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Jesus Teaches Us to Love One Another
Summer Quarter: Living in Covenant
Unit 2: A Heartfelt Covenant
Sunday school lesson for the week of July 14, 2019
By Rev. Ashley Randall
Lesson Scripture: Matthew 5:21-32
Key Verses: Matthew 5:23-24
Purpose: To meet each broken relationship with the hope of reconciliation.
To Love and To Cherish
The sanctuary was even more beautiful than usual. More flowers. More candles. And there were more people in the pews, as well. Lots of friends and family had gathered to celebrate the marriage of this young couple.
You had watched them grow up. They seemed meant for each other – at least, from your perspective. The way they teased one another was especially endearing. They each had a wide circle of friends but still seemed to hold a special affection for one another.
The wedding had been planned for more than a year. All the attention to detail was apparent. As the attendants processed down the aisle and the area around the altar began to fill, it felt like this moment was filled with promise and hope.
The pastor began the service with the reminder that “the covenant of marriage was established by God,” and that Jesus “in his sacrificial love, gave us the example for the love of husband and wife.”
As the couple exchanged their vows, these words broke through once again: “to have and to hold from this day forward…to love and to cherish until we are parted by death.” You added your own prayer to their commitment to one another. “Oh, God, may love truly reign in their hearts and their home.”
The celebration continued into the evening as the couple and their families hosted a reception that seemed like the perfect kickoff for their new life. The drive home provided an opportunity to anticipate the wonderful future that lay ahead for these two as they moved into their “happily ever after.”
When they returned from their honeymoon, you could still see the glow in their eyes and the tenderness in their touch. You were happy for them, but you were also thankful for their new role in the congregation. It was time to “put them to work.” Their talents and energy could help bring new vitality to some of the activities that were languishing.
Over the next few months the promise seemed to fade. It was very subtle. Nothing you could really put your finger on. They started to miss services frequently. Then, they were rarely in worship together. You tried calling, left messages – they never called back. Then you heard that she had moved back in with her parents. There was something about a trip to the emergency room.
So much promise, and now it had vanished. It was heartbreaking; but unfortunately, not that unusual. While most people know that between 40 and 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, many people are unaware of the prevalence of abuse that affects millions of people each year – and appears to be increasing.
At a congressional briefing in the nation’s capital in June of this year, leaders and partners of The National Domestic Violence Hotline shared results of the organization’s annual impact report with legislators and their staff members. The organization reported it received 573,670 contacts from people affected by domestic violence, an increase of 36 percent from 2017. Additionally, researchers saw a 48 percent increase in website visits to TheHotline.org and loveisrespect.org combined, and a 147 percent increase in the number of people reaching out for help via chat.
Domestic violence, also known as Intimate Partner Violence, is an extremely complicated, multi-faceted issue. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines it as “the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats, and emotional/psychological abuse.”
Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence. There is NO “typical victim.” Victims of domestic violence come from all walks of life, varying age groups, all backgrounds, all communities, all education levels, all economic levels, all cultures, all ethnicities, all religions, all abilities, and all lifestyles.
Domestic violence is prevalent in every community and affects all people regardless of age, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality. Physical violence is often accompanied by emotionally abusive and controlling behavior as part of a much larger, systematic pattern of dominance and control. Domestic violence can result in physical injury, psychological trauma, and even death. The devastating consequences of domestic violence can cross generations and last a lifetime.
Abusers’ main objective in intimate relationships is to dominate and control their victim. They are manipulative and clever and will use a myriad of tactics to gain and maintain control over their partner, often in cycles that consist of periods of good times and peace and periods of abuse.
The overarching strategy used by abusers is referred to as coercive control. Coercive control includes a combination of abusive tactics such as isolation, degradation, micromanagement, manipulation, stalking, physical abuse, sexual coercion, threats, and punishment. An abuser may use some of these tactics or vary when they use them, but combined and used over time, they are effective in establishing dominance over their victim.
