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Sunday, February 16, 2020 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Upping the Stakes
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
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.
For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church
They all sat in the worship space together. Some of them seemed expectant, others simply felt bored. More than one of them found their eyes trying to close, worn out from a hard week of work. A small group of folks came in and sat down on the same pew, involved in deep conversation with one another. If you listened in, you could hear frustration in their voices. They had heard some of the unpleasant things that were being said about them, but they were unsure how to respond. Should they air it out and have it out, once and for all? Or should they just pretend not to know and see if it might pass?
Meanwhile, sitting closer to the back, another group of people looked on with some amusement. They knew exactly why the other group was upset. But from their perspective, all they had done was tell the truth. They knew what was right, and they were not afraid to say it, no matter the fallout, either in the church on in the community. They were so tired of talking about it. Tired of voting on it. Tired of always fighting about it. They just needed to make a decision and be done with it all, be done with each other.
The preacher came in and looked out upon the congregation. He, too, knew what was happening. He had heard some of the parking-lot discussions that would take place after meetings. He knew who was saying what about whom. He had even tried to mediate a few conversations between the injured parties, but those efforts were ineffective. Each group felt excluded and judged by the other. And each group felt fully justified in their anger and frustration with the others, too.
The preacher stood up and took out a collection of Jesus’ teachings that he had been putting together. He turned to one section, and his heart began to beat faster. Did he dare preach this now? And if he did, was he sure he could even practice what he was about to preach? He quickly decided his congregation was on the verge of becoming so fractured he had nothing to lose, so he began:
Jesus told his disciples, “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 sibling, 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 God’s 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” (Matthew 5:21–37). This is the Word of the Lord.
And with that last statement, Matthew looked up at his congregation—the small gathering of primarily Jewish Christians with a smattering of Gentiles mixed in. And as he kept preaching Jesus’ challenging words, the tension in the sanctuary grew even stronger.
As you can tell, I was not describing Fourth Church or even a presbytery meeting. Rather, this is an imaginative possibility of what might have been Matthew’s early church. Sometimes we need to be reminded that it was for that particular congregation that Matthew put this Gospel together in this way. Matthew’s congregation, like this one, was located in an urban, cosmopolitan environment. That location implies that not everyone looked the same, believed the same, or belonged to the same clan.
Furthermore, Matthew’s community was primarily made up of Jewish Christians. They revered the Torah, but they also welcomed Jesus as the Christ. What produced conflict with some of the other synagogues in the area, however, was that Matthew’s church was also open to Gentile converts and to growing their congregation. As a result of that tension, Matthew’s congregation either left their synagogue or was kicked out. We are not quite sure. We just know they experienced a painful separation.
But underneath all of those descriptors, they were a group of regular, broken, human beings who loved Jesus, who believed he was the one for whom they had been waiting, who were trying to let God’s Spirit form them into being Christ’s body but who were also fighting with each other and messing up on a regular basis. So yes, in some ways, it could have been a presbytery meeting or a local congregation or sometimes just a regular day out in the Commons here at Fourth Church.
And it is to that church of old and to our church today that these words from Jesus are addressed—these incredibly tough words about murder and anger and judgment, reconciliation and worship and lust, adultery and divorce and taking oaths. Each of these challenges could form their own sermon, but we are not doing that today. We are looking at them as a whole unit. I also feel compelled to say that I know this particular section on divorce might make some of you feel more vulnerable, given the reality of divorce in our own culture.
To you, allow me to offer a pastoral word: we have to remember the extremely patriarchal world Jesus inhabited and we still inhabit, albeit to a lesser degree. In that world, men were the only ones who could affect a divorce. Women were considered property of the household and had little social capital. So scholars believe that when Jesus issued this edict about divorce, it was aimed at those men who irresponsibly abandoned their marriage and the household, leaving them very vulnerable. It was a different sociological situation than what so often happens today. I need you to hear that, because this scripture can be used as a stone that is put down on your head. That is not what Jesus was about.
Now, with that said, let’s get back to looking at the scripture as a whole. It feels a little different from last week, doesn’t it? In last week’s passage, Jesus challenged us to be loudly and fully who we are as salt and light. We were challenged to intentionally act daily in ways that add the flavor of Jesus’ compassion and justice to our surroundings, to intentionally act daily in ways that shine the light of God’s love and mercy on the people and places that need it.
But today, well, today it is as if Jesus decided to ratchet up the tension even more and take everything to a whole new level. “You have heard it said do not murder, but I tell you don’t even get angry,” he begins. What? Like Matthew’s conflicted congregation probably felt when they first heard this teaching, you just want to argue with him a bit: “Jesus, it is one thing to monitor my actions, to be intentional about being salt and light, for example. But now you are asking me to monitor my thoughts? That is a high expectation.”
