Scripture for this sermon is Matthew 5:21-37.
Wow, it has been a busy, busy week for me. “For the church to claim the message of Jesus that God’s kingdom has come, it must look like God’s kingdom.” And let me tell you, that it is hard work, day in and day out.
First, thing Monday morning I had to put out a fire in the office. It seems that Jude, our custodian ate our administrator Linda’s oatmeal. She got so mad at him and called him a fool. So, I had to do what any pastor would do. I put Linda on trial, found her guilty then executed her, to send her to rings of fire in hell. Matthew 5:22. My hands were tied.
This of course made the rest the week crazy, trying to get by without any office help. We put out an ad immediately and the first person to answer the ad was this handsome thirty year old guy. He walks by the pastor’s offices for his interview and Pastor Liz, very inappropriately, whistles and yells from her office, whoa baby, baby. So, it was left up to me to cancel the interview so that I could gauge Pastor Liz’s left eye out. Matthew 5:29.
Things only got worse from there. She made such a fuss about that, claiming she couldn’t preach, because she hadn’t figured out how to read and study with just one eye. So I called my friend, Pastor Doug Warburton from Peace Lutheran in Gahanna, to preach this week for us. He said sure and stopped by on Thursday to gather some materials.
I hadn’t seen Doug in a few months and it is sad to say, he is really letting himself go. He was wearing pants that were obviously too tight for him. Of course, I kept this to myself. However, probably uncomfortable with pouring his expanding body into those Levis, Doug asked me if I thought these pants made him look fat. I did what I had to do. Matthew 5:37, I told him he looked like a balloon ready to pop in those pants, they were so small. Miffed, he stormed out in a huff and I was back to square one.
It was now Thursday, I had no secretary, no preacher and the Preschool Children’s Chapel to prepare for. I had planned a cute bit that involved me dressing like a shepherd, but once I got on the robe I realized I had forgotten the stuffed lamb. I jumped in my car and drove down to Walmart. In the parking lot, a gust of wind takes my car door and knocks over this petite woman that probably weighed all of 100 pounds soaking wet. I try to help her up, but she knocks my hands away and tells me she is going to sue. Thinking can this day get any worse, I had to do what any good Christian man would. Matthew 5:40. I gave her my shepherd’s robe and the shirt I had underneath. Unfortunately because of a skin rash I have been fighting, that left me completely naked in the Walmart parking lot. She screamed, someone called the police and that is why I spent the next two days in downtown Columbus in the county jail. They let me off to come here today, but needless to say, it has been a week.
“For the church to claim the message of Jesus that God’s kingdom has come, it must look like God’s kingdom.” And let me tell you, that it is hard work, day in and day out. My point with this ridiculous story is not to make fun of scripture, and not only to highlight the absurdity of taking some parts of scripture literally while accepting other parts figuratively. It is to get our eyes off of the draconian punishments in order to hear the point. Our churches are called to pay attention to the spirit of the law.
Jesus himself tells us that he is not here to get rid of the law, but to fulfill the law or find it’s purpose. The purpose of God’s law is not to make lines in the sand that cannot be crossed. The purpose is to create a community that reflects God in everything they do. When our focus becomes on those lines, things just stop making sense. Christians that carefully only say Gosh Darn, instead of God Damn, even though they meant God Damn, when they said Gosh Darn. Meanwhile, the sinfulness of their anger that brought up that invective goes completely unnoticed and unrepented. These teachings today are almost mocking our penchant for missing the purpose of God’s law. Getting lost in the forest because of the trees.
So, while murder is obviously wrong, the anger that leads one to commit murder is just as wrong. How can we claim we love our neighbor as ourself if we are angry at them? Jesus says if you want to focus on lines, worry about the one you crossed when you first had words with them and did not reconcile. Similarly, the morning you woke up in your neighbor’s bed wasn’t when you crossed the line. You crossed the line when you creepily watched them out your window wash their car. Not uttering God’s name in an oath is not the problem. It is needing to swear an oath in the first place. Our yes, should mean yes, and no should mean no. An oath is like saying, normally I can’t be trusted, but right now, in this instance, I can.
The descriptions of punishments or remedies when we break these laws are meant to make a point, catch our eye, help us realize how serious Jesus thinks we should take how we live together. They are not descriptions of what will happen to us when we do fail. They are not even ways to remedy a failure. No one should be cutting off their right arm if they lust and how exactly does that solve the problem of lust. It was not even possible in Jesus day for someone to leave the temple in the middle of a ritual, while thousands wait, in order to apologize to a neighbor, apologize and then return to finish the sacrifice.
Nor can we make Jesus’ teaching into new stricter laws. This would make our communities less loving, not more, ignoring his hope that our churches look like slices of heaven. When the church gets into the law enforcement business, they too often chase people from the very place where they need to be, to heal their brokenness. Our application of Jesus’ teachings is always spotty, too often reflecting the mood of the culture more than the intent of Jesus. Gleefully enforcing those laws we can agree to as a majority, while ignoring those that actually affect the majority.
The teaching of Jesus’ today is a high bar. A frustrated Jesus himself called the Scribes and Pharisees fools in Matthew 23:17, seemingly breaking his own law. Not one of us will get across the finish line without getting angry at our neighbor, lusting after someone or telling a lie. Jesus wants us to take those violations seriously. We cannot dilute his words with a shrug and say eh…what are you going to do? Our communities need to strive to create a place that reflects God’s Kingdom. However, in that good effort, we can’t forget that Jesus came to love us, offering us forgiveness, and inviting us into a relationship of love with each other. We need to be challenged by the law, while reassured of the grace we have been given. Amen