This sermon was preached on Sunday, February 12, 2017 at Bellwood and St. Luke’s United Methodist Churches. It’s part of a series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel. This week’s reading is Matthew 5:21-38. Here are the other two sermons: Part 1 and Part 2.
We’re in the midst of our sermon series of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel. Each week, I’ve invited us to ask two things of Jesus’ sermon:
- What does Jesus show us about the nature of God and God’s kingdom, and
- What does Jesus show us about how to live into the kingdom?
As I’ve been reading, studying, and preaching over the last few weeks, I’ve been challenged and inspired by how expansive and empowering Jesus reveals God to be. The outcast and struggling people in the Galilee have gathered around Jesus – perhaps enduring his teaching while awaiting healing – and he tells them in multiple ways that God blesses them, God sees them, and God cares for them, without their having to do anything to earn this love of God. This is what we call God’s grace. And Jesus has reminded me that God doesn’t just care for and bless people as some sort of divine charity or beneficence. Instead, Jesus calls them and us salt and light for the good of the world: God cares for us and God gives us a mission to work with God. As we explore today’s reading, this vision of God – as extravagantly loving and missionally empowering – is a jumping off point.
This past week, I listened to a podcast from Rob Bell that changed how I read this passage. (In case you’re not familiar, a podcast is an audio series that you listen to through the internet.) Rob Bell is a former pastor, who now writes books, does worldwide speaking tours, and has a podcast in which he often interviews people. In this episode, he’s interviewing Troy Anderson, a lawyer who founded a ministry called “Speak Up for the Poor,” which is seeking to prevent child marriage in Bangladesh. Troy shared his story about how he came to be doing this ministry.
He grew up in a number of countries around the world and was struck by the poverty that he witnessed. He knew he wanted to help in some way. He started by volunteering with groups that were working to break up brothels in Thailand. Following a few leads, he ended up in Bangladesh, a country on the eastern border of India. It’s densely populated and extremely impoverished. And when he arrived, he realized that one of the major problems in Bangladesh is child marriage. According to Troy, Bangladesh has the highest rate of marriage for girls under eighteen, except for countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and the highest rate of marriage for girls under fifteen in the world. The UN estimates that 30,000 girls under eighteen across the world are married each day. (That’s one girl every three to four seconds).
In Bangladesh, child marriage perpetuates poverty. They have a saying there: “Girls are meant for marriage.” This shapes how families and villages view girls: they’re burdens and commodities good only for having and raising babies. When Troy began in Bangladesh, he’d ask girls in their native language, “What’s your dream?” They had no concept of a dream, because all they were taught to expect is that one day, soon after they hit puberty, their father will come and say, “I’ve found the man who’s going to marry you next week.” And their mother would quickly prepare them for all that was to come. The girls especially, but really, the culture as a whole, have no concept of a dream for the future. Girls went to school until puberty to fill time. Then they would drop out because they knew that school didn’t lead to anything for them: they’d be married and having babies in their early teens anyway, probably married to a poor man in his early- to mid-twenties.
Seeing this reality, Troy wanted to break the cycle of poverty in some way, and sensed that a way forward was to help girls and families put off these child marriages. Troy found that if he could keep girls in school, this helped the girls to develop an imagination through which they could dream of a new reality for themselves. And when the girls began to dream of alternative realties, and gained the education and other tools to make these dreams a reality, their fathers, families, and villages began to see another alternative too. Now, Troy’s ministry runs schools, residential programs, and tutoring for over 1,100 girls, and it all started with his care for the most vulnerable.
As I heard Troy Anderson speak to Rob Bell, I realized that this was the thread that tied together Jesus’ instructions in today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount. At first glance, it seemed like Jesus was offering four unrelated sets of instructions, each time intensifying and broadening the traditional, Jewish teachings from the Torah. He’d say, “You have heard it said…” and then take it further, “but I say to you…” He did this with murder to include anger, adultery to include lust, divorce to include care of women, and oaths to demand always speaking truthfully.
Certainly, we can take Jesus’ teachings here separately, but I don’t think that’s his biggest point, and let’s look at what he says about divorce to show this. I pick divorce because it’s the messiest: it touches all our lives in some way. My parents are divorced. I have friends who are divorced. It hits close to home and if I ignore it, it’s the thing we’re all wondering about.
Jesus recognized that Jewish teaching allowed for a man to divorce his wife – for really any reason, including burnt food. Ignore for a moment all the emotional stuff that comes with divorce, and hear what Jesus is saying. He tells them divorce forces a woman (and the man she might marry next) into adultery. And remember, a woman caught in adultery could be punished by death. There’s nothing fair about this. Jesus is viewing divorce as an issue of justice and he speaks against it to care for the most vulnerable. I’m not sure, if Jesus were speaking today, if he would single out divorce in his list. Divorce today typically doesn’t have the same justice and vulnerability issues connected to it today. He might, like Troy Anderson, target child-marriage of young girls. In Jesus’ instructions today, his intention throughout is to provide care for the most vulnerable and challenge his hearers to relationships of care and respect.
Jesus reveals God’s care for the vulnerable in these teachings, and he reveals that God cares deeply about all our relationships – because each of these teachings is about our relationships with others. Troy Anderson discovered how important relationships of grace, trust, and support are in his ministry in Bangladesh. He found that he could go in and break up brothels, but if he didn’t have a network of people and systems in place to help transition girls and women out of prostitution, they would likely return, seeing it as the only option. He could ask girls their dreams, or help them to dream, but if he didn’t have a network of relationships and systems to back it up, nothing changed.
He told the story of Aushtimay, a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girl from the village of Kashipur. His ministry organized a meeting in the village with police and local authorities. Hundreds of girls came, and they all said, “No girls will get married from this village. It’s against the law and you will be put in jail.” Soon after, Aushtimay’s father brought a man and told her, “Next week, you’re going to marry this man.” She said, “No, you can’t do this. I’m going to be a teacher.” An argument ensued. Aushtimay stood her ground. “No, the police came and said you’ll go to jail if you do this. And my uncle [Troy – they call him “uncle”] says you can’t do this and he supports me. And my friends [the teachers and staff] will support me.” And Aushtimay’s father gave in. She’s still in school. She’s thriving; dreaming and preparing to be a teacher.
Troy found that relationships give people strength to dream and tools to accomplish these dreams, which is precisely why Jesus gives these four lessons today. Jesus shows us that God has a particular care for the vulnerable and cares deeply about our relationships. Jesus shows us that our relationships can be means of grace, ways that God’s inclusive blessing and missional empowerment can be made a reality in this world. Jesus shows us that our relationships are ways that God’s kingdom breaks into our lives. And so, he challenges us to bear God’s blessing into each and every one of our relationships. May we live into the challenge.