Becoming a Truthful People
Sermon for February 16, 2014
The Rev. Dr. George Martin
My friend Clark Morphew worked for the Pioneer Press newspaper in St. Paul Minnesota. He was their religion editor. He’d been a Lutheran pastor but he had a somewhat irreverent attitude to Christians who were either too serious about too much, or Christians who were extremely pious but who failed to consider the needs of the poor and those who were suffering. We often met for lunch, but we always went to the same place. I’d pick him outside the newspaper headquarters and off we went to the corner of University Ave and Lexington in St. Paul, where we could have White Castle hamburgers. It’s a kind of proletariat burger. I visited with Clark as he fought a losing battle with cancer.
On the day of Clark’s funeral I drove to Central Lutheran church, and as I went there I knew I’d probably see his nephew Don and his wife Joanne. The last words that Joanne and I had, a few years before that, were angry ones. She’d been so involved with the work of the new church we started together, and then we had an argument. She went out of my life, and I let her go, hanging on to my anger. Then there had been this great silence—an argument that wasn’t resolved. Would it even be possible I had long wondered?
I didn’t see either Don or Joanne in the service itself. It was such large crowd, but then as I stepped into the reception. There was Don and there was Joanne. She immediately came over to me and said, “We have to talk. Will you sit with me?” she asked.
Over the coffee we shared we both had tears in our eyes. Sadness for Clark, but mostly for the unresolved difference we had and our failure to communicate. Tears of regret for the years that had passed. For the angry words. For not listening to one another. For not talking until then. And we forgave one another.
And Jesus said,
“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.”
Notice: it’s not you have have something against that other person; it’s if they are holding onto something against you. In my case it rightly so.
But sometimes the things that divide us are mutual. Whatever it is, we all know of situations where someone holds a grudge for long long time. Never admitting any burden of the blame. Thankfully Joanne and I reconciled. A part of that funeral became a confessional at a table in the corner of noisy wake. A piece of the Sermon on the Mount, actually happened, one day for me and my friend Joanne. A broken relationship that needed to be mended was far more important than any gift to be brought into a sanctuary. Actually because of our reconciliation we we knew we could worship together once more as friends.
This section of the the Sermon on the Mount has Jesus reflecting on parts of the Mosaic law. Missy in her fine sermon last week, reflected on Rabbi Jesus teaching the disciples being like the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Most likely there were other rabbis present for this teaching, probably Pharisees, in his audience. The people listening to Jesus were looking at Jesus and then at those other rabbis. Maybe like folks watch a tennis match. They are studying the faces of each. Jesus—The Other Rabbis. Jesus—The Other Rabbis.
Today’s gospel bring us teachings of Jesus regarding murder, adultery, divorce and oath taking. There are clear echoes of the ten commandments, and in a sense whole spirit of the Torah. Three times Jesus says, “You have heard it said in those ancient times…..but I say to you.”
You might be tempted to think that Jesus was setting out a new set of commandments. It has been interpreted that way by Christians through the centuries, but I don’t think so. What was really happening was that Jesus was challenging a system that was legalistic and prescriptive; which had become at times all about the rules—rules intended to honor God, but which effectively hurt and violated others—rules that excluded and condemned whole segments of people who were outside the covenant.
Jesus pointed beyond the codified mentality—that rule-seeking way many believed put them right with God. Sadly, Christian history is marked by many who have at times turned the Gospel into the language of a legal library. Strict rules regarding sex, the use of money, and rules regarding who could and couldn’t be ordained or serve in various church offices. It was always a mis-reading of scripture, and nearly always has had tragic consequences.
I really believe that Jesus, himself would shudder, to see the hurt that has been caused whenever the Gospel has become a tool of condemnation and rejection.
Each time in this passage Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” Each time those disciples and that head-turning crowd was called to see a new picture of a community marked by restored relationships. Inside such a community was to be a faith that protected the vulnerable, and which brought the witness of God into every life, no matter how they may have been judged in the world.
Each time Jesus said, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you” the legalists in the crowd had to be stunned—dumfounded that he would re-interpret the commandments of God with such freedom and with such radical inclusivity.
To get a grasp on this I have a very strange idea to suggest to you. I knew that this was all about our trying to understand just how radical Jesus was with this part of his teaching. I invite you to use your imagination.
You know the story of the Prodigal son. The son who wasted his inheritance, who came limping back to his Father. And then it’s the Father who reclaims him as his son. The father in that parable didn’t demand repayment. He just threw a party for the son, killed the fatted calf. gave him a robe, a ring, and slippers, and invited the whole community to a celebration.
