Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Uh Oh: Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

A friend of mine who is a pastor tells the following story about an experience she had in college. It seems there was someone in her dorm who was prone to taking other people’s food from the refrigerator. She writes,

“I would go out on a date on Friday night and have a fabulous meal. I would carefully eat only half of my entree, so that I could enjoy the rest of it the next day for lunch. But when I would open up the door to the fridge anticipating the content of that doggy bag, the leftovers would be gone, along with anything else that might have been edible in the icebox. Then much drama would ensue.

“Until one particular morning.

“I woke up,” she writes, “went into the kitchen to fetch some milk for my coffee, and I gasped. Someone had taped a sign to the refrigerator. In bold red letters, it said: “If your hand causes you to sin, CUT IT OFF.” Then, carefully taped to the sign was a fierce serrated-edge knife.”

Did I mention my friend went to a Bible college? [1]

And there we have it: real-life application of a literal reading of some verses from this morning’s gospel passage. Three weeks ago I eagerly, almost ecstatically made a commitment to myself and to you that we would spend the next six weeks, right up until Lent, immersing ourselves in the Sermon on the Mount. We would swim in it! We would let it seep into our souls! How on earth, in all my excitement, did I manage to completely forget about this passage? This passage, which, when I turned to it on Monday morning, made me say, “Uh oh.” As Monday turned to Tuesday, and Tuesday turned to Wednesday, and Wednesday turned to Thursday, I kept going back to the passage to make sure it really said all these incredibly difficult, depressing, and downright nasty things. Maybe, I thought, it would be ok to skip Matthew—just this week. Maybe, I thought, I could preach on the Deuteronomy passage, and call it a palate cleanser. Like sherbet!

But I made a commitment. We made a commitment! We are going to stay with Jesus, up on this mountain, and hear everything he has to say to us. Not only that, we are going to trust Jesus. We are going to trust that he has Good News for us, today as well as every other day.

So let’s listen in. Jesus is talking, remember, to his friends and followers—the disciples are a little core group he has around him, but the crowds are following too. So, although his words are directed at those close to him, many more than that are listening.

“You have heard it said.” We can divide this passage into three parts. Each of these parts begins with those words: You have heard it said. It might be good, at the outset, to pay attention to who, exactly, was doing the speaking in that case—we have heard it said where? By whom? Well, those who normally went about reminding people of all the rules and regulations they had to follow were the religious leaders of the community, in Jesus’ case, the scribes and the Pharisees. Pharisees, in particular, were very concerned with correct observance of the law. Pharisees tended to be the face of religious law-enforcement in the community. That phrase, “You have heard it said,” implies strongly, “by the scribes and Pharisees.”

I want to remind us here that Matthew is our most Jewish gospel; it is the gospel most likely written by a Jew and for a Jewish community. So, to think that what happens in this passage is somehow Jesus attacking Judaism—well, that’s absolutely not the case. This isn’t a rejection by Jesus of his heritage. Quite the opposite. This is a full-throated engagement of Jesus with his heritage. This is a family conversation—and you know how lively family conversations can be! This is Jesus, adding his wisdom to the wisdom of the ages.

And Jesus appears to out-legalize the legalists. First, the law against murder. Jesus says, You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, if you insult a brother or sister, even if you say ‘You fool,’ to a brother or sister, you will be judged! [Matthew 5:21-22]. Jesus shocks his audience with this. His words absolutely fly in the face of what they’ve been taught. There is no prohibition in the Hebrew Scriptures against anger. In fact, many characters in the bible become angry, often righteously so. God is angry once or twice, as I recall. So what is Jesus doing, exactly? Why is he making such shocking statements?

Second, the law against adultery and divorce. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” [Matthew 5:27-28]. Everyone above a certain age remembers when President Jimmy Carter famously said, in an interview, that he had committed adultery in his heart. He took a lot of ribbing for that—the late night talk shows had a field day. But he was trying to speak very earnestly about what his faith had taught him, how it influenced his understanding of his own actions and reactions.

