Choose this Day
Text: Matthew 5:21-37
Grace and peace be unto you from God who is our Creator and from Jesus Christ who is our Savior and our Friend. Amen.
Star Trek: The Next Generation, which aired from 1987 to 1994, has always been one of my favorite shows. The best Next Generation episodes featured fantastic acting by Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, deeply ethical explorations of the meaning of life and artificial intelligence, and of course exciting battle scenes.
However, there is a snippet of one episode that made an impression and stuck with me over the years that had none of those things. I can’t even remember what the episode was about.
The bit I remember is this: Geordi La Forge, the ship’s chief engineer (the one who wears the visor that allows him to see) is walking out of the cafeteria and bumps into someone walking in. It could have been another crew member or a visiting alien diplomat, but the person responds to being bumped by shouting insults. “You fool, you idiot, watch where you’re going!” And Geordi, completely unruffled, says to his companion, “Wow. He must be having a really bad day.”
That’s it. That’s the scene that I’ve always remembered. In response to being insulted, La Forge does not get angry at all. He is untroubled. His response is both self-confident and empathetic--the other person must be having a bad day.
“How extraordinary,” I thought to my college-aged self when I saw this. “Is it possible that in the 24th century, a mere 300 years from now, humans will finally have evolved enough, or have a strong enough sense of self, that when someone insults them, they don’t get mad and shout back, they’re not threatened, but instead they respond with understanding?”
It’s nice to have that hope for the future, but honestly, it’s not a new idea. This is what Jesus was talking about, at least in part, in his Sermon on the Mount that we read for today.
Now, the reading for today is actually a collection of teachings, and they are thematically related, but each teaching could stand on its own. Jesus begins each teaching by saying, “You have heard” and then continues, “but I say…” and in each case he takes a teaching from the Hebrew scriptures and he pushes it further.
In verses 21 and 22 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
After this Jesus commands his followers to forgive and reconcile. He continues by saying to not look at women with lust in your heart. Clearly addressing the straight male audience there, and some unsuspecting lesbians.
Jesus says to pluck out your eye or cut off your hand if it causes you to sin, which by the way, no disciple ever did, divorce a woman only for unchastity, again speaking to men who had the power to divorce, and finally he says, “Don’t swear by this or by that. Just let your yes be yes and your no be no.”
The overall theme is that we are encountering is to treat other humans as humans, as holy, as worthy, as our equals, not as objects, not as something to use and dispose of. Jesus concludes by saying, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”
In other words, “you be enough.” You be centered in God’s love so that you don’t need to be propped up by all these other things, conquests, winning, insults, feuds, using other people, etc., to make yourself feel worthy, to be valuable.
This week I read the following reflection by a friend of a friend:
“One of the things I love about having kids is that it teaches me to be curious in the face of another person’s big emotions.
You’re lashing out. Are you hungry? Are you tired? Are you scared? Let’s talk about this and I’d love to help you if I can.
Somewhere along the way we lose this mentality with each other. We write off each other’s anger or rage as a moral defect rather than an emotional response to something deeper.”
This really struck me, especially in light of today’s gospel lesson. “We write off each other’s anger or rage as a moral defect rather than an emotional response to something deeper.”
Where I see this happen most often is while driving, or on the internet. The anonymity we have in our cars or in front of the screen emboldens us to say things we would hesitate to say in person.
So a driver ahead of us does something erratic and we yell, “You fool! What’s wrong with you?” Similarly the internet. For some, attacking others online has subsumed their personhood and they are known as trolls. It’s extremely unhealthy as well as damaging. And Jesus says to not do it.
Matthew 5:22. “You have heard it said, do not murder… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Don’t get hung up on the hell of fire reference, and instead zero in on how serious Jesus is about this. We are not to send our anger, our anxiety, or our rage, in the direction of other people. It does damage. And Jesus will not have it.
Now, do we in fact have anger and anxiety and rage? Yes, of course we do. What should we do about it? If forgiveness is needed, forgive. Talk to someone. Take a walk. Pray about it. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. See a therapist. Join an action group. Go to a protest. Run for office. Change the laws. Change the system. Focus elsewhere. But you remain at peace.
Let go of your iron grip on the past, or grievances, those things which are actually holding you hostage. Start a new relationship or a new job or a new interest. Do something good for someone else. It is remarkable how changing our focus changes what’s going on inside. What we may not do is bring harm to others because of our own caca.
I love this insight, that when babies or children are upset, we ask, “What’s wrong? Are you hungry or cold or tired or frustrated?” But with adults, we write off anger as a moral defect. “What a jerk,” we think. “What a fool.”
What if, by God’s grace, we could be kinder to each other and to ourselves. What if, when anxiety rears its head – and believe me, it does, all the time, everywhere, with strangers and people we love – we stopped and said, “What’s going on here? Are you hungry or cold or tired or frustrated? Sad? Afraid of losing something you cannot imagine your life without? Let’s talk about it. Maybe I can help, maybe I can’t, but I can listen.
And what if we treated ourselves with grace and with patience, and asked ourselves the same questions. When we’re acting out, when we feel that urge to shout, “You idiot, you jerk, you fool,” or we wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “she’s an idiot, he’s a jerk, they’re fools,” …
what if we stopped and asked, “What’s going on inside me? Am I hungry or cold or tired? Am I frustrated, sad, afraid, anxious? Why am I holding on to this so tightly?”
We are all human, for better and for worse, capable of tremendous love and strength, but awfully fragile and constantly anxious. Jesus couldn’t possibly ask us to not act out, to refrain not only from murder but from anything that would harm the neighbor, including insults and denigration, if Jesus didn’t have a way to fill up that place inside us that is anxious and that lashes out at others.
What Jesus offers us is himself, in all of his love and strength and fragility, and he reminds us, again and again and again and again, “You are my child. Your identity is with and from me. Your identity and worth is not based on conquest, on winning, on coming out on top, on using or dominating others.
Your identity and worth is as my beloved child. You are deeply loved and cherished. Act from that core, that center. And do no harm. Because the others are my children as well. Each of you is a child of God.” Amen.