Can I Be Honest With You?
In honor of Valentine’s day, I would like to share with you a few selections of Puritanical Greeting Cards. Maybe after worship you can tell me which you think is the most romantic:
• Roses are red and violets are blue. Neither are practical or necessary.
• I need you – to help raise the livestock and crops or surely we will die come winter.
• You make my heart dance, and dancing is forbidden.
• Being with you fills me with impure thoughts and I feel ashamed.
I love these for their unvarnished honesty, but can I be honest with you? I really do not like Valentine’s day. I don’t like it because of the way it stands like a moral traffic light to force expressions of devotion rather than celebrate daily opportunities of intimacy.
Sure it has some roots in Christian tradition, but let’s be honest here, it gets its support from consumerism and sentimentality. Now, that said, there are two things to consider moving forward. The first is that unvarnished truths – or even honest opinions – do not always help us find intimacy in relationships. In fact, sometimes it can do the opposite. The second is that my mother always told me that when someone tells you that they are being honest, you should ask yourself why they needed to tell you that.
Our scriptures today speak of relationships – of honesty and integrity – and so it would be good to bear those two things in mind: unvarnished truths do not always lead to intimacy, and if someone makes a point about his or her honesty it would be good to ask why.
Now, when I say intimacy I’m not talking about physical or amorous behavior. I’m talking about that space between you and another person where you realize a higher level of mutual agreement. For me, I experienced this in two places this week. One was in a property committee meeting.
I was going over some budgetary figures to make sure everyone knew what resources we have and how they are dedicated, when a member gave me a little sign to let me know that I had made my point and we needed to move on. Friends, you have to know one another and have a common goal to do stuff like that. That’s intimacy of a Biblical nature.
Another happened when two members delivered meals on wheels this week. Not only does it take a certain mutual forbearance to accomplish any task with another person, but they also told stories about interactions with our meal recipients. One of these stories involved care given to a widower-care that could not have been given without a long-standing relationship and a deep respect for another person’s experience of loss. That’s intimacy of a Biblical nature.
I tell you these stories because I think they illustrate the Deuteronomical invitation to choose life in all of its fullness. While the idea of obeying the more than 700 laws found in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) may seem a little overwhelming, there is yet a certain amount of grace being offered in this invitation.
Over and over again, what we find in scripture is not simply a legal code that you can use to your benefit, but instead an invitation to be received as God’s beloved. And for this section of Deuteronomy, which actually starts back on verses 11-14, we are told, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.’
This isn’t rocket surgery here. Love God. Worship God. Not just in here, but out there. The pews don’t bear witness to what you are doing. All of creation does. And why is that? Well chances are, the earth will last as an expression of the Creator much longer than you or I will. So, our love of God will be reflected in our care of the earth, for that is an expression of our love for one another. I’m not going off on some hippy dippy Kumbiyah tangent here. It’s a simple fact that we live on the same rock hurling through space, and we have to take care of it and of one another if we want to live, if we want to love, and if we want that love to outlast our physical existence.
Yes, we have to make certain decisions and do the right thing as individuals, but we also need to hear what Paul told the church in Corinth. Actually, it kind of reminds me of a game that I like to play with large groups of people. It’s called “Rock, Paper, Scissors Smack Down”. It starts with everyone challenging someone to Rock, Paper, Scissors. The winner will then go on to challenge someone else, but the loser becomes a supporter for the winner. After a few rounds you end up with various cheering sections running around the room until finally you have two people that each have about half the room cheering for them. In the end, all become one when the final match is decided.
That’s a bit of a stretch for Paul’s letter, but the point here is that he is telling them that discipleship is a team sport. Discipleship is not about factions or which leader is more faithful or more correct. Discipleship is about being called to be a part of God’s activity in the world together. Growth – whether it is spiritual or numerical – does not come solely from one person’s actions. It comes from people who are committed to a shared mission, but only if that mission connects with God’s.
And that, of course, brings us to Jesus – who happens to have some pretty tough things to say to us today. This doesn’t feel very much like a Valentine card or a box of chocolates. This feels like the bar is being set a little higher than some of us can jump. It calls to mind an old prayer of unknown origin:
“Lord, so far today I’ve done pretty good. I haven’t cheated or lied. I haven't broken any promises or even been angry at anyone. But I’m about to get out of bed, and I might need your help with the rest of my day”.
Seriously though, we aren’t allowed to be angry? How many people do you know that need to be dragged before the council for insulting someone on social media? How many of us have called someone a fool, or at least thought it? Let’s not even get started on impure thoughts, except to say that there is no archeological or other evidence of first century communities with a large number of amputees.
So, how do we respond to Jesus? Are we to take this as sarcasm? Are we to say that Jesus was demonstrating the absurdity of the law? Well, perhaps. But that is a slippery slope. Remember, Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law. So, Jesus is not raising the bar for legalism. Jesus is raising the bar for intimacy. In collapsing the distinction between thought and action, Jesus is reminding us of our created purpose.
While the Westminster confession may say that we were created to glorify God and enjoy him forever, Jesus reminds us that it’s not enough to follow the letter of the law. Our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisee’s! That means that our worship of God – our finest offerings – are worth nothing if we do not exercise forgiveness. In fact I’ve even heard it said that we truly only love God as much as the person whom we love the least.
That’s a pretty tall order when there have been abuses in our relationships. That’s a pretty tall order when we look back on those times when we ourselves may be the one in need of forgiveness. Yet the hope that we find in these commands is that there is some level of reconciliation that can always take place.
It may be that the best we can do is become reconciled within our own souls with the knowledge that no matter what we have done, or what has been done to us, we are yet invited to be received as God’s beloved. It may be that the best we can do is to move forward into more faithful and more intimate relationships with others.
Honesty is at the heart of it. Truth is at the heart of it. And when we ask if we can be honest with one another, it needs to be because what we truly want is more intimacy – a higher level of mutual agreement about our response to the active presence of God in our midst.
But, be forewarned, the path of intimacy leads us to recognize our responsibility for one another. It leads us to expect that justice for the less fortunate will go hand in hand with the righteousness of the faithful. For the project that we are being called to be a part of is the extension of God’s table of mercy and grace and forgiveness and love, and this invitation is in your hands just as it is in mine.
Maybe Rhodes planted you. Maybe I did. Maybe I watered you. Maybe someone else did. What matters most is that we wake each day and choose to live and love and glorify God. That won’t look the same for all of us, but the more we can come together and demonstrate love that seeks justice and demonstrates righteousness then the closer we will come to seeing ourselves as God’s beloved, no matter what holiday is on the calendar. And to God be the glory for that, now and always. Amen!