The third portion treats the taking of oaths, which is nowhere regarded as a sin in scripture. In fact, oaths are required in certain circumstances—entering into covenants, for example. This takes us closer to the truth of what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is pushing us, pushing us to the place where we all are likely to throw our hands up in despair, and say, “Who can do this? Who can uphold these standards?” And, of course, the answer is, No one. Not one of us. It’s impossible.

What we have to understand here is that, in the midst of this family conversation, Jesus is using humor—a very Middle-Eastern brand of humor—to make two very serious points. [2] The first point he’s making is that the law is an impossible taskmaster. None of us is capable of complete and utter fidelity to it without the grace of God. And this is the Good News—we have that grace. We have that unexpected, revolutionary love of God. We have it, no matter who we are or what we have done. We have the love of God, through no power of our own, not because of who we are but because of who God is. And we have God to help us with our heart.

Which brings me to the second point I believe Jesus is trying to make. Sin—all sin—starts as an inclination of the heart. We don’t generally get to the point of committing murder, or adultery, without first experiencing a long and meandering journey of the heart from peace to violence, or contentment to restlessness. Jesus is saying, Pay attention to your heart. Don’t let what starts as, perhaps even understandable anger, or disappointment in your spouse, take you to the place of actions that will cause harm. We have seen an astounding increase in what are being called “emotional affairs,” made far easier by the social networking opportunities we all have on Facebook, text-messaging, Twitter. I don’t think anyone can deny the power of these technologies: if they can be harnessed to overturn a government, you can bet they have the power wreak havoc in our committed relationships. And it all goes back to the heart.

I think Jesus is asking, How is your heart? That’s where it all begins. We open our hearts to a relationship with God, we allow that grace to pour in and saturate our lives, and at the same time we invite God to search us and know us and heal us.

It’s not always easy for us to know what is going on with our hearts. A friend once told me the story of the first time she fell in love. She said, for the longest time, whenever she saw that certain someone, it was as if there was static in her head—noise, like a badly tuned or out of distance radio station. And then one night as she was falling asleep, she saw the face of her beloved, and realized what her feelings were. And suddenly she felt a great silence, still and deep and beautiful.

One way we can learn what is going on in our hearts is by the practice of silent prayer or meditation. I have noticed that if I take a period of time each day to simply sit in silence in the presence of God… whatever it is I have on my heart will rise to the surface, and make itself known to me. And to God, of course. Sometimes this feels risky—we’re not sure we’re ready for that level of intimacy. But God knows us better than we know ourselves. What is revealed to us was revealed to God the moment we were a twinkle in the Divine eye.

At the end of this passage, Jesus is speaking of swearing oaths. He says,

Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. ~ Matthew 5:34B-36

This is the God who loves us and asks, like a shy suitor, for our love in return, the One whose throne is heaven, and whose footstool is the earth. This is the God who, in Jesus, wants to know, “How is your heart?” and promises to help and heal us, no matter what the answer is to that probing question. This is the God whose grace is the answer to our deepest questions. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Carol Howard Merritt, “Cut it Out: What Do These Difficult Teachings Mean?” on TheHardestQuestion.org, http://thehardestquestion.org/yeara/epiphany6gospel/.
[2] Peter Woods, “The Law of Love or the Love of Law?” at I Am Listening, http://thelisteninghermit.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/the-law-of-love-or-the-love-of-law/.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Who and What You Are: Sermon on Matthew 5:13-16

I feel confident you all remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker? Think heavy, heavy mascara and the spectacular public crash and burn of a television ministry, followed by a jail term. At least, that’s what most of us are most likely to remember. There was more to the Bakkers, of course, than extramarital affairs, financial shenanigans and drug overdoses. The “Praise the Lord” television ministry was a pioneer of its genre, at one point spawning a bible-based theme park while being broadcast into more than thirteen million homes. At the height of their ministry, the Bakkers closed each show with the utterly true and encouraging Good News, “God loves you. He really, really does.”

