Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Law of Love -- 4th Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5:38-48

This morning we return to our journey through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. One of the basic premises of this sermon is that if we want to be disciples of Jesus, then our righteousness, our sense of justice, and our character must exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees (Matthew 5:17). In our last installment we heard Jesus push on our understanding of the Law, by calling on the people of God to internalize God’s teachings so that not only will we live right, but our hearts will be transformed. This morning we continue what we began in the last sermon of this series by listening to Jesus’ call for us to embrace the “law of love.”

As we saw in the last leg of the journey, Jesus says to the people: “You’ve heard it said . . . But I say to you . . .” In this morning’s text Jesus does this two more times. First he speaks to retaliation and then he speaks to loving our enemies. If you look closely, you see that these are two sides of the same coin.

1. Beyond the Law of Retaliation

Let’s begin with the law of retaliation, which in Latin goes by the name Lex Talionis. It’s a principle that goes back at least as far as Hammurabi, the great lawgiver of the ancient world. When you hear the words “eye for an eye” you might think this is a bit barbaric, but the Law of Retaliation was designed to make our responses proportionate to the offense.

As I was thinking about the relationship between retaliation and loving one’s enemy, I began to think about one of the movies that is nominated for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, which is to be given tonight. If you haven’t seen the new version of True Grit, maybe you’ve seen the earlier John Wayne version.

In the new version, the movie begins with a verse of scripture that summarizes quite well the plot of the movie:

The wicked flee when no man pursueth (Prov. 28:1a).
This is a movie about the wicked fleeing and the righteous pursuing. In the movie the wicked are represented by Tom Chaney, a ranch hand who murders his employer. The righteous one, on the other hand, is fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, who embodies the second half of this verse from Proverbs, for she is “as bold as a lion” in her righteousness and in her pursuit of justice for her father. Although she hires Marshal Rooster Cogburn, who is known for his “true grit, but not his personal righteousness, to help her pursue her enemy, Marshal Cogburn and a Texas Ranger named LeBeouf, stay in hot pursuit of the wicked because they are driven by the righteous anger of a teenage girl.

Although it’s hard not to sympathize with Mattie’s quest, Jesus calls us to move beyond mere proportionate justice. If someone slaps your cheek, give them the other. If they sue you and take your coat, give the person your cloak as well. And if someone forces you to carry their burden for one mile, volunteer to go another mile. Finally, if someone begs or borrows from you, don’t turn them down, but instead give what is asked, without expecting repayment.

To live in such a way is difficult, perhaps even impossible. If we give away our cloak as well as our coat – in that age at least – we will end up naked. None of this makes much sense, and yet Jesus says that if we live like this then we will be perfect even as God is perfect. Although this sounds like a Gandhi-esque directive to engage in nonviolent resistance, there’s nothing really practical about this word from Jesus. He’s not teaching the people how to make friends with the Romans so they’ll give them freedom. Instead, this call to abandon the Law of Retaliation is an introduction to the “Law of Love.”

2. The Law of Love

As we’ve been taught, there are two great commands: Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. In these two commandments all the law and the prophets are summed up. This is a good principle to live by, but Jesus expands the definition. Remember in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which appears in Luke’s Gospel, but not in Matthew’s, Jesus uses the parable to answer the question asked by the righteous man: But who is my neighbor? In this passage of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus answers that same question. In defining the Law of Love, Jesus makes it clear that our distinctions between neighbor and enemy don’t count with God. Having essentially defined the Law of Retaliation out of existence, Jesus now tells us that while we’ve heard it said to that we should love our neighbors and hate our enemies, he says to us: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This is what Jesus expects of his disciples.

Again, we do this not because when all is said and done we’ll get what we want from our enemies – which is the rationale for nonviolent resistance – but because in doing this we imitate God. As Jesus points out, God pours out blessings on the righteous and the unrighteous without distinction. In loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, we imitate God, and by doing this, the disciple distinguishes himself or herself from the world. That is, we have been called by Jesus to be perfect, even as the heavenly Father is perfect.

