Laundry Lists and Love – God Cares!

This is, I confess, very much a rehashing of an old sermon. I don’t enjoy doing this sort of thing, but I got a bit overwhelmed with meetings (I co-chair SURJ-Birmingham, Alabama) and training sessions. Heck, even my webcartoon will run late this week.

As my friend Katie Mulligan pointed out, as a preacher with a pulpit, I’m a paid protester. And I’ll go further: if you’re in the kingdom of heaven, you are, too (Matthew 6:20). Now, more than ever, we need to be busy at our jobs.

Photo Credit: MPACT/Black Lives Matter Birmingham Chapter/SURJ – Birmingham Alabama Community Organizing Training, Cara McClure

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.

Oh, goody, new rules. Juuuuuust peachy. And a laundry list of stuff, too… murder, anger, adultery, divorce, making oaths… and the punishments are over-the-top! For cryin’ out loud, being condemned to Hell for calling someone a fool? Mutilating our body to refrain from committing sin? No wonder these fall in to the category that’s called “the hard sayings of Jesus.”

I think it’s safe to say that most of us don’t make it our life’s work to follow these “hard sayings” to the letter. Oh, some Christians use them, sure – quoting them to condemn someone. Others of us read them and feel really good about the ones that aren’t currently a problem for us. To our shame, some churches have used the part about divorce to shame women into staying in abusive relationships.

But follow them? Well, not so much. We get angry, for example. I know I do, anyway. Divorce is common nowadays, and in our lawsuit-crazed society we swear oaths verbally and with our signatures all the time. Letting our “yes be yes” kind of pales when we sign an arbitration agreement. I don’t know of anyone who has come to the Lord’s Supper, then before taking part has left to go make up with someone they’d had a quarrel with. It has probably happened, sure, but I have never seen it. I don’t know of anyone who has poked their own eye out or cut off their own hand to refrain from committing sin.

As a list of rules – I am gonna go ahead and just say it – these are unreasonable. If I have to treat this passage as a checklist of things I cannot ever under any circumstances do, or else, I give up. I can’t do it.

And let me go further: If we treat the Scriptures as a list of rules and regulations, a law-book, a Constitution… we will all fail. Maybe not every time, on ever point, no. I may do OK not lusting after my neighbor’s wife, but I get irritated if I am walking behind someone slower than me in the store! And just ask my wife about what I call people when I watch the news. And I know I’m not alone in this.

It’s depressing, isn’t it? Are we just left with beating each other up with “clobber verses” and feeling inadequate?

No. Because I think the point of what Jesus is saying here goes deeper than keeping rules, following the laundry list. Look at what Jesus is actually saying here, look at the focal point of his “hard sayings.”

“…If you are angry with…” “…if you insult…” “…if you say…” are some of the phrases Jesus uses to start off this reading, and he does it over against murder. Jesus seems to say anger is worse, or at least on a level, with killing… and to be sure, someone would have to be pretty angry with someone to kill them, you’d think. But I want to suggest to you that this isn’t even about antecedents to murder.

Jesus is talking about how we think about – how we treat – one another. It ain’t about rules. It’s about relationships. God cares about our relationships. That is the thread that weaves this seemingly stream-of-consciousness, hard to take reading together. It isn’t random rules and threats of punishment. It’s about how we relate to one another, and through that, how and if we relate to God.

This changes everything, doesn’t it? Suddenly, God is not the Unmoved Mover of the philosophers. Suddenly, God does not see us as playthings. Suddenly, God is not completely disinterested in God’s creation. Suddenly, God is more than simply a spiritual director or a dispenser of divine karma.

Suddenly, God cares. God cares about us, and God cares about our relationships.

Yes, sometimes people say or even do bad things, and our natural reaction is anger, our natural tendency is to strike back somehow. We have a right to! But at least in the Christian community, that right is less important than the responsibility, on both the part of the offender and the offended, to reconcile.

God cares about us. God cares about our relationships.

Think about it – when we hold a grudge, the person we are mad at is living in our head rent-free! It takes our heart and mind away from the things that matter, it causes stress, and stress can kill us. Better to forgive, even if we cannot safely forgive face-to-face. Forgiveness isn’t about letting someone off the hook, remember, it is about allowing ourselves to move on and grow out of that and into our life in Christ.

