Reorientations and Ultimatums

Sermon on the Mount Series#6 The Lords Prayer and Forgiveness, Matthew 6:5-15, Feb 23, 2014

Matthew 6:5-15

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 9.27.15 AM
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;   but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Reorientations and Ultimatums

I met Michelle in college at a Christian student organization party.  She was the prettiest co-ed in the room, but as I started talking to her, I kept hearing her say a bad word.  She said, “we” – not referring to me.  She said things like, “We live off campus…we drive to campus in an old pickup truck.”

About whom could she be speaking?  I concluded that she was referring to her husband.  I thought she was married until she said another word; a wonderful word: “brother.”  The “we” was Michelle and her brother who were still living at home and commuting to campus together.  That radically changed the picture.  By the next weekend we had our first date.

Radically changing the picture is exactly what Jesus is doing.  And it is as thrilling as learning that the prettiest girl in the room is available.

Priority of Place

That’s why Matthew put it here, in the front end of his gospel, in the very first teaching that Jesus is doing – what we call the Sermon on the Mount.  After going around saying to the people, “repent” or “change your thinking” because “the kingdom of Heaven/God is here”  Jesus climbs up the mountain, just as Moses had done so long ago.  And, like the new Moses that he is, gives the new Torah or Instruction to the new family of God’s people, gathered there.

Blessed” he says, or “congratulations belongs to” the people who have Kingdom of God values – the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice.  They are the ones who “get it.”  These kinds of people, with these kinds of values, are as indispensable to the world as salt is in the diet and as light is to everything.

Last week we reflected on the sad fact that the world does not consider us indispensable.  Rather, they consider us church people judgmental and hypocritical.  We were reminded that it is only the habit of regular, even daily faith-practices that can lead to the kind of transformation we are all hoping for, especially the daily practice of meditation and prayer.

We noted that one-day-a-week, Sunday-only Christianity is incapable of producing transformed lives.  Sunday-only Christianity may be why non-church people expect so little of us.

But that is exactly why Jesus taught us to pray, and today we heard Jesus teaching us to regularly recite the prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer.

Question: did Jesus make up this prayer from scratch?  Answer: No.  Jewish people in his time prayed a prayer as part of their daily practices.  They called it the Kaddish (or Qaddish) prayer.  Jesus took this prayer and radically transformed it.  It changes the whole picture for us in an amazing and powerful way.

I want to read the Kaddish prayer for you, and as I do, listen to the way God is conceived of, and listen for similarities with the Lord’s Prayer.  The first part will  be the Rabbi’s part, then there is a people’s response:

The Kaddish Prayer    

Magnified and sanctified be His great name in the world which He created according to His will. And may He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future, and say Amen. Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 9.40.06 AM

“Response: May His great Name be blessed forever and ever. 

Blessed, praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded by the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all blessings and hymns, praises and songs that are uttered in the world, and say Amen.”

I’m sure you heard similar concepts, like the hallowing of God’s sacred name and the expectation of the coming kingdom of God.  Those are like the first half of the Lord’s prayer.  “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Father Addition   

Jesus makes two changes that put everything in a radically new perspective.  First Jesus begins by addressing God as Father.  Yes, for Jesus, the One whose name is “blessed forever,”  the One who is “praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded” is, at the same time,  “Abba,”  “Father,”  or “Daddy.”  It is almost embarrassingly intimate.

And now, the one praying is not like a peasant, groveling before a threatening monarch; but is rather the prince or princess; a child of the king.Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 9.53.37 AM

The People Addition

The other radical, picture-changing innovation that Jesus made to the Kaddish prayer is that he adds people.  The whole second half of the Lord’s prayer is about humans.  It talks about “us.”

Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

The prayer to the King who is also Father mentions common daily needs: enough food for the day, forgiveness from daily sins, a request to avoid times of overwhelming trial and rescue from the temptations to do evil.

This is amazing.  The Kaddish is oriented totally vertically – up and down – it’s about venerating God.  The Lord’s prayer adds to this vertical axis, a horizontal axis.  It is also about the daily common needs and concerns of people. Now the prayer is cross-shaped.

Jesus is going to do the same thing again.  He will radically transform the Jewish daily creed, the recitation of the greatest commandment to “love the Lord your God will all your heart, mind and strength” by adding the second commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  God and neighbor; cross shaped.  This is central to Jesus’ whole perspective.

