Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sixth Sunday of Epiphany: I'm not touching you!

My family loves the Sunday funnies. We fight over who reads them first and we share the ones we find particularly funny.  Sometimes a comic will go ‘viral,’ so to speak – the reader will stop in mid-read and share the strip with everyone in the room and it gets clipped and placed on the fridge.
One morning the very first strip went viral as soon as I read it.  It was Baby Blues – mom, dad, and the three kids were in the car.  Oldest-Daughter and Next-to-Oldest-Son are in the back seat, and their index fingers are outstretched but not touching - barely:
“I'm not touching you.”
“I’m not touching you either.”
“I'm still not touching you.”
“I'm still not touching you, either.”
“I'm not touching you way closer than you're not touching me.”
“No you're not.”
“Yes I am….[i]
We all know how the game is played.  Brother and Sister are pestering each other.  Brother pokes Sister.  Sister snags Brother’s comic book.  In desperation, a parent says, “Keep your hands to yourself!”  And the game is on. 
I’m not touching you. 
We’ve all played it.
The Israelites stood on Mt. Sinai and listened to God give them commandments for living in the Promised Land as God’s chosen people.  They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.”[ii]  In our Old Testament reading today (Deuteronomy 30:15-20), the Israelites stand on the edge of the Promised Land and listen to Moses reminding them of God’s instructions for living as God’s chosen people.  Moses encourages them to choose life – to choose to live according to God’s commands, to choose to live in ways that bring life not only to themselves but to their families, their neighbors and the vulnerable living among them.
Over the next 14 centuries or so, a profusion of rabbinic interpretations of Torah, rulings on what actions kept the law and what did not develops.  It’s an elaborate game of “I’m not touching you”  
Did I murder someone today?  No.  I may have cheated that farmer out of a fair wage for his produce and his family may go hungry, but I didn’t kill anyone.
I’m not touching you.
Did I commit adultery, today?  No.  Well, maybe.  There’s someone else that I want more than my wife, but I’m not coveting her – I’m figuring out how I can legally have her.  I’m not committing adultery because I’ve divorced my wife according to the laws of Moses. 
I’m not touching you.
Did I misuse God’s name?  Nope, I never say God’s real name, so I don’t have to worry about misusing it.  It doesn’t count that I swore by heaven to show I really meant my promise.  People have to take oaths to show that I am telling the truth, so I can swear by heaven, or earth, or maybe on my mother’s grave – as long as it’s not God’s name, I’m ok.
I’m not touching you.
Somewhere along the line, Torah and the later rabbinic interpretations became more about keeping the law and less about living as God’s chosen people.   It became about what was allowed and how far we could push the edges.  Torah, God’s law no longer was understood to be about God’s love for us, living in relationship with God, and reflecting that loving relationship to others.
Over the years, we got really good at playing, “I’m not touching you.”  Then Jesus comes along and changes the game.
Jesus and his followers are on another mountain.  Over the last two weeks, we have heard Jesus lay out his vision for the kingdom of heaven in the Beatitudes and tell us that we ARE salt and light to the world.  He tells us that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law – and in today’s reading he shows us what it means to fulfill the law[iii]. 
So, you say you didn’t commit murder today?  Good for you.  But did you call someone a fool?  Did you argue with someone and not reconcile?  Are you sitting here today with a grudge against someone in the next pew? 
Stop playing I’m not touching you!  God touches you with love overflowing! Forgive and be forgiven.  I don’t expect you to not be angry.  We’re human and we sometimes get angry.  But don’t harbor that anger.  Don’t let it take root in your heart.  Reconcile and touch others with love. 
I’m touching you with the love of God.

So you didn’t misuse God’s name today?  Good for you.  But what about that oath you swore?  Are you such a person that you cannot be trusted to keep your word?  What about all those euphemisms you use for God’s name? 
Stop playing I’m not touching you!  God touches you with love overflowing!  God is faithful and just.  As a child of God, imitate your Father in Heaven, imitate my example.  Be trustworthy and speak kindly. 
I’m touching you with the love of God.
So you say you didn’t commit adultery today?  Good for you.  But did you, as President Carter once famously said, lust in your heart?  Are you hiding secret desires that get in the way of your relationship with your spouse?  Are those desires leading you to break your marriage vows?
Stop playing I’m not touching you!  God touches you with love overflowing!  Build a strong relationship with your spouse.  Love him or her as God loves you.  And honor the marriages of others. 
I’m touching you with the love of God.
So you divorced your wife according to the Law of Moses?  Sure, that certificate of divorce provides some protection for your wife.  It gives her the ability to remarry and saves her from shaming her family and keeps her from a life of begging or prostitution.  But you have reduced divorce to this casual thing – she does not please me, so I can divorce her, because Moses said so. [iv] This careless regard for relationship demonstrates an attitude of the heart not in keeping with God’s kingdom.
Stop playing “I’m not touching you!”  God is love, perfect love.  The marriage relationship is metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel and Me and My church.  No one wants a marriage that begins in love, faith and hope to end in bitterness, betrayal and hatred, even if there is forgiveness and second chances and grace.  Marriage is about a promise to be kept and a relationship of mutual caring, love, and respect. 
I’m touching you with the love of God.

