adultery, as nobody should be regarded as a sex object.
Jesus is dishing out these commands to not divorce when married, or the consequences will be fierce, although in Matthew he makes the concession that it might make sense in the case of unchastity. The same scripture in Mark includes no concession. There is speculation that since Matthew wrote this some 50 years after Jesus was here, the author realized how difficult it can be to remain married. The end times weren’t so near as speculated during Jesus’ time. And the way that this is written in Matthew, Jesus is actually trying to redefine the community’s understanding of marriage. He says, “You have heard that it was said …” and then he goes on to clarify his new take on marriage. He is attempting to reshape the Mosaic understanding of marriage for this community.
This message is time-specific. If Jesus were to come again today, I wonder if he would have a new redefinition of marriage? I think the true message to take from these commands is that Jesus is challenging us to live in right relationship with one another, including with our spouses. We should try to look past the minimal letter of the law, and look to the spirit of the law, which calls us to make a more full commitment to relate more wholly to one another.
With St. Valentine’s Day tomorrow, I believe the major take-away at the heart of today’s Gospel is to love each other. And I don’t mean the kind of love that is promoted in our society on tomorrow’s holiday. I don’t mean the kind of love that takes chemistry, mood, feelings, and maybe some fine wine. I am talking about the kind of love that is promoted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
You know the kind of love I mean — it is the love that goes beyond what seems right according to the letter of the law, and enters into the Spirit of what God wants for us, the love that enters into feeding others, into healing others, into showing grace to others, into giving peace to others, the love that values others, regardless of who they are or what they have or have not done.
To be able to love in the way that Jesus demanded requires reconciliation. As Jesus said today: “If your right hand causes you 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.” Now when you become angry at someone in our community, I hope nobody goes and cuts off any members. We don’t want that. But I believe what we do want is to be able to express this anger gracefully, and to forgive all the others around us that are part of this Body of Christ. We are all going to make mistakes, and others are going to make mistakes that offend us.
The reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians helps illustrate the love that is needed in our human society. Paul writes about all the quarreling going on between members of the community, when Paul notices that everyone is merely a human. He points out that the divided members in the community either take part in planting and watering the crops, but neither of these human acts would be enough without the growth that only God can provide. We all have choices to make in our lives, and thus we can choose to be a part of constructing the world God wants, or we can be a part of creating the world that God didn’t quite have in mind.
Now back to Erica being affirmed into the state bar. One thing that I was fortunate enough to learn about over the past couple years was through her work at the Remington Center at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She was involved in an internship where she did mediation between incarcerated offenders and the families they committed violent crimes against.
This system of involvement was completely against the grain of the traditional legal system, which is quite confrontational. At the Remington Center, attorneys and interns are trying to bring both sides together in order to find common ground, provide answers to tough questions, and truly make society better going forward.
Erica helped to bring together a family from Lodi who lost their son in an armed robbery gone bad. She started by meeting with them to see what their desires were in meeting with the person who committed this crime against their son. Then she corresponded with the violent offender to determine if he was willing to meet. In the end, she was able to visit the state prison in Waupun and bring both sides together. The family was able to ask why and what happened. The offender was able to express his regret over that night that wasn’t supposed to go the way it had. The couple from Lodi has made more visits to Waupun and has begun corresponding in between visits. The offender made a donation to the memorial fund established in their son’s name.
I didn’t really mean to make so much of this sermon about my wife the day before Valentine’s Day, but I couldn’t come up with a better illustration of the powerful message that Jesus was sharing with us today. We are being called to have love each other under the most difficult of circumstances. We are being called to participate in the tasks that help grow God’s vision for our world, but must humbly accept that it is God that makes that world grow. So let us go out into the world after this liturgy, and really challenge ourselves to deal with difficult circumstances that are causing roadblocks in this growth process. Let us live in right relationship through this process.