Rev. Sarah Buteux
Epiphany 7, Year A Matthew 5:21-48
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O.K. time for a little spiritual inventory. In your program this morning you will find one of those little tests like the ones you find in magazines or on buzz feed to help you determine whether or not you’re a good manager, or friend, or kisser. Only I based this one on Matthew 5, to help you determine whether or not you’re a good Christian.
You all know how these things work. So let’s run down the list and see how we do. Circle 1. if you think the statement is true all of the time, 2. most of the time, 3. some of the time, and 4. if it’s not true at all.
1 always 2 most of the time 3 some of the time 4 You can’t be serious
1. I am Holy 1 2 3 4
2. I share my resources with the poor 1 2 3 4
3. I do not steal 1 2 3 4
4. I deal honestly with others 1 2 3 4
5. I do not make fun of people who are different 1 2 3 4
6. I treat everyone equally whether they are rich or poor 1 2 3 4
7. I do not gossip or take advantage of others. 1 2 3 4
8. I love everyone I am related to 1 2 3 4
9. I confront others if I suspect something is wrong between us 1 2 3 4
10. I do not retaliate against those who hurt me 1 2 3 4
11. I love my neighbor as myself 1 2 3 4
12. I do not murder 1 2 3 4
13. I do not get angry at others 1 2 3 4
14. I do not insult others 1 2 3 4
15. I reconcile with those who hurt me before I go to church 1 2 3 4
16. I reconcile with those who hurt me without going to court 1 2 3 4
17. I am faithful to my partner 1 2 3 4
18. I do not lust after others 1 2 3 4
19. I have nothing to do with divorce 1 2 3 4
20. I mean what I say 1 2 3 4
21. I turn the other cheek when people hurt me 1 2 3 4
22. I give even more to those who take advantage of me 1 2 3 4
23. I give to those who beg 1 2 3 4
24. I lend to those who borrow 1 2 3 4
25. I love my enemies 1 2 3 4
26. I pray for those who persecute me 1 2 3 4
27. I am perfect 1 2 3 4
No need to add up your score. There are really only two categories on the Good Christian scale.
If you scored a 27, congratulations! You are the son of God! Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, God from true God, Light from true Light, you came down from heaven for our salvation. Crucified under Pontius Pilate, you died and were buried, and rose again on the third day. You ascended into heaven, and will one day come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Nice job, Jesus.
If you scored a 28 or higher, (anyone? yeah, me too) welcome to the human race. Although you too are a child of God, somehow you don’t always live up to your potential. You may be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, but your salt isn’t always as salty as it could be and your light is sometimes covered by a bushel.
Your eyes and your hands often cause you to sin, not to mention your id and your ego, your fears, your fantasies, and facebook. Yeah, it’s not easy being you.
But before you pluck anything out, cut anything off, or cancel your account, let’s look again at what Jesus is saying. OK? For although you may not be perfect, something tells me there may be hope for you yet.
Friends, Jesus is on quite a roll when we catch up with him today. He is deep into his most famous sermon, the sermon on the mount. He has just assured us that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets and warned us that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees – men who made it their business to be as righteous as humanly possible – we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. He then goes on to explain precisely what he means by “exceed.”
Jesus starts by calling out commandments: “You have heard it said: ‘You shall not murder’…but I say to you that if you are angry” – (just angry!) – “with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; if you insult a brother or a sister…if you say, ‘You fool,’” – you vulture, you lying, dog faced, pony soldier – “you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Yeah. Anger and insults: I don’t know about you, but I didn’t exactly score a 1 in any of those categories. And Jesus is just getting started.
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Friends this is not looking good…for any of us.
You want to know how I know? 4 words: Super Bowl Halftime Show
Yeah: basically whether or not you watched the Super Bowl Halftime Show, approved or disapproved of the Super Bowl Halftime Show, vehemently disagreed with someone else’s approval or disapproval of the Super Bowl Halftime show, or think all the brewhaha about the Super Bowl Halftime show is “foolish,” …hmmm, you’re probably in trouble.
Right? Cause I’m not just talking about lust, I’m talking about envy. (Those women looked so good!) I’m talking about judging not lest we be judged. And it is hard not to judge, because women that beautiful bring the stupid out in a lot of people.
Friends, Shakira’s hips don’t lie, but we sure do, if we think any of us are getting through these culture wars with pure, peaceful, Jesus approved hearts.
And honestly, as he goes down the list, taking the commandments and ratcheting them up to an ever higher, seemingly improbable level of obedience, I wonder how anyone could live up to the standard he sets.
Forget perfection. By the time Jesus is done with his sermon, I’m not even on the board anymore. Turning the other cheek, giving to those who beg, loving my enemies, letting my “yes” mean “yes” and my “no” mean “no”…I mean sometimes, yeah, but always? Always? No.
