Rev. Leah Grundset
Matthew 5: 21-48
The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached: You Heard Wrong
Remember a couple of weeks ago when we read through the whole Sermon on the Mount up here? You heard all of it, word for word from the pulpit. My Sunday School class and I have likened the Sermon on the Mount to Jesus’ greatest hits released all at once on iTunes, like when the Beatles music was released.
There are parts of the Sermon on the Mount that would cost $1.29-like the Beatitudes. Everybody wants those and they are the bestsellers. Then there’s the whole “salt of the earth, light of world nonsense.” That would be listed under “album only.”
I think quite possibly this section we read today would be the sheepish, $0.99.
Our passage today was especially dicey, even hard to hear. I’m sure you remember it as you were standing up for much longer than normal. Lucky us, that’s our passage for today! It’s juicy, you know.
Murder, sex, adultery, divorce, enemies—sounds like Jesus could have written for any of our favorite tv dramas. I mean, who even wants to read this section of scripture? And beyond that…who wants to preach on it? This section is chock-full of all of the misused, poorly contextualized sayings of Jesus. So, today let’s look a little deeper at what this passage might mean.
Last week, we read the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. It was the section called “the Beatitudes,” which were both an invitation to holy living and a far off future hope that one day, all would be made new.
The merciful would receive mercy, the mourning would be comforted…remember? And then Jesus talked about us being salty- the ones who bring out all of the God flavors in the world. Because of us and the way we live, people are the taste and see the goodness of God.
Maybe because of this divine spark within us, people hear music differently or feel welcomed into a community like they never have before? And Jesus also said in that section that we are the ones to bring out the God-colors in the world.
Because of who we are created to be, people see God. Because of how we live and how we point others toward hope and life, people come to know God’s love. Isn’t that so beautiful?
Well, that was a great intro Jesus had, sucked them in with his words and his smile.
And then…Jesus got real.
He got real with history. He got real with their motives. He got real with their relationships.
This section is usually known as the “re-writing of the Law.” Jesus starts out each of these sections about murder, adultery, etc by saying, “You heard it said back in the day, but I’m saying…” Basically, Jesus is calling the people back to the image of Moses and the 10 commandments. By 32CE, give or take a few years, the 10 Commandments were old news for the people gathered on that mountain with Jesus.
Yes the 10 commandments were the Law. Yes, they were good at their core. Yes, everyone could recite them. But they were still ancient. They needed some new language for this new community Jesus was creating.
In the same way, the words we read today came from Eugene Peterson’s version of the Bible, called the Message. Sometimes, we just need to hear things in a new way, even though the meaning is the same.
Stylistically, Jesus was attempting to connect with the people with familiar words. These words from the Law had become so stringent that they had forgotten what they were really about. Words of Law and rules can often fall on deaf ears or just become something we recite, with no real understanding behind them. History becomes muddled, opinions get added as facts and we start to wonder what the purpose was after all.
But Jesus brings up these important words as ones that we must live with. We all get stuck in the routine and comfort of rules, laws, programs we have established. But Jesus comes in and shakes it up- saying, You heard wrong! This is how you are to live. He echoes the words of Micah as he encourages the people to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
I think most of you know that I was suffering for Jesus this week in Miami with my Young Clergy Group, Lewis Fellows. Whoever decided we should meet in Miami in January was brilliant. I thought of you all as you dug out of the snow and I walked on the beach on Wednesday morning.
Besides walking on the beach, part of what we do is gather together, 17 of us from all around the country, all of us under 40 and all of us from different denominations. When we visit the different cities, we also visit churches.
This time we visited four churches in the FLL/Miami area to hear about how they do ministry in their different settings. Sometimes I can’t relate at all to these churches and sometimes I walk away with such rich insight that I wish I would have recorded the whole exchange.
On Wednesday afternoon, we visited Miami’s Trinity Cathedral, an Episcopal Cathedral in the heart of downtown Miami. It reminded me of Calvary as I listened to the Dean, basically the Senior Pastor of a cathedral talk about a neighborhood, which was revitalizing, a community who had to deal with shifting needs and wants within itself and a place that strived to be inclusive and welcoming to all people.
