It’s Downright Scary…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On October 18 we considered the words of the sermon as found in Matthew 5:27-30, while also reading Paul’s words to his friends in I Thessalonians 4:1-8.  


There were two things that happened on Monday of this week that would have caused my sixteen-year-old self great alarm.

PlayboyBunnyFirst, Playboy announced that it will no longer publish photos of naked women. What? Is the Pope not Catholic? Will Mobil get out of the oil business? No nudies at Playboy? How can this be?

I speak with 100% certainty that I am not the only man in this room for whom Playboy and its companion publications fueled a fascination, if not a preoccupation, with certain aspects of the female anatomy – a fascination which, I am sure, left some scars and welts on my psyche… Which leads me to the second thing that arrested me on Monday:

monty_python_godI discovered that if I was going to be faithful to my commitment to walk through the Sermon on the Mount this year, I had to stand in front of a room full of people and talk about Matthew 5:27-30. Now, let’s be honest – there are a lot of things in the bible that are not necessarily favorites of 16 year-old-boys, but this is the passage that did the most to scare the bejabbers out of me in the 1970’s.

This passage scared me because it made me think that Jesus wasn’t only down on the occasional pornographic magazine that I was able to acquire, but that it was (from my perspective) a lot worse than that. Just as he did with murder and anger in verses 21 – 26, Jesus seems to be upping the ante here – quite a bit. And my sixteen year old self would stare at that copy of Playboy I’d stashed away, consider all the beauty with which I was surrounded, and then read this passage and think, “Well, looks like I’ll be spending eternity in a warm place, because I am just done. There is no hope for me.”

Let’s take a look.

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission.  More at

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at


The common prohibition was simple. “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. The seventh commandment. If it was good enough for Moses, it was good enough for the Pharisees, they thought, and so the traditional interpretation went something like this: “As long as you don’t have sexual relations with a person to whom you’re not married, you’re pretty much in the clear.”

That’s a good rule of thumb, no doubt. It’s convenient, straight-line thinking: Your spouse: a good idea. Anyone else’s spouse: a bad idea. That’s a narrow definition, but it’s pretty clear. And, frankly, that’s a rule that an unmarried 16 year-old boy can live with. No spouse, no problem.

And then Jesus says, “Yeah, but that’s not exactly the point. It’s not deep enough. I’m not saying that Moses was wrong – I’m saying that there’s more to it than this simple, straight-line, yes/no answer stuff. Your sexuality is more intricate and involved than that.”

Oh, for crying out loud, Jesus, why do you have to make everything so difficult??? Come on, do you really mean that if I happen to notice that pretty girl over there, and then spend fifteen or twenty seconds contemplating that beauty, and if perchance I start to daydream a little bit, that I’m headed for hell? Wow. How do I avoid that, Jesus? I’m toast.

If we read the Sermon on the Mount in this way, one that presents Jesus as teaching an impossible ideal, then we have to say that Jesus’ intent was not to change us, but to shame us. I mean, who can refuse to see beauty? Who has not at some point or another looked at someone and felt a spark of attraction – as fleeting or as long as it might be – and then moved on with their day? If we presume that Jesus’ goal here was to tell us that anyone who ever entertained a lustful thought was no different than a serial adulterer, then what’s the point? Nobody can measure up.

Yet shame is, it seems to me, the antithesis of what Jesus was about. So what is he getting at in this teaching about the look, the heart, and the other?

First, let’s make sure that we are understanding the actual text correctly. The sense of the Greek that Matthew uses is actually this: “Anyone who looks at a woman for the purpose of lust has already committed adultery in his heart.” While that is not a free pass to anyone, it does differentiate the casual noticing of the attractive person you bump into in the produce aisle from the full-blown leering that sidetracks you for moments or hours…

Jesus condemns a pattern of behavior that begins with the noticing of beauty or an attraction but then escalates into a fantasy wherein we imagine ourselves with this other person in all sorts of ways that are essentially divorced from the personhood of the other. The lust that Jesus condemns is a type of “relationship” wherein all I care about is what feels good to me, what gratifies me, or what would make me feel strong, desirable, powerful, young, attractive, or sexy. Lust, and the behavior that Jesus condemns in the Sermon, is all about me.

In this teaching, Jesus affirms the Old Testament intent to place sexual activity within a covenantal perspective. We are made in the image of God, and we are created for community, for lives that are integrated in terms of body, mind, and spirit, and we are shaped to live in covenant relationship with other people.

The problem with both lust and adultery is that they focus on the self, and on using another human being for the purposes of making the self feel better. So much of what we think of as sexual sin is rooted in the ways that we commodify other people and we treat those who are made in the image of God as things or tools that can give me fleeting pleasure. And so “making love” becomes “having sex” becomes “doing it.” This outlook reduces another child of God to serving as a functionary tool for my own self-pleasure or self-medication.

