A sermon for the sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 16, 2020
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by earth for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
This Sunday we reach the part of the Sermon on the Mount that is really tough. And it IS tough because Jesus seriously meant it to be that way. There’s no getting out of it; even the scholars who are most skeptical about whether we know much of anything about Jesus agree that these hard sayings are clearly from him.
Jesus discusses three important portions of the Jewish law, and in each case he ups the ante. “You have heard it said…You shall not murder. 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 Loser!” you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.”
Some people think this means that our internal emotions or motivations are all that counts, but that’s wrong. Jesus is talking about how to understand the law of Moses, the law of God. Which means that following the law of God is about what you do. But people want to treat it all like rules—rules they can chisel around—like, how fast can I go over the speed limit before the police will give me a ticket? We all do that. In fact, ask my wife – she claims it’s four miles per hour over the posted limit, but I know it’s seven. But it’s not that kind of rule at all—not what’s the LEAST I can do for someone else, or what’s the LEAST prayer I can do to still get credit?
Jesus is saying that attitude does not work at all—in fact it is the opposite. Murder is wrong, but so are smaller hurts we do to others, ways of hurting, bullying, and undermining that aren’t, strictly speaking, against the law, yet they do spiritual damage to others that can be severe indeed.
There is a word which I translated as “Loser” and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates as “You fool.” “Raka” is not even a Greek word, it’s a crude insult from Aramaic that tells the target that they are nothing, purely a target for contempt. Jesus is adamant about this: living a life of contempt for one’s fellow human beings is the surest way to a life of torment. I find it particularly troubling that contempt is so fashionable nowadays. Sometimes Christians are among the most contemptuous. I recommend we follow Jesus and do what we can to limit the amount of contempt in our circles of influence.
This month, as we think about Black History, it’s important to remember not just the heroes and achievements of outstanding black forbears, but also the environment in which they struggled and in which people of African descent still struggle. This is, of course, just as much a matter of White History as it is of Black History. Especially it is a history in which white Christians rationalized contemptuous and racist behavior by dressing it up in theological obfuscation—talking about “grace” and “heaven” and “washed in the blood of the lamb” as if … as if it only was a matter of a form of words and warm feelings with no relationship to what really happens in this world. As if forgiveness is to be had with no effort whatsoever to repent. That’s history, the history we’ve seen in the church for the last couple of centuries – and it is the history that has crippled the church. It is only by remembering the ministry of people like Alexander Crummell, Absalom Jones, Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and by listening to people like the Rev. Dr. William Barber, that the church can find its way back to listening to Jesus.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking about how people treat one another. When Jesus talks about adultery and divorce and prohibits divorce, he is doing the same thing as with murder and anger—plenty of people, especially men of his day, found technical ways to get out of responsibilities to their wives and even children through a writ of divorce. You can’t be “technically” in the right with God while betraying your responsibilities of respect and care for others.
Jesus tells all of his hearers a way of abundant life, that at the same time is demanding. If we lived this way thoroughly we would be like him. But we are not. Heaven knows we are not. Just about everyone in this room has fallen short on some part of Jesus’ expectation of us in our lifetime, perhaps recently. How can we be safe or sure that we are doing OK? The answer is we can’t—Jesus is presenting the law of life, not the law of death. It’s not about being safe from death it’s about living life. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is to truly understand the law of Moses, as we have in our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy today: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; that that means life to you and length of days.”
The Christian way of life is not a life of avoiding mistakes and building defenses. It’s a matter of living joyfully and openly. Of accepting the frequent times that our relationships with our sisters and brothers in this world have hurt them and we might in some way be partly to blame. This is a process of life. As Jesus says here: “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 with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Live this injunction with the same generosity that Jesus commands for these other things. It is not just when you approach communion that you should be aware of this. If the person is far away, it may take a while to be reconciled with your sister or brother, but that doesn’t mean you should give up on the effort—or give up on church. And we also should recognize and repent of our offenses toward others on a regular basis—in church when we pray, and in our lives outside of church, when we are quick to acknowledge little hurts and wrongs by sincerely apologizing and making amends. Of course, there are many difficult cases where there exists no basis of trust for any real reconciliation to be effective. The first step is to know and recognize what happened to break that trust; the second step is to humbly recognize your own role in it. And there are times, when we need to be humble enough to give up self-blame and guilt—because it is truth that results in reconciliation, not capitulation.
Life in the generosity of Jesus Christ is exciting and demanding. Yet in the tender compassion of God we will be led through unscathed.
Let us pray once again our Collect for today:
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers, and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in the will and the deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.