He shared one story in particular, which reminded me of our passage today from Matthew. He talked about the long-time homeless feeding program. For many years, the church was a haven for people who found themselves without a home. The church had a breakfast program and the physical building became an emergency shelter many times during hurricanes.
As the neighborhood changed, so did the need to offer the feeding program. For the majority of the people receiving the food in 2007, they were walking on average, 1 mile in Miami heat to receive the food. And on top of all of that, the people only received the bag of food and cup of coffee by reaching through the huge, wrought-iron black gates.
Food is not to be shared through clinched fists and iron gates. The people should not have to walk a mile to receive food that was cold by the time they ate it. So, the Dean sought to flip this program on its head. Instead of continuing to offer the program (while still meeting a need) in their neighborhood, why not shift the program to another church closer to the people who needed it? Why not partner with other churches who wanted to also serve the community?
The congregation didn’t want to change because are you ready– “that is how they had always done it.” But they did change…eventually…and now the feeding program is housed in a church about two miles away and they are feeding more than three times the number of people they were before.
Our temptation to say, “this is how we’ve always done it” or “you’ve heard it’s done this way” can be a hindrance to listening for the radical voice of Jesus among us. You’ve heard it said “this is how we’ve always done it,” but…maybe you heard wrong.
So, on to Jesus’ words. He starts his instructional guide with the topic of murder. Pretty much gets straight to it. He tells the people gathered around him on the mountain, “You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, do not murder. But I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. The simple moral fact is that words kill”
Jesus just upped the anty. No wonder this is scary. He’s the one who said that words kill, you think that maybe he knew that when he said that? Jesus is not exactly equating murder and anger as he is using hyperbole as a tool to get everyone’s attention.
I think it worked, don’t you? The entire series, which follows is a serious picture of how Jesus was setting up his radical community. Yes, don’t murder each other; that’s a given. But also…if you’re angry with one another, deal with it.
Jesus is funny too—look at what he says: Let’s say you’re out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don’t lose a minute. Make the first move—after all if you leave it up to him, knowing his track record, you’re likely to end up in court, maybe even jail.” Hilarious.
After his words about murder, Jesus moves on to the next exciting topic: adultery, divorce and lust! I’m serious. This section does not rank high on Jesus’ most loved sayings. But when we look at it, it’s common sense, isn’t it?
All Jesus is saying is, “Don’t cheat on your spouse. And if you do get a divorce, treat the other person in the honorable way. Don’t use the law in the process of divorce to cover up for a way you messed up. Oh, and if you look at another person with the intent of violating them-you know better. Get it together.”
Also, when you say you’re going to do something…do it! If you say yes, then respond with yes. If you say no, then respond with no. Don’t get pulled between the two. In other words, don’t reply “maybe” on an Evite. We all know what that means- you’re just waiting to see if something better comes along.
Finally, he gets into a little love language, thank goodness. Live generously with what you have been given—live in a way that doesn’t make sense. This is the kingdom of God, for goodness sake.
This is the new radical community Jesus is forming and the one in which we find ourselves. And if someone annoys you and you consider that person an enemy, guess what…love them. Let them bring out the best in you as you proactively work to bring about reconciliation and redemption through the brokenness of the relationship. When you do this, that’s when you’re working out of your God-created selves.
I think when we hear the words in our modern language, it all kind of makes sense. Jesus’ words here don’t actually end up being so harsh or so out of touch with who we know we are to be.
In the end, this passage is about broken relationships within humanity. Jesus isn’t really talking about God too much. We’ve had a lot of discussion about right living and civil discourse in this country in the last few weeks.
The reality of all of it is, you and I both know this violent and negative behavior is completely inappropriate. All of a sudden just because Congress decides to sit next to each other as Republicans and Democrats at the State of the Union—that doesn’t change anything.
What changes our world is when we actually decide to live out of our God-created selves, looking at the people all around us and realizing that they are living out of their God-created selves as well. When we lash out with harsh words or cover up our failures by breaking someone else, we are not living out of the part of us, which offers the flavors and colors of God’s love in the world.
Our most basic call as people of God is to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
So, I’ll leave you with the words from the end of this difficult and often misused part of Scripture. Listen up to them- we all know how to live this way because it is in our created-selves DNA. We are who we are because of the divine spark we carry as ones created in the image of God.
Jesus said to all the people who were gathered around him:
“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out of your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” Amen.