As Jesus stands Moses-like on the mountain he is not only teaching like Moses, he is re-defining what it means to belong to the family of Abraham.  The people of the kingdom are people who have come to know the Holy God as Father, or Daddy.  And they are the ones who know how much God loves them – down to the daily bread concerns of life; down to forgiveness of daily lapses.

God’s Kind of Communities

This gets very specific: the God who cares about us humans, down to the daily-bread, level wants desperately for us to live in the kind of community that nurtures us spiritually.  But he knows that this is not likely.  It is not common.  It is not the default condition of a community of humans.

Rather, toxic communities are common.  Communities of alienation in which the well is poisoned, in which there is bad blood, broken relationships, bitterness and grudges and resentment is the rule.Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 10.02.38 AM

The Forgiveness Mandate    

And so, to be a part of this new Jesus-movement, to be a kingdom person, it is required that we are forgivers of the wrongs of others.  “Forgive us our debts,” we pray, “as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

This is so fundamental, so essential, so basic, that Jesus breaks off the prayer right there to go in to deeper, detail.  He continues:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

How serious is this?  John Calvin got it completely in his comment on this text:

we are not to ask the forgiveness of our sins from God, unless we forgive the offenses of all who are or have been injurious to us. If we retain any hatred in our minds, if we meditate revenge, and devise the means of hurting; nay, if we do not return to a good understanding with our enemies, perform every kind of …endeavor to effect a reconciliation with them, we by this petition beseech God not to grant us forgiveness….” – Calvin’s Institutes,  Book 3, Chapter 20, sec. 45

It’s so clear.  It’s just what St. Francis prayed: “it is in pardoning that are pardoned.”

The Scary TruthScreen Shot 2014-02-22 at 10.04.28 AM

This is scary.  Think of all the people who would be in this room today if it was our  common practice to offer forgiveness.  Think of the relationships in your own life right now; can we claim to have forgiven all who have wronged us?  If not, when we pray this prayer, we are asking that God also to withhold forgiveness from us.

Now, one word is necessary: the subject here is normal community and family life.  The subject is not about extraordinary situations of abuse or neglect.  There is much to say about forgiveness in those situations, but time, today, restricts us to considering the kind of interactions we have with those around us in our families , churches and communities.

The honest truth that we must confess is that we Christians have been no better than anyone else at offering forgiveness when we feel wronged.  We get offended, we hold grudges, we seek vengeance, sometimes by passive aggressive means, sometimes by simply cutting off relationships.  And the sad truth is that this is so common and ordinary it seems normal.

Let us be clear.  According to Jesus, something has gone horribly wrong. Let us hear him say it again:

if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

What to do

Okay, assuming everyone in this room is feeling badly right now, myself included, we must ask, what can we do differently?

First we have to acknowledge that being a forgiving person is not our natural, default position. It is the result, not of our natural inclinations, but rather of the transformation from our natural tendencies into spiritual maturity.

In other words, we are back to what we learned last week.  Spiritual transformation is never achieved by once-day-a-week Christianity.  It is the fruit of the daily work of spiritual practices over a long time.

Prayer, the key

This is especially true of daily prayer – which is why Jesus brought up the subject of forgiveness in a lesson on prayer.   In order to have communities that are health-giving to the people in them, instead of toxic, the people in them have to be spiritually healthy,  instead of being toxic.

Most people who write and teach on the subject of spirituality say that we need 20 minutes a day of centering prayer to experience this kind of spiritual transformation.  Some call it meditation, some call it contemplative prayer, but all agree that this one daily spiritual practice is essential.

Centering prayer is a basic practice.  Also essential are the other normal Christian practices that Jesus taught: generosity, disciplined abstinence from apathy and neglect of the common good (that is, acceptable fasting, according to Isaiah 58), and of course heeding his words which are now written in our scriptures.

I believe it is the absence of these practices that have produced the Christian communities that our young people have walked away from.

It is never too late to begin.  We know that real substantial change can begin in as little as eight weeks of daily contemplative prayer practice.  In fact even smaller amounts of time help, but dosage matters.  More is better.  You will need help and encouragement.  That is what we are here for.

Feel the Thrill

Let us end by going back to the story I told at the beginning.  When I learned that Michelle was not married but available, it changed the whole picture for me, and I was thrilled.  Right now, maybe the picture has changed for us in an alarming way.

Let this be said: it should be thrilling for all of us to be shown a path towards authenticity.  It is wonderful to know the key to unlocking our community’s potential to be the kind of kingdom-community that Jesus envisioned.  It is the path of forgiveness.

