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The Impossibly High Bar that Jesus sets and The Doorway of Grace



The Impossibly High Bar that Jesus sets, and the Doorway of Grace

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, 2014
The Reverend John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church Virginia

Jesus said, "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)


This Gospel is a continuation of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” as it’s found in Matthew.

And so today you’re getting something a little different – instead of trying to preach a sermon on a sermon, let’s look at the original sermon itself, unpack it a bit and try to make sense of our lives in light of it.

The first thing to know is that the Sermon on the Mount is not so much a series of moral statements addressed to individuals as it is a “community constitution.”

This sermon, this community constitution, describes what life is like when lived not according to the values our culture superimposes on us, but another way, a very different way: Jesus’ way, a life lived according to the “God-love-life,” according to the values of the Kingdom of God.

Living the God-love life is not an individual or private endeavor and never has been. That’s why we hear frequently about the importance not only of individual private prayer, but of coming together on Sundays, and the importance of involvement in a small group or ministry. Several years ago there was an article in the New Yorker magazine that said studies show that “joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income.” I’m going to repeat that: studies have shown that “joining a group that meets just once a month (it can be a group here or some other group) produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income.”
And so a reason we encourage you to be involved in a small group or ministry is NOT just so the small group or ministry will benefit from your presence, but you will benefit.

So: back to Jesus’ sermon, Jesus’ community constitution. Last week we heard Jesus’ emphasis on our being salt and light – “the zest, the zing, the flavor of the world, and to not be led into false humility that would hide your, our unique skills and talents under a basket, but to let your, our, light shine to give light to others so God may be glorified.

That brings us to this section of the Sermon on the Mount, a series of six statements from Jesus that contain what scholars call “antitheses,” “oppositions,” or “contrasts.”

You noticed that each of the teachings follows the same basic pattern: “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you…”

In these contrasts, Jesus takes on some of the most controversial -- and relevant to everyday life -- issues of his day.

What’s fascinating is what Jesus does with each of these controversial issues.

In each case, he states what the Law -- biblical teaching, or religion -- requires. He then raises the bar in one of two ways. In some cases, let’s look at those first, he agrees with the teaching but says for his followers, following the rule or letter of the law is not good enough; they (we) must follow the spirit of the law.

Take the case of murder, and its root cause of anger. The way Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase The Message paraphrases it,

"You're familiar with the command to the ancients, 'Do not murder.' I'm telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother 'idiot!' and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell 'stupid!' at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.  

Therefore, Jesus says, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember you are angry, holding a grudge, leave your gift there at the altar and go and be reconciled, then come back and offer your gift.

Want to pause there and share a point that the New Testament scholar NT Wright makes about how this idea of leaving your gift behind while you go off and be reconciled to someone would have sounded to Jesus’ original listeners, at least his Galilean rural listeners.

It would have sounded crazy.

Remember, though, in Jesus day “making your gift at the altar” meant going to Jerusalem and purchasing a small animal (or if you could afford it a larger one), and bringing that live animal to the Temple. There it would be offered and sacrificed. If you had walked two days to Jerusalem, bought your turtledove or pigeon or lamb, and gotten to the altar, and there remembered you were angry at someone back home, you couldn’t just leave your animal there and walk back home two days find the person be reconciled walk two days back and pick up where you left off. Who’d take of the animal? Not the priests. And you can’t sell it back.

The reason it’s important to go into all that is: You know the word hyperbole: a literary device, exaggeration to make a point? Here – and, you’ll be happy to know, also a little later when Jesus says if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and if your hand causes you to sin, chop it off – Jesus is using hyperbole, and is not to be taken literally.

The point is, to people for whom worship was the most important thing going on in their life, Jesus is saying reconciliation takes precedence,  even over worship.

Next is the matter of adultery, and lust. Again, from the paraphrase in “the Message,”

"You know the next commandment pretty well, too: 'Don't go to bed with another's spouse.' But don't think you've preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.

Again, in this case Jesus says following the rule of the law is not good enough; they (we) must follow the spirit of the law. Most people will live their entire life without actually physically killing someone; husbands and wives can go years, decades, their entire married lives without actually having sex outside their marriage.

But I don’t know anyone who has not committed anger or lust. 

There’s a story of an old Cherokee Indian who was speaking to his grandson:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.  

One wolf is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, greed.

The other wolf is good — he is joy, peace, hope, love.”

The grandson thought about it for a long time, and then asked his grandfather, “Which one will win?”

The old man said, “The one I feed.”

God is a God unto all hearts are open, ALL desires know, and from whom NO secrets are hid.

The question for us is not, “do we have feelings of anger and desire for others and the question is not “does God know that about us,” the question is, what do we do with those feelings and desires? If your life lately is bearing the fruit of anger or potentially destructive sexual behavior, ask yourself: do you want to spend the rest of your life hacking away at the branches of behavior, or wouldn’t it be more effective to take a look at the roots, the root causes by talking to God about them, allowing God (through his grace and mercy and forgiveness) to change you from the bottom up, from inside out?  


If all this wasn’t already enough to think about, Jesus then moves on to talk about divorce and oath-taking and then (as we’ll hear next week), how to respond to those who attack us and evil-doers.

For the part about divorce and oath-taking, again, the paraphrase in The Message gives us a fresh take:

"Remember the Scripture that says, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights'? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are 'legal.' Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you're responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you're automatically an adulterer yourself. You can't use legal cover to mask a moral failure.
"And don't say anything you don't mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, 'I'll pray for you,' and never doing it, or saying, 'God be with you,' and not meaning it. You don't make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say 'yes' and 'no.' When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.

You see what’s going on? In each of these cases, Jesus raises the bar for his followers so high that the biblical commandment seems almost seems irrelevant… trumped by an even higher goal.
As I said in my e-vangelon article, in each case, when we read these, we are left breathless, staring at a bar set before us that is so high it’s impossible to clear.

At least on our own.

Which is why we are reminded [in the collect for the day] of God’s grace.

I think that if we read these words and think, “I’ve got to try harder,” we’ve missed the point.

In Psalm 130, we hear “If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, who could stand?” And of course the implied answer is, “none of us.”

So I think that in this part of his sermon, Jesus is pulling the rug out from under us, putting us into a free fall.

I think that when we hear these “tough words” of Jesus, where we are supposed to end up is,

“I don’t have a leg to stand on…I don’t have a chance…I can’t do this on my own…I need help…”

(in other words: “I’m a sinner in need of a savior…!”)

and if that’s where you are, then “welcome to the club,”

or should I say, “welcome to the community” --

You’re at the doorway of grace: and grace is God doing for you what you cannot do for yourself.

Enter in.

--##--

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