A Change of Heart

Scott L. Barton
February 16, 2014
Matthew 5:21-37

 

Sometimes I wonder why this sermon by Jesus is so popular.  Or at least, why it's so well known.  Because, honestly, there's an awful lot to it that I think is very hard or maybe even impossible to understand, at least in this present life.

It's pretty interesting to me to look back and see that I haven’t preached on this text recently. First, it hasn't come around all that often in the cycle of readings a lot of us follow because when Lent has arrived early, it gets bumped, in the strange wisdom of the lectionary's designers. 

But I think I may have just avoided it, too.  And maybe I have preached on it, but I usually don't go back in the files more than six years or so anyway, because it puts me into a great funk reading some old sermon and thinking with shame that I can't believe I ever inflicted such words on a good and faithful and yearning congregation of God's people. How did they put up with me, I wonder? So I will start over, then.  Now, this isn't a bad thing, because it keeps me honest about what I told you two weeks ago, which is that there is always a new thing coming out of the Word of God, if it is, indeed, to be the Word of God.

But speaking of "how did they put up with me," you really have to wonder how Jesus puts up with us when you consider the standards he seems to have set in this sermon.  It comes as a surprise, too. I mean, thanks to the Apostle Paul, I think most Christians and especially Protestants believe that because of Jesus, we now have a religion whose basis is grace, as opposed to one whose basis was law. The Law of God was what is written in the Old Testament, so the idea goes, but we now have a new revelation, that came in the New Testament, where the Law is superseded by Love, whose other name is Jesus. Have you bought in to that idea?

I know.  But it’s all very simplistic, and also quite naive, self-congratulatory, and the basis of all kinds of harm, the worst of which is anti-Semitism.  There is as much grace in the Old Testament - or what I prefer to call the Original Testament - as there is in the New.  And there is plenty of law in the New Testament, and this sermon of Jesus's is one very good place to find it.  But the more I think of it, the more it seems to me that New Testament “law,” if you will, is as much an example of the grace of God as the grace that too easily Christians have ignored in the Original Testament, which, of course, were the only scriptures that Jesus himself had, and learned from.  There is grace everywhere.  You just have to look. And be willing to see.

But it doesn't seem like it at first, does it – grace, that is. Take the very first one: “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."

Now, presumably, some of you are more blessed than others, but has anyone here been mad at anyone else in, let's say, the last year?  How about the last month?  Were you angry at anyone? How about last week? How about yesterday?  Anybody even in this pleasant hour able to conjure up a little resentment over some perceived slight that happened since you got up this morning?  Or, have you ever driven down the highway in a large metropolitan area and not had some idiot cut you off going 90 miles an hour?  Did you ever receive and then return the favor of the one-fingered salute?  And were you in good humor at that moment? How about the person who drives under the speed limit for miles on a two lane Hadley road where you can't pass? Do you ever seethe at such a fool, and hence, at least as Jesus seems to put it, find yourself apparently liable to the hell of fire?

My goodness.  Not be angry at a brother or sister?  Ever?  And of course, the flip side of this is that anger can be a very good thing. Sometimes it takes a bit of anger to get something going, and sometimes anger is what it takes to be a doormat no longer.  I like the bumper sticker that said, "If you're not angry, you're not paying attention."

And then the next one. Reconciliation.  After it’s happened, is a beautiful thing; but getting to it can be quite another matter.  Your brother or sister may not even want it – to say nothing of you!  And if our gifts at the altar all had to wait until we were reconciled to anyone who had something against us, the church's finance committee might have even bigger problems than they have now.  What an impossible standard!

And the way Jesus talks about settling quickly with your accuser, it sounds as if he's just talking more about how to stay out of jail than how to live a decent life.

And then there's the doozy that got Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter into trouble with a lot of people because he dared to speak the truth in an interview in Playboy magazine and say that committing adultery in your heart was not all that difficult a thing to do.  In fact, when Jesus said, "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," he hit the nail on the head with just about half the human race, anyway. And not just when we're young bucks, either. And that’s not even counting you women.

And then it gets hard.  Stuff about cutting off your right hand if it causes you to sin sounds more like Sharia law enforced literally in Taliban-controlled places where people became amputees for stealing a loaf of bread, rather than something that Jesus might have said.  And of course, no one is in favor of divorce in principle.  And Jesus was surely using the occasion to try to protect women who basically had no legal rights, and could be easily divorced in Jesus's day and left without any financial means for survival other than the pity of family and friends. Theoretically, I gather, a woman could be divorced for burning the toast. So what he says might have made sense for his day. But what are we to make today of this proscription by Jesus? If you are divorced and remarried, are you unwelcome in the kingdom of God?  How can that be adultery, Jesus? We know too many second marriages where for all parties, it worked out just fine. Not that people aren't sorry it happened in the first place.  Not that people didn’t get hurt. But where's the forgiveness at the mistakes people make, Jesus, at the way life goes?

And finally, isn't it completely natural to swear something with an oath, not only in a court of law, but just in everyday conversation?  I swear, doesn't it make a bigger impression when you, well, swear?

So there we have it, an increasingly more and more difficult list of what seem like strict aphorisms for good conduct, uttered by the one who in another time and place told the men about to stone a woman for adultery that the one without sin should cast the first stone, who apparently had no desire to make peace with his own accusers rather than be thrown into jail and be crucified, and who in anger and a whip drove the money changers from the Temple.  How can we possibly follow his admonitions if even Jesus seems not to have been all that strict about them?