It is within our grasp.  God has given us his Spirit to help us every single day as we repeat the practices of Christian spirituality.  We can experience transformation.  Let us be thrilled that our Heavenly Father will hear our prayers for help.  Let us rejoice that we have been given this moment to begin anew.

Religion Worth Practicing

Sermon on the Mount Series #5, Matthew 6:1-18 for February, 16, 2014

Religion Worth Practicing

Matthew 6:1-18

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.   But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,   so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.   But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.30.17 PM
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;  but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,  18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Religion Worth Practicing   

Our theme today is authenticity, so I want to start with this. “Judge Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. was, according to Wikipedia, “a judge, law professor, and state representative in Mississippi, notable for his 1952 speech on the floor of the Mississippi state legislature concerning whiskey.” – source: Wikipedia

“My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.20.29 PM

“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

“But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; …, then certainly I am for it.

“This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

That is as brilliant as insincerity ever gets.  What a great politician he must have been.

Today, insincerity and lack of authenticity is practically expected of politicians.  They are easy targets.

Unfortunately, so are we – Christians.  We have a reputation in the wider world now, which survey after survey keeps showing.  When 18-25 year olds are asked why they do not attend church, there are two reasons that jump to the top: 1) the people are hypocritical, and 2) they are judgmental.

We confess, We hope

Confession is required, and so, as a person who is professionally a representative of at least one slice of the Christian church I want to say: Yes, we have been so; it was wrong of us to be so, and we are sorry for all the damage it has caused.

But there is good news for us here.  It is that God wishes and works for our transformation.  What Christ commands of us, God’s Spirit is at work in us to perform.  So, we approach these texts with both humility and with hope.

There may be some who think that speaking of transformation in a congregation of people like us, the vast majority of whom are well beyond retirement, is pointless.  Who can change, at this point?Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.25.17 PM

Well science helps us here: our brains keep changing all the time, right up to the end (they call this neuroplasticity).  The changes are caused by experiences we have – thoughts, words, what we see and hear, and what we do.

There is no one in this room that cannot grow spiritually and actually be transformed.  Just as the daily drip in the cave forms magnificent stalactites, so we too can be transformed by the steady drip of grace.

The transformation process comes by regular Christian practices, spiritual disciplines that form us as they are repeated day after day and week after week.

Jesus is going to challenge us, as people of faith, to examine our practice of the faith.  For Jewish people in Jesus’ community, the three expected spiritual practices were acts of charitable giving to the needy, or alms giving, prayer, and fasting.  We will see how Jesus’ teaching applies directly to us.  It is all about authenticity.

The ContextScreen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.26.34 PM

Where are we in the Jesus story?  This is Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew, his inaugural Sermon on the Mount.  After saying “repent – change your thinking because the kingdom of God (or Heaven) has arrived.”  Jesus ascends the mountain as Moses had, so many years before, and like Moses, delivers the new Torah for the new family of God.

Jesus has given the beatitudes, his congratulations for people who have kingdom values, and has told his followers that they are indispensable to the world – every bit as indispensable as salt and light.  The world is desperate for kingdom-people.

Last week we heard as Jesus spoke of the contrast between the Old Commandments and the New Commandments which fulfill them: “you have heard it said” contrasted with “but I say to you.”

In each case Jesus coached us to think beyond the words of the law of Moses as we find them on the page, words like “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, Divorce requires merely a certificate”.  For Jesus, those words lead us to think of the ethics behind them, which push us to go beyond them.  And in every case, the care and protection of people was the driving force.

Jesus pushes us all the way to perfection.  Love is the key.  Love for friends, family and nation – yes.  But more.  Love even of enemies is what is required.  It is a high calling – one that should drive us all to prayer.

Now, we look at more contrasts: the contrasts are about practices: bad practices vs. good practices.  Practices we should not do, and practices we should do.

The Role of Practices of the Faith

First, the bird’s eye view.  This section is about Christian practices – the how of living as a follower of Jesus.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.27.49 PM

Practices are essential. For Jewish people, the practices of charitable giving, prayer and fasting were taken for granted as simply normal and expected of everyone.

So too, a Christian life not sustained by regular practices is impoverished and fruitless.  Relying on Sunday morning alone is hopeless.  It will never be enough because it was never meant to be enough.  Imagine an Olympic hopeful who trained only once a week!

A life of Sunday-only Christianity has never transformed anyone.  Perhaps imagining that Christianity is a once a week activity has led to the very kind of churches that the young have walked away from, and left the people inside feeling disappointed.

