Matthew 6:16-18

July 26, 2017

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18

Somewhere along the line most of us were taught that the original use of the word we know as “hypocrite” referred to Greek theater where the actors performed more than one role. Using hand held masks, they jumped between the various roles. “Two-faced” shares the same roots. Jesus has no use for hypocrisy. Why? Because it is death to honest relationships.

Watching actors play multiple roles is fascinating. Delightful even. But when we put one face forward only to get what we want all we are doing is manipulating people. We are creating a lie and forcing others to enter into it with us…to our benefit alone.

Does this happen often? Of course it does. We are socialized into this kind of behavior. We are rewarded by “being a good kid” so we put that face forward whenever possible even though we might be sneaking all sorts of stuff behind the scenes. A whole generation of people knows what it means to be an Eddie Haskell.

Part of this could be considered social decorum. Parents shield their kids along the way, keeping some things to themselves. There are certain settings that require a set of manners that other settings don’t. This has to do with emotional intelligence.

What Jesus pinpoints here is how we might use our “religiosity” to acquire public favor and goodwill as opposed to practicing a deeper, more authentic, spirituality that seeks a greater sense of connectedness and communion with God. This too happens a lot. It can be profoundly persuasive in certain circles which makes it all the more dangerous to human community and to Christian community.

We would do well, in taking these words of Jesus to heart, to do two things.

First, we need to be aware of the connections between our motivations and our behaviors. We need to resist the temptation toward any practice of the faith that is motivated by looking good to others or pretending to be someone we aren’t. God doesn’t love us because of who we ought to be or who we might someday be or who others think we are – God loves us because God is love. We don’t need to pretend or to make pretenses to curry God’s favor. Or anyone else’s for that matter.

And second, we need to pay close attention to our inner B.S. detector. We do well to pay close attention to those who put on religiosity only for their own selfish purposes. Nobody gets a free pass because they go to church on Sunday – or say they do when they really don’t. This isn’t about judging others, it is about refusing to fall for the hype.

Fasting is a good practice. To intentionally deprive ourselves of something for a period draws us into a place where we better recognize the many blessings of our lives. This is good for us. It isn’t fasting or prayer that Jesus criticizes – it is abusing these good gifts of God for selfish and self-centered reasons that Jesus names. And denounces.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we all recognize the temptation to do whatever it takes to look good in the eyes of our neighbors. We understand the allure of manipulating and conning others to get our way. And we also know the damage this causes. In our relationship with you, and in our relationships with others. Let truth and courage be our guide, that we might learn to accept ourselves as you accept us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 6:7-15

July 25, 2017

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:7-15

Prayer is what we do when we are consciously aware of God’s presence. Prayer is to our relationship with God what communication is to our relationships with our loved ones. The more frequent, the more honest, the more vulnerable, and the more courageous our communications, the deeper our relationships move. That is simply how God has designed us. And what works with our loved ones also works with God.

Which, to me, is quite a challenge.

I got sideways with my Dad one summer and I gave him the silent treatment for the better part of two months. I’m not proud of it. I wasn’t proud of it then. I felt angry, hurt, and not a little belligerent and rebellious. Eventually I got over it and apologized but then it happened again many years later. That silent treatment lasted for a few years. I knew I was being resentful and childish…but there was a part of me that must have thought it was OK to be childish given that I was, in fact, his child.

Maybe we don’t give God the silent treatment on purpose. Or maybe we do. Or maybe we just get distracted. Or maybe we have developed a rich and natural pattern of communicating with God that comforts, challenges, and works for us. Wherever we are in that, intentionality and willingness go hand in hand to produce disciplines that look like discipleship.

We don’t even have to worry about the words to use. Jesus gives us a whole prayer that covers everything we need – praise, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It’s all in there. Whether raised to pray “sin”, “debt”, or “trespasses”, whether we include the ending doxology or not, those particulars are not nearly as important as using this model prayer as Jesus intended – to stay connected, to stay in touch, to remember Whose we are, and to remember that God cares enough about all aspects of our lives to include them in this prayer.