Jesus points to the truth that relationships – and particularly the marriage relationship – are intended to be a blessing not only to those who are directly involved (that is, the couple themselves), but to the greater community – any children the marriage might produce as well as neighbors and the more-vulnerable in our world. The traditional understanding of the marriage vow in both Jesus’ world and in ours is that two people are brought together to share intimately in order that we might become stronger, healthier people in order that we are better able to fulfill our baptismal vows and be of service to Christ and the world for which he died.   Adultery and lust certainly diminish our ability to live into those kinds of relationships – and so we need some ways to get past adultery and lust and towards God’s best for us.

And just as he did with anger and violence, Jesus offers here a way to transform the situation – a practice, or a set of practices, that will allow us to move past that which will diminish the power of God’s image in us and into a place from which we can more easily dwell in God’s will.

Here’s the practice: If you eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

Ooooooh, Jesus, that is harsh. Not to mention gross.

Is Jesus seriously advocating self-mutilation as a path to discipleship? At first glance, it would appear to be the case. And throughout history, several well-known spiritual leaders have followed that path. Perhaps the most notable was Origen, a man who was an influential theologian about two hundred years after Jesus. He was so concerned about being pure in the Lord’s eyes that he allegedly castrated himself so as to make it easier to follow Christ. Yet history, and the church, have repudiated this strategy. Dallas Willard was a Professor in the Philosophy department at USC, and he wrote

Of course being acceptable to God is so important that, if cutting bodily parts off could achieve it, one would be wise to cut them off… But so far from suggesting that any advantage before God could actually be gained in this way, Jesus’ teaching in this passage is exactly the opposite. The mutilated stump could still have a wicked heart. The deeper question always concerns who you are, not what you did, do, or can do. What would you do if you could? Eliminating bodily parts will not change that.[1]

The Sermon on the Mount invites us to consider this question: how can we grow into people who are shaped by a desire not to own, grab, possess, control another person, but rather the desire instead to be attentive to another child of God who is actually present with us in all of his or her beauty, woundedness, attraction and scars? How do we participate in life and relationships that are covenant-affirming and full of integrity?

It does make sense, thank you very much Jesus, to pay attention where we direct our eyes. We live in a sexually-charged culture. The reason that Playboy is not publishing nudity any more is because it’s irrelevant. Naked bodies are everywhere – and no longer shocking. Pornography is ever-present in our society, and it is affecting the ways that we think about relationships, sexuality, and each other. One way that we can train ourselves to be those who desire God’s best for our lives is to choose to disassociate from those images that push us towards seeing someone else as an object created for my personal use or gratification. Are you offended when Jesus says, “If you eye causes you to sin, cut it out”? What about when Pastor Dave says, “If your iPad causes you to sin, unplug it”?

We have to be careful, however, that we don’t become so narrow and restrictive in our definition of “sin” that we wind up as prisoners of fear. We train ourselves to be able to participate in relationships that are not characterized by manipulation, selfishness, or permissiveness. I have a colleague, for instance, who is so concerned about the impact of lust or sexual brokenness in this world that he categorically refuses to be alone with a woman (other than his wife) anywhere, any time. He won’t drive alone with another woman, he won’t meet her in a public place – he simply refuses to be with women. That model seems very faulty to me, as it appears to be rooted in the expectation that proximity to a potentially attractive person will lead to lust and that will lead to sin. Yes, he is not in a position to sin in that way; however, the result is the same: his world is characterized by alienation and a loss of community.

On the other hand, I have another friend for whom sexuality appears to be a purely physical exercise. There is nothing spiritual about his gymnastics with other people. He would say that it’s just an expression of his physical being, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with his spirit. In holding to this belief, I fear, he has diluted the Creator’s intent that we see ourselves and each other as essential unities of body, mind, and spirit.

Maturity in Christ is learning to engage for and with the other. Those who are formed as Christ’s disciples are people who neither hide from other people nor seek to manipulate them. Instead, the faithful follower of Jesus will be able to engage other people. Isn’t this what the Apostle Paul is getting to in Thessalonians? We are to avoid exploiting or misusing another person, and we seek instead to honor and serve them.

Is there beauty? Then give thanks to God for the existence of that beauty. And present yourself, as a servant of God, to all those who cross your path as one who is motivated by the opportunity to move more deeply into community, service, and love. In some ways, that’s a lot scarier to the 55 year-old me than Matthew 5 was to 16 year-old me. But it’s not scary because it’s a threat: it’s scary because it’s a huge and wonder-filled invitation, and I am wondering whether I am worthy to follow Jesus like that into a world that is not filled with narrow interpretations, but rather faithful, covenant-affirming, life-giving interactions with each person I meet.

