Sunday, February 12, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 20:35; sermon starts around 27:41)
When I was a child, I had a pretty wide variety of different interests and hobbies (which, I guess is still true of me as an adult, haha). One of my longest lasting fascinations was with geology. I had an extensive rock collection that I had gathered from all over the place – I’d often buy cool stones as souvenirs when we went on family trips, and I collected interesting rocks that I found all around Nebraska, including a whole little sub-collection of marine fossils preserved in limestone.
The rocks I prized most in my collection were often ones that looked like these – rocks that were smooth and shiny and highly polished. Some were semi-precious stones like rose quartz and amethyst and onyx. Many others, though, were just regular old rocks – the kind of ordinary rocks you could find in any field. But when polished, these ordinary rocks became surprisingly and uniquely beautiful. With the rough exterior worn away, these rocks revealed their true colors, full of subtle details and inclusions and layers.
It takes a lot of time to turn a rock like this into one that looks smooth and polished like this one. Getting there requires at least a good three to four weeks of tumbling the rocks together in a rock tumbler. Usually there’s some kind of abrasive grit that gets added to the tumbler to help sand stones down – but a significant part of what makes this process work is actually the rocks themselves, tumbling against each other over and over. Through this constant contact and friction, the rough edges of each stone are gradually worn away; and eventually, you’re left with these nice, smooth, polished stones. Being tumbled together with all of these other rocks brings out the unique beauty of each stone and literally makes it shine.
Rock tumbling can produce some truly beautiful results. And it’s also a strangely fitting metaphor for what it’s like to be a human being living in community. The constant contact and friction of being around other people likewise shapes us; it sometimes brings out things in us we didn’t even realize were there. Just think about the ways that you have been shaped by your closest relationships – by the people you live with or have worked with. For better or worse, the people who are closest to us can often be the most abrasive – the ones who know us best almost always have the ability to get under our skin in ways no one else can.
Someone who knew the truth of this very well was Saint Benedict of Nursia. I have been rereading the Rule of St. Benedict lately, trying to be a good little oblate, heh. Benedict dedicates the first chapter of his Rule to talking about different kinds of monks. In Benedict’s day, the most revered kind of monks were the desert fathers and mothers who lived out in the wilderness as hermits – “anchorite” monks like Saint Anthony. You can tell they were popular because to this day we know them by names like: Anthony the Great and Arsenius the Great and Macarius the Great, and so on. These were seen as superheroes of the faith that people looked up to, going it alone out in the desert.
But Benedict argued that the strongest kind of monk was actually the “cenobites” – the monks who chose to live together in monastic communities. It’s all well and good to try to shed the distractions of regular life to focus on God by living alone in the wilderness, says Benedict. But if you really want to challenge yourselve to live as a spiritual, Godly person, the best thing you can do is: stay where you are. Benedict knew that the greatest opportunity for spiritual growth lies in the rough, warm, tangible embrace of human community.
Just as rocks need the abrasive jostling of a tumbler to bring out this kind of beauty, people need the sometimes abrasive presence of community to bring out the best in us. Like rocks in a tumbler, the relationships in our lives often have a way of smoothing away our rough edges over time. And it’s not so that we’ll fit in better or conform somehow to what other people think we should be. It’s a smoothing and a polishing that actually serves to draw out our best selves and make them shine.
Relationships are foundational to our lives as Christians. And the importance of relationship is very much at the heart of this very rough gospel text we have in front of us this morning.
It can be tricky to see that this is what Jesus is getting at through all this harsh language about judgment and amputation and hell. But when you look at the root of all his different teachings here, the common thread is the breaking of relationships: through murder (yikes), through anger and insult, through dragging people into court instead of trying to reason with them and find peace, through objectifying other people, and through being unfaithful.
And it’s ironic that this passage – especially this difficult couple of verses about divorce – has often been used to damage relationships by judging and shaming people for being divorced. There are probably folks in this room who have been on the receiving end of this. I do think that divorce is something that grieves God’s heart, but only because divorce is a symptom that there was already deep brokenness in a relationship. I mean, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t please God for people to stay married just for the sake of not getting divorced – especially in relationships where there has been abuse.
What Jesus illustrates in this passage is the earthy, unvarnished reality of human relationships. We are often tempted to try and etherealize our concept of God, or to romanticize the entire idea of love itself – but the truth we find here in Jesus’ words is that love is messy. Being in relationship with our neighbors and siblings is messy – and it can be immensely difficult and frustrating. Even though it’s part of living out Christ’s divine commandment to love one another, it doesn’t usually feel particularly holy when you’re fighting with your spouse about the time they did that thing that made you so angry, or with your sibling about that money they still owe you from that one time, or any of the million other ways we find to let each other down.
And yet, Jesus says that going to our siblings – especially in these moments of conflict – is even more important than the offerings we make at the altar of God. And the offering he’s talking about here most likely would have been an offering of atonement: an offering for the purpose of being made right with God. It is more important – Jesus says – more important to be reconciled with our human siblings first. So drop your gift – drop everything – and run to make peace with whoever has beef with you.
Being reconciled and in right relationship with our neighbors and siblings is necessary in order for us to be fully reconciled with God – it is part of our reconciliation with God. This is explicitly spelled out later in the scriptures, in 1 John 4:19-21, which reads:
We love because God first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate a brother or sister are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.1 John 4:19-21
Ooof. Loving God is relatively easy for us – or, at least, loving our own ideas of God certainly is. God is perfect and generous and kind – and since God is invisible, we can pretty much imagine God however we’d like. It is much, much harder to consistently and unconditionally love our siblings and neighbors – because they, like us, are not perfect. And the fact that they are visible and tangible, jostling around with us like rocks in a tumbler, means that any fanciful image we might have of them is pretty quickly squashed by the truth of who they actually are.
And yet, it is impossible for us to truly love God without loving the people around us – especially the ones who most drive us nuts. And it is only in loving one another that we can most fully experience the love of God.
Living in community with others gives us the opportunity to practice loving as God loves. God’s love for us is unconditional, but it is not blind. God knows us through and through – God sees our flaws and failings much more clearly than it is comfortable for us to think about – and yet God chooses to love us unfailingly anyway. God chooses to accept us and love us as we are – and it is God’s love active in us that enables us to do the same for one another. Even when we struggle to love as we ought to, even when our relationships are broken and hurting, God’s love holds us and heals us and helps us to find our way forward.
Love is what we practice together here in the body of Christ, the community of the church. We need the practice – like Benedict says – of choosing to live God’s way of love in the midst of the abrasiveness and challenge of life in community. But it is here, tumbling against one another in the hubbub of community, that all our jagged edges begin to be smoothed away. It’s here in Christ that we begin to learn how to move past our roughness and truly live out the commandment to love as we have been loved. It’s here that we help each other discover the best parts of who God has called us to be, smoothing and polishing until all of us shine like jewels.