In the third and fourth centuries, a group of Christians whom we call the Desert Fathers and Mothers did their best to meet that high expectation. First, out of a spirit of renunciation, they deserted their lives in cities in the Roman Empire to live in the deserts of Syria and Egypt. They did so because they believed that their possessions, their position in society, and the trappings of marriage and family had all harmed their friendship with God. Thus, they went to the desert to live quietly and to fast.
However, once they got to this spare, unencumbered existence, they noticed that they were still burdened by thoughts of their possessions, their retirement savings, the theater, their holiday plans. Thoughts buzzed around them, thoughts of loneliness and safety, small resentments toward other people nearby who irritated them. No doubt some snored, others bragged, and a few flirted. They might have escaped the city, but they could not escape their imaginations. So, they developed ways to monitor, to train, their thoughts (Rebecca Messman, the Well sermon lectionary group, 2019).
This thought-monitoring, thought-retraining process had three steps: Notice, quarantine, and replace. Step one: Before you can realistically amend a thought, you have to first notice you are having it. Notice that you are stuck in the sands of lust or dread or anger or panic. Notice what may have brought these thoughts up for you. Furthermore, to use a phrase our own Replogle Center counselor Tom Schemper often uses, notice what story you’re telling yourself that makes these thoughts sticky and raw. Then after you have noticed all of that, step two: Deliberately set the thought aside. Quarantine it. Step three: Replace that thought with prayer; replace it with a focus on God (Mary Margaret Funk, Thoughts Matter: The Practice of the Spiritual Life, 1988). Notice, quarantine, and replace.
This thought-retraining sounds like what Jesus is talking about in today’s text. He is highlighting a connection that is always there between our thoughts and our actions. According to Jesus, our thoughts matter. Our thoughts are important. Not only can our actions be shaped by the grace of God, but our thoughts can be too (Rebecca Messman, the Well sermon lectionary group, 2019). In other words, Matthew’s congregation did not just need to change the way they were acting with each other, to stop fighting and being so disrespectful. They needed to retrain the ways they were even thinking about each other. And their preacher Matthew wanted them to hear that Jesus taught that, with God’s help, that retraining is possible.
Writer Lauren Winner described this passage from Matthew like this:
Jesus is telling us that not just our good deeds but even our thoughts somehow contribute to the kingdom of God. Underneath the specifics of murder and adultery and bearing false witness, Jesus seems to be suggesting that we are capable of disciplining our thoughts, at least as capable as we are of disciplining our bodies; and Jesus seems to be suggesting that what happens in our thoughts and imaginations matters. . . . To think a loving thought is to bring about the kingdom of God, and to think an angry thought is not. . . . This seems mysterious to me. It seems as mysterious as God coming to earth; it seems as mysterious as God turning water into wine and healing lepers and feeding the 5,000. It seems as mysterious as God feeding us and making us his body and giving us his peace. (Lauren Winner, sermon preached in the Duke University Chapel, 2014)
So what do you think? Last week many of you seemed ready and willing to intentionally be salt and shiners of light. Are you up for the practice of thought-retraining too? Are you up for allowing not only what you do to be shaped by the grace of God, but also what you think to be shaped by the grace of God?
Notice. Quarantine. Replace. What might happen if we renounced the mean or contemptuous or angry thoughts we have about other people? What might happen if we intentionally set those thoughts aside when we have them and replaced them with prayer—prayer for ourselves but also prayer for the one for whom we are having those corrosive, slowly soul-leaking, destructive thoughts?
Jesus is right: our actions are often limited by our thoughts, by our imaginations or lack thereof. If we cannot imagine it, it is very difficult to act on it. A personal example: Even though I technically knew that I, as a woman, could become a pastor, it was not until I actually experienced a female clergyperson preaching and leading that my imagination was fully opened up to that vocation being a real possibility for my life. And once my imagination opened, my actions followed, despite all the obstacles I encountered. But until I could imagine it, I did not know I could do it.
Bringing this back to us and tying in with last week’s focus, if we cannot even think about those we might consider “our opponents” as being actual human beings who are also created in God’s image, if we cannot even think of them or imagine them in that way, then how on earth will our actions towards them ever change? How on earth will we ever be able to find the moral courage Dr. Brooks spoke of at the National Prayer Breakfast—the moral courage that enables us to speak up on behalf of those with whom we disagree to those with whom we agree. Notice. Quarantine. Replace. To think a loving thought is to bring about the kingdom of God, and to think an angry thought is not.
This is challenging stuff, especially during this election season. But Jesus is a demanding Savior. In this section from the Sermon on the Mount, he is taking everything to a different level, an even higher standard. He is calling us to do more than just act as salt and light. He is saying that we can fully inhabit that identity of being salt and light if we will allow God to reshape our imaginations, to reshape our thoughts by God’s grace. Notice. Quarantine. Replace. Unfortunately, we will never know if Matthew’s congregation was able to put Jesus’ challenge into practice, and if that contributed to healing within that community. Will we?