On the other hand, a life of Christian faith-practices is transformative.  It is never too late to begin or renew regular practices, and it is never time to stop.   Regular practices, or disciplines, form and shape us as Christians every bit as much as daily rest and exercise change us physically.

But today we hear a warning.  There is a right way and a wrong way.  Transformation follows correct practices correctly practiced.

There are three topics as examples on the table: charity, prayer, and fasting.  All three contrast practices done insincerely for show; performances for the crowd, and practices done “in secret” for the view of only one, the Heavenly Father who “sees in secret.”

The theme is summed up in the first verse:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” 

God as Father

Another bird’s-eye-view concept we must see is the God-concept Jesus teaches.  God is able to be conceived of as our “Heavenly Father.”  Now, we are adults: we get it that this is an analogy.  God is not a man in the sky – God is, after all, beyond gender.  And we get it that God is both like and un-like earthly Fathers, with all our faults and limitations.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.28.58 PM

But this way of picturing God is essential.  God is not the angry judge waiting to smite and punish people, as the medieval paintings suggest.  God is not a cold, impersonal, distant spiritual force in the universe.  God is not like the nature gods of the pagan world, arbitrary and capricious, psychologically needy and arrogant.

No!  God is to be thought of as a Father – and we, his children.  Love is what motivates him.  Love for each of us, by name.  And so the “reward” that the Father gives us is not like “stars in my crown” but rather the affection and approval of a loving father who rewards his children with hugs and smiles.  This is a family story we are in.

So what is it that gets the hugs and smiles?  It is Christian faith-practices done out of authentic, sincere hearts.  The opposite of religion done for show.


First Jesus brings up money.  Money is important to Jesus – he speaks of it a lot.  It is deeply connected with our spiritual lives.  There is, in each of us, a generous person who delights to give.  And in each of us is a selfish person that wants to keep.  One of these will grow stronger, over time, and the other will weaken.

The generous person gives because there is a human need – and if no one sees the giving, big deal.  God sees.  An authentic disciple does not care if anyone else ever notices.


Next, Jesus speaks of the central Christian practice, which is prayer.  Here authenticity is essential and transformative.  Jesus teaches a model prayer, which we will look at more, in the future, but today let us simply notice that the relationship to God in prayer is, again, a family relationship.

We do not need to inform God, convince God, cajole God, or grovel before him.  In fact, scripture says that we should be still, wait in silence, go in to a quiet room undisturbed.  Contemplative prayer without any words at all, besides the one sacred word that anchors us in the present moment, has great transformative capacity.  Authentic Christians practice regular prayer for the sake of allowing God to transform us.

Fasting and Desire

Finally fasting.  Fasting is all about desire.  It is about saying no to desires – even good ones – for the sake of spiritual training.  Just as our daily physical exercises push us to say no to the desire for rest, so fasting trains us to control our appetites.

But fasting done so that other people will notice is inauthentic.  There is no transformation in that.  Jesus says, in effect, when you fast, act normal; look normal.  It’s between you can God, your Heavenly Father.

Jesus was a big fan of the prophet Isaiah – quoting from him often.  So Jesus knew well Isaiah’s long reflection about the kind of fasting that the Lord found acceptable.  It went way beyond limiting our desire for chocolate or for meat on Friday or in Lent.  For Isaiah, the fast that God found acceptable was the fasting from the desire to live in happy ignorance or apathy about the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed (Isa 58).   Obviously, show-off fasting would not help them at all.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.30.17 PM

Call to Authenticity

The point of this teaching from Jesus is this:  the world is desperate for authentic, kingdom people.  As much as the world needs salt in the diet and light for living, the world needs kingdom disciples.  People who practice kingdom faith practices from pure hearts, for the approval of no one except their Heavenly Father.

He longs to give hugs and smiles all around.  So let us hear the call to authentic Christian practices: regular generous giving, daily prayer, and disciplined desires, that we might be daily transformed.  The world is no longer expecting our authenticity, but it desperately needs it – and so do we.



