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Sunday, February 12, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

You Have Heard It Said

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 119:1–8
Matthew 5:21–37

Christian faith refuses to accept that violence, greed, and pride are unassailable and unchallengeable. . . . It is faith that looks up at the creator God and knows God to be the God of love. And it is faith that looks out at the world with the longing to bring that love to bear in healing, reconciliation, and hope.

N.T. Wright, For All God's Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church

I know that over the last few weeks (months?) we have talked a lot about our larger national political culture of polarization. But lest we assume this is only an issue within our larger societal framework, let me share a church story with you. Several years back, a friend of mine heard me preach on Matthew 18, a different text than we heard this morning but with similar challenges. In that sermon, we heard how Jesus calls us, within the Christian community, to do whatever we can to reach out to one another after conflict had occurred. The sermon focused on God’s desire that we always do our best to seek reconciliation as one way of living out God’s radical love.

In response, this friend decided to put Jesus’ challenge into practice. The larger church context for his decision was that the vote to allow same-sex marriage to take place in Presbyterian churches and officiated by Presbyterian clergy had just taken place at General Assembly. As a result, many churches in my friend’s Texas presbytery were considering leaving our denomination, and many of those churches were being encouraged to do so by their ministerial leadership. So my friend, also a Presbyterian minister, had let quite a bit of resentment and anger build up in his heart towards his presbytery colleagues who were leading their congregations out. He felt they were betraying their ordination vows.

However, at the same time that he felt angry, he also felt strongly that he needed to take Jesus’ call for reconciliation seriously. Therefore, at a presbytery meeting, he went up to one of his colleagues whose church was leaving, in order to try and seek honest reconciliation with that pastor who used to be a friend. My friend approached his brother in Christ to begin a conversation about the pain he felt and because he also believed Jesus called him to reach out to repair that relationship. But as soon as my friend began speaking, the other pastor quickly turned on his heels and walked away, not saying a single word. Shortly after that incident, my friend reached back out to me. “Now what am I supposed to do?” he asked me. Honestly, I had no idea what to say. Now what, indeed.

I imagine that the preacher Matthew was asking a similar question as my friend. Scholars are fairly united in thinking that Matthew’s community was primarily made up of Jewish Christians. They revered the Torah, but they also welcomed Jesus as the Christ. Furthermore, some of them were even open to Gentile converts and to growing their church, two moves that put them into serious conflict with some of the other synagogues in town. As a result of that conflict, Matthew’s congregation either left the synagogue or was kicked out. We are not quite sure.

Furthermore, Matthew’s church, like ours, was located in an urban, cosmopolitan environment, which tells us that not everyone looked the same, believed the same, or belonged to the same clan (Thomas Long, Matthew, p. 2). With all of that diversity swirling around, our Gospel writer and preacher, Matthew, understood as we do what it felt like to live in the middle of a larger fractured community. Polarization is not a modern phenomenon.

Undoubtedly, Matthew heard parking-lot discussions that would take place after church meetings. He would have known who was saying what around town and about whom. Perhaps he had even been like my pastor friend and tried to have conversations with people who disagreed with him and who had kicked him out of their fellowship. It could be that his church’s environment was rather similar to the larger environment we find ourselves living in today: different groups feeling discounted, ignored, or excluded by the others.

So as the preacher Matthew was pulling together the story of Jesus and all of Jesus’ words, particularly linking together all of these teachings in what we call the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps he was saying “Now what?” in his head: “You’ve heard that people were told in the past, ‘Do not murder; anyone who commits murder will be brought before the judge.’ But now I tell you: whoever is angry with his brother or sister will be brought before the judge; whoever calls his brother or sister ‘You good-for-nothing!’ will be brought before the Council; and whoever calls his brother or sister a worthless fool will be in danger of going to the fire of hell” (translation by Thor Hall, found in Sermons from Duke Chapel, 2005, p. 101). “So when you are offering your gift at the altar,” said Jesus, “and there you recall 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, only then, come and offer your gift.” I don’t know Jesus, Matthew might have thought, calling to mind all of the factionalism in his own community. That’s sure a tough answer to the “now what?” question.

I agree with Matthew, don’t you? We get the murder part. You shall not kill. That makes sense. But then Jesus takes the whole thing to a much more dramatic level. Anyone who is angry with another gets dragged before the judge. If you call someone else “Raca,” which, roughly translated, means dumb or good-for-nothing, you are dragged not just before the Cook County court or even the justices of the Ninth Circuit. Rather, you appear in front of the Supreme Court, without any appeal. And finally, in Jesus’ increasingly stepped up oratory, telling somebody they are a worthless fool or an idiot will get you condemned to the fiery garbage dump of judgment. And you thought I was dramatic!

That is just half of what Jesus says in this small part of the longer passage—a passage that then moves on to questions of adultery, divorce, taking oaths, retaliation, etc. But just staying with this smaller section for today, I want us to notice that immediately after he causes our jaws to drop, Jesus moves to worship. If someone has a problem with you, he says, leave your offering in the aisle or beside your place in the pew. After you do that, go and find that person and be reconciled first. And then, only after that happens, come back and give your gift to God. In other words, don’t even give your offering until your relationships are made right again.