I think there are two answers to such questions, which may at first seem contradictory, but each of which makes the other possible.

The first is that, yes, Jesus does have high standards, and calls anyone who would follow him to have high standards, too. His was not a life, nor a faith, of "God's in his heaven and all's right with the world." He wanted the world to be better and he wanted people to be better.  And the church at its best has seen that.  It's why the church at its best has always looked outside itself.  When we were at our best we saw the absolute wrong of slavery, and we campaigned against it, maybe even out of anger.  We saw what industrialization was doing to the families and the health of its workers, and people of faith not only formed missions in the cities but campaigned for reforms because of a faith that every human being is a child of God.  It's churches and the faithful people who came out of them who founded hospitals and colleges that would improve the lot of everyone.  It's people of faith who were the backbone of the civil rights movement. It's people of faith who founded the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity and Church Work Service.  It's people of faith right here in this congregation who do the kinds of things that hari talked about last week, your Take and Eat ministry, and crisis fund; also your knitting ministry, and Service Sunday, and the ways in which you participate in the U.C.C.'s "Our Church's Wider Mission" - these and others are all ways in which the people of God gathered at Hadley's Rtes 9 and 47 make decisions to follow Jesus rather than someone a lot easier.  It's the reason why you would decide to be a people called an open and affirming congregation, even though not everyone can see the wisdom just yet, and so you are acting with care and understanding to reach a place of greater vision than any of you had before.  Jesus knows that anger in the long run is destructive if it comes to rule your life; he knows that faithfulness in relationships make the world a better place; he knows that wrongs unresolved only fester and infect your life; he knew that you can’t live with just a little addiction, but have to recognize it and cut it off; he knew that honesty is the best policy.  The way of Jesus is always to move forward; to make the world a better place; to be servants, not masters; to be vulnerable to disappointment, not stuck in what you know; to go like Jesus into places you didn't know you could go, because Jesus didn't say, "Stay put;" he said, "Follow me."

Yes, Jesus has high standards for how we are to live, so that life will be better for all.

But does he have impossibly high standards?  Or are these admonitions part of the larger context of blessings that we thought about two weeks ago? Is he saying them almost tongue in cheek? Almost. The Beatitudes, which begin this sermon, turn out to be how Jesus tries to get people to look at things in a completely different way, turning the world upside down. He dares to claim that the ones who are blessed are the ones who know how much they need a love that doesn't depend on them. Remember that?

The ones who are blessed are the ones who know how much they need a love that doesn't depend on them.

And I think when we get to these admonitions, they simply follow, because, impossible as they are to keep, we know how much we need help in order to keep trying.

We can't create the kingdom of God. We can only be invited in. Impossible admonitions help us see that fundamental nature of faith.

We can only be invited in, friends. We can't get there by being good. We can't get there by doing good.  We can't get there by any means other than that God means everyone to know the gift of being loved absolutely, without strings, as the best mother or father cannot stop loving their child.  The kingdom of God is what it means to know there is nothing that can take such love away. And I think that when we know that, is when we will have any chance of getting anywhere near the way of living that Jesus has described. 

 

I read a little book on the airplane last week, a wonderful first novel by Peter Pouncey, a President emeritus of Amherst College, called Rules for Old Men Waiting. I’m getting to be one of those old men, so it was a bit sobering! The main character is an old Scot who has had a career in academia and is dying, but in the process he is thinking about all kinds of things that have happened in his life, one of which years ago was the death of his son after being wounded in Vietnam. It nearly destroyed the wonderful marriage he and his wife had, partly for lack of his being able to admit the pain. So he’s in class one day, talking about King Lear, and the students aren’t responding to his questions, and he loses it, calling them, for one thing, “you smug little spastics.”

 

“A good student, with dignity and some hurt, asked quietly, ‘Why are you so angry at us, sir?’

 

“The malignant energy, operating willfully to alienate them, immediately drained away, and MacIver said wearily, ‘Oh, I don’t know.  I’m very sorry.  Personal disappointment, perhaps.’  (He would never call it grief, but his desolation must have been obvious to them.) ‘But I hope that it’s a little larger than that. There seems such a disproportion between what actually happens in the world, and keeps on happening, and the way we talk about it, and have always talked about it, here - in this sort of setting. We just, contentedly for the most part, lay words on things, and let them lie.’" [p. 139]

 

Unlike the rest of us, I don’t think Jesus is ever interested in just laying words on things and letting them lie. He knows that we need a change of heart. And he will say most anything to get us to that point, where we will realize how much we need to know the love that will not let any of us go, that will not let any of us down, and that will not let any of us off the hook of loving our neighbor, whoever that might be, right now, at this moment.

Don’t just let us lay the words of this day on things, and let them lie. Open yourselves, friends, to a change of heart. And when we do, we will all want to invite the world to know this Jesus, not so the church will grow or survive as the place we know, but so the whole world will change. It’s why hari talked last week about burning the pews and the hymnals!  It’s not because he’s a pyromaniac (well, maybe he is, I don’t really know!) But to help us to see that our focus here is on Jesus, who makes everything new.

Have you heard of Jesus?  Next week I'll tell you more, as we get into the really impossible stuff of this sermon by Jesus, the turning the other cheek part.

You think this week was tough!  Next week, who knows; we may even see God! In the meantime, let us be open to having a change of heart.