But in that parable there was also his older brother who stayed at home. But he wouldn’t come into the party that was held for his brother. And the older brother told his father, “I worked like a slave for you. I’ve obeyed every command you ever gave me. You never even gave me a goat so I could have a party with my friends.”
Even though the father went outside and pleaded in a public way for the older son to come in, the parable ends with the two of them at odds, still outside. It’s an unfinished parable. We don’t know how it really ended. Did he did come in, or did he stay outside?
So imagine now, my strange idea, that the older brother was there, at that Sermon on the Mount, and heard Jesus say “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.”
I can hear that older brother muttering: “The old law was what came from Moses. It’s the way things are. We have our rules to follow. The rabbis have said it’s more important to honor God, give your gifts at the temple first, before you make up with someone else. We have a rightful way to do these things. It in the law that men can file for divorce. And we can show you where it says in scripture that you are to swear or make an oath using the name of heaven or swearing by Jerusalem.”
This older brother, like some people we probably know, wanted a world based on rights: rights that he may earned, or may come as a result of birth. He is the older brother after all. There ought to be some good result for living according to the rules.
Yes, it is with some editorial liberty, that I have placed the older brother of the prodigal son in the crowd that listened to Jesus. But I do so, that all of us may hear and see what God calls us to be and to do in the context of our lives as disciples of Jesus.
That older brother was still resentful toward his younger brother. He resented his Father’s love and the generosity expressed toward his brother. For he believed that love was earned. The generosity, was not so much of a gift, but really a kind of payment for living dutifully. He was not about to leave his gift at the altar and be reconciled to his brother.
Jesus had a radical vision of a new way of being called into community. It meant the dismantling of duty especially if some religious duty preceded the restoration and healing of relationships. Jesus also dismantled duty when that kind of loyalty created victims who were and would remain weak and the powerless. How so? you wonder.
As an example look at the seeming condemnation of divorce; almost all divorce? Did you notice that Jesus was talking directly to the men—for under the Mosaic law, men had the right to initiate divorce proceedings. Not women. Those in that crowd had to know right away that Jesus was standing up for women.
Two thousand years later we do not believe that to be divorced is some terrible sin, but we all know that the process involves pain, and loss, and hurt more often than not. It’s not that there isn’t life after divorce> As many of you know first hand, there is life after divorce. But in the time of Jesus divorce was like a death sentence for a woman and her children. Some of the women who stood there alone at his cross on that Good Friday afternoon, maybe they were there that day when Jesus reinterpreted the Mosaic law about divorce and said, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.”
And then was the matter of Matthew 5:33. It was on one of the signs that spouted on yards this past Fall in the midst of our Conditional Use Permit process. It said. “St. Matthew’s practice what you preach. Read Matthew 5:33” Most of didn’t have a clue about that passage.
You heard it this morning in church. “Again, you have heard that it was said of ancient times. “You shall now swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.”
Proof texting as you probably know is always dangerous. And the next line? the one not quoted on the sign? Jesus said, in his fashion in this debate with the heads turning from the rabbis to Jesus and back, “But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven…or by earth, or by Jerusalem.”
You see by this point in the religious life in Israel no one would dare to swear by God’s name: but it had become a kind of game. You swore by something connected to God, say to heaven or Jerusalem, but it was like there was even a little wiggle room in what you were swearing to. Sort of like making a promise with your fingers crossed behind your back. There was a kind of insincerity built into the very process.
So Jesus said “You should not swear at all.” But then he said “Let your Yes be Yes, and Your No be No.” In other words he calls his disciples to be truthful. His vision of the kingdom of God isn’t about folks who qualify their loyalty to one another or play theological word games, but about people who live and practice in ways to always affirm the dignity and worth of all that God has created. And, yes, to tell the truth.
So the message for us in the church: it is that this is to be the community of reconciliation. We don’t need to have lots of rules or a legal code that defines who is in and who is out. Actually whoever is out is suppose to be welcomed in. Whoever we have offended is the one we should seek out in order that we might reconciled. There is no second-class member of this community. But if someone is vulnerable, or powerless, or weak: then we are to be especially tender and kind-hearted. The words we use with one another matter. And if we misuse our words, there are other words and other gestures, including that of a bent knee, that we are to employ. And rather than using our words to prove our point, to win an argument, to be proved right, we are to use our ears to listen to the other, and to respond in a way that tells the other they have been heard, respected, and honored.
In a little while we shall be invited to the Lord’s table to receive the bread and wine. We will hear the words “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” But remember that the church, this gathering, is also the body of Christ. Paul said that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Paul knew where this reconciliation really could happen—in a community which practiced reconciliation, peacemaking and truth-telling. As we practice reconciliation, peacemaking and truth-telling, Christ lives in us and we’re living more of the kingdom life.