Let’s just pause for a moment and imagine church budget implications, shall we. If you have any conflict with another person, member of this congregation or not, you first need to go and make it right. And only after you do that, do you come back to worship and make your offering. Can you imagine?

In this section from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is taking everything to a different level, an even higher standard. If we really want to know “now what?” about living as a disciple, he’s telling us, for not only is Jesus teaching his followers to obey the commandments we received as Israel as central to covenant life with God, he is also teaching them, us, that it’s time to take it an even deeper level—to get in touch with the spirit behind the commandments.

Here is just one way this plays out: Yes, you shall not kill, but you also shall not give into the power of destructive anger, which leads to disrespect for another’s life. Yes, you shall not kill, but you also shall not try to destroy another person with your words. Yes, you shall not kill, but you also shall not judge that someone else is worthless and can be discriminated against, for that insults God, who is also their maker. Yes, you shall not kill, but you also shall not make your offering in worship without trying to make your relationships right. Jesus is taking the “now what?” question about our responsibility in discipleship to a whole new level. By expounding on the commandment, Jesus does not give any of us an opening for escape or for just turning on our heels and walking away. And he does the same thing with several other commandments, as well.

Certainly the first people who heard these words from Jesus as they gathered around him felt as challenged as we do, as challenged as those early Jewish Christians in Matthew’s church did. We are just regular, broken people, after all. It is a tall order to hear about the need to keep anger in check; to hear that we need to keep the way we speak to one another and judge one another in check; to hear that before we can bring our offering forward, we are to seek out those with whom we have a conflict and try to make things right.

Frankly, for some of us, that might be hard to imagine in just our own family life, let alone congregational life or in communal life with those not in the church. Take just a second and bring to mind someone with whom you have a conflict. Can you imagine trying to make that right before participating in worship again? Did I just kill next week’s attendance?

I am sort of kidding, but not completely. What would happen if everyone in our country who claims to be Christian took these words from Jesus seriously? What could happen if everyone in our very angry and fractured country who claims to be Christian purposefully sought out just one person with whom they had a conflict and tried to repair that relationship? It is incredibly difficult to imagine. And yet that does not mean that we are excused from even trying, from doing what my friend did and at least beginning a conversation.

I wonder how we, as a church, could order our life so that anger never gets to fester. In these highly inflammatory days, are there ways we could help each other resist the lure of the kind of anger that leads to a desire for retaliation or vengeance? Could we, as a community, heed the warning Dr. King preached: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” How might we, as disciples and as a congregation, speak in a voice primarily driven by Love and Light, as a counter-testimony to the voices of anger and hate? And what does that look like down at city hall or in protests or petitions or over in Springfield or even in D.C.?

Bringing it closer, what if the time right before worship became not only a time in which we are invited to quietly center our hearts and minds for worship but also a time for people in conflict to either go out into the Narthex or into Anderson Hall and work it out or simply acknowledge they need to work it out. Or maybe if you have a conflict with someone who is not a part of this body, perhaps you could use that time to send a Sunday morning email or leave a message on their phone asking for an honest conversation in which you could seek repair. That way we could all be more fully here, carrying less baggage when we leave than when we arrived.

What would happen if we treated our pre-worship time like that, as an opportunity for us to get right with each other, to make repairing broken relationships a weekly priority? That would be something, wouldn’t it? It would not change our larger culture immediately, but I can’t help but think that over time it would begin to have some kind of healing effect on all the corrosive anger all around.

I want us to keep imagining about what this might look like for us, all these centuries later. In these days, many of you are constantly asking, “What can we do? What can we do to counteract all the viciousness and hate-acts we see unleashed? What can we do to resist the forces of polarization that try and pull us apart? What can we do to make sure we are paying attention to what we need to pay attention to as church? What can we do?”

Jesus is giving us something to do, and that is to take Jesus’ words seriously and to actively practice living out not just the law but the spirit of tough love and communal well-being behind the law.

In this Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus calling for his body, for those of us in the church, to live out God’s reign here and now, even though complete fulfillment is still on the way. Jesus is calling for the church to live in a way that actively practices what is coming, to order its life so that we are being an advance guard for God’s reign (David Buttrick, Speaking Jesus: Homiletic Theology and the Sermon on the Mount, pp. 99–100). As my father used to preach, as you have heard me preach, Jesus desires that we, as church, live as an Island of Already in a Sea of Not Yet.

I’ll close with a poem I discovered this week that mirrors much of the spirit Jesus was stirring up. It was written in 2008, but, like the words from Matthew, it also hits close to home.

I, you, us, them, those people
wouldn’t it be lovely if one could live in a constant state of we?
some of the most commonplace words can be some of the
        biggest dividers
they, what if there was no they? what if there was only us?
if words could be seen as they floated out of our mouths
would we feel no shame as they passed beyond our lips?
if we were to string our words on a communal clothesline
would we feel proud as our thoughts flapped in the breeze?

(Marilyn Maciel, “clothesline,” Life Is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful, and Live Intentionally, p. 42)

“You have heard it said,” Jesus would begin, “but I say to you . . .” We have some gospel work we can do. Amen.