And notice how the burden of reconciliation isn’t just on the one offended – Jesus says that, whenever we realize we have offended someone, even if we are in the middle of church, even gathered around the Lord’s Table, we must go and fix it right then, it is that important. Right relationships with one another both speak volumes to those outside of the faith looking in on us, and those relationships help to strengthen our individual and corporate walk with God.

Believe it or not, this dovetails in perfectly with Jesus’ words about adultery, lust, and divorce, because if we value other people deeply enough to care about right relationships, one thing we are careful not to do is objectify other people – remove their humanity, define them as a body part or value them only for what they can do for us. We cannot treat people as possessions and truly value relationships with one another or with God.

God cares about us. God cares about how we care for and about others.

Now, treating people, specifically women, as a possession was exactly what Jesus was talking about when he was speaking of divorce. In Jesus’ time, remember, women had no rights, no identity of their own. Rabbinic tradition held that a man could write up a “bill of divorcement” and leave his wife if she displeased him in any way. Women couldn’t own property, had no legal recourse, could not work… for cryin’ out loud, even the Ten Commandments lists “your neighbor’s wife” in the same “Thou shalt not covet” sentence as a man’s livestock!

A woman could be left homeless, destitute, starving to death, because she burned the toast.

So this isn’t about forcing women, or anyone, to stay in abusive relationships, it is about elevating women, and by extension all people, of any race or gender or nationality or orientation or identity, to the level of equal human beings.

I am serious. If we can get that one thing right, everything else will fall in to place.

If I consider every human being equal, then I don’t have to worry about being greater than someone else. No one has to be less-than for me to feel good. If every human being is of equal value in the eyes of God, then my concern for right relationship with God compels me to act like it – to reconcile, to support, to heal.

If I am honest, it would be easier if our passage today was a list of rules and regulations, a checklist I could review every day and give myself a pass-or-fail. Relationships are messy, difficult things. I am a dyed in the wool extrovert (I know that is a shock), but there are days when I just don’t want to be messed with. There are times when I get hurt or offended or wronged and, by golly, someone owes me an apology.

But…

God cares about us. God cares about our relationships, and right relationships are more important than being right.

Now, let me say this very clearly: this does nothing to release us from the responsibility of speaking truth to power, for standing up against the forces of systemic oppression and injustice. Yes, sometimes when we do these important acts of protest and advocacy, we can’t simultaneously be nice.

However, and this is important, when we speak the truth to power, when we stand against unjust and oppressive systems, we are doing just that – we are fighting systems and structures, not people. In the epistle to the Ephesians, chapter six and verse twelve, we read, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Remember that the same Jesus who ate with Pharisees, who was buried in a Sadducees’ tomb, spoke against them – we talked about this last Sunday, how in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, Jesus proclaimed woe to scribes and Pharisees, called them hypocrites – but it was their system of oppression and condemnation that Jesus condemned. No person was, or is, outside of his love and redemption.

I’m going to leave us all today with some homework. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give a test next week.

In the coming week, I’d like to invite you to join me in doing two things. First, call to mind one of the relationships in your life that is most important to you. One that is healthy and whole and good and sustains you. What makes that a good relationship? Why is that relationship so important? Reflect on that relationship this week, and in your time of prayer and meditation give God thanks for that person and the relationship you share.

Second, think about another relationship that is important to you, but it has suffered some damage. Don’t waste time trying to figure out who was to blame for the hurt; rather, hold that person, hold that relationship in prayer. Offer that broken relationship to God as an arena of God’s help and healing. And here is the hard part: take some time and think about what action you can take to move that relationship to greater health.

That’s it. We start small. Just one.

Let us pray.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you:

We give you praise for our good relationships. Help us to see, and to focus upon, the things that are good and right and which bring us joy and life.

And because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you,

give us the help of your grace to begin to heal those relationships which require reconciliation, and to practice forgiveness in those places where reconciliation is not possible.

Loving Creator, may we please you both in will and deed;

through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

What’s The Point?

 

Thanks to the scholarship of Karoline Lewis and Bruce Epperly for inspiration and direction in writing this sermon, and to Black Lives Matter – Birmingham Chapter founder Cara McClure for reading it over and loving it.

Closing poem is by Elisabeth Elliot, found here.