Jesus’ words are so radical, so extreme, that they make us stop in our tracks.  We may think it sounds like we have a whole new, more stringent set of rules to live by.  But it's much more than that. 
Jesus is talking about the attitude of the heart and building relationships.  Jesus wants us to understand that it's not just the acts that hurt us - murder, theft, adultery, envy.  It's the intentions - the leanings of the heart - behind those acts that destroy life and relationship.  We may not actually plot murder when we harbor anger against our boss, neighbor, or spouse, but the anger kills nonetheless - it slowly strangles relationship.  Thoughts of lust may not be acted on, but when we hold on to those unhealthy desires, it consumes our mind and destroys love. 
Jesus changes the game from “I’m not touching you” to “I am touching you with God’s love.”
There was a marvelous picture making the news rounds in the last week or two.  Coptic Christians in Egypt formed a human shield for their Muslim brothers and sisters, so they would be safe from harm during prayer.  I understand that the Muslims returned the favor two days later and formed a shield around the Christians during Mass. 
I’m touching you with the love of God.
South Africa faced a daunting task of rebuilding after the ravages of Apartheid.  They formed a reconciliation task force, where the perpetrators of abuse could ask forgiveness and the victims heard the sorrow and offered forgiveness.  It was a majestic healing process for that country.
I’m touching you with the love of God.
Closer to home, care packages recently went out to Trinity youth in college – a gesture of love and a reminder of home.
I’m touching you with the love of God.
Wednesday night, a meal will be shared.  Everyone is welcome to attend and those who are homebound will have meals brought to them. 
I’m touching you with the love of God.
Trinity youth collected donations Souper Bowl Sunday for the food pantry.  This was in addition the monthly donations and the time the people from Trinity volunteer at the food pantry.
I’m touching you with the love of God.
Last Youth Gathering, Trinity youth were part of an army of Lutheran youth that helped in the rebuilding of New Orleans.  Plans are already underway to do it again at the next Youth Gathering.
I’m touching you with the love of God.
What else?  There are couples who are struggling to keep marriages intact, someone who is working on forgiving that long held grudge against a family member – myriad of ways we seek to follow Jesus’ example of
I’m touching you with the love of God.
It’s much more than a new checklist of things we need to do. 
Jesus teaches us what it means to be fully human, about realizing who God created us to be.  Jesus calls us back to our relationship with God.  Jesus calls us back to relationships with each other that are whole, respectful, mutually beneficial.  Jesus calls us to be the people we are created to be – salt and light to a flavorless, dark world, an overflowing cup of God’s love to a world dying of thirst from hate. 
Remember Jesus started with his vision of the kingdom of heaven.   In the kingdom of heaven, not only is there no murder, but anger that destroys relationship is dealt with in a healthy way, reconciled and forgiven,  because those who are peacemakers work to resolve all conflict.  In the kingdom of heaven, envy and lust are put aside for love that is real, healthy, respectful, mutual and life-long.  In the kingdom of heaven, a yes is yes and a no is no without the need for swearing an oath, because those who are pure in heart (everyone) are known for their truthfulness and integrity.
In the kingdom of heaven, the only game played is “I’m touching you with God’s love.”

[i] Kirkman, Rick, and Scott, Jerry, Baby Blues,
[ii][ii] Exodus 24:3. All scripture references are from the NRSV.
[iii] Smith, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament, Matthew, pg 94.
[iv] Deuteronomy 24:1-4.


  1. Ramona, I love the rhythm you build here. You have great teaching points on divorce, but I wonder if there's a way to make it more compact so it seems more part of the overall rhythm? This is a hard one, for sure.

  2. I think I'm reading this after you adapted it from Songbird's suggestion - I too like the way it builds and rhythm,it's a good sermon. I hope it feels great preaching it.