Still, crash and burn the family did, and standing very close to the flames was a little boy in a suit named Jamie. His birth had been announced to the “Praise the Lord” audience eleven years earlier via the words “It’s a boy! It’s a boy!” flashing on television screens in the middle of one of his father’s sermons. Jamie, or Jay, as he is known now, had a front row seat for the good, the bad and the ugly things his parents endured as their lives were unraveling. And at that point in his life, the message that “God loves you” was a difficult one to swallow. At a very early age he turned to dependable comforts of wine coolers and cigarettes to distract him from the pain all around him and inside him. By age eighteen, in his own words, he was a raging alcoholic, and he was through with church and God.

But you know how these things go. God wasn’t through with Jay. And God spoke to Jay through the voice of a close friend, D. E.. Jay lived with D. E. and his family through some of the worst of his alcoholism, during which time D. E. would follow him to bars, sipping seltzer, and making sure Jay got home safely. D. E. didn’t try to change Jay. He simply repeated one message to him over and over. God loves you. He really, really does. It doesn’t matter that you drink. It doesn’t matter that you don’t go to church. It doesn’t matter that you think you’ve had it with God. God loves you. Rinse and repeat.

Through the patient ministry of this friend, Jay underwent, over time, what he calls a “grace evolution.” He came to see and understand and even believe what D. E. was saying. At D. E.’s urging, Jay started reading the bible. Only after a more or less steady diet of Galatians and Romans over an extended period of time did Jay actually succeed at getting sober. And ever since, this heavily tattooed and pierced young man has been on a mission, and that mission, in a nutshell, is to spread the word about grace. The truth, that God loves you, just as you are. God really, really does.

This message, I believe, is at the deep heart of our gospel reading today. We are in our second Sunday of immersion in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, and almost by definition, we are reading words that are incredibly familiar to us. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” The first of these sayings requires a little more parsing than the second. Salt was an incredibly important commodity in ancient times, as it is in modern. Salt was an essential preservative for meats—some credit salt with making settled societies possible. Once people didn’t have to hunt for their meat daily, they could stay in one place. Salt was so precious the ancient Egyptians used it as a funeral offering on behalf of the dead. In the Japanese religion Shinto salt is used for ritual purification. Perhaps most important for us, as we read this very Jewish gospel, salt came to symbolize the covenant between God and the people Israel. Salt means wit or humor. Salt indicates anything that gives life flavor or zest. Salt, despite our anxiety about sodium levels in our diets, has a wholly good meaning for us in this reading.

You are the salt of the earth. You have wit. You have flavor. You are a participant in God’s covenant with God’s beloved people. God loves you. God really, really does. You are the light of the earth. People will look at you and understand that God loves them too.

Jesus is giving the law here, and yet, once again, he is not telling us what to do, exactly—at least at the beginning. Jesus it not saying, “Be salt. Be salty!” Jesus is not saying, “Try to be light—you can do it!” Jesus is talking to us about who and what we are already. Jesus is simply telling us the truth about our natures. Just the facts, ma’am. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. In fact, Jesus is warning us against losing those attributes that make us who and what we are—you are salt already, don’t lose that saltiness! You are light already, don’t hide the radiance of your glow! God loves you. God really, really does.

Now, am I suggesting to you that Jesus has no opinions at all as to how we should behave, what we should do? Of course not! Jesus has strong opinions on that. A grace-filled life should reflect the kingdom of heaven’s core values. Of course. But: even if it doesn’t, that does not change this central fact, that God loves us. Each and every one of us, in our flawed and struggling and incomplete states. God loves us, as we flail about in addiction to booze or drugs or pornography or food. God loves us, as we wake up each day hoping to do better, or even hoping it will all go away. God loves us, whether we look like the disciple who gets an A-plus or the one who is tagging along at the back of the pack.