To get a sense of what this means, we might look to Leviticus 19, where God says to the people through Moses, the first lawgiver: “You shall be Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy” (Lev. 19:1-2). This holiness that the Lawgiver describes is defined in Leviticus 19 by the way we live together as neighbors. The one who is holy doesn’t steal, doesn’t deal falsely with others, doesn’t put up obstacles in the way of the blind, and judges one’s neighbors justly and impartially. Indeed, Leviticus commands that we not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the people, but instead, we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Because this word is so hard to receive, we often try to find loopholes so that we can live out the “spirit” of the command even if we don’t follow the letter of the command. But maybe. In doing this we don’t Jesus’ call to discipleship very seriously. Perhaps it’s better simply to let these words hit us with all their force and then move forward in the grace and the love of the God who is holy and just and perfect. Rather than evade the message, we move toward fulfilling the call to live fully into God’s realm. And again, it would be helpful to remember that Jesus doesn’t specifically address this sermon to individuals but to a community. There is a word from Ecclesiastes that might be helpful:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. . . . And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
Even as Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross for him, we can carry each other’s crosses as we seek to follow Jesus’ command to love not just our neighbors and friends, but our enemies as well.

3. Defining Love

Having heard this call to love our enemies and not just our friends and neighbors, ti might be helpful to define what we mean by love. Theologian Tom Oord provides a helpful set of definitions that distinguish between the three forms of love present in Greek thought: Agape, eros, and philia. In his set of definitions, he speaks of agape as “in spite of love,” Eros as “because of love,” and philia is “alongside of love.” Each of these forms of love is present in Jesus’ command to love our enemy as well as our neighbor, but I think that his definition of agape is the most helpful in understanding this command. He defines agape as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being." [Thomas Oord, The Nature of Love, (Chalice Press, 2010), p. 56].

According to Oord, whatever form love takes, it must be intentional and aimed at “promoting overall well-being.” That is, when we love, we are offering blessings to others, with the goal being the promotion of shalom, which is peace or abundant life. Another way of saying this is that the purpose of love is promoting the common good of all creation.

When it comes to agape, Oord suggests that love takes us another step further in promoting well-being. With agape, we not only seek the well-being of the other, but we intentionally seek the well-being of the one who intends to do us evil. Instead of seeking retaliation or revenge, even if it seems to be the right thing to do, love calls us to embrace, redeem, and restore to right relationship the one who means us harm. That is the message of the cross, after all. Jesus seeks to reconcile all who would do him harm by overwhelming evil with good. If we follow in Jesus’ footsteps then we are imitating God, who is perfect and holy.

Ultimately, however, this is about the Law of Love. I heard a quote from Rob Bell, a pastor from Grand Rapids, who declares that the “Good News is that Love Wins.” Whatever else we might say about our calling to be disciples, the ultimate calling is to love not just our neighbors but even our enemies. Because, in the end, the “good news is that love wins.”
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
8th Sunday after Pentecost
February 27, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Law and Order -- 3rd Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5:21-37

As we continue our journey through the Sermon on the Mount, having heard the call to be salt and light, and having been told that our righteousness should exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, we’re now confronted with the details. And, as they say, the “devil is in the details.”

I chose the title “law and order,” because we often link the two terms together. These are words that everyone seems to understand. In fact, these words are so prominent in our society that they have inspired a series of very popular cop and lawyer TV shows. For most of us law and order means keeping criminals off the street so we can live safe and secure lives. We understand the meaning of these words, but rarely do we apply them to our own lives.

As we consider this set of verses from Matthew’s Gospel, the idea of “law and order” seems to move beyond the concerns of the criminal justice system, and begin to speak to our own daily lives. The words we hear in this passage seem harsh and foreboding. They speak to issues that we face every day – anger, lust, keeping our word, and maybe even divorce – and they suggest that if we don’t get our act together we could be in for big trouble. After reading this passage we might begin to wonder if we shouldn’t just skip the sermon and move to a prayer of confession and word of absolution and forgiveness – sort of like what we do on Ash Wednesday. But, Jesus’ point is about more than making us feel guilty so we will say we’re sorry and promise not to do bad things again.

Jesus speaks to the way in which we behave, because he wants us to understand what it means to live fully under the reign of God, even if the realm of God isn’t fully revealed in our midst.

As we listen to these words, and the verses that follow dealing with retaliation and love of our enemies, we’re reminded that we live in a broken and fragmented world. This brokenness affects every one of us, probably on a daily basis, in our church, in our families, and every other aspect of our lives. This is the way things are, but Jesus offers us a better way to live our lives.

If we’re to experience this better way, then we must first understand what needs to be changed. The way in which Jesus expands the commandments, also suggests that he wants to free us from our tendency toward self-righteousness. Not only that, but he also reminds us that there are consequences of giving reign over lives to a broken world. We may not believe in a literal fiery hell, but as they say, sometimes there is hell on earth.