The Pharisees wanted easy answers and straight-line thinking.

Jesus, however, seems intent on challenging them – and me – to negotiate nuance, to be aware of the power of both sin and hope, and to keep my eyes fixed firmly on him. In my experience, that can be messy sometimes – because I don’t always get it right. But I think it’s the invitation we’ve received in the Sermon on the Mount. I’ll be a better Christian if you hold me to that – like I’m trying to do for you.

[1] The Divine Conspiracy (Harper and Row, 1998, p. 167), italics original.

You’re Killing Me

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On September 27 we considered the words of the sermon as found in Matthew 5:21-26, while also reading the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34.

It’s harder than you think.

What is?

Driving. Parking. Bowling. Growing heirloom tomatoes.

Almost everything worthwhile is harder than you think. Much harder. I know, I know, you’ve seen the YouTube video. You’ve checked it out on the Food Network and Pinterest. And it didn’t look like that the first time, did it? Nope.

What you wanted to do...

What you wanted to do…

What you did...

What you did…



It’s harder than you think. And don’t even get me started about stuff that really matters, like marriage or parenting.

Do you know what else is harder than you think?


PhariseesLast week, we talked about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were really, really interested in being righteous (or at least they were interested in being seen as being interested in being righteous). They were so obsessed with this, in fact that they came up with a little score card. Do you remember? They said that the Law contained 248 positive commands (such as “honor your father and mother”) and 365 negative prohibitions (such as “thou shalt not murder”). Righteous living, in that understanding, is simply about doing more of the positives and fewer of the negatives. It’s cut and dried, right?

Don’t go there, says Jesus. If you insist on keeping score with God, you will lose. Every time. If you insist that God measure you up, then every single time you’ll find that you are nowhere near holy enough, pure enough, clean enough to get in on your own merits. If you make God keep score, you will always have fewer points than God.

The next section of the Sermon on the Mount, to which we have committed ourselves to studying this year, provides a number of examples wherein Jesus demonstrates the inferiority of the Pharisaical system. In our reading for today, for instance, Jesus brings up the sixth commandment. “You shall not murder”. The Pharisees thought that the Law was pretty simple – it refers only to the act of homicide. As long as you don’t spill any human blood by intentionally wiping out your neighbor, you’re ok. There are sub-categories of killing your neighbor, such as acts of war or capital punishment, but those were apparently to be handled somewhere else in the Law. The Pharisees stance was, as long as you don’t have blood on your hands, God is happy.

It’s not that easy, says Jesus.

The next six passages of the Sermon on the Mount are a wonderful illustration of the ways that Jesus fulfills the prophecy and the promise of Jeremiah. In that book, The Lord looks back to the giving of the Law and says, “Yes, once upon a time I gave them the Law, and I wrote it on stone.” Like the writing on stone, that Law was concrete. It referred to specific acts – external actions – that were done that were easily observable. That Law was a true/false test filled with yes/no answers.

“But in the days that are coming, when I display the fullness of my intentions, says the Lord, the Law will move beyond the letters carved in stone and be written on the hearts and minds of my people. Instead of measuring only external results, my people will come to see that what I really care about are the inner thoughts and motives.”

Do you see? It IS a lot harder.

abstract-artwork-of-a-angry-man-holding-his-head-paul-brownHave you ever killed anyone? Who, me? No way! I’m good. No problems here. Have you ever wanted to? Did you ever feel like knocking someone’s block off? Um, well, sure! Who hasn’t?

The Law that Jesus has come to write on our hearts reveals the truth that anger or sarcasm or cruelty is, essentially, murder. In my anger towards you, I am killing you.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:

Anger is always an attack on the brother’s life, for it refuses to let him live and aims at his destruction…Every idle word which we think so little of betrays our lack of respect for our neighbor, and shows that we place ourselves on a pinnacle above him and value our own lives higher than his. The angry word is a blow struck at our brother, a stab at his heart: it seeks to hit, to hurt, and to destroy. A deliberate insult is even worse, for we are then openly disgracing our brother in the eyes of the world, and causing others to despise him… We are passing judgment on him, and that is murder.[1]

In my anger, I lose sight of who you are and who you are created to be. In my anger, I marginalize you. When I make you an object of my contempt, I reject the work of God in you. When I pass judgment on you, insult you, or condemn you – then I myself will be condemned.

Seriously? If that’s the case, then I’m in trouble. I mean, who doesn’t get angry? Isn’t Jesus being a little unrealistic here, telling his followers not to be angry?

There’s a little Good News here: Jesus never says “Don’t be angry”. There is no imperative saying “Thou shalt not be angry” or that it’s a sin to feel anger. And if, in fact, Jesus is saying that anger and insults lead directly to Hell, then 1) we are all in trouble and 2) Jesus is setting an impossibly high standard here.