(And I’m a minister. I get paid to be good. Not really, no not really. Well, sort of, yeah kind of sort of, but that’s not the point.)
The point here is that on the surface what Jesus asks of us looks completely impossible.
Nobody’s perfect, except Jesus, and last I checked that was actually one of the central tenants of our faith. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That’s why we need a savior to begin with. That’s kind of what kicked this whole incarnation thing into motion. So what is Jesus up to here?
Well to understand that, I think the first thing we need to do is take a closer look at that word, “perfect,” because as Inigo Montoya so famously said, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
“Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Well, according to Fred Craddock, the word “perfect” here “does not mean, morally flawless but rather mature, complete, full grown, not partial.”
“Be perfect,” in this context means that we are to be impartial like our Father in heaven. Our Father who makes his sun rise on who? The evil and the good. Our Father who sends his rain down on who? The righteous and the unrighteous.
God doesn’t show partiality. God doesn’t love some of us more than others of us. God just loves all of us. Period. Full Stop. Every last one of of us, whether we deserve it or not.
So when Jesus says, “Be perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect,” he doesn’t mean be morally perfect. He’s not talking about keeping the law or the commandments to the letter. He’s not talking about following all of the rules all of the time.
He’s talking about loving everyone the way God loves everyone. Impartially. Unconditionally. Fully and completely. Your friends… and your enemies.
Glad we cleared that whole perfection thing up.
Trouble is, loving perfectly isn’t any easier than living perfectly.
Honestly, I’m not sure which is harder, but thanks to Jesus, I know which one God values more. If all God really wanted from us was perfect obedience to the law, then cutting off our hands and cutting out our tongues would make perfect sense. That is why Jesus goes so over board with his examples.
He’s being facetious here, in case you didn’t pick up on that. He’s exaggerating wildly. He’s saying, look, if refraining from sin was the whole point, it would make sense to cut off our hands, pluck out our eyes, toss our computers, and go wait out the apocalypse in the desert far away from any and all temptations.
But sinlessness is not what God is after. Not that there’s anything wrong with keeping the commandments. You should keep on keeping the commandments. But do so with the understanding that perfect obedience is not God’s endgame.
The purpose of religion is not to make people more religious, but to make us all more loving. If our religion doesn’t make us better people, kinder people, a more grace-filled, merciful and forgiving people, then ultimately our religion isn’t doing any of us any good at all.
Which is why Jesus breaks it all down for us in such uncompromising terms.
He says look, you can refrain from murder all you want and still want someone dead – so deal with your anger.
You can take an enemy to court and receive justice and yet never find resolution – so make reconciliation your priority in any conflict.
You can stay married and refrain from the physical act of adultery and yet still betray the emotional intimacy at the heart of marriage – so remember that lust, even if no one else can see it, is anything but innocent.
Friends, Jesus knows we can divorce one another on just grounds that are ultimately not just at all. He knows we can lie through our teeth even if every word on our lips is true.
He knows we can do everything right on the outside and still be rotten to the core, and he’s here to remind us that it is the core that matters most…here to remind us that God doesn’t require a perfect life from us so much as God desires a perfect heart within us – a heart that can go on loving no matter what.
Which is why I think people like you and me need to hear these words today, perhaps now more than ever, because friends, my heart is not ok. And I know many of your hearts are not ok either.
My heart is sick. My heart is tired. I am sick of the lies and the hypocrisy. I am tired of the pain and despair. And I am angry. I am so angry at the abuses of power and privilege I see daily, at the erosion of decency and democracy, at the continued degradation of our planet, at the suffering of refugees and the plight of the poor.
I like to think it’s a righteous anger, and maybe it is. I’d like to think I’m walking the walk, and using my life for good as an advocate and an ally. I look around at all of you and I see that in spite of it all, you are still showing up and speaking up and standing up, for the least of these in ways that would make Jesus proud. I think we’re all doing the right things…on the outside.
But I also know that in spite of all my efforts, my indignation at this administration is corroding my heart. I know that the anger and bitterness and outrage and vitriol, not just from them, but that their words and actions stir up in me, is eating me up inside.
There’s a fine line between righteous anger and the murderous kind, a fine line between the justice that restores and the desire to simply punish people because they deserve it, a fine line between calling out foolishness and labeling my opponent a fool.
And I confess to you, that I do not always know where the line is anymore. I confess that I don’t know how to love my enemies anymore, if I ever did.
Y’all know what I mean? You feeling what I’m feeling? You picking up what I’m laying down?
How do you love Rush Limbaugh or the ones who laud him? How do you love this president or the ones who support him? How do you love Franklin Graham, a pastor who publicly shames artists like J. Lo and Shakira while defending an adulterous president who brags of sexually assaulting women and a First Lady who posed nude for GQ?
I don’t know, anymore than I know if it is even ok for me to ask the question I just asked. I mean, what I just said was true, but was it kind? It was fair, but what was it helpful?