1. Signs of Brokenness

In the course of 27 verses, 17 of which we read this morning, Jesus speaks to the brokenness that mark our lives and our communities. He speaks of anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and then he calls on us to not just to love our friends, but love our enemies. Jesus says – “you’ve heard it said, . . . but I say . . .” He starts with the Law as it’s written, and then pushes deeper, helping us understand that the brokenness that afflicts our world starts inside us. In his critique of the Pharisees, Jesus warned against merely focusing on the tangible expressions of the sins that corrupt our hearts and minds. Even if we’ve not killed anybody or committed adultery or perjured ourselves, the thoughts and feelings that lead to such acts could be brewing within.

As one commentator put it, the very fact that we take oaths, “means that we live in a world of lies.” [Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary, (Brazos, 2006), p. 70]. And people kill people because they get angry, while adultery occurs because we covet something that we shouldn’t. As the saying goes, “something must be in the water.”

Laws by themselves can’t change hearts, but they can set boundaries and remind us as to what is permissible and what isn’t. As Paul tells the Christians in Rome, without the Law we wouldn’t ever have known about sin (Rom. 7:7ff), but even though the Law is holy, it doesn’t have the ability to keep us from sinning. Jesus hasn’t come to abolish the Law, but he does come to offer us the kingdom of God, where we can find the means of transformation. Our brokenness can give way to wholeness, if we’re willing to be reconciled with God and neighbor – even the neighbor who is our enemy.

2. Anger and Murder

Each of the four signs of brokenness that appear in today’s text deserves a closer look, but for the purposes of this sermon, I’d like to focus on Jesus’ statements about anger. I think I can safely say, that everyone in the room wrestles with anger. And even if you haven’t murdered someone, you probably have called someone a fool or an idiot. And Jesus says: that’s enough to get you in trouble. Calling someone a fool is the equivalent of putting a knife in someone’s heart, and as Jesus says – both get you the same punishment. That may not seem fair or just, but to Jesus the intent is as evil as the act.

I know that I get angry on occasion. I can even let it fester. In fact, at times I may take joy in feeding my anger, because it gives me power over someone else or it may feed my self-righteousness. Does that describe anyone else in the room?

But it’s not just anger that is an equivalent of murder. It’s also demeaning words and names that we say to others that get God’s attention and might we say, God’s righteous anger. As I hear Jesus say to us – if you call someone a fool you’re in danger of experiencing hell – I’m reminded that one of the biggest problems we face in our society is that of bullying. Bullying isn’t new. I know, because I experienced it growing up, and I recognize it when I see it. Unfortunately I’ve seen it pop up all too often in the church. And it’s not just children who are bullies. You can find bullies in every age group.

Bullying and anger, like murder, adultery, and lying are signs of the brokenness that afflicts the community. They are not signs of God’s reign, and therefore we must deal with them or we’ll suffer the consequences. Jesus says to us, before you come to the Table, let go of your anger and resentments, and be reconciled with God and with your neighbor, so that you might come to the table with a clean heart. But before we get to reconciliation, we need to deal with the matter of consequences.

3. Consequences

The stated consequences of sin that are found in this passage are rather harsh. Some of the suggested solutions to our problems even sound rather barbaric. They don’t sound like anything that we would expect Jesus to say, either. But, here he is telling people that if they don’t change their ways, they will experience eternal punishment. He even tells people that if you have a problem with lust, then maybe they should pluck out an eye and cut off one of their hands. After all, it’s better to enter the kingdom minus a few body parts than end up in hell with your body intact. I must say here that theologically I can’t reconcile a loving God with the doctrine of eternal punishment. It simply doesn’t make sense to me theologically. I also wouldn’t recommend that people maim themselves to keep from sinning. But, that doesn’t mean that our thoughts and our actions don’t have consequences.

Since this is Evolution Weekend, I thought it a good idea, to get something scientific into the service. While we’re not dealing with biology, there is a law of physics that applies to our situation – Newton’s Third Law of Motion:
To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.
Now this law of physics may seem rather obvious, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of this fact – actions do have consequences.

This idea is stated rather clearly in the Book of Deuteronomy, which says: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, . . . then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.” (Deut. 30:16). Obedience leads to blessing. But, if you don’t do what the Lord commands, then you won’t live very long in the land of promise. The choice is yours.