I pray the Lord’s Prayer several times a day and I’m not even pious! Every time I pray it I am mindful of the millions of other Christians who have gone before me, those who are still walking by faith, and even those who claim “Other” or “None” when filling out forms that ask for their religious affiliations.

Sometimes I pray in silence. Sometimes I pray in sighs. Sometimes I pray in the company of others. And sometimes I feel like my “prayer mechanism” is broken. But I can always pray the Lord’s Prayer. And that is enough. And it is always better than filling the air with a prayerful word salad trying to impress others.

Let us pray: Thank you, Lord, for making it so easy for us to stay in touch with you. You are Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. You are the best kind of friend, the one who says to us what we don’t want to hear but trust that you know us better than we know ourselves and therefore we are able to hear it. Keep us mindful of your presence and steadfast in our prayers. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 6:5-6

July 21, 2017

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:5-6

Jesus uses the word “reward” several times in the Sermon on the Mount. This morning he attaches the word to our prayers, both public and private. How are we to hear this word and what are we to do with it?

The text isn’t complicated. Jesus discourages public displays of piety where the goal is to look good in the eyes of those who see us. Lutherans seem to have gotten that advice down stone cold. There aren’t too many street preachers in North Dakota and few Lutheran choirs dance as they sing. “Demonstrative” is hardly an apt description of Lutheran piety.

So too with privacy and prayers. We are about as apt to talk about our prayer lives as we are our sex lives. We think it too personal, too private. Or maybe we are afraid to admit the realities of how such things really work behind our closed doors.

So is this a part of Jesus’ teaching that we simply check off, “Done,” and move on? Or is there something else we would do well to consider?

Back now to “reward.” Have you ever noticed the close relationship between the words “award” and “reward”? A dictionary might say that an award is something we receive as an honor after some sort of contest or competition. A reward is something we receive as an incentive to do something or as compensation for something we have already done. Either way, the focus is on receiving something that we don’t yet have based on what we did to achieve or earn it.

If we hear Jesus’ words from this point of view we are left with the image of a God sitting at a huge control panel with an array of buttons in front of him. He sees and hears everything, even our prayers offered in private. And when we do the right thing God hits a button and a reward comes floating down from heaven into our lives. Or a variation on that idea, it gets deposited into our account and we don’t discover the final tally until we get to heaven.

The fundamentalist church we dipped our toes in when I was a kid taught us that doing the right thing would help us “earn a jewel in our crown.” Whatever that meant. But it sounded good.

This is not how I understand God’s presence and the idea of “reward” today. Today is see what Jesus describes as a “reward” as a built in feature of God’s creation. The reward we get for eating healthy food in healthy proportions is a body allowed to return to a healthy weight. The reward we get for investing time in our relationship with God in prayer is a deeper sense of connectedness to God. The reward is built in to the behavior. It isn’t about earning a reward, it is about experiencing the goodness of life as God intends it.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, often we care far more about what our neighbors think of us than what you think of it. We invest our time chasing rewards that don’t matter. Encourage us to slow down, to take time, to sit in and with you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 6:1-4

July 20, 2017

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.“ Matthew 6:1-4

Giving “alms” refers to whatever we give to alleviate the suffering of the poor. We give expecting nothing in return. From Deuteronomy 15:11, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” From Proverbs 14:31, “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.”

If you live in a city like Houston, there isn’t a day that passes by that you don’t pass by a beggar on the side of the street. Whenever it happens, you feel that twinge in your stomach. Maybe it is a moment of pity that wants to become compassion. Maybe it is a little shot of self-righteous indignation, “Why doesn’t he just get a job?” Maybe you hand a dollar or a few dollars through your car window, wondering what they will really do with the money.

No matter how you respond, seeing the poor from a distance always reminds you of what you have and what others don’t. Or maybe you take the risk of getting a little closer – learning names of the regulars you see, inviting someone to join you for a meal, listening to their story – and then you realize that their situation is far more complicated, and much more deeply rooted in their history, their genes, their illnesses, than you might have thought.

And you realize that Jesus was right, “You will always have the poor with you.”