“The Jesus Alternative: “But I say…”

Sermon for Epiphany +5A, February 9, 2014, on Matthew 5:17-20 The Antitheses 

(the text today is long, but we are taking a big-picture approach today, so hang in there with it)

Matthew 5:21-48 The Antitheses

Screen Shot 2014-02-08 at 5.05.08 PM

“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.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;  and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;  and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.   Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

“The Jesus Alternative: “But I say…”     

You have heard the expression: “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”  Sometimes too many details can spoil your understanding of the big picture.  We just read a text with a lot of trees – important trees.  But today is more of a forest day.  I want us to look at the big picture.Screen Shot 2014-02-08 at 4.58.08 PM

So, the subject today is about this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount called the Six Antitheses.  Six times Jesus says a variant of “You have heard that it was said” and then he says “but” – usually “but I say to you…

All six are powerful and full of important teaching, but today we will try to see the big picture, which is also powerful and important.

Context: Sermon on the Mount

Remember, this is Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Matthew, in which he stands, Moses-like on a new mountain and delivers the new Torah to the new Israel.  He announced that “the age to come,” the Kingdom had already begun, and we hear Jesus telling us how to live in the kingdom.

We have heard Jesus pronounce his beatitudes – his statement of congratulations to the people who have true kingdom values – like the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers and others.  We have heard him say that people who live with kingdom values like these are as indispensable to the world as salt and light itself.

Last week we heard Jesus say that he has not come to abolish Moses’ torah, but rather, to fulfill it: to bring it to its true intended purpose.  Now, today, by these six antitheses, he is illustrating what fulfilling the indented purpose of Torah looks like.  We can think of these as six examples; if you get these six, you will have the  right perspective.Screen Shot 2014-02-08 at 5.00.06 PM

A Word about Hell    

So, the subject today is not hell, but hell comes up in these six antitheses, so we need to get it out of the way first. The big question is: am I going to hell?

The short answer is: yes, you are going to hell.   In fact, we are all going to hell.

Why am I so sure?  Because Jesus said that even if we did not murder anyone, we will go to hell just for being angry or insulting someone.  Who has not done both of  those?

He also said that even if you manage to get through life without committing adultery, if you have looked with lust, your whole body will be thrown into hell.  Does anybody here claim innocence from lustful thoughts?  No?  Neither do I.

So, we are all going to hell.  That is, we are going to hell if we are meant to take this literally.  But Jesus, the master story-teller, the master teacher, is using exaggeration for effect, or hyperbole.  He does this from beginning to end of this sermon.

I think we all understand this already: I don’t see people gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand to stop their lustful thoughts – everyone understands this kind of language as exaggeration for effect.  Well, so is the language about being thrown into hell for anger, insult or lust.   It is exaggeration for effect.

Hell: Gehenna – the valley of Hinnom

Anyway, when Jesus uses the word that we translate “hell” he is actually saying, in his language, “Gehenna.”  “Ge” means valley, so Gehenna means the valley of Hinnom, which is just south of Jerusalem.

It was a nasty place, actually a trash dump in Jesus’ times, with a perpetual fire going. In Israel’s history it was notorious as a place where people worshiped the god Moloch, by means of child sacrifice.

Likewise, Jeremiah warned that when the Babylonians came to attack, the Jews would be throwing their dead bodies over the Jerusalem wall into that valley for having run out of room in the city to bury their dead – quite a gruesome image! (Jer 7:31-32).

Exaggeration for Effect

The point of the hyperbole is this: Don’t waste your life.  Don’t live in such a way that your life is worth no more than garbage to be tossed over the wall and burned in the dump.  That would be the exact opposite of living in such a way as to be indispensable to the world, like salt is, like light is.

Jesus’ use of exaggeration continues throughout this section both negatively and positively.  The ending line is “be perfect.”

Why is Jesus pulling out these rhetorical big guns of overstatement?  To make the point that this is incredibly important.  This is crucial.  If you want to be identifiably a Jesus-follower, if you want to be “children of your Father in heaven” this is the way to live.Screen Shot 2014-02-08 at 5.02.58 PM

It was said…but I say”

So let us notice the forest-view of Jesus’ teaching.  For each of these six examples he begins with his scriptures – the Hebrew Bible (what we normally call the Old Testament).  In fact he begins in the ten commandments themselves and then extends beyond them to other parts of Torah.

He begins by saying “You have heard that it was said…”  Let us pause and notice one large forest-sized fact.  He is not recalling fleeting rumors, like “you have heard that the fish are biting today.”  No, he is referring to the very heart of the scriptures: the words Moses himself brought down from Mt. Sinai, written, as the story says, by the very finger of God (which, I hope you can see, is not to be taken literally!).

So when he follows each time by saying “but” Jesus was saying that the law he came not to abolish, but to fulfill, though important, did not have the last word.  This is crucial.

