Epiphany +6

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. What a marvelously stupid phrase, and yet I bet all of us, at some point in our lives, have used it or told someone else to use it. Words hurt and words can kill; words pull the trigger on weapons that kill the spirit. Words can bring life as well, never more so than in the Word of God made flesh. Jesus had a lot to say about how we speak and even how we think, and if listening to today’s Gospel reading got you thinking that Jesus sets the purity bar really high, well, you’re right. Thankfully, whenever Jesus sets the bar real high, He also gives us the power to clear it. So let’s take a cheery walk through some tough stuff.

Four times in this week’s Gospel Jesus begins statements with “You have heard it said…” You have heard it said that you shall not murder or commit adultery or swear falsely, you have heard it said that you can divorce your wife with a piece of paper. Interestingly, all four of these laws equate to murder. Jesus hands us four laws and five deaths: the death of the body, the death of dignity, the death of God-given sexuality, the death of personal honesty, and the death of the one being that marriage creates.

-The death of the body is binary in form but comes with multiple explanations. Taking a human life is murder only when there are no mitigating circumstances. Those mitigating circumstances, say killing in wartime or in self-defense, don’t make taking a life any less grievous, only less damning. I think we can all agree that murder is bad, all the time.

-The death of personal honesty is at the end of the reading today, but it’s no less important than the rest. To swear falsely, to perjure yourself, is famously against the law, but Jesus said to not swear at all; in other words, live your life in such a way that no one will make you swear to tell the truth. Jesus points out, to our shame and with a touch of humor, that we all swear on things we have no power over anyway, so we just look like idiots swearing to God or even on our own head.

-The death of godly sexuality is so often the cause of these other deaths. Twisted sexuality is a problem for both men and women, but men seem better at it. You could say that men have elevated the sin of lust to an art form, except that we still have to work so hard at it. The objectifying of human flesh is what Jesus is talking about here, the taking away of what belongs to the person, that person’s spouse, and to God, and using it for mere excitement; it’s the emptying of another person, and that’s murderous too.

-The death of a marriage. Jesus prohibited divorce, there’s no way around it, and so I’ll just say it. Divorce kills the new creature, the two-become-one-flesh that marriage creates, and it insults all other covenants, including the covenant God made with us in the Blood of His Son. Divorce happens, no one is immune, so no one, me included, is condemning anyone for it. But it’s still bad.

-This leaves us with the death of dignity. This is the big one for us today. The death of the dignity, the taking away of a person’s reputation, their livelihood, their personhood – what Jesus means when He talks about calling a man a “fool,” or the injurious demeaning of another person – is apparently no less murderous than killing the body.

It’s fitting, then, that today is the feast of Absalom Jones. A group of white so-called Christians tried to murder the dignity of Father Absalom. “In 1786 the membership of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia included both blacks and whites. However, the white members met that year and decided that thereafter black members should sit only in the balcony. One of the black Sunday worshippers, Absalom Jones, who, along with his friend Richard Allen,…had brought many blacks into the congregation, learned of the decision only when, on the following Sunday, ushers tapped them on the shoulder during the opening prayers, and demanded that they move to the balcony without waiting for the end of the prayer. They walked out, followed by the other black members. Absalom Jones conferred with William White, the Episcopal Bishop of Philadelphia, who agreed to accept the group as an Episcopal parish.”[1] Jones eventually became their priest and rector, being the first black American to be ordained in Apostolic succession.

That dehumanizing decision and that murderous tap on Absalom’s shoulder could have murdered the spirits of so many that day. But instead God was with them, and today you can go to The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia and meet Fr. Absalom’s successor, Fr. Martini Shaw, who has the place bursting at the seams.

So the lesson for this week is this: the bar is set very high. Accept where that bar is and accept that you’re never getting over it on your own, none of us will. Start with the little things. Don’t put yourself in situations where you will undoubtedly get angry or dream about the half-naked woman on the screen or have your honesty impugned. Separate yourself from stuff that drags you down and instead concentrate on the good. Do that for a month, seriously, try it for a month, all the while asking God to help you out with the little stuff, and then see if that bar looks a bit closer.

[1] Lesser Feasts and Fasts – Satucket

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