Although the Sermon on the Mount starts with words of blessing, through which God extends God’s favor to the poor and the meek, the one who grieves and the one who is merciful, this sermon takes a rather realistic view of human behavior, and Jesus suggests that our behavior has consequences for our own lives and the lives of those with whom we share our lives. Jesus seems to be saying to us – when we fail to walk in the ways that God has set before us, then brokenness and destruction will increase.

4. Living in the Realm of God

So, why does Jesus address these issues? I believe that he raises issues like these, which form a representative and not an exhaustive list, because they are the kinds of behaviors that undermine the realm of God. These kinds of behaviors don’t represent the ways of God. If we speak harshly or act hatefully toward another person; if we objectify or exploit others; if we abandon those who are close to us or fail to speak honestly, then we are not walking in the ways of God. We may struggle with our ability to live fully into the realm of God, but Jesus reminds us to look closely at what the realm of God looks like, so that we can move toward that fullness.

It is a difficult path, and it requires much from us. It means changing the way we think and talk and act. Indeed, it means living in a way that moves from brokenness to wholeness. The good news is that we don’t have to take the journey alone. We go in the Spirit of God, who reconciles to one another, so that we might live in the company of the faithful.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
February 13, 2011
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Light Bearing Faith -- 2nd Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5:13-20

Last Sunday we began a journey through the Sermon on the Mount by looking at Jesus’ words of blessing on the kinds of people whose lives define God’s realm. Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who experience persecution. To them belongs God’s realm both in heaven and on earth. Now, as we continue this journey, we hear Jesus say to us: “You are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world.” That is, you are signs of God’s reign in this world, which God loves deeply.

In these two phrases, Jesus answers two of the most important questions that we can ask of ourselves: Who am I? And what am I to do? Because Jesus addresses these words to the community and not just to individuals, the questions become – Who are we? And What are we to do?

These questions have emerged with even more urgency since this congregation made the commitment to become a missional church. And I need to add that you made this commitment even before I was interviewed for this position three years ago this month. In making this commitment the congregation decided to uncover the light of God’s Spirit that is present in this congregation so that it might shine forth into the world. This is what it means to be salt and light, and to experience the unconventional righteousness of God’s realm.

1. Our Reality

Jesus calls us to be salt and light, but this calling doesn’t happen in a vacuum. As I thought about what it means to be salt and light my thoughts went to a conversation that recently took place in our library. A young community organizer with whom I’ve been having conversations gathered together a group of mostly suburban pastors to discuss the needs and the difficulties that are facing the suburbs, and to see if we can work together to address some of these needs, even as we seek to partner with urban churches to resolve issues that affect the entire region. In other words, even though our organizer didn’t use Jesus’ words, he was asking us to consider how our faith communities could become salt and light in communities that are struggling with unemployment, foreclosures, declining population, and diminished hopes and dreams.

These issues hit home even here in Troy, which as I was told three years ago, is an affluent, diverse, and forward-looking community. The information that was shared with me noted that Troy has been ranked among the nation’s safest and most livable cities, but since our arrival here, I’ve discovered that things have changed considerably in a rather short period of time. Home values have gone down, office space lies vacant, and the city is planning to close the library and it may even sell the city hall. Now, some of these problems are self-inflicted by voter decisions, but I sense that what is true of Troy is probably also true elsewhere in Metro-Detroit. So, how can we be salt and light to communities that are struggling to sustain themselves for the future? In trying to answer this question, we need to understand something about salt and about light, and then we can start thinking about Jesus’ call to experience an unconventional righteousness.

2. The Salt

Salt has many uses. Not only does it enhance the flavor of my food, but it’s also useful for melting ice and snow! When Jesus calls us to be the “salt of the earth,” I think he had the former in mind, not the latter. When Jesus calls on us to be salt, what he means is that just as salt enhances the flavor of our food, we are called by God to enhance or add value to God’s creation. But, remember, if salt loses its flavor it’s rather useless, and so you might as well throw it on the ground and trample under your feet. (Of course if there’s ice on the ground you might find a secondary use for the flavorless salt, but again, I don’t think Jesus had this use in mind!)

