February 12, 2017
View a video of this sermon here.
Effective teachers know that good corrective instruction starts with an evaluation of what the student has already mastered. That’s just a fancy way of saying it’s easier to help a student fix what needs to be fixed if you start by affirming what’s already going well. Good teachers point out the positives before they get to what needs to be improved. So, Jesus has begun his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount with the good news: You are blessed, you are salt and light.
Jesus reminds us that God is at work, and we already are salt and light to the world, seasoning it with God’s love and shining God’s light into every dark corner. We also heard him insist that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.
As Jesus digs deeper into what it means to live into the spirit of the Law, he makes it clear that being his follower requires more from us than obeying a few rules. In this week’s passage, Jesus is moving from the positives to what we, his students, need to improve, as citizens of the Kingdom of heaven.
We are following a theme called “The Great Invitation” during this season after Epiphany, and today’s invitation is called “This, not That.” “This” is what lies right in front of us, right here, or about to come next. It’s plural form is “these.” “That” — or “those — usually refers to something that is somewhere else, over there, or back in time.
In Matthew 5:19, Jesus says, “Whoever disobeys one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise will be least in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says, “these,” not “those.”
Taylor Burton-Edwards writes, “So the direction of Jesus’ reference to “one of the least of these commandments” is not backward toward the … law and prophets. It is instead forward toward the teaching (commandments) he is about to offer…”
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“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. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, 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. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” – Matthew 5: 21-37
We’ve come a long way from the Beatitudes that opened this Sermon on the Mount! If those were radical words when Jesus first spoke them, imagine how much more radical these words must have sounded to the people gathered on that hillside.
Jesus followed the same teaching method as other rabbis of the day.
He asked questions:
“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26)
He used exaggerated examples to make his point.
“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3-4)
But he also did something that no rabbi had ever done before. He spoke on his own authority. And the standard he was setting for true Kingdom behavior was higher than anyone thought possible:
‘If part of your body causes you to sin, cut it off! It’s better to go through life as a cripple than to risk the fires of hell. Moses told you that you shouldn’t commit adultery, but I tell you that looking at someone with lust in your heart is just as bad. Moses told you not to kill each other. But I tell you that it’s just as evil as murder to hold a grudge against someone.’
One by one, Jesus holds up the Commandments and forces us to look deeper into God’s intention behind the command, to discover the spirit of the Law. We could spend a whole sermon on each one of these commands, exploring how Jesus offers a new Law that transcends the one handed down from Moses: this, not that.
But Jesus isn’t interested in giving us a new checklist of things we aren’t supposed to do. As we take stock of our lives at the end of each day, Jesus isn’t impressed to hear, “Well, I didn’t murder anyone today, and I didn’t commit adultery – I must be doing okay!”
Jesus says, “I expect more from my followers than just ‘okay’.”
Jesus tells us we need to dig deeper into ourselves, to get at the root of our sinfulness and purge it out
before a grudge turns into hatred and murder,
before lust turns into a pornography addiction, or leads to adultery and divorce,
before an idle word becomes a lie,
before a little envy blossoms into full-blown jealousy,
before our apathy turns us away from God’s grace and love.
Jesus asks us to open our lives to him, to allow the Holy Spirit to search out our weaknesses before they become hardened habits of sin that separate us from God.
Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton points out that, “Jesus is digging beneath the surface of outward observance to get at both the difficulty and the serious importance of being genuine and transparent in God’s new community of the church. For the writer of Matthew’s gospel, it is unimaginable that people who profess to be followers of Jesus should be Christians on the surface only. … All throughout this text, Jesus’ words are about dropping pretense and dealing with the real problems of being in relationship and community with others by being honest, straight-forward and humble with each other.”
David Lose writes that God gives the Law out of love for us, to strengthen community by pointing our attention toward the needs of our neighbor. The “you” in both Matthew and the Deuteronomy reading we heard earlier is plural. “The law is not about meeting our individual needs but about creating and sustaining a community in which all of God’s children can find nurture, health, safety, and blessing … Jesus intensifies the law to make us more responsible for our neighbor’s well-being.” [http://www.davidlose.net/2017/02/epiphany-6a-on-love-and-law/]
Three years ago this week, fourteen Church Council members gathered on a Saturday morning to begin the process of discovering what God was calling our church to be and do here on the corner of Center and Broadway in New Ulm. We asked a lot of questions, and probably didn’t come up with very many answers, but the desire to be faithful to God’s call was evident.
We discovered that it was a lot easier to come up with a list of things to do than it was to say why we do them. It was a lot easier to remember stories of vital ministry in days gone by, than it was to imagine how our ministry could be more effective in the here and now.
But we didn’t give up. We knew the call on our lives, and on our church, was an urgent one. God had a plan for us, and work for us to do. We realized our job was to make our hearts and lives ready to be and do what God calls us toward.
We are still working to become the church God calls us to be, to become the people of God who shine light into the darkness and season our community with the saltiness of God’s love. And many of us are beginning to recognize that, if we want our church to flourish, we have to make a personal investment in our own spiritual growth. We have to become devoted disciples of Jesus Christ.
The cost of this kind of discipleship is enormous, and some will not be willing to invest themselves in the transformation process. But the cost of non-discipleship is even greater. Paying lip service to a faith that does not bear fruit can cost us our place in the Kingdom of heaven. Refusing to let Christ change us, insisting that we are fine as we are, that it is enough to follow the basic rules without surrendering our whole selves to Christ’s purpose – that is the way to pain, sorrow, and separation from God.
If Jesus were here today, preaching his Sermon on the Mount directly to us in this worship space, what would it sound like? What higher standard of behavior would he be expecting from us, the people who claim to be his followers? Would he pat us on the back and tell us what a good job we are doing of bringing his kingdom to reality? Or would he say something more like:
“You have heard it said that reading a paragraph and a printed prayer from a devotional book will make you a better person, but I say to you that my Father longs for you to cultivate a deep hunger for God’s Word, and a personal relationship that keeps you connected to him through prayer as an ongoing conversation.
“You have heard it said that pastors are trained to do the work of the church, but I say to you that everyone who claims to follow me has been given gifts and talents for the purpose of ministry, and wasting those gifts is a sin.
“You have heard it said that attending church is a good thing, that your passive presence in worship is enough. But I say to you that you ARE the church, and everything you do or say or think makes the church what it is.
“Again, you have heard it said that volunteering brings blessing. But I say to you that volunteers use their discretionary time, and for them, service is an optional activity. There’s nothing optional about following Jesus. Being a disciple is a 24/7 commitment.”
Christ calls us to a higher standard of living into the Kingdom of God. He calls us to a deeper commitment and a willingness to be transformed into devoted followers of Jesus. To answer that call, we need to reorient our thinking, just as those disciples on the hillside had to do.
We are blessed. We are salt and light, evidence that God is working here among us. And we are called to grow into an even greater understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That transformation begins in each of us. For we are called to stay centered on Christ here at Center and Broadway, as we are sent by Christ from Center and Broadway, to offer Christ to all. Let it be so. Amen.