Sermon for Sunday, February 16, 2020 – “Living As the Beloved Community”

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

Author Phillip Yancey tells about meeting a woman who was in desperate straits. She was home- less, sick, and unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. She’d turned to prostitution to survive. He writes, “I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. ‘Church!’ she cried, ‘Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.’”[1]

I think of that woman when I hear our Gospel reading for today. I think about everyone who has experienced the pain of divorce and then more pain when they’ve been judged and excluded by the church. I think about all of us who feel shame about our choices and thoughts and the brokenness in our lives.

Really Jesus? I want to say. We already feel terrible about ourselves, this just makes things worse.

Yet, then I remember what Jesus was all about in this passage – this passage that’s part of his larger Sermon on the Mount that we’ve been hearing all month. Minister and author, Debie Thomas, has reminded me what Jesus is doing in his sermon and her insights have really helped me to understand this passage.[2]

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t giving warnings about morality to a bunch of individuals.

That’s often how we hear it as 21st Century Americans who’ve been shaped to approach every- thing in an individualistic way. If we imagine that Jesus is lecturing individuals about morality, we hear his words as just harsh admonitions to shape up and try to get everyone else out there to shape up, too.

Yet, Jesus is doing something else in his Sermon on the Mount. He’s speaking to the whole group of his disciples, including us, and calling forth a new community.

Jesus is calling forth a community that will know we are blessed by God through all the trials of life, as we heard in the first part of his sermon, the beatitudes; a community that will know we have been blessed by God to be a blessing to the world; that will know we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world even when we don’t feel like it, as we heard last week.

This week it becomes clear that Jesus is calling forth “a community meant to initiate a radical way of doing life on the earth, a community Jesus trusts will follow in his footsteps, and [bring] divine love to a world hungry for hope and healing.”[3]

In his instructions that we hear today, Jesus seeks to shape this community so that we can most fully experience God’s blessing of life and well-being, and most fully bless the world.

He instructs all of us disciples to take relationships with one another very seriously; to “go beyond the bare minimum of civility and morality, and live together with the deepest respect, integrity, and love.”[4]

Jesus says it isn’t enough to just avoid murdering. We should practice kindness and speak well of each other. We shouldn’t let anger consume us. We should seek reconciliation.

It isn’t enough to just avoid adultery. Instead, we’re called to honor the dignity of all people so that we don’t objectify others and view them as ways to satisfy our physical desires. And as Thomas points out, we’re called to “help others succeed in marriages and relational commitments, instead of making those vows even harder to fulfill.” We’re called to “encourage each other in holy living, not holy as in stiff, boring, lifeless, and prudish, but holy as in whole, abundant, faithful, and life- giving.”[5]

And even when marital relationships come to an end, as they sometimes must, Jesus says we shouldn’t treat people as disposable – that we should be concerned for the welfare of the most vulnerable. This was especially true in Jesus’ day when women were considered the property of their husbands and men could easily dispose of their wives with a simple note of divorce. This left women in desperate straits. Jesus wants something different. “In the beloved community Jesus is shaping, he says we each have a responsibility to uphold each other’s dignity as [siblings] in Christ — even when our relationships as spouses or partners come to an end.”[6]

Finally, Jesus calls us to keep our promises and not deceive, connive or manipulate each other so that no one needs to say “I swear” if they want to be trusted. He calls us to be mindful that everything we say is spoken in the presence of God and to honor one another by speaking honestly.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not about making people feel worse. It is about God’s care for us and this hurting world. God wants the woman who came to Philip Yancey to know how much she is loved and valued. God wants the beloved community to live in ways that allow for her dignity to be honored, for the dignity of all people to be honored.

God’s abiding care for us is why God gives us commandments, why Jesus intensifies them in his sermon. As we heard in the reading from Deuteronomy, God’s commandments are given so that we can live well together and be a blessing to the world.

But what happens when we don’t live out God’s commandments? Does God condemn us to hell?

The references to hell in Jesus’ sermon seem more descriptive than prescriptive. If we live with anger, insulting others and calling them fools, we create hell on earth. If we let lust control us, we feed a fire that can become all-consuming. If we ignore the dignity of others, we experience the hell of being cut off from community.

When we don’t live out God’s commandments, it does make God unhappy, but not because God is angry, wrathful and intent on punishing. Rather, God is unhappy because God loves us and wants our lives and relationships to be whole and well and nourishing.

God also longs for a relationship with us. And God chooses to be in relationship, no matter how often we turn from God’s ways.

In many ways, commandments and Jesus’ interpretation of them can drive us into relationship with God. They can show us how much we fall short of what God intends for us and how much we need to be forgiven, how much we need God’s help. They can shape us into a community that practices reconciliation and humility rather than self-righteousness and judgment. Whenever we’re tempted to think we’re better than someone who murders, someone who has turned to prostitution, Jesus’ words here remind us that we are all in need of forgiveness and mercy. And thanks be, God showers that upon us each week as we gather at the table.

Here we are reminded that we are all beggars in need of the bread of life. Here that bread is given freely so that we might know we are beloved. Here that bread is given freely to shape us into a community that can bless a world hungry for hope and healing.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.

[1] Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997

[2] Thomas, Debie. “Journey with Jesus” blogpost, posted February 9, 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.