Message for Epiphany 6 on Matthew 5:21-37 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20 given on February 16, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas
A version of this sermon was first posted on this site on Febraury 13, 2017
I stayed home with my children for nine years while they were small and ran a home business with Mary Kay Cosmetics as a sales consultant and later, as a Sales Director. No, I never drove a pink car, but I did drive a free red Grand Am for several years. In addition to training us on the details of good skin care, make up application, a large part of the training involved how to think: how our mindset affects our behavior, how our attitude affects our outcomes. We were encouraged to get rid of “stinkin’ thinkin’,” and to start each day with a “check-up from the neck-up” by repeating positive affirmations.
I have never been one for platitudes because, especially as a person of faith, I find life to be full of paradox, irony, mystery, complex emotions and unexpected experiences, but over time, I began to appreciate some of the wisdom these teachings contained. My favorite phrase of how our mindset affects our behavior is, “you bring about what you think about.” I tried to teach my children that “you bring about what you think about,” but they were skeptical at first as well. That is, until one day, when my parents were visiting us when we lived in St. Louis.
The bushes in the yard really needed to be trimmed, so my dad thought he would get out the hedge trimmer and give us a hand with the yard work. But before he went outside, he regaled us with the humorous tale from several years beforehand when he was out trimming the hedges. He wasn’t paying close enough attention and the power cord got caught in the hedge trimmer and sliced it in two.
We had a good laugh, and out he went to trim the hedge. About fifteen minutes later, he came back in the house—guess what happened?! Yup, he cut the power cord with the hedge trimmer, because “you bring about, what you think about!”
Thoughts and beliefs, like emotions, are a form of energy—energy that produces behavior and outcomes in the physical world.
You bring about what you think about. This is a simplified summary of some of what Jesus is talking about in this part of Sermon on the Mount. What we think about matters. Our inner life is important because it manifests itself in our behavior whether we intend it to or not.
To justify judgmental thoughts and bad behavior, you have probably heard people say, as I have, “well, at least I haven’t killed anybody,” as if this were the standard of decent behavior. Jesus stops this up short by saying that we have completely missed the purpose of the Law, which is not just to restrict a few choice bad behaviors, but rather, to preserve the well-being of the whole community, all of humanity. Such community well-being begins in our mind with our thoughts, attitudes, and our beliefs.
Have you not had the experience when you are mad at someone, and you keep thinking about it and thinking about it, it gets bigger and bigger—and you get more angry, not less. What we focus on, what we pay attention to, what we feed—what we think about gets bigger. That kind of anger affects all our relationships. We feel mad at someone at work but make a sniping remark to our spouse or kid when we get home. It always comes out, somehow, does it not? Because we bring about what we think about.
Jesus’ sermon points us to the intention of the Law which is so clearly described in Deuteronomy: to help us choose life. “Be reconciled to your brother or sister and then bring your offering to the Lord”—that’s what it means to not murder. None of us can say, “well, at least I haven’t killed anybody”—yeah, we have—we have damaged relationships and hurt the well-being of our community when our negative or destructive thoughts come out in our words and our behavior, even when we did not intend it to.
The same depth of understanding applies to the other 10 Commandments. Jesus highlights, thou shall not commit adultery. When we look at another person with lust, we commit adultery. When our thoughts are focused on our own desires, we think of the other person like an object. And when we think of someone like an object, we treat them instrumentally—for our own gain—rather than as one who bears the image of God. Thoughts lead to behavior. Witness the #Metoo movement. We must make a conscious effort at this in our culture because “sex sells”—the objectification of especially women in advertising everything from cars to cowboy boots makes lust a profitable marketing strategy.
It is also because of negative cultural attitudes towards women that Jesus expands his teaching on adultery to include divorce. As you know, in ancient times, women were considered property which was passed from the father to the husband in marriage. Men were within their rights to issue a certificate of divorce for frivolous reasons, including if his wife burned the bread. If there was not a male relative to take in a divorced woman, she would be left destitute. Patriarchal thoughts and beliefs were definitely having unjust, real-world consequences in the lives of women.
By elevating divorce to breaking the sixth Commandment against adultery Jesus dismantles the patriarchal power structure and pushes the male-dominated culture to re-think attitudes toward women in order change male behavior toward them. “Choose life,” says Jesus, life for the whole community, including women.
Does this mean that there’s no such thing as a life-giving divorce? Of course, not. I know many people who are better off for ending an unhealthy relationship. Jesus’ wants our attitude toward our spouse and others, to bring about respect, honor, and well-being for everyone involved.
The same is true in our work against anti-racism. Ask any black or brown-skinned person you know how many times in the last year they have been followed in a store, or someone has moved their purse when they have sat down, or refused to look them in the eye and shake their hand. Beliefs and attitudes come out in behavior—white people may not see it, but we have to learn about this and understand it in our work against racism.
In a poem called, “clothesline,” Marilyn Maciel beautifully describes the importance of our thoughts:
if words could be seen
as they floated out
of our mouths
would we feel no
as they passed beyond
if we were to string
on a communal clothesline
would we feel proud
as our thoughts
flapped in the
So, does Jesus then, leave us with the tall order of thinking perfect thoughts that lead to flawless behavior? Is he preaching the expectation of not only works-righteousness, but thought-righteousness? An unattainable goal that none of us can meet in this life?
I don’t think so, because he adds this admonition in the middle of our passage:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”
It doesn’t sound like grace, but I think it is: grace in the form of hyperbole and exaggeration. If we all poke out our eyes for engaging in impure, damaging thoughts, and if we all cut off our hands for doing something we should not have done, every last one of us would be blind and without hands. In other words, none of us can do this on our own. We will all flunk. Some days, I flunk before I have even gotten out of bed in the morning.
So, while our thoughts and our behaviors do matter to God, Jesus knows we cannot do it alone and we are not going to get it right all the time. Which is he why he came to be like us in human form. Jesus came to be not only the salvation of our souls, but also the source of our strength, the forgiveness for our sins, and the model for how we are to think and behave. The Apostle Paul in Philippians says is this way: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Step 11 of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.” Through our own prayer and meditation, we can daily open ourselves to conscious contact with God to receive God’s will for us and the ability to behave that way in our daily life.
This is what Paul meant in Romans when he said, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed through the renewing of your minds.” Since what we focus on, what we pay attention to, what we feed—what we think about gets bigger, we want to feed our mind with faith, with prayer, with love, with Scripture. During out Midweek Lenten services, we will practice different types of contemplative prayer to help each of us “increase our conscious contact with God.” Fr. Richard Rohr calls contemplative prayer “divine therapy” when God can changes us from the inside.
Knowledge and ability, thoughts and behaviors. Jesus is our source for both those of things, and our forgiveness when we fall short. But as we are transformed through the renewing of our minds in Christ, we can bring about what God thinks about. That’s what it means for us to be the church together—to be the kingdom of God--to bring about what God thinks about!
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