Is there a loving way to call out hypocrisy without labeling someone a hypocrite? Is there a way to call out hate without being hateful? A way to differentiate without being divisive? Asking for a friend.
No. Asking because I really don’t know anymore.
So thank God for podcasts that feature people far more loving and wise than me.
I was listening to “On Being” with Krista Tippett, and she was interviewing Shane Claiborne, an evangelical activist whom I love and respect dearly. He’s been traveling around with the Amish – melting guns into plows – and they recently found themselves in Lancaster where that horrible shooting happened in an Amish school. Do you remember that? “And their response to the shooting,” Shane reminded everyone, “was stunning.
They lost a bunch of their kids, but then they went to be with the shooter’s family to accompany them in their grief. And they pooled their money together and began to create scholarships for the children of Charlie Roberts (who) killed their children. And they went to the funerals together. And out of all of that, there was immense healing that did not ignore the terrible thing that was done, but that did not mirror it, either.
And I had the chance to meet the mother of Charlie Roberts, and she told the story of this Amish man holding her husband as they just wept together.
… I think part of what we’ve got to do (he said) is … ask …how do we live in a world where violence and hatred is real, without mirroring the same thing that we’re trying to heal the world of?
How do we, in fighting the beast, not become the beast?
He then goes on to quote Richard Rohr, who says “the best critique of what’s wrong is the practice of something better.”
And friends, I think this is the challenge at the heart of Jesus’ sermon for us today. How can we be something even better? How can we keep the commandments, not just on the outside but on the inside? Not just do right but be alright? How can we address the evil in our world without becoming a mirror image of it…fight the beast without becoming the beast?
Shane continues: “…there are lots of versions of Christianity that, to me, don’t look a lot like Jesus. So I see that and I think one of the questions (we need to ask is whether or not our faith is) making us more loving? Is it making us more life giving?”
And you discern that, says Shane, in much the same way you discern whether you should drink milk out of a carton. Bear with him here because this actually makes sense.
He says “before you drink milk, you want to smell it, (it needs to) pass the sniff test. And I think a lot of (the) Christianity (we see out there these day) doesn’t pass the sniff test.
It doesn’t smell like Jesus.
It doesn’t feel like love.
So for a lot of (us), I think that’s the question: does it smell like love?”
That’s the question I know I need to keep asking myself before I speak, before I act, and I need you to keep asking me that too. Whether you’re responding to a sermon I’ve preached or something I’ve posted or even something I’ve just said, you can always tell me if it smells off.
Speak up if it doesn’t feel right. If I’m missing the mark because I’m failing to love like Jesus, let me know, because I know I’m failing everyday. I need help. And as gently as I can, I’ll try to do the same for you.
May the antidote to all that breaks our hearts be the practice of something better. For you and I are called to a higher standard by a God who is not afraid to challenge us to love more perfectly than we ever thought possible.
A God who will nevertheless forgive us when we fail the better to teach us how to do the very same for one another. Thank you, God. Help us, God. Amen.
O God, we can no longer deny our need for healing:
our need for healing in this nation,
our need for healing in our communities,
our need for healing in our families,
and our need for healing in our very souls.
Nor can we deny any longer our need to repent,
our need to aim for something higher,
our need for grace and mercy…
grace and mercy – not just for ourselves God,
but enough grace and mercy that we might extend it to one another.
We pray for discernment, O God,
not just the wisdom to judge between right and wrong,
truth and falsehood,
not just the wisdom to know when to speak up and what to say,
but the wisdom to judge ourselves,
the wisdom to know how to not just speak the truth
but speak the truth with love.
And when we cannot muster those words,
the right words,
words that sound like Jesus, words that smell like love,
grant us the self control to remain silent…
May our words reflect a better way to be in the world, your way Holy One.
May we be instruments of your peace.
May we live in accordance with your will.
We pray for those who have been traumatized
and are re-traumatized every day
by the careless acts and casual racism and sexism and nationalism
that proliferate in our communities.
Guard their hearts, heal their hurts, and strengthen their resolve, I pray.
We pray now for all those we love, our prayers of concern and our prayers of thanks Hear us as we lift the name sof those we love up into your light….
O God, we thank you for hearing our prayers. We thank you for your love and care.
We thank you for the faithful companions
who stand even now at our right and our left.
May we move together as one, to do justice and love mercy.
May we walk in kindness, humility, and solidarity with the oppressed of this world.
And finally, O God, we humbly ask, not that you would walk with us,
but that you would show us today and everyday how to walk with you.
Comfort us in our discontent and help us to see our dissatisfaction as something holy.
Bless the unrest we feel inside.
Ignite in us a holy refusal to back down or give up or settle for less, and may that holy refusal break open our hearts to a holy hope that we truly can love another world into being,
the world you taught us to long for when you taught us to pray…