But what if the point of this passage is not to tell us not to get irritated, but rather an invitation to live into a new way of being? What if instead of scolding us for something that is going to happen five or ten times each day, we can hear Jesus offering a set of practices that will transform our lives – and our experience of anger – and our experience of the other.

In verse 21, Jesus gives us the Old Law – the traditional experience of expectation and consequence. In verse 22, he overlays that with the reality that anger and sarcasm and contempt are just as deadly as an axe or a knife. And then in verses 23 – 26, he suggests a way of transforming our angry lifestyle into something that is more in line with God’s eternal intentions.

In verse 21, there is an imperative, a direct command: “thou shall not kill”. In verse 22, there are no commands – merely an observation (the one who is angry will face the same consequences as the one who kills). But verses 23-26 are loaded with imperatives: leave your worship service, go to the one with whom you are in conflict, be reconciled to each other, offer your gift after you offer yourself, and make friends quickly. What Jesus is doing here is radically transforming the experiences that are connected with anger and violence. Jesus “transforms the person who was angry into an active peacemaker; [he] transforms the relationship from one of anger into a peacemaking process; and [he] hopes to transform the enemy into a friend.”[2]

 Esau and Jacob Reconcile (Francesco Hayez, 1844)

Esau and Jacob Reconcile (Francesco Hayez, 1844)

Do you see? The Law that Jesus is offering here in the Sermon on the Mount is not a new system of threats and punishments that make it even harder to be considered righteous. Instead, he seeks to replace the vicious cycle of anger and retribution, of diminishment and one-upsmanship into a lifestyle that is characterized by the practices of peacemaking and grace.

The Old Law, and the one that feels pretty good, frankly, is easier. You hit me, and I hit you harder. You kill me, and I … er, someone else who thinks I’m a nice guy will come and kill you.

The New Law, and the ethic toward which the sermon calls us, is to live into a new and different cycle. The way to enjoy right living with God is to live at peace with the neighbor. And the way that we live at peace with our neighbor is by being right with God.

In a few moments, we’ll celebrate the Lord’s supper. We’ll commemorate the truth that the One who knew no sin, no brokenness, no alienation in fact became sin, brokenness, and alienation in order that we might have unfettered access to our God and Father. The death of Christ brings us to a place of peace before God and paves the way for peace with each other.

So when I am angry with you – as I surely will be – I am called not merely to heap what might very well be justified scorn or bitterness upon your head. No, I am called to recognize my own brokenness, and the ways that that anger reveals me to be one capable of great destruction. And in that calling, I am invited to engage a practice whereby I refuse to live in that anger, and I refuse to pass that anger on. I am called to reject the cycle of anger and violence that leads to diminishment and fragmentation, and instead claim the forgiveness that is offered so freely to me and pass that same forgiveness on to you.

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about whose lives matter. Some who have experienced a pattern of violence and degradation from certain law enforcement officers have said, “Hey, black lives matter.” Of course they do. But the sins of racism and fear have obscured that truth in some people’s eyes.

Similarly, there are those who have experienced a pattern of violence and degradation from certain members of the community that they are called to serve, and they have said, “Hey, police lives matter.” Of course they do. But the sins of racism and fear have obscured that truth in some people’s eyes.

I do not want to suggest that this is a simple issue, but it seems to me that one of the implications of the Sermon on the Mount is that each one of us is called to look the other in the eye and say simply, “You matter.”

You, who were too drunk to drive, but did so anyway… you matter. You, who keyed my new car last week… you matter. You, who preach all about holiness and integrity and cheat on your spouse… you matter. You, who abused me… you matter. You, who wish me harm… you matter.

This is not to say that the actions on which you decided do not matter; nor is it to say that there are not consequences to those actions. But I believe that Jesus calls us to live through our anger into a life that transforms anger and conflict into justice and peace.

TwoWolvesI have mentioned the story of the Old Cherokee who was talking with his grandson. He said, “My son, there is a fight going on inside of me. It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger and arrogance and self-justification. And the other is good – he is truth and compassion and peace. It is a terrible fight. And it is not only going on inside of me – it is going on inside of you and inside of every person alive.”

The grandson thought about what the old man had said for a moment, and then replied, “But grandfather – which wolf will win?”

The grandfather smiled and said, “The one that I choose to feed.”

You, of course, will be angry. But you don’t have to feed it. You can choose to transform it.

It’s harder than you think.

communion-cup-and-breadIn fact, you better have communion today to remember that you do not face this struggle alone. You better have communion today and remember that God, in God’s goodness and love, is choosing to feed you. Come to the table. Be fed. And feed that which brings us toward life.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (McMillan Paperback 1961) p. 143-144.

[2] Stassen, Glen and Gushee, David, Kingdom Ethics (IVP Academic, 2003) p. 135.