A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 16, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 5:21-37
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

So I dug through my file for this Sunday and discovered that, as far as I can tell, I have never preached on today’s gospel lesson.  On the years when the season after Epiphany was long enough to include a 6th Sunday and it was year A of the three-year lectionary cycle, I have chosen one of the other lessons assigned to the day to preach on.  I’m not surprised by this.  Jesus’ teaching, as recorded by Matthew, is not the easiest collection of sayings to hear.  Who wants to be reminded about the anger that we hold?  Who wants to preach about adultery?  Who wants to confront the lies and obfuscations we tell?

These are the topics Jesus addresses in this passage.  And I am going to try to address them, so fasten your seatbelts and put your tray tables and seatbacks in their upright and locked positions.  But before we take off, there is something else happening this weekend that I want you to know about.

Interfaith Power and Light, a national organization concerned about the moral implications of climate change, has called on congregations of all faith traditions to spend some time this weekend teaching about and taking action on climate change.  So my plan is to talk about the three topics Jesus addresses and to talk about how they relate to our abilities to respond (our respons-ibilities) to climate change.

Each section in today’s gospel lesson begins with Jesus saying, “You have heard that is was said, …”  Then Jesus goes on, “But I say to you …”  Jesus completes the first sentence by quoting one of the Ten Commandments.  “You have heard that is was said to those of ancient time, ‘You shall not murder.’”  Not murdering, not committing adultery, and not bearing false witness are three of the Ten Commandments.

Both versions of the Ten Commandments – in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 – start with God reminding the Hebrews of who God is.  “I am the Lord you God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” is how it’s phrased in Exodus 20:5.  That focus – freeing the people from slavery – is the identifier in Deuteronomy, too.  The Ten Commandments are given to a people God has just freed from slavery.  The Ten Commandments are part of God’s freedom plan.  “The law was offered to encourage people to live together in peace and harmony with God and with each other.”[1]

Jesus was not replacing the Ten Commandments.  Jesus was not saying the originals weren’t good enough.  He was calling people to move past a simple fulfillment of the law and to get to the heart of the matter.  “Jesus felt like people had strayed away from the real purpose of the law and the prophets.  To Jesus, the law was not a rule book to enslave people.  The intent was to promote the common welfare of the people through just relationships.”[2]

So, in the first of these three topic in today’s gospel lesson, when Jesus warns against anger, he’s not saying, “Never get angry.”  He’s saying that holding on to anger is destructive to us, to the person we’re angry at, to our community, and to our relationship with God.  We need to reconcile with our neighbor before we make a sacrifice at the Temple Altar because “right relationship with God is predicated upon having a right relationship with your neighbor(s).”[3]

That’s why the second great commandment comes right along with the first.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength – that’s the greatest commandment, Jesus says.  And the second, Jesus adds without being asked, is right up there:  love your neighbor as yourself.  Your relationship with God is important, and so is your relationship with your neighbors.  In fact, the two can’t be separated.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  I was taught that saying as a child.  I was taught it almost as a mantra to use when I was teased on the playground (or by a big sister).  It was supposed to help me let the teasing roll off me like water off a duck’s back.  Of course, it isn’t true.  Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will break my spirit.

In this section of today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is reminding us that words can kill.  This is very important for me to remember.  As someone who ‘gets’ how dangerous climate change is, I can get angry toward climate change denialists.  I need to remember that I am in community with these people and that my relationship with God is predicated on my relationship with them.

The Buddha supposedly said something like, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”[4]  If the Buddha didn’t say it, he should have.  It’s true.  Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

Jesus is asking us to look more deeply at relationships.  “The Old Testament Law condemned murder (Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:18), but at the heart of this law lies a respect for the life of another, regard for the right of another to be, reverence for another as the creation of God.” [5]

The men hearing this idea, that their relationship with God is predicated on their relationship with the neighbors, was probably challenging for many of them.  But they probably heard it in connection to their relationships with their male neighbors only.  The thing is, Jesus doesn’t stop there.  In a world where women had no agency, Jesus expands this radical thinking to include them, too.  He moves on to another commandment – the one about not committing adultery.

Adultery was a property concern in Jesus’ day.  Women were the property and responsibility of their fathers and then their husbands.  If they were widows, they were the responsibility of their sons.  So when Jesus teaches men against committing adultery and even against objectifying women, he is calling them to recognize and respect the boundaries of their marriages and to recognize and respect the personhood of women.

The same is true for the teaching on divorce.  Women aren’t simply a piece of property to be discarded when you’re done with them.  Husbands have a commitment to their wives.