Almsgiving was always a core practice in Judaism. Desert hospitality mixed with the inevitable results of deep and abiding poverty to become the only safety net there was for people who had nowhere else to turn. Yet humans naturally asked the self-serving question, “So what do I get out of this?” The response became two sided – God will show me mercy because I showed mercy to the poor, and people will recognize that I’m a good person because of the good that I do to others. (And, of course, the dark side – all of this will cover up my shady business practices or whatever else that I feel guilty about.)

Notice that Jesus isn’t opposed to giving to help the poor. He encourages it. He once told a rich young man to sell everything he owned, give the money to the poor, and then to come and follow him. What Jesus does do is stick a knife in the self-serving aspects of our gifts to the poor.

No, such giving does not earn us merit badges with God. No, we don’t need to trumpet our generosity to purchase public good will. And no, our gifts to the poor do not cancel out the bad stuff we have done along the way to get what we have. Our gifts simply alleviate hunger for a moment, or put shoes on feet, or clothes on bodies, or provide for basic needs. In the moment, that is enough. In the long run, we do what we can to provide opportunities for people to fish on their own.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, whether showy pride or sneaky false pride, there is something in us that wants to receive credit for whatever good we do. You know that about us, Lord, you see it in us. Far too often, we are blind to ourselves. We don’t even realize what we’re doing. We pray today for people living on the edge, people suffering from hunger, homelessness, mental illness, addictions, or unforeseen tragedy and loss. Inspire those who have to share with those who don’t. And guide those who are in positions of power to place the highest priority toward those with the least in life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 5:43-48

July 19, 2017

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48

Destruction is much easier than construction. I’m not a carpenter but give me a sledge hammer and a pry bar and I can destroy a room in a few hours. In seconds, carefully placed explosives can implode a skyscraper that took years to build. A road crew can make a segment of highway disappear overnight.

What happens in the physical world can also happen in the world of relationships. A first step is noticing and amplifying slights. Then comes demonizing, name calling, and dehumanizing. Respectful names are replaced with derogatory names. Character is replaced by caricature. Suddenly, voila, a new enemy has been minted!

Just as it is so much easier to destroy than it is to build, it is so much easier to hate our enemies (largely constructed out of our own imaginations for our own self-serving purposes) than it is to love our neighbor (although being able to pick and choose who we count as ‘neighbor’ does make it a bit easier.)

Jesus knows all of this about us. It is one of the many less savory aspects of the broken human condition of sin. It isn’t new. It isn’t going away quickly. And it falls far short of the life that God intends for us.

Jesus too reaches into the natural world to make his point. The rain falls and the sun shines on everyone. We all get 24 hours a day. We all need to eat. Beyond all the differences of race, class, geography, and genes, there is the underlying connection of our humanity. And then there is the challenge of figuring out how to live in that.

In his treatment of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, Martin Luther does a masterful job of keeping all of this in mind. To the petition, “Thy will be done”, Luther writes: “In fact, God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us.” Therein lies the difference. What marks the followers of Jesus is their awareness of the deeper realities of our lives and the fingerprints of God on all creation. Because we see things differently, we act and respond differently.

The world around us then sees how we act, how we respond. At our best, loving our enemies points beyond ourselves to God. At our worst, we add salt to the wounds of life.

That final line is helpful here. There are two ways of understanding the word Jesus uses for “perfect.” One means without blemish or flaw. There is no such thing as a perfect nail. We’ll all fail on that one. The other means to be used as intended. A nail is a perfect instrument for joining two boards together. We can all work on living, and loving, as God intends us to.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, give us patience and perseverance to reach beyond whatever would divide us from others, that we might truly love others as a reflection of your love for us. Bind us together and remind us of the deep connection we share will all other people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 5:38-42

July 18, 2017

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Matthew 5:38-42

I’ll never forget the time my mother came to visit when I was in the seminary. We had some time to kill so I took her on the tour of the James J. Hill mansion in St. Paul, MN. The moment I remember is when the docent was telling us about the ornate woodwork in the staircase.

