We are going to spend two more weeks on the Sermon on the Mount before we keep moving through Matthew but then this summer we're going to come back to it. In Matthew's spiritual biography of Jesus, the sermon on the mount is Jesus' core ethical teaching, his manifesto on how his followers are to live in the world. If you've ever read it you know it's not easy. And so I begin by reminding us that the things that are really worth it are rarely easy. But they are possible. This sermon was not given to high-minded religious scholars anxious to debate the finer points of theology. This was an extended conversation, outdoors on a sunny day, with regular folk. A mishmash of people who were beginning to find this Jesus to be an intriguing character. One of the most important things to know as you listen is what Matthew means when he says "heaven" as in "Kingdom of Heaven." From other evidence we assume that Matthew was a devout Christian Jew. It was and still is a practice among the Jews to avoid using the name of God. This is a sign of respect for them. So when Matthew has Jesus speak about the Kingdom of Heaven, he is not talking about the good place we go when we die. He is saying Heaven instead of saying God. The Kingdom of Heaven is the same as the Kingdom of God. It is the state of the world as God intends it to be. It's showing up here and now in our midst, in fact Jesus' message is "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near." The teaching of Jesus is meant to be lived out here and now. It is a word to us. And it's not too hard.
"Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading from Matthew 5:17-26
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘You're worthless,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You moron!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Miss Mary and I decided to skip a specific Youth Moment today because believe it or not, this text is for the teenagers. It's for all of us, but it is a message that is particularly meaningful to them, so we thought we should just jump right in with it. This morning's text is about learning to drive a car.
Where are my new drivers in the room? Who has been behind the wheel for less than three years? Yeah? How's it going? Any fender-benders or little accidents yet? Are you a good driver because you memorized the manual? No, of course not. Those are the laws and you have to follow them. But the Digest of Ohio Motor Vehicle Laws does not contain a specific rule for every specific situation that you will encounter on the road. What you really need to know are the principles involved in safe driving.
That is very much what Jesus is saying in our text this morning. He begins by pushing back against the accusation that he's here to get rid of the ancient Law given to Moses. He's not. In fact, he's here to fulfill that Law. Jesus was a very devout Jew and Jesus loved the Law.
Let's remember what the Law is. We talked this fall about what it means to live in covenant so hopefully this is familiar to some of you. At several key times, God made a covenant with the ancient Hebrew people, a commitment of love and loyalty. And the Law is how that love and loyalty get expressed. The Law as a whole reveals the character of God. And when people keep it they bear witness to the relationship of love with God.
The book of Deuteronomy, is one long speech from Moses, summarizing the whole Law before the people enter the Promised Land and in chapter 6 of that book Moses says that the Law was designed for the people's well-being, to set them up well for long life in the land God gave them, and that their keeping the law would demonstrate to the peoples around them their wisdom and discernment. The Law as a whole is not the problem. The problem is our belief that our inherent worth is based on how well we keep each individual commandment.
There are basically two ways to deal with the fundamental human anxiety of not measuring up. We can try to earn our worth and significance, or we can choose to receive it as a gift of grace. When we try to earn it, we are trapped in a never-ending cycle of anxiety and striving and obsession with what other people think of us. When we receive it as a gift of grace from God, we know we can never lose it and so we shed the fear and anxiety and striving and make the daily choice to live as a beloved and completely secure child of God.
But when we choose to live in grace, someone will inevitably say that this means we have given up on the need for moral behavior. Which is a crock. When we choose to stop trying to earn our worth and instead live in love, we are actually signing up for an even higher moral standard, and this is what Jesus is talking about in this passage.
When Jesus says we must have a righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees or we won't enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he NOT saying that we have to follow the rules better than the Pharisees follow the rules in order to go to Heaven when we die. Remember, he's talking about what it is to live in the world in way that God intends. It's not about following rules better than the Pharisees. You will lose that game. Those dudes are grand master champion rule followers. They are counting individual peppercorns so they can put exactly 10% of them in the church offering plate. You cannot beat them at their own rule-following game. What Jesus means by greater righteousness is following the principle of love behind the rule. It takes more spiritual maturity and more humility and more dependence on grace in order to follow the principle instead of the rule.
Back to the teenagers: this is what you guys are doing all the time. For years you have been following the rules your parents gave you. Those rules are good and healthy and designed to keep you safe AND help you learn to use your own brains. But as much as the adults in your life love you, we cannot give you a rule for every situation you will ever face. Maturity is about looking at all of those rules together and thinking about what they mean. In order to live a free adult life you must learn the principles behind the rules so you can apply them for yourself in whatever situation you face. It's harder. But it's the only way to grow up.
Remember the next section: Jesus says, "You've heard it said, 'Don't murder.'" (that's one of the 10 Commandments, it's a good thing) "But I say your anger and insults will bring about your own destruction." Jesus is reminding his followers that the root of murder is open hostility towards another person who is also created in God's image. So the principle behind not murdering is controlling our hostility in the first place.
Jesus says that the willingness to murder and the willingness to call someone a worthless idiot is exactly the same thing, and not only will it destroy not only other people, it will destroy us as we do it (that's what the bit about the hell of fire is about).
Christians are called to radical acts of reconciliation, going to the other person first. We are called to apologize and forgive so that hostility has no chance to take root in our hearts and minds. It's HARD to admit we were wrong and apologize. It's hard to make an effort at reconciliation when our words or actions were misunderstood. It's hard to forgive. It costs us something in terms of our ego. So they only way we have the strength to do it is if we are grounded in trust that we have nothing to lose because our self-worth is secure in God's love and grace. We know who we are and so we are strong enough to be reconciled to others.
Maturity for all of us, teenagers and grown-ups, lies in our desire to live by the principles behind the rules. If we do that, we will follow the rules too, but in a way that comes from inside us. It's harder. But it's possible. This week I read something that I thought was so helpful. Our ability to live by the principles comes from two key things: 1. absolute unwavering trust in God's goodness. and 2. absolute wholehearted loving devotion to God. I'll say it again: absolute unwavering trust in God's goodness and absolute wholehearted loving devotion to God. We are so confident of God's love for us that we demonstrate our love for God by living good and godly lives. Only love will motivate us to live in a way that broadcasts God's goodness. A desire to get points for following the rules is not a strong enough motivator for a good life. Love is. Love will get us where we want to go. Love will lead us to maturity and life in God's Kingdom.
Which bring us to the table this morning. This ritual is a tangible reminder of God's goodness and an opportunity for us to experience in community our wholehearted loving devotion to God. Here we receive God's grace again and again, and so gain the strength that we need to live by God's principles. My friends, welcome again to the joyful feast of God where people of all ages, races, and orientations, every type of body, come from the north and the south, the east and the west and gather about Christ's table.