I just saw an article in which Christians were reflecting on what the bible may or may not say concerning the use of marijuana.  Turns out, the bible says nothing about marijuana.  Nor anything about stem cell research.  It doesn’t even mention abortion.  The idea that we should begin and end our ethical, moral decision making by finding a verse or two on the subject is simply wrong.

Is murder wrong?  Yes.  Is adultery wrong?  Yes.  Why?  Because the Ten Commandments mentions them?   No!  That’s just the surface.

Murder and AngerScreen Shot 2014-02-08 at 5.03.47 PM

Murder is wrong because God made each one of us; we all have worth and dignity to God.  Human life is to be protected, not harmed.

So thinking about it this way should lead us to consider the role anger plays in our relationships.  Anger leads us to despise people instead of respecting and valuing them.  Name calling and insulting only leads to more anger and therefore less valuing the precious gift that every life is.

Adultery and Lust

Adultery also is wrong, not because there is a law against it, but because of what it does to marriage covenants – it betrays them.  Someone always gets hurt – often many people get hurt.  Often it breaks the marriage – and the children always suffer for it, economically, academically, even in increased sick days from school.  So attack adultery at its roots – lust.

And while you are at it, stop feeding lust with porn.  Every example of porn is an example of people objectifying other people, using them as a means to our own ends.  Lust treats people like objects.  And a culture that thinks it is okay to treat women as sexual objects will be one that does not feel the need to pay them equal pay or promote them to high level positions.

And here we see the forest-picture of all of these antitheses: Jesus is focused on people.  His goal is to look beyond the literal law to the effects on real humans.  This is God’s perspective.  This is the kingdom perspective.

Divorce and Adultery

So, what about divorce?  Well in Jesus days, in Palestine, divorce was easy.  And the very law of Moses, written by the finger of God, as the story goes, made it easy.  Just write a certificate of divorce.  Jesus said again, “It was said…but I say to you…”  And again he thinks beyond the confines of the law to the ethical foundation.

God cares about people, especially the weak and vulnerable.  And in Jesus’ context, women were in a very weak position legally, and very vulnerable to abuse.  What possible options did a divorced woman have?  Return to her father’s house – if he was still living, had a house, and had the option of taking her back (almost certainly including her children too).  Or she could hit the streets practicing the world’s oldest occupation.  In other words, be driven right into adultery and degradation, not to mention vulnerability to gross physical abuse.

In each case, Jesus thinks beyond the law, to the ethics behind them.  Each time, the driving motivation is the care and protection of people.

Oaths and Truth-telling

So, no oaths: just let your “yes” or your “no” be enough for anyone because you are an honest person.  Any society of people who cannot trust each other to tell the truth is a miserable, alienated place.  Kingdom people are truth-tellers.


And Kingdom people are people with spiritual maturity enough to stop the cycle of violence.  They do not feel compelled to return eye for eye, tooth for tooth, slap on the cheek with a return blow.  Kingdom people know that vengeance never produces solutions.  The cycle of violence stops with us.  We are the peacemakers.Screen Shot 2014-02-08 at 5.05.08 PM

Love of enemies

The climax comes at the end.  Love is what this is all about.  On the one hand this is easy: everybody loves.  We love our kids, we love our country, we love people who vote like we do.

Jesus says, big deal.

If God is magnanimous enough to send sun and rain on the good guys and the bad guys, then whom should we feel smugly able to despise?  Don’t just love those who love you back – anybody can do that.  In fact love your enemies.  Pray for them.  If they are truly in the wrong, they need redemption, not retaliation.


It ends with one simple rule: “be perfect.”  C.S. Lewis said that this, like all moral standards is categorical.  Your mom never told you to tell the truth most of the time.  Moral guidance always aims at perfection.

But this is the point: don’t go looking for a law to follow, just be perfect.  Do the right thing.  You know what it is.  Soon in this same sermon Jesus will sum it up saying, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Our Calling

Do you know that during the struggle to end slavery in this country, there was a struggle over how to interpret the bible.  The pro-slavery people had verses they could quote in support of slavery.  They pointed out that bible tells masters to be good masters, and slaves to be obedient.  It’s clear.

The abolitionists, however, looked at the whole bible and saw a sweep of teaching, a trajectory we might call it, in which God is at work bringing liberation.  God created all of us in his image, and God constantly provides for the weakest among us, the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien.  So how could slavery be justified?  Like Jesus, they reflected morally beyond the literal words of scripture.