Image: 2016 Alabama Poverty Data Sheet, available through Alabama Possible.

Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“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.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Today, in churches all across the country, in Sunday schools and Bible study groups and sanctuaries of every denomination, individuals and congregations will be struggling with —wrestling with — our Gospel reading. I mean, let’s set aside trying to explain how salt can become not salty, there’s all this stuff about keeping the Law… yeah, the Mosaic Law, which the Apostle Paul, and millenia of Christian theology and doctrine, have taught that we are no longer under! “Whoever breaks… the least of these commandments… will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”

How do we faithfully approach such a Scripture? Do we ignore it, focusing on the safer parts, “salt of the earth,” “light of the world?” Do we construct a to-do list in making sure our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees? Do we skip it and concentrate on the Epistle reading, from First Corinthians? Do we declare that, all this time, we’ve been doing it wrong, and we have to start today keeping every letter of the Mosaic Law, because obviously God must care if we go to church on Saturday and eat bacon and shrimp and wear clothes made from polyester blends?

I don’t think so. I think there’s something deeper at work here, and not just because I like bacon. In fact, I think that the whole idea of simply keeping the letter of the law, even to the degree that the Pharisees strove to be faithful to the finest distinction of the intention of every tenet, is not only the easy way out, it’s the core of the problem.

And it was not a new problem. In our Old Testament reading, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah about the same issue: in short, slavishly following the letter of the law while completely missing its spirit — missing, if you will, the point.

Isaiah was writing to a Jewish people who had returned to a ruined Jerusalem after seventy years of exile in Babylon. Bit by bit, they’d rebuilt — repaired the walls, cleaned the rubble, cobbled together a Temple that was less than a shadow of the glory of Solomon’s Temple. And as they worked, as they scraped together enough food to barely survive day-to-day, they were very careful to follow every letter of the Mosaic Law.

It could be argued that they sacrificed and prayed and fasted for fear that, if they neglected the rituals, God would again send an army to destroy the city, again compel their conqueror (currently the Persian, Cyrus the Great) to exile them — perhaps even erase them from the face of the earth. But there was more: there was an expectation that, if they did everything right, if they prayed and fasted and sacrificed enough, God would make things better: more food, easier access to water, and an end to living under the rule of a foreign oppressor.

But time marched on, and things didn’t get better. Either nothing at all changed, or it got worse, depending on who you asked. Eventually, people began asking, “What’s the point?” “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

And maybe folks in Jesus’ day were asking the same questions. Six hundred years after Isaiah, Caesar had replaced Cyrus, and despite a grand new Temple, despite all the sacrifices and fasting and worship and prayers and rituals, most people toiled endlessly for a enough bread and beans to survive another day, for enough coins to pay the taxes, for enough water to wet their tongue… nothing ever got better, so what’s the point?

It’s a valid question, even today, isn’t it? What is the point?

Oh, I don’t mean that we are in as dire straits as the Jews of Isaiah’s time, or of Jesus’ time. Though Alabama is the fourth poorest state in the nation, though one in four Alabamians lives in poverty, though thirty-one percent of the residents of the city of Birmingham live in poverty, you and I have it all right. There’s food to eat, money to pay the bills, plenty of food on the table and more than enough water to drink at the turn of a tap.

But do we think this comfort, this success, this sufficiency is contingent on going to church?

Why do Christians spend so much time on doctrine — making certain that what we believe is the right thing to believe, making sure that how we worship is the right way to worship, making sure that we Christians are telling others how to live and think and worship and act? What’s the point?

Now, let me be very clear: yes, worship and study and prayer are very important. The focus of our faith journey is a closer relationship, a more consonant identification with our loving Creator and Jesus Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith, through the guidance and fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

But can it be that God has only ever cared about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s? Is the whole point of worship and prayer and theology and doctrine — the whole point of sacrifice and fasting and ritual in Isaiah’s time and in Jesus’ time — to make sure that when God tallies the score, we make the cut? Is that really the point?

That’s the challenge that God, through Isaiah, laid out to the Jewish people: Do you really think the whole point of fasting is to abase yourselves, to prove to Me that you’re humble enough, to impress Me with your piety? Do you think that the whole point is to be more holy than the next guy, more religious than her, more pure than him? Do you really think I care about that? Really???