Jay Bakker said in an interview this week, “Just accept that you are accepted and let it transform you.” God loves us, period. Who and what we are. He really, really does. And the day we know that, the day that reality sinks deep down into our bones and starts to sing in our sinews, is the day we truly become salt and light for this beautiful and broken world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


(1) Jay Bakker with Martin Edlund, Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self, and Society (New York: Faith Words, 2011).

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A New Moses: Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12

The Academy Award Nominees were announced this week, always a highlight at my house. In 1952 a special Academy Award was given to director Akira Kurasawa’s 1950 film “Rashomon.” “Rashomon” told a tragic tale, the story of a rape and murder, from the perspectives of four characters. The stories they tell are vastly different from one another, and so throughout the filming the actors kept approaching Kurosawa and asking him “What is the truth?” And he wouldn’t answer. He wasn’t interested in limiting the truth to one viewpoint. He was more interested in the interplay of multiple realities. “Rashomon” today is regarded, not only as Kurosawa’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece of cinema.

The scriptures we read contain not one but four different versions of the Good News, the gospel, the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. We can read the story of Jesus through the eyes of the authors of Matthew, and Mark, and Luke, and John. And while it is true that there is some similarity and overlap in the storytelling, especially in Matthew, Mark and Luke, each evangelist has a distinct point of view, a unique take on the life of Jesus.

It makes sense. The gospels are a little like “Rashomon.” Each evangelist is a kind of witness from a different angle, of the life of Jesus. None of them was an eyewitness, though—the gospels were written anywhere from forty to seventy years after Jesus’ crucifixion—and, in a sense, that gave each of them the freedom to tailor the story of Jesus to the audience they were trying to reach, the people to whom they wanted to impart the Good News.

Take Matthew. Matthew is our gospel this year, the one we will be most deeply immersed in, since this year A of the three-year lectionary cycle. Scholars just about universally agree that Matthew’s viewpoint is a distinctly Jewish one. Of all the evangelists, Matthew is the most at ease describing the customs of first century Palestinian Jews, such as the particulars of Temple worship. In fact, some scholars believe that this gospel may originally have circulated in Hebrew or Aramaic the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples. And one of the great themes of Matthew’s gospel, a theme that would speak directly to the hearts of his Jewish audience, a theme he develops in many different ways, is this: Jesus is the new Moses.

Moses was the central figure of the Torah, the first five books of the bible. An ancient tradition even taught that Moses was the author of those books. It was Moses who was called by God to lead God’s people out of slavery. It was Moses who bargained with the Pharaoh, calling down God’s plagues when the monarch resisted. It was Moses who received the instructions about the Passover and imparted them to the people. It was Moses who led the people across the Sea of Reeds, and on their forty-year wilderness sojourn. Moses was there for all the seminal events of the people of Israel, the events that determined and shaped Jewish identity forever. It was Moses who mediated God’s will and God’s presence and God’s law to the people.

Matthew goes to great lengths to show us how Jesus is the new Moses. He starts with Jesus’ birth story, in which an evil king seeks to kill Jesus while still a baby—just like Pharaoh tried to kill the Hebrew children when Moses was a baby. Jesus spends, not forty years, but forty days in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. And, beginning in chapter five of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus climbs a mountain, just like Moses climbs Mount Sinai, and gives the law—a new law—to the people.

Chapters five through seven of Matthew’s gospel are known as “the Sermon on the Mount,” and it’s hard to overestimate the impact of the words we find there. More than one Christian theologian has called the sermon the Magna Carta—the Great Charter—of Christianity. These are among the most familiar words Jesus spoke. They are quoted and quoted and, yes, misquoted everywhere from serious literature to pop culture. And we have a unique opportunity to immerse ourselves in the Sermon on the Mount over the course of the next five weeks, so I think we should take it, let it soak into our ears and our hearts, or, as the Book of Common Prayer so beautifully says, “read, mark and inwardly digest” it.