It gets worse. In her new book, “No Visible Bruises: What We Don't Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us,” Rachel Louise Snyder reports that in an average month in the United States alone, more than 50 women are fatally shot by an intimate partner. More than half of women murdered with guns are killed by intimate partners. Furthermore, between 2009 and 2017, more than half of mass shootings (shootings in which four or more individuals were killed) were cases of domestic or familial violence, according to a report by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
In her search for solutions, Snyder suggests several crucial questions: Can men recover from an addiction to brutality and domination that’s so deeply socialized into them that it appears natural? Can they step back, examine and recover from what psychologists call “thinking errors”?
In what ways does our focus on defending the ideals of Christian marriage distract us from working to create a culture where domestic violence is not tolerated and where society empowers victims and survivors while holding abusers accountable?
You have heard…but I say…
Before we turn to consider what Jesus is teaching those who have gathered on the mountain, it is important to recall again who Jesus is addressing. His focus continues to be on those who are invited and empowered to be part of the community Jesus is establishing through the new covenant. They are the ones who are favored by God: the “blessed,” the “happy.” Those who are hopeless, humble, and hungry. Those who grieve, show mercy, and make peace. Those who have pure hearts and suffer harassment because of their commitment to follow God’s design for relationships.
As members of this covenant community, their relationships with the world will be transforming – as long as they are informed by God’s principles. And so, while Jesus is clear that he has no interest in doing away with the Law and the Prophets – or even of ignoring “neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen” – He wants those who will accept the invitation to follow him to understand that there is more to fulfilling the Law – more to being one of those who are favored by God – than merely avoiding behavior that is proscribed.
Jesus starts with the commandment, “Don’t commit murder” (Matthew 5:21, Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17). He moves directly to identify anger as the motivating force that is deadly to the covenant community. Whether it is driven by pride, jealousy, or appetite, anger leads one to see another as “enemy” rather than companion. Once you see another as “enemy,” it becomes easier to disparage their value and importance. Labels like “idiot” and “fool” deny their identity as those “created in the image of God.” It also shifts the blame for any brokenness in our relationship.
Look carefully at what Jesus says about when “you bring your gift to the altar” (Matthew 5:23). If you have done something that is an offense to your brother or sister, you have the responsibility to reconcile – “make things right” – with them before you present your offering to God. Healthy relationships are more important than formal worship.
Then Jesus raises the bar again. Not only are those who are favored by God expected to value and maintain the relationships with their brothers and sisters, you are “to make friends quickly with your opponents” (Matthew 5:25). Jesus has identified these opponents. They are those “people [who] insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me” (Matthew 5:11). He has also established the standard for our behavior: “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children” (Matthew 5:9). This covenant community will always value extending the welcome over protecting our place at the table.
What makes it harder to remember who you have offended than who has offended you?
Adultery and Divorce
Making the shift from murder to adultery and divorce feels abrupt. It feels like a huge step from negotiating a settlement with an opponent on your way to court to dealing with a breakdown in the most intimate of human relationships. It may be helpful to notice that in both cases Jesus calls those who long to be included in the covenant community to recognize their personal responsibility for the quality and character of their relationships.
Victim blaming has been around a long time. Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially at fault for the harm that befell them. Consider the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. The legal experts are keen on getting Jesus to approve their execution of the woman, but Jesus has a different perspective.
Lust is an intense longing for an object. When people are motivated by lust, they see that object as a way to satisfy their desire. Seeing a person as an object is disordered thinking. It is a failure to recognize their identity as those “created in the image of God.”
Lust also shifts a person’s focus from a concern for others to a concern for self. Putting your own desires ahead of the welfare of another has eternal consequences. Those who are favored by God will have pure hearts. They will be willing to sacrifice themselves before they will injure another person to satisfy their own appetites. In the power of the Holy Spirit, they will do all they can to sustain and preserve their covenant relationships, especially those which represent to the world the covenant between Christ and the church.
How does lust dishonor the mutuality expressed in the exchange of the vow “to love and to cherish until we are parted by death”?
Ashley Randall is pastor of Garden City United Methodist Church.
To learn more about domestic violence and what you can do to help, visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline (www.thehotline.org) or The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (www.ncadv.org).