February 12, 2023
I’ve had several people ask me how I feel about preaching, both today and as a general concept. My answer is usually the same, “I don’t mind to do it. I do it pretty often, actually, just in small parts!” In response to that answer, someone asked me this week if I knew how to give a sermon more than 3 minutes long, and I said, “You should probably ask my husband and daughters.”
Before we jump fully into the text, I need to tell you what I told the boys and girls in Children’s Worship a couple of weeks ago: when I preach, I like to give a particular word for which to listen. Each time you hear that word, you can make a tally mark and after worship, we can compare notes to see how many you heard. This practice helps boys and girls – and grown-ups! – be active listeners. So, today’s word to listen for is “relationship.”
I am glad to be here this morning, continuing the series of sermons in which Jim has invited us to be curious, not judgmental. Since this series began, I have found myself asking even more questions than usual about the texts we’re encountering. Am I asking 20 questions of every text? Probably not! But here are a few I have from today’s Gospel text: Number one is How did the children’s minister end up preaching on the passage that includes murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing? Is anger really that bad? What do all those sticky topics have in common? And what does all this have to do with Epiphany? Yes, we’re still in the season of Epiphany; more and more of who Jesus is, is being fully revealed to us.
We’ve worked our way into the middle of the fifth chapter of Matthew – wading through the passage we know as the Beatitudes, which continues into the end of chapter 7 – and we’re sitting with the disciples and a good many other people as they listen to Jesus say things that are at once familiar and foreign, comforting and unsettling, straightforward and curiously veiled. We’ve heard, “Blessed are the peacemakers . . .” and “Blessed are you . . .” and “You are salt and light . . .” As we turn to verses 21 through 37 we encounter words that might sting and startle us as much as they did the people who first heard them.
When I read and then sat for a while with these verses, my first thought was, and continues to be, the heart of this passage is relationship: relationship with God, relationship with the Law, and relationship with each other – and when I say relationship with each other, I don’t just mean those people who love God and follow Jesus like we do, I mean ALL God’s created people.
God is the God of relationship. God created us for relationship: relationship with God and relationship with each other. God gave us the Law to help govern and guide our relationships with God and with each other. In today’s passage, Jesus begins to give us a different, more expanded view of the Law.
Included in last week’s text was Jesus’ statement that he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. This week’s text in a sense gives life and breath to that statement. Jesus had already captured the crowd’s attention, and as Lynn said a couple of weeks ago, had begun to turn their thinking about God’s kingdom upside down. Now he was about to shake that upside down and turn it inside out.
Jesus, as most, if not all, the people listening that day, was Jewish. He knew the Law. He was not just familiar with it, he KNEW. IT. Jesus wasn’t Moses who brought the law down from the mountain, he was more than Moses. And here’s the epiphany: If you think about it, the Law CAME FROM Jesus, who is God with us. I’ve often thought that we give less time to thinking and talking about this aspect of Jesus than it’s due – I look at it like this: I believe a large part of the reason Jesus was here was to show us what truly living the law should look like. Jesus, who was and is God with bones and skin on, came to show us, in person, what God meant in the law that was given. I liken it to a parent TELLING a child how to make a bed or tie a shoe versus SHOWING them how to do those things. If this idea of Jesus sounds revolutionary to you, imagine what it must have sounded like to the community assembled that day.
When Jesus said, “You have heard it said . . . “ he was reminding those present what they already knew. He was reminding US what we already know. “The law says this.” And all the people were nodding in agreement . . . until he began pointing out the difference between what was and what now is. Those listening that day were likely surprised to hear that there was more to keeping the law than they thought. Some of them might have interpreted Jesus’ words as blasphemy, misunderstanding extending the law for negating it. Modern biblical scholars have sometimes referred to the, “you have heard . . . BUT . . . “ construct as “antitheses,” which sounds like two ideas set against each other. But Jesus’ extension of the law didn’t and doesn’t break or oppose the Law, it radicalizes it. Anyone who practices Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 won’t violate any commands of the Torah but will instead extend them, reaffirm them, give them breadth and depth.
We all understand “don’t murder.” Got it. But Jesus said it’s THAT AND . . .
- If you are ANGRY you are subject to judgment.
- If you INSULT someone you have to answer to the authorities.
- If you call someone “FOOL” you will be cast out to the hell of fire.
- Don’t go to worship God if someone is mad at you for something. Go and fix it, THEN you are free from what’s holding you back and now you can worship.
- Don’t wait to be taken to court to fix an issue; meet the person who’s got a beef with you and fix before it gets to court, or you’ll have to pay richly for it.
Author Richard Rohr puts it this way: The life of the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures is largely a life of relationship. Those who can be in relationship can learn how to appropriately relate to the other, not just to the self. . . In fact, the life of the Spirit is a life of relatedness and relationship.