When Jesus calls us the salt of the earth, he was probably thinking in terms of the way salt acts as a conserving agent. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson write that this means that we’re to “act in the world in ways that will keep it wholesome, that will prevent it from going to rack and ruin.” Therefore, we are being called by God to help preserve the well-being or common good of our communities (Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, WJK, 2004, p. 18). This is a task that fits quite well with our Disciple mission statement, which calls on us to be a “movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.” To say that we’re a movement of wholeness doesn’t mean that we should expect everyone to experience complete wholeness in body and spirit, but it does mean that we can participate with God in creating an environment where our neighbors can experience compassion, healing, peace, mercy, and hope. Therefore, how we live together as God’s people is a sign of our saltiness.

3. The Light

Not only are you “salt of the earth,” you are “the light of the world.” You are, Jesus says, like a city that is set on a hill and can’t be hidden. To get a sense of what it means to be such a city of light that can’t be hidden, think about Las Vegas. If you’ve ever been to Vegas you know that unless the electricity goes out you simply can’t hide the city. Vegas shines forth with such intensity that you can even see it clearly from space. So, if you’re the light of the world don’t hide your light under a bushel basket, but instead, let it be seen so that the world can give glory to God.

Now, it’s important that we understand that the light that shines into the world doesn’t come directly from us. Instead, like a mirror, we reflect God’s light out into the world. Or, like the moon reflects the light of the sun back into the darkness of night, our lives, what we do and how we act, shows forth God’s presence in the world, bringing glory and honor to God.

And we do this in so many different ways. For instance, we’re light in the world when we advocate for the rights of others and stand up with those who are voiceless. To give you an example, let me point to an Iraqi Christian named Moses. You may have seen him, because he comes by quite regularly to speak to me about the needs of the Iraqi Christians who are suffering tremendous persecution. He is being light by letting us know that his people are hurting and that they need our help.

We are called to be lights, but this light is most effective when it is joined together. If Jesus were speaking to us today, in our context, he might use an LED flashlight as an example. Now a flashlight with one LED bulb doesn’t do a lot of good, but if you put a bunch of LED bulb’s together the aggregate creates a lot of light. The church is like a LED flashlight, and the more bulbs you have, the better the light! So, let us pull the cover off our lamps and place them on their proper stand so that the world might see this light through the good works of the community, so that God might receive glory.

4. Experiencing Unconventional Righteousness

We are salt and light, and we have been called to experience an “unconventional righteousness.” In the closing verses of this morning’s text Jesus builds a bridge between this call to be salt and light and the call to live out the Law of God, with a focus on murder, adultery, divorce, and the taking oaths. I bet you can’t wait for that discussion!

Jesus says to us – I’ve not come to do away with the Law. Instead, I’ve come to fulfill it and not one jot or tittle will pass away from God’s law. Now, you may have heard that Paul said that we are free from the Law. So, how do we build a bridge between Jesus and Paul? Although theologians have often tried to reconcile Jesus and Paul by distinguishing between moral and ceremonial Law, Jesus doesn’t make the distinction. In fact, as we move forward through Jesus’ sermon, we discover that he expands its meaning.

And if you think that Jesus gives us a get out of jail free card because he died on a cross, according to Matthew, Jesus says that our righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. As we hear this word, we should probably remember, as Ron Allen reminds us, Matthew offers us a caricature of the Pharisees. The real Pharisees, like the real Puritans, were a lot more complex than the stereotypes would suggest, but, if we can leave aside our stereotypes for a moment, perhaps we can hear in this word a call to move beyond traditionalism so we can understand what it means to be a child of God. As Walter Brueggemann points out in a reflection on Isaiah 58, too often worship becomes self-indulgent, which he says “is a violation of neighborliness.” The worship, which God desires from us, lifts up and constructs the common good. It looks “advantage and disadvantage square in the face, and urges gestures that bind haves and have-nots together.” He goes on to say that “knowledge of God is acknowledgment of neighbor.” (Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good, WJK, 2010, pp. 110-111).

Jesus, like the prophets before him, reminds us that we can’t separate out love of God from love of neighbor. As the prophet points out, our fasting does us no good, if we oppress our workers or quarrel with each other. I realize that this is a difficult word to live out, but this is the pathway that Jesus has set before us, so that we might be salt and light in the world. Therefore, when we share bread with the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked, the “light shall break forth like the dawn and . . . healing shall spring up quickly”; so that even as our vindicator goes before you the “glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.” Yes, when you cry out to God, God answers “here I am.” (Is. 58:8-9a). In this is the power to be salt and light, so that we might experience an unconventional righteousness.
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
5th Sunday after Pentecost
February 6, 2011