The Sermon on the Mount shows us clearly how Jesus approached issues: he asked  the question: how would this behavior affect the people concerned?

We often say that we come to know God by observing Jesus.  This is a perfect example.  God loves us so much that he wants our good.  God calls us to seek good for others as well.  Jesus is calling us to a high standard.

Now, back to where we started: should we worry about being thrown into hell, as in he Medieval artistic depictions with devils and flames?  No.  Let’s be grown up enough to understand metaphor, exaggeration and hyperbole for what it is.

But we should worry about wasting our lives.  We should be concerned about living in the trivial pursuit of our own gratification or comfort at other people’s expense.

We are called to disciplined lives of discipleship in which we are agents of God’s kingdom values of compassion, mercy, and respect, and most of all love.


The Bones – Jesus and the Law

The Bones – Jesus and the Law, sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 & Matthew 5:17-20
Sermon on the Mount Series #3
for Feb. 1, 2014

Jeremiah 31:31-34

 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.   But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 11.18.06 AMIsrael after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.   No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Matthew 5:17-20

  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.   For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.   Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.   For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 

The Bones     

When we were shopping for homes, our realtor sometimes told us “This house has good bones” meaning that the core structure was solid.  Sometimes she would say that because there was clear need of updating of appliances or fixtures or eliminating overgrown landscaping.  She tried to get us to look past the changeable parts of the house to the skeleton itself.  If the bones of the home were in good shape, you could always deal with the problems later.

The Bones of Jesus’ Teaching

Today we are looking at Jesus as he begins to teach his core teaching about the bones of our faith.  When I say “our faith,” I am consciously aware of the fact that  our Christian faith is simply an outgrowth of Jesus’ Jewish faith – the faith of Abraham, Moses and the prophets.

Remember, this is Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew.  Up to this point all we have heard him say is “Repent” or “Change your thinking, the kingdom of God has arrived.”  Then he goes up the mountain as Moses had done, and begins to teach.Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 11.25.34 AM

He has just finished his beatitudes – statements of congratulations to the people who live the values of this kingdom.  And he has just told the people listening that they are as indispensable to the world as salt – in fact that they are the very light of the world.  Now we are ready to hear what comes next.

We are going to hear Jesus as he explores the bones of this faith of ours.  Like walking into a solid old house, he shows us two things at once: that the structure is solid.  But also that there is serious renovating needed.

In fact, the way Jesus understands it, he is not just bringing a new coat of paint.  He was clearing overgrown bushes, cutting down trees whose roots were damaging the  structure, pulling down interior walls, opening up rooms, and of course putting in lots of new windows.

Jesus, in other words, is not redecorating; he is renovating.  But not modernizing for the sake of current fashion.  Rather, he is restoring the house to the original architect’s vision, which had never been fully realized in previous phases of construction.   Finally, the house will be the home it was always intended to be.

What kind of home is it?  It is not a prison house, a club house, or a hermitage.  It is a home in which a family is meant to live and grow.

The Bones of Torah to Jesus     Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 11.27.05 AM

The bones of the faith of Jesus is the Torah, or the “Law” of Moses.  It is a pity and actually a distortion to use the word “law” to translate Torah, which really means “instruction and guidance” but that is now our custom.

There are, indeed, “laws” in Torah – like Sabbath laws, Kosher laws, purity laws, and the famous Ten Commandments, but these are all part of the “instruction” that was meant as “guidance” for the people of faith.  The bones, the core of Torah, as Jesus understood it, were far deeper than these  individual laws.

We have already seen in Matthew’s gospel how Jesus was a person of deep personal spirituality.  He communed with God whom he came to know as his Heavenly Father, often getting away for periods of solitude for prayer and meditation.  We know he had also drunk deeply of Israel’s scripture, both the Torah and the Prophets, as well as the Psalms.

What we come to see is that Jesus was able to look past the overgrown bushes and the leaky faucets, and see a vision of the core, the “bones” of the house.  He had a vision of the way this home, in its current condition, was not helping the family who was trying to live in it.  It was as if the roof leaked onto the dinner table, the rooms were too drafty to sleep in, and the stove was not working.

So, for example, he looked at the Sabbath law which prohibited work on that day, and understood that to heal was to fulfill the very purpose of Sabbath as a time of restoration for humans who are not robots working 24/7.  So he healed on the Sabbath.

He looked at purity laws about touching blood or the dead, and concluded that to touch with healing was to redeem.  And so he touched lepers, people who were bleeding, and even the dead.