In Jesus’ extension of the law, we can see it this way: If we’re made for relationship, then the heart of all this is not just keeping the law but preserving the relationships. If we’re mad, we’re not in the best place to have a good relationship. If we’re hateful to each other, our relationships suffer or dissolve. If we have made someone else mad, the distance created makes relationship difficult.
If you’ll notice in verses 23 and 24, the emphasis is on the OFFENDER initiating making amends with the one who’s been offended – not waiting until someone calls you out about it, but knowing in your heart you need to do the work to repair the relationship. This idea aligns with the perspective we see elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel that God’s community should embody practices of regular and repeated forgiveness. That work is hard! Good, but hard.
We are imperfect people who live in an imperfect world. But we as people who love God and follow Jesus should work at regular and repeated forgiveness, truly working toward reconciliation, because broken relationships with each other hurt our relationship with God. When our relationship is broken or hurting, we might sometimes sit and wonder of God, “Are you there? Are you still listening to me? Are you still talking to me?”
Have you been on a playground with a large group of children, lately? There is a lot of noise and a lot of relationship learning going on. Learning to share. Learning to take turns. Learning to include. So much fun to watch and play with the kids! But one of the things that can make a grown-up’s heart jump up into their throat is hearing these words, “You talking to me?! Hey! You talking to ME?!” All adults within earshot stand up straight, hearts suddenly pounding, trying to locate the source of the puffed-up question before it becomes more than words tossed in the air. And then the race begins to see who can get there before the first physical contact occurs, and before everyone else is involved in the altercation.
Those words and whatever actions caused them don’t just affect the kids directly involved. Bystanders are sometimes caught up in the fray, choosing sides and egging on, or getting hit accidentally. The adrenaline lasts all the way back to the classroom, and sometimes even until dismissal and on the bus. Teachers and students and parents and siblings – a whole community of relationships – suffers the consequences of anger and harsh words.
Grownups don’t often have playground scuffles, but we do have meeting room puff ups. And “someone cut me off in traffic” road rage. And “why didn’t YOU load the dishwasher?!” household set-tos. And “my party didn’t win at the ballot box” political rage. Sometimes those bumps lead to big blow ups that end up with the same kind of words heard on the playground, “Are you talking to ME?!” Sometimes those bumps lead to long, cold silences that end in words that sound more like, “Are you TALKING to me???” As we try more often to examine ourselves – our hearts, our motivations – in light of the words of Jesus, those bumps can and will turn into relationship-preserving conversations about forgiveness and reconciliation.
We often talk of searching for truth and love but ignore that God wants that, too. God wants that from us. God wants that FOR us. God wants us to want that for each other. Not because God is lacking in understanding and knowledge of love, but because God wants to be in relationship – and true relationship is built on trust and faithfulness and love.
One of the things that should set us as Christians apart from other groups in the world is the way we relate to each other. As people who love God and follow Jesus, we are called to be part of God’s continued revelation in the world, agents of creation and re-creation, agents of salvation, restoration and reconciliation – not just sitting around waiting for the kingdom to appear, but ushering it in with the ways we love God and treat each other. That ushering in is some of what we mean at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we talk about bringing the kingdom of heaven to Richmond, VA and beyond. How are we able to bring KOH2RVA if we haven’t first worked at freeing ourselves from anger and resentment? How are we able to say and show others that God loves them if we as God’s people haven’t at least tried to do the same with each other? I am convinced that one of our largest witnesses to the world of God’s redeeming love and grace through Jesus is how we as Christians navigate life together and how we extend those grace-filled relationships into the world outside the Church walls.
I’d like to invite you into some thinking space. We are living in this in-between time where we have seen and know the fulfillment of the law and we’re working and waiting for what comes next. How will you spend this time? Think with me about how you might answer these questions. I will pause for a few seconds after each question to give you time to think a bit.
Is there anyone you are angry with that needs your forgiveness to be free?
Is there someone you’ve insulted or made fun of and you owe them an apology? Is there anyone you’ve called “fool” or “jerk” or “idiot” or something I can’t say in church . . . and you need forgiveness for it?
Is there someone holding a grudge against you and you need to release both of you by offering and accepting forgiveness?
Now that you know the depth and breadth of the fulfillment of the law, the fulfillment found in Jesus, take a deep breath . . . and GO . . . go and be living, breathing reconciliation, inside these walls and outside them. Build relationships that bring the kingdom of heaven to your car . . . to your home . . . to your classroom . . . to your workplace . . . to Richmond, VA . . . and beyond.
Pray with me. God, help us be living salt and light, seasoning the earth and filling it with the light born of our relationship with you. Amen.