So here we are at the opening of chapter 5. Jesus has only recently begun his ministry. He has called some disciples to come and follow, and he has begun his work of showing what the kingdom of heaven looks like, by teaching, preaching and healing. Jesus becomes aware that there is a crowd following him, and so he climbs a mountain—to get away from them? Perhaps. But remember: we are reading Matthew. Jesus climbs this mountain because Moses climbed Mount Sinai. Jesus climbs this mountain because what he is about to say—what we’ll be reading over the next five weeks—is every bit as important as the law that God gave Moses.

Here is the beginning of what Jesus says:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. ~Matthew 5:3-12

This passage contains what Christians call “the beatitudes,” a word that simply means, “blessings.” The first four beatitudes—the ones concerning the poor or poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—those four sayings refer to things that are absolutely out of our control. If we are poor or our spirits are impoverished; if we are mourning a great sorrow; if we are better described as a doormat than as a captain of industry; if our hearts and our bodies cry out to God for justice that has been denied—these are all conditions of living in a fallen world. These are things that have happened to us, not necessarily through any fault of our own. Jesus is giving the “law,” and the first remarkable thing about it is that it starts by describing people whose human condition is difficult, painful, unfair. And it assures us that, though the world may not see or value who they are, God most certainly does.

A word about the kingdom of heaven starts to whisper in the background, a word behind the words: that word is grace. This new “law” is not about how we can earn God’s favor; it’s about God’s favor being bestowed where it is least expected. It is an entirely counterintuitive, unexpected take on what it means to be one of God’s people.

The second four beatitudes—the ones about being merciful, about being pure in heart, about making peace, and about enduring persecution for the sake of the kingdom—these beatitudes are about things that are within our power to choose. We can choose to show mercy, to forgive. We can choose to discipline ourselves to be single-hearted about the gospel. We can choose to make peace rather than sustaining or supporting violence and strife. We can choose to stand up for what is right even when it draws fire. And these things are all things we do, as opposed to things we are. But listen to this: these four beatitudes describe the ways in which we can stand up for, stand on the side of, stand in solidarity with the kinds of people described in the first four beatitudes. “In other words the people whom Jesus declares blessed in 5:7-10 are those who help to bring to reality the blessings promised to others in 5:3-6.” (1)

Jesus climbs a mountain, and commences teaching exactly what this kingdom of heaven looks like—and it turns out not to be some other-worldly reward, far off above the clouds. It turns out to be a place of balancing of the scales and wrongs set right that can happen beginning right here and right now. But these reversals require something of us: they require that we see one another—that we look around us carefully to see where the injustice is, where the poverty is, where the sorrow is. We can’t participate in God’s gracious rule if we are oblivious to suffering.

For most of his adult life, Mahatma Gandhi, the great political and spiritual leader who pioneered the ethic of nonviolent resistance, read Jesus' Sermon on the Mount every morning. He was convinced that it contained a truth more powerful than the empire that occupied his native India. He was convinced that it contained a truth more powerful than the enmity that divided Hindus and Muslims. This practitioner of Hinduism spent his life seeking to put Jesus' teachings into practice for the sake of peace. Today is the anniversary of his assassination in 1948. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (2)

The new Moses is giving a new law from his perch on the mountain. His friends and followers are waiting for the rest of his words with bated breath. And the first word he gives, is one of both comfort and challenge. Comfort to those whose lives are landscapes of suffering. And challenge to those of us who just might have the wherewithal to do something about that. Every single one of us falls into one of those categories. Every single one of us has a place in God’s scheme of grace. Every single one of us can find our blessedness, can live under the gracious rule of God. Thanks be to God. Amen

(1) Mark Allan Powell, God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew’s Gospel (Fortress 1995), 130.
(2) CommonPrayer.net.

Image: Sermon on the Mount by Laura James.