Lessons Along the Way: What’s Hard Between Us

Proclaimer: Emily Hull McGee | Scripture: Matthew 5:21-37 | Sunday, February 12, 2023


Perhaps it’s the coincidence that this year finds Valentine’s Day just a
couple of days past the Super Bowl, but I find that I have hearts on my mind
and, well, my heart these days. By now, I’m sure we’ve all heard the story (if
not seen the game) where Buffalo Bills’ football player, Damar Hamlin, took a
sharp blow on the field from the opposing player who tackled him, so sharp
that it stopped his heart if but for a moment. And by now, perhaps you’ve
purchased your valentine’s candy – maybe the heart-shaped chocolate or
candy hearts – and are ready for the swell of romance that Hallmark, ahem
Valentine’s, will provide.

As I think about the heart, I don’t just think of football and fantasy, but
rather I think of the pumping organ that keeps us alive, the center of our
emotional lives, what’s most central, what’s at the essence, what’s alive and
animating and pulsing and living so that we too might live?


Last week, we began our deep-dive into Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount,
shared right at the heart of the Gospel of Matthew, that began with blessing.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the
mourning. You are salt and light of the earth!,” Jesus tells his disciples. And
just at the end of last week’s passage of scripture was a word that is both a
warning and a signal: “don’t think that I’ve come to abolish the law or the
prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Let’s remember: when
Jesus is talking about “the law,” he’s speaking of the Torah, those first five
books of the Hebrew Scriptures attributed to Moses. And when he speaks of
Hull McGee 1 “the prophets,” he’s talking about much of the remainder of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus’ disciples were faithful Jews, and he never threatened that commitment.

In a moment, we’ll hear Jesus employ a rhetorical pattern that says,
“you have heard it say…, but I say to you…,” where he references some pieces
of the Ten Commandments and other laws around them, like “you shall not
murder,” and “you shall not commit adultery,” So let’s be clear here: Jesus is
not suggesting, “the law and the prophets have said this, but I now supersede
that law and tell you otherwise. No need for those pesky scriptures anymore.”
He’s neither contradicting the law, nor abandoning the law. Not at all. Rather,
“fulfilling the law and the prophets” means he’s extending them, or
intensifying them, or furthering them, “drawing out their full implications,” as
scholar Amy-Jill Levine says or “surpassing their legalities.” 1
Indeed, what Jesus is doing here is shining a light on the Pharisees and other religious legalists who keep the letter of the law, but violate the spirit of the law.
Because what matters most to Jesus is not a new moral code, but rather a
new freedom in the relationships between and among God and God’s
people.2 Here, Jesus goes right to the heart of it all.

So let’s unpack them.

First — anger. You know not to commit murder, Jesus begins, but when
you hold a grudge and diminish others in your mind, your speech, or your
actions because you’re angry with them, when you view another with
contempt or total disregard, the same brokenness in relationship that can
lead to murder is the brokenness that needs reconciling and restoring in the
face of anger.

Next — jealousy and lust. You know not to commit adultery, Jesus
names, but when you continue looking and lusting over someone else with
the intent to make them yours, and thus diminishing your real partnership by
brooding on a fantasy one, the same relational injury that can lead to adultery
is the injury that demands the emotional equivalent of radical surgery – like
eyes torn out and hands cut off – to be reconciled and restored.

Third — divorce. You know that there are provisions around divorce
that reinforce the patriarchy, Jesus says, and makes even starker the power
difference between a man and a woman by allowing a man absolute power to
rid himself of his wife on a whim. But I tell you that not even when a marriage
fails are you to devalue and demean your partner, or abandon them, or distort
the relationship for your own gain.

Finally — oaths. You know that your ultimate oath should be sworn to
God and God alone, Jesus reminds, but when you confuse your priority, and
place your first loyalty to spouse or family or country, your language has been
compromised and must be refocused and simplified for reconciliation and
restoration. Or even when you try to act in God’s name and assign all sorts of
meaning to the action of God in the world, you are, knowingly or not, trying to
control God. So don’t do that!

In each instance – anger, adultery, divorce, and oaths — we hear the
heart of Jesus’ thoughts on relationships and how we deepen into the heart
of God.


Think with me of the image of the heart and its arteries. The human
heart, which beats slightly more than once every second, is at the essence
and the source of life. Indeed “it is the most single-minded thing within you,”
as Bill Bryson once said, pumping more than 70 gallons of blood per hour all
throughout your body. 3 Its job is to attend to those connections, to keep things clear and moving and unimpeded.

If we’re to think of the Way of Jesus as the way of the heart – at the
essence, the center, the pulsing core of all of life – then I’d like us to think
about these bondages he names, these things that keep us from living
wholeheartedly – anger, adultery, divorce, misguided oaths, and to which
we’ll add next week, violence and limits on our love – I imagine these
instances akin to a clogged artery, the things that interfere with the flow of
love that God wants for our lives.

We know what that feels like, don’t we?

We know the feeling of anger that clogs and crowds our relationships,
where small resentments build over time like plaque, and contempt, gone
unchecked, dehumanizes and hardens us against each other. Augustine
understood this when he said “for anger habitually cherished against anyone
becomes hatred.” 4 And I love Frederick Buechner’s description of anger:

“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your
wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your
tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to
the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you
are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief
drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at
the feast is you.” 5

Can’t be good for the heart, that feast.

