Matthew 5: 21-37
One of the best examples of wooing and one of the most enduring film images of all times comes from Say Anything. John Cusack stands, forlorn, love struck, and soaked-through in the rain, holding up a boom box over his head, aimed at his girlfriend’s bedroom window. Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes is playing at top volume and the camera pans back from Cusack as he continues to stand, immobile and resolute, holding the boom box over his head, gaze fixed firmly on the girl’s window.
Even if you haven’t seen this movie, you may have seen this scene. And if not the scene itself, any number of parodies or homages to it. Something about that image has stuck with people, worming its way into our imaginations and ideas about wooing.
That’s right, wooing. We don’t use that word with a straight face much anymore. It seems that even in matters of love and attraction we like to think that we have thought our way into certain relationships, that we have decided to fall for this person, that the pieces fit, the numbers added up, the stars aligned and here we are. No wooing. Nothing as silly, vulnerable, and unsightly as that. No earnest rainy music blast for us, thank you very much.
Wooing is like “courtship” or “gentlemen callers.” We know what someone means when they use this language, but who uses this language any more? And who really needs to woo or be wooed? Is there enough time for that? Isn’t it better just to save time and energy and cut right to the chase? We can arrange our dates and hook-ups through Facebook or Match.com, where we can control how much we divulge or expose. We can sort through prospective dates or a person’s “likes” before it gets messy. No need for putting it all out there like silly, drenched John Cusack.
Well, I happen to enjoy a good woo. I happen to think that we could all be a little less down-to-business and a little more stand-in-the-rain. Wooing – being the woo-er or the woo-ee – is one of the delights of life. And I know that it’s one of the ways God chooses to relate to us.
I was reading something in a recent Christian Century magazine, written by one of our United Methodist bishops, Will Willimon. He wrote about how hard and vulnerable it is to preach every week, “to a group of people who have been, all week long, avoiding even the barest mention of God” (The Christian Century, 2/8/11, “Voice Lessons,” pp. 10-12). He claims that pastors preach in order to tell the congregation the truth about what they’ve been avoiding during the rest of the week.
I have to say I disagree with Bishop Willimon. I certainly agree that there are congregations and people who avoid getting more involved with God. But in general I think this is the wrong way to understand preaching and what happens each week in worship. This time is not about relentlessly beating ourselves over the head with some truths we have conveniently left out of life in the past week. This time is about remembering and letting ourselves be wooed. If you listen carefully you might be able to hear God’s boom box right about now.
Two weeks ago we talked about salt. Jesus called us the salt of the earth (Mt. 5: 13) and told us to retain our saltiness, our reason for being. In that same passage he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (v. 17). In tonight’s passage, just a few verses later in Matthew, Jesus repeatedly says, “You have heard it said…but I say…” He’s just a little further into the conversation. He’s saying I’m not here to abolish anything but I want you to hear precisely what it is that God wants.
Let me say here that Jesus is not proclaiming the law to be antiquated or inadequate. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. He is not saying, Here’s what the Jews do, but I want Christians to do something completely different. Jesus is reminding everyone what the law requires and pointing out how the people may be ever so slightly off course.
It’s like chopping wood. Old-fashioned, ax and chopping block style. You know, where there is a stump and then you place the piece you want to split on top of that and then you raise up the ax and hope it doesn’t go flying past all that and into your shin. The first few times I tried to chop wood I would either glance it and topple it or I’d get only far enough to bite into the piece of wood without actually splitting it. Then I’d have to wrestle my ax out and start over.
What I learned is that you aim for the chopping black, not for the piece of wood. It’s counter-intuitive. Maybe it sounds redundant. If I’m aiming for the wood and it’s on the block, isn’t that the same thing? Well, no. If you aim for the wood you end up like I did, spending a lot of time trying to pry your ax out of an un-split log. But if you aim for the chopping block, you can manage to slice all the way through the piece of wood standing between you and that block.
Same thing in baseball. The batter’s swing doesn’t end when the ball is hit. The end of that arc leaves the bat pointing out in the direction the batter wants the ball to go.
Aim for the chopping block.
Jesus was a carpenter’s son so maybe he knew about chopping blocks. Instead of listing God’s commandments out, reciting each one until the disciples finally get it, Jesus aims for the chopping block. He doesn’t stop at murder but says, Even if you are angry or insulting to one another, you are subject to judgment (v. 21-22). He says, Even if you look lustily at someone else’s spouse, it’s as grievous as committing adultery (v. 27-28).
Jesus wants the disciples to know the commandments and to keep them. He’s not here to abolish the law. But when you focus on the wood, you miss or get stuck. Jesus is aiming for the chopping block and asking all of us to do this, too. There is nothing wrong with the law but those words are meant to serve as pointers to the heart, shaping the attitudes of our hearts until they are conformed to the heart of God. Jesus is reminding us that if the law doesn’t change our hearts we haven’t really heard it and lived it.
We tend to think of commandments as “don’ts.” God’s lists of do’s and don’ts, but mainly don’ts. Writing about the commandment to keep Sabbath, Barbara Brown Taylor says not to worry when we can’t quite believe that it’s ok to do nothing for an entire day each week, that God finds us “precious” and worthy even when we are not doing anything worthwhile. She says, “remember that your own conviction is not required. This is a commandment. Your worth has already been established, even when you are not working. The purpose of the commandment is to woo you to the same truth” (An Altar in the World, p. 139).
God’s up to those old wooing tendencies again. God chooses to love us wildly and hopelessly, boom box up high, drenched by rain. God chooses to keep meeting us here in worship, reminding us who we are created to be, that our hearts can be bigger and deeper than anger, lust, hatred, and deceit. God chooses to woo us, to delight us.
Give in. Let yourself be swayed by this extravagant, silly, love struck display. Let yourself be wooed. Let the words, the law, the love in so deep that you stop worrying over what it says and start living what it means because you just can’t help it.
Thanks be to God!
© Deborah E. Lewis 2011