So, naturally, seeing Jesus do these things, some people believed he was trying to abolish the authority of the law of Moses.  Jesus flatly rejects that notion.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

Jesus came to take the bones and put the house into the condition that the original architect designed it for.  Jesus came to bring the law to its intended meaning.  The kingdom of God had arrived, Jesus was preaching, the end of the current age has come, the new age has dawned, and now things have to change.

Is the Law, the Torah, the guidance Moses gave going to be abolished?  No, but the essence of the law is now going to take priority over some of the details.  Some interior walls will have to come down to open up some new space, and windows have to be installed to let more light in.  This home is going to be a life-giving place in which the new family is going to flourish.

The Moses Bones    Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 11.28.20 AM

What were the bones of the Law of Moses?

First, that there is such a thing as right and wrong, that is, morality, and that it matters.  This is a morally real world.  God cares.  So if we act immorally, if we harm each other, if we are unfair to each other, if we neglect each other, or use or abuse each other, it matters to God.  Justice matters.  Righteousness matters.

The bones of the law of Moses teach us that there is such a thing as goodness and badness that we humans all know what goodness means, and that God is good.  God is not evil, or whimsical or arbitrary, like Marduk or Zeus, but essentially and completely good.

House Rules     

In spite of some of the ways God has been conceived of in past times, the bedrock foundation of Jesus’ understanding of God is that the best way to think of God is as a loving, caring Father.  God is good and wants the good for his children.  Any depiction of God that is to the contrary has simply gone wrong somewhere.

Because God is good, as a Father, God cares deeply when his children suffer.  And he is very clear that his children are all obligated to care for each other, as God does.

This family has a “no hitting” rule.  In fact, a “no harming” rule that includes even the potential harm caused by the words that we say to each other.   This family has a lot of “help out around the house” rules also, to make sure that supper is on the table, and that everyone is at the table, and that each and every one is getting enough to eat.

We should just stop right here and soak this up.  Through Jesus, we see God.  We see God’s love and care for us, and we see God’s love and care for everyone in the family of humans.Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 11.29.59 AM

Reconstruction Projects    

So this has practical consequences.  For Jesus, all of the old laws have to be reexamined in a new light.   The religious authorities of the day had become experts on interpreting the Law of Moses down to the dots above the Hebrew i’s and the crosses on the Hebrew t’s.  But in all their lazar-looking at the letters they neglected to read the words.

So, they might, for example, see a victim of robbery lying bloody beside the road and think of all the purity laws that were involved in the situation.  Best, in their minds, to walk by on the other side.

For Jesus, that kind of school-boy, law-focused perspective produced a false righteousness.  So, he warned:

“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

How do you exceed that kind of righteousness?  You go over and help the poor man.  You let the light of your good works shine before others – the world is desperate for people who are willing to be the light in this way.

According to Jesus, “Blessed are those who morn” for the victims of evil in all its destructive forms, and whose mourning motivates mercy.

Blessed are those who so hunger and thirst for a goodness-based righteousness that they go the extra mile in the name of compassion, even if the one needing it cannot repay.

We are not in need of a new set of stone tablets to know all this.   Moses came down the mountain with 613 laws: we now need only one.  As Jesus will soon say, in this same context:

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 7:12)

In other words, this is the bones of the law as intended.  This is what fulfillment looks like.

This is the “law written on the heart” that Jeremiah the prophet spoke of as part of the new covenant.  The law, as he said, is “within” us.  We understand what goodness means.  We simply have to stop making up sophisticated reasons for avoiding it.

And yet, part of the human condition is that we do make up excuses for ourselves all the time.  We fear risk, we fear change, we fear loss, we fear criticism, and we can always find a reason to start the diet from our indulgences tomorrow.

Action and Contemplation

That is why, we, like Jesus, must nurture our spiritual lives as he did, in times of silence and meditation.  We, just like Jesus, need to be open to the Spirit who is still speaking, guiding, and helping us get through this complicated world.

And, as he taught us, we need to regularly gather around the family table and remember that we see him there with us as bread is broken, and as wine is poured, remembering that those who are willing to be persecuted for doing the right thing are also blessed.

And then we need to get up from the table where we have been fed, and look around and ask: who was missing from the table?  Who has not been fed?  Who needs to be invited into the house which is our home, where we are loved, and also know the love of our Father?

We must go one step further and ask: why would anyone not feel welcome at the table?  What do we need to do to make sure that never happens again?