We know the feeling of infidelity, when one we love and trust has
breached the very marrow of our relationship. We also know the feeling of
lust, about a distorted coveting of what another has and a disregard for the
covenant there. About this, scholar Amy-Jill Levine remarked, “Lust is thus a
form of greed: the desire to possess what belongs to someone else.” 6 Or again
from Buechner, “lust is the craving for salt of a person who is dying of thirst.” 7 Can’t be good for the heart, that craving.

Even if we’re not all married, many of us know the feeling of a deeply
traumatic breakdown in relationships, on one side, struggling with the urge to
abandon, to walk away and leave the pain behind; or on the other side, feeling
the bitter sting of rejection and forsakenness when one we loved has left.
Many of us know what a chilly marriage feels like, where love and gentleness
and compassion have been exchanged for family-logistics- management and
keeping-the-house-up administration and you-stay-in-your-lane
-and-I’ll-stay-in-mine operation. Johann Christoph Arnold wonders, “How
many of us have been cold-hearted or loveless to our spouses at one time or
another? How many thousands of couples, rather than loving each other,
merely coexist? True faithfulness is not simply the absence of adultery. It
must be a commitment of heart and soul.” 8 And some of us know the
incredible pain of divorce, what it feels like to realize the devastating reality
that this relationship has been so distorted and destructive that it is no
longer tenable or possible. Can’t be good for the heart, that tragedy.
We know the feeling of casual oath-keeping and misguided vows, when
quick and easy promises to another (“we should get together!,” or “yes, I’ll do
that for you!,” or “everything happens for a reason” or “God won’t give you
anything you can’t handle!”), serve more like a band-aid on a broken bone,
rather than the verbal sutures that lead to healing. We know those feelings
when interactions between each other or with God become transactional,
bonds become breaches, vows go unmet or unnoticed, and truth-telling is
nowhere to be found out of fear or flattened integrity. Can’t be good for the
heart, these banalities.

We know what these things feel like, because we feel them here – in
our hearts – and how they make life hard and hardened between us: how
they clog and clot and block the freedom that the flow of Love brings to our
lives. We know what they feel like to us on both sides of that flow, and how, as
giver or receiver, we cut off the circulation of grace without even realizing it.
In her signature wry way, Anne Lamott asks, “Why couldn’t Jesus command
us to obsess over everything, to try to control and manipulate people, to try
not to breathe at all, or to pay attention, stomp away to brood when people
annoy us, and then eat a big bag of Hershey’s Kisses in bed?”9

Yet it’s to all of us that Jesus directs this Sermon on the Mount’s call for
obedience in motive as well as in deed. 10 To live wholeheartedly in
relationships, bringing the fullness of my beloved self and receiving the
fullness of another’s beloved self. To love as Jesus called us to love: with all
our heart and soul and mind and strength, with God and neighbor, grounded
in belovedness. To turn contempt into forgiveness, lust into contentment,
broken relationships into reconciliation and repair, and false oaths into
honesty. To trust in the grace and the buoyancy of God. 11 To keep what’s at
the heart, at the heart.


“I don’t know how long it had been since these two neighbors had
talked to each other,” begins the story told by Asheville-based
singer-songwriter David Wilcox. He goes on to tell about these two
neighbors, property divided by a creek, who somewhere along
the way had a falling out about a stray cat. “Just the dumbest reason,” Wilcox
said. Both men were taking care of this stray cat and after a while, one of the
neighbors took the cat into his house. Well the other neighbor thought that it
was his cat, and so whenever the two talked to each other, they’d quickly
begin yelling and wound up storming off until after a while, they just quit
talking to each other at all.

One day a traveling carpenter came up to one of them out in the yard
and asked if there might be any work he could do for ‘em. And the man said,
“Yeah, I’ve got something for you to do. You see that house over there? Well
that’s my neighbor; his property starts down there at that creek. So I want
you to take this here pile of lumber and build me a fence, all along the water
so I don’t even have to look at him. Could you do that for me?” A little
surprised, the carpenter says, “Yeah, I could do that but I’ll need some more

Why don’t you let me get started with what you have here, and you go
on into town to get some more wood so I can finish the job?” So the man goes
off to buy more wood, and as he’s bouncing back down the rutted 11 Loved this phrase from Marcus Borg in The Heart of Christianity, p. 31. dirt road, new lumber clacking around in the back of his truck, he looks out
over that field to see where his new fence oughtta be. Only when he looks out
over his property line, he sees that the carpenter has built not a fence, but a
bridge, with his wood. And before he can get down there, he sees his
neighbor come out of his house and walk across that bridge, built with his
wood, onto his land. Well that neighbor walks right up to him with
his hand outstretched with a big ole’ stupid smile on his face and says, “You’re
a brave man. I thought you’d never want to hear the sound of my voice again. I
feel like such a fool. Can you forgive me?”

And then the man finds himself taking his outstretched hand and hears
himself saying, “Aww heck, I knew that was your cat anyways.” Then he sees
the carpenter walking away and calls out, “Hey, I’ve got some more work for
you if you need it.” But the carpenter turns and says, “No, you’ll be fine, I’m
needed elsewhere.” 12

Anger and adultery and divorce and misguided oaths are hard; they’re
the kind of hard that hardens. Forgiveness and grace and reconciliation and
repair and honesty are hard, but they’re the kind of hard that loosens. That
loosens the tightness in our chest, that loosens the clogs and the clots in our
flow of Love, that loosens the things that keep us from one another.
I’m reminded of that song from the Judds – it’s a little cheesy, but I bet
you’re thinking of it too:

Love can build a bridge
Between your heart and mine
Love can build a bridge

Don’t you think it’s time? Don’t you think it’s time?