Of course, marriage is far from the only commitment we have in our lives.  If you have children, you have a commitment to them.  If you are a child – and all of you are – you have (or had) a commitment to your parents.  We have a commitment to this faith community.  And on the list goes.

The answer to Cain’s question is, “Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.”  We have a commitment to our brothers and sisters, whether they are siblings by blood or siblings by being part of humanity.  We are in relationship with everyone around the globe and we have a responsibility to care about what happens to them.

When climate change causes them to no longer have access to water or caused their homes to be flooded or their farms to cease to be able to produce food, that is a concern for all of us because of our commitment to them.  And we have a responsibility to help keep that from happening.  Just as Jesus tells husbands that they can’t just dismiss their wives, we can’t just dismiss the farmers in the Central Valley as their farms dry up, or the people of the Maldives as their nation submerges under rising sea levels, or the people of Bangladesh (or England) as their homes are flooded from drastic changes in rain patterns.

About eight years ago, humorist and TV personality Stephen Colbert introduced us to a new word:  truthiness.  Created as part of Colbert’s comedy “news” show, “truthiness” became part of American English.  It is defined as “the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like.”[6]

Almost two thousand years earlier, Jesus was speaking out against truthiness, in favor of truth.  Don’t take an oath to prove that you are speaking truthfully.  Speak the truth – all the time.  Let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no.” Full stop.

Jay Michaelson writes about how a problem with truthiness is that it can go so far as to be evil.  “Climate change specifically is perhaps the most challenging case of all, because of the billions of dollars that have been spent to lie to Americans over the last twenty years.  … [T]here really is a vast right-wing conspiracy to lie about climate change, and it has worked.  Half of Americans don’t ‘believe’ that climate change is real, despite a 99.5% (!) scientific consensus – with the .5% being, unsurprisingly, scientists in the employment of industry.

“This is what evil is:  lying, in a way that causes harm, in order to enrich oneself.  Progressives may not like the language of good and evil (so much judgment!) but it is a public religious language that communicates exactly what the ‘Merchants of Doubt’ … do.  They lie, they harm, and they do it to make money.  Pure evil.”[7]

Michaelson goes on to explain that we can’t solve the climate change dilemma by simply changing our light bulbs.  He writes, “It really doesn’t matter if you use paper or plastic, or if you bring your canvas bag from home.  Personal actions are a tiny drop in a huge bucket.  We need systemic change and political change, and we’re not going to get that by turning inward on ourselves, finding additional ways to be personally and pointlessly pious.

“Climate change is a collective sin, and it requires collective repentance …  It is not enough to be the change you want to see in the world.  You also have to fight for it.”[8]

How do we fight for it?  One way is to paint the fossil fuel industry’s business plan as what it is:  immoral.  And we can do that by divesting from stock and bond holdings in this industry sector – the way we divested from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa to paint what they were doing as immoral.  There is a petition in Ford Hall that you can sign calling on the City of Fremont to divest, and I will be presenting it to the City Council on Tuesday night.

Another way is to lobby for policy changes.  A small step for doing this is available during coffee hour, too.  There are postcards that you can address to Senator Feinstein calling on her to support the EPA’s Carbon Pollution Standards for New and Existing Power Plants.  You can sign one and turn it in to me.  Then, this afternoon, you can contact the Secretary of State and the President by email or snail mail and urge them to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline.

When Jesus talked about these commandments, he wasn’t trying to shame anyone.  He wasn’t trying to make anyone feel extra-guilty.  He was trying to get people to look at our covenant with God and to move past the letter of the law and to embrace the heart of the matter.

It’s not just about avoiding murdering people; it’s about how we deal with our anger and how we resist or embrace forgiveness and reconciliation.  It’s not just about keeping your pants zipped; it’s about seeing the personhood in everyone and keeping accountable to your commitments.  It’s not just about making sure your testimony is truthful; it’s about living an honest life.

May our lives embrace these Jesus-values.  Amen.


[1] Nancy Hasting Schested, “God’s Family Values,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/gods-family-values, accessed on 11 February 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Reginald Broadnax, “Matthew 5:21-26 – Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels:  Matthew, Volume 1 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2013), 94.

[4] One of those unverifiable quotes floating around Facebook.

[5] Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, quoted by Karen Georgia Thompson in her “Sermon Seeds” column for 16 February 2014, United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/february-16-2014.html, accessed on 11 February 2014.

[6] “Truthiness,” dictionary.com, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/truthiness accessed 15 February 2014.

[7] Jay Michaelson, “Climate Change is Sin – Here’s How to Repent For It,” Religion Dispatches, http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/culture/7505/climate_change_is_a_sin_here_s_how_to_repent_for_it/, accessed on 12 February 2014.

[8] Ibid.