Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Three Rs (Repentance, Restoration, Reconciliation)

Matthew 5:21-37
February 12, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We continue this week in the gospel of Matthew, rejoining the crowds who came to listen to Jesus as he preached what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon began with the Beatitudes. Jesus then told his listeners that they were to be salt and light. He continued his teaching with the caution to them “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” Jesus came, he said, to fulfill the law and the prophets - to make them complete. But the writer of Matthew’s gospel wants to make sure that the readers will connect Jesus to his Jewish forebears, particularly to Moses. Like Moses, Jesus’ birth was announced by an angel. Like Moses, Jesus was pursued by a murderous king. Like Moses, Jesus came out of Egypt. Like Moses, Jesus passed through waters. Like Moses, Jesus was tested in the wilderness. Like Moses, Jesus climbed up to the top of a mountain to receive and deliver the word of God. And like Moses, Jesus reflected the glory of God. Let’s listen as Jesus delivers this word from God in Matthew 5: 21-37

‘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.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Do you remember when you were very small,
and the world was still strange and new?
Do you remember when you were still figuring out
what was true, even if it did not make sense,
and how things that made perfect sense to you were simply not true?

In most of our lives, there have been moments of enlightenment,
when something we had always believed to be true turned out to not be true at all.
In fact, it often turned out to be the farthest thing from the truth.
Or it turned out to be something completely silly:

Your parents’ names are not Mom and Dad.
Your grandma is actually your mother’s mom.
When cows lay down, it is not a sign of impending rain.
Nor will a dead snake hung on a fence make it rain.
If you swallow a piece of chewing gum,
it does not stay in your stomach for seven years.

Many of us heard things like this, and we thought they were true.
We thought heaven was up in the sky,
and if we went far enough in an airplane, we’d see it.
We thought that if we could obey every rule, and be very good,
that nothing bad would ever happen to anyone.
We thought that if we were naughty, God would not love us.
Some of us even thought that if we were naughty, no one would love us.

As we learn and grow, we often learn that what we once thought to be true is no longer believable, or more complicated than we thought. So now, on a much more serious level than cows in repose or indigestible chewing gum, we hear Jesus with new interpretations of old truths.

You have heard it said… but I tell you…
Three times, Jesus sets up these seemingly opposing statements.

You have heard it said… but I tell you…
The truths to which he refers are three of those brought down from Sinai:
three of the ten commandments.

You have heard it said… you shall not kill.
It’s the sixth commandment.
By no means is Jesus saying that this law no longer applies.
No, the fulfillment of this commandment is the expansion of its meaning.

You shall not kill.
But I tell you… not only should you refrain from killing people,
you should also refrain from anger or insult or calling someone a fool.
You’ve heard it said you shall not kill…
but I tell you that if you come to the altar
and remember that a brother or sister has something against you,
put down your offering and go and reconcile with them.
You have heard it said… but I tell you.

You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery.
Of course you have heard it.
It’s the seventh commandment.
But I tell you that even looking at someone else
with desire in your heart for them is wrong.
You’ve heard it said that it is enough to simply avoid infidelity.
But you can look, right?
I tell you that if your eye offends you, pluck it out.
You think that just because you aren’t committing adultery
that you are honoring your marriage?
If your hand offends you, cut it off.

You have heard it said that you should not swear falsely
(that’s the ninth commandment)
but keep your vows to God.
Say yes or say no.
Anything else comes from the evil one.

Okay. Wait.

What did Jesus just say?

Did he say that anger and unresolved conflicts are tantamount to murder?
Did he say looking is the same as, well…leaping?
Did he say that swearing on a stack of Bibles is evil?
What is Jesus getting at in this sermon?
My friend Mark Davis, a Presbyterian pastor in Newport, California,
says “Jesus’ radical re-formulation – with the words
‘You have heard … But I say to you’ –
demonstrates that faithfulness to the Scriptures does not mean
‘God said it, I believe it, that settles it!’
In fact, Jesus treats the Scriptures not as an ending point that ‘settles it,’
but as a beginning point for re-forming the meaning of the text.”

The motto of the Reformed movement, stated so concisely by Karl Barth,
is “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, secundum verbum dei.”
The church reformed and always being reformed, subject to the word of God.
This word of God is not carved in stone like the ten commandments.
This word of God is alive and powerful.
It comes to us in the word written, in scriptures.
Those scriptures are for us to interpret
and it may be that our understandings of the written word
will change and grow over time, just as our personal beliefs have done.

The word of God is alive and powerful,
and it comes to us also in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
If we believe what we proclaim, that he is alive,
sitting at the right hand of God the Father almighty,
and that he is present among us as the Holy Spirit,
our relationship with him will change and grown over time,
just as our personal beliefs have done.

The word of God is alive and powerful,
and it comes to us in the word proclaimed,
in the scripture and sermon and songs and prayers.
How we say those words, and how we hear them,
depend on our hearts in that moment, and on God’s work in our lives.

You have heard it said that there are ten commandments:
I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make any idols, but worship only the Lord your God.
You shall not take the name of God in vain.
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet.

You know the commandments.
But you also know the greatest commandment:
to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Some Christians have empty heads and closed Bibles;
they are happy to simply receive whatever ideas drift past them.
And some Christians’ hearts have become as hard as those stone tablets
Moses brought down from Sinai.

There are many fine and faithful Christians
who believe that their understanding of Scripture is complete.
It is absolute, it is true and it is final.
They are sure that they have grasped the one true and eternal meaning,
which they have read from the one true and greatest translation,
and which has been interpreted by the one best and smartest teacher.
They no longer have need of any new learning.

But here we have Jesus re-interpreting Scripture!
Those ten commandments were carved in stone, he seems to be saying,
but you are not made of stone.

You know the rules, Jesus says, but it is relationships that matter.
You may believe you are right, Jesus says, but to call your brother a fool
is the same as if you had killed him.
You were created in love by a God of relationship,
and you were created for love and to be in relationship.

You have heard it said that you must obey all the rules,
but Jesus says that it is not that simple.

You have heard it said that being good will make God love you,
but perhaps it is more important to love God and neighbor,
and that will make you good.

Jesus has come to fulfill the law,
to honor love and trust over stone tablets,
to value relationship over rules.

You have heard it said…
but Jesus says…
and maybe Scripture is not the end of the story,
not the end of the search,
but only the beginning.


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