That’s what Jesus is saying to the people who came up the mountain with him — sure, the Pharisees and Scribes are passionate about the rules. Some of the things they believed and taught were, in fact, not different from Jesus’ beliefs and teachings: quite in contrast to the Temple elite and Sadduccees, they believed that a life of faith was lived apart from the Temple, God was present at all times, and to be worshiped in everyday life. But it wasn’t the number of steps someone could walk on the Sabbath that God cared about. It wasn’t whether or not one performed a hand-washing ritual before a meal, or never dared to step foot on Samaritan soil, or took part in scheduled fasts. That was not the point!

And this is what Jesus says to us today: Do we think that going to church every week, that being a Presbyterian, or a Methodist, or a Lutheran, or Catholic, or Orthodox, is all that God is looking for? Is it really of utmost importance to the Almighty whether we sprinkle or pour or dunk to baptize, or whether we baptize infants or adults? Does God examine us based on whether we see the elements of the Lord’s table through a transubstantialist or consubstantiationalist or virtualist or ordinalist doctrine? Do we lose points on the big scoreboard in the sky if we don’t understand what any of those words even mean? Are we awarded extra brownie points for being Reformed as opposed to Calvinist or Armenian, for preferring a Liberation theology to a systematic one?

Make no mistake, what we believe matters, but what matters more is why we believe it — and what we do with what we believe.

That’s what Isaiah’s telling the Jews, isn’t it? “Hey, the whole idea behind fasting is to make sure everyone has enough to eat. You humble yourself so you can lift up someone else! I don’t care about ritual, I care about injustice and poverty and homelessness, breaking yokes and freeing the oppressed!”

According to what God said through Isaiah, that was the point.

But what about our Gospel reading? Are we committing the sin of isogesis, of reading in to the Scriptures what we want them to say?

If our reading this morning existed in a vacuum, I’d have to say “yes.” But Jesus gives us a thread to pull: “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Scribes and Pharisees appeared pious, appeared holy, but we need look no further than Matthew’s twenty-third chapter to see Jesus comparing that piety to “whitewashed tombs,” or cups that are only washed on the outside. He says, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; [t]hey love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues… to be greeted with respect… to have people call them rabbi…” Jesus says, repeatedly, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,” calls them “blind guides,” out and out calls them hypocrites, accuses them of locking people out of the kingdom of heaven! And the key phrase of it all is the twenty-third verse: “you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

If we believe what we believe so we can not go to Hell, we miss the point. If what we do with our faith is centered only on worship and ritual, and if it is intended to benefit only our selves, we miss the point. And if what we do with what we believe doesn’t involve mercy and justice and faith, we miss the point.

Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth — are, not should be or could be or ought to be, are. Salt serves to improve the quality of life, that is the point of salt: it makes food palatable, sure, but in Jesus’ time it was believed to have medicinal and purifying qualities as well — it was a preservative, newborn babies were rubbed in salt, Roman soldiers were historically paid with salt (that’s where someone being “worth their salt” comes from), so it had an intrinsic value so far as it benefited others, but no further — if it didn’t serve to improve in some way, it was worthless.

Jesus says that we are the light of the world — are, not should be or could be or ought to be, are. Light illuminates, it serves to drive out darkness, to call attention to, to bring comfort from fear, awareness and knowledge and protection. That’s the point of light, to be a benefit to others. Hide it, obscure it in some way, and it becomes worthless.

Humans were meant for more than scraping by, day to day. We were meant for more than just working, paying bills, and dying. Our faith in Christ is meant for more than a personal panacea, a “get-out-of-Hell-free” card.

There are plenty of things to do, countless ways we can act to use our faith in Jesus Christ to make the kingdom of heaven a reality in the lives of others. We can and should feed the hungry, we can and should clothe the naked, we can and should welcome the alien in our midst, we can and should speak the truth to power and defend the powerless and bring the marginalized into the fold…

And no, of course, we can’t do everything. But, as Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred hungry people, feed just one.”

Do it immediately;

Do it with prayer;

Do it reliantly,

casting all care;

Do it with reverence,

Tracing His Hand,

Who placed it before thee with

Earnest command.

Stayed on Omnipotence,

Safe ‘neath His wing,

Leave all resultings,

DO THE NEXT THING.

That is the point.