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.
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.
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?
Last 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.
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.
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.”
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.
I 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.
In 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.
 The Cost of Discipleship (McMillan Paperback 1961) p. 143-144.
 Stassen, Glen and Gushee, David, Kingdom Ethics (IVP Academic, 2003) p. 135.