As she told us that it was handcrafted in Boston or wherever, then disassembled and shipped to the mansion for reassembly, my mom whispered to me, “Yeah, and they were probably working for 5 cents an hour.” Who thinks like that? Who would say that, at that moment? Only a person who had been poor her entire life. Perspectives matter.

Those of us who worry more about our weight than we do our ability to afford groceries this week read these verses and get uncomfortable. Oh Jesus, now you’re meddlin’!

Plenty of people believe that what Jesus advocates here is precisely what is wrong with the world today. Too many people expect something for nothing. Too many people stand with their hands out. Not to mention too many people getting away with stuff when they ought to get locked up forever. These are the folks (or the moments in our own lives) when we find this joke funny: What do you call it if you loan $20 to a friend and never see them again? A good investment.

On the other hand, I remember a time when I was in dire straits and I asked someone for a loan who turned me down. I remember not having winter gloves in the middle of a North Dakota winter and no way to get them. I remember the time my mom’s boss sent her home from work with a bag filled with a football, a baseball glove, a basketball, and some baseballs. And I read about the social devastation, especially in African American communities, of the harsh penalties meted out for relatively minor infractions in the so-called war on drugs.

Jesus was preaching good news to the poor and they were hearing him loud and clear!

So what will it be? Which way of being wins this one? A dog eat dog world where justice looks like retaliation, where you get what you deserve, and everyone is out for their own best interests? Or another way of being, where violence is rejected, justice is tempered with mercy, and generosity assures a basic level of “enoughness” for all?

We actually know where the world landed on that one. A cross. And not far from there, an empty tomb, ever reminding us that God isn’t going to give up on us nor will God disregard the poor.

Which world do we choose to live in today?

Let us pray: Thank you Lord that none of us get what we deserve. Thank you for mercy, shown to us, and shown through us. May your love so rule in our lives that we see everything from a different perspective – we see hope, we see dignity, we see a beloved community. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 5:33-37

July 17, 2017

“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 his 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 5:33-37

Sometimes (often) we will come across Bible passages like this one and immediately we realize that there is information out there somewhere we need that we don’t have. In this case I have a sense that I don’t know nearly enough about the importance of “vow making” in Jesus’ culture.

Perhaps we remember the faithfulness of Hannah who pledged that, should God grant her the birth of a child, to dedicate the child to God’s service. Or the seriousness of the Nazirite vow that is mentioned in Acts 21 (shaving your head, purification rites.) Or maybe the foolishness of the vow that Jephthah makes in Judges 11 (a promise to offer as a burnt offering whatever greets him as he returns from a successful fight, which turned out to be his young daughter.) Yet aren’t these all exceptional cases? Is Jesus reaching back to stories like this?

Or is Jesus’ attention directed closer to home? To the reality that promise making and promise keeping are essential to getting along with others and that promise breaking is deadly to human community?

When we were children we learned that if we would embellish our promises with sincerity, thereby proving that we really really really meant it – “Cross my heart and hope to die, poke a needle in my eye…” or “I pinkie promise…” or the infamous “I swear on a stack of Bibles” – then we were far more likely to get what we wanted. I’m thinking this morning that this is really what Jesus is going after. Vow making as a way of manipulating God or others into doing what we what.

Jesus says we should keep things simple. Yes or no. And then follow through. Tell the truth. Keep our promises. Do what we say we are going to do. Don’t use our promises to manipulate others. Live with integrity. Integrity makes us trustworthy and trust is the glue that binds us together.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, words matter. Promises matter. Integrity matters. Guide us in our dealings with others today that we might prove to be trustworthy people. Protect us from those who would manipulate us by promising what they cannot deliver or by appealing to our basest instincts and desires. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 5:31-32

July 14, 2017

“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.” Matthew 5:31-32

Given that roughly 50% of all marriages end in divorce, a statistic that hasn’t moved much over the years, this is always a tough Bible text to read. There are people – I know because they have told me – that purposefully skip worship when they know that this will be the assigned text for the week. I get that.

As I noted yesterday, “People, and their quality of life, obviously matter to Jesus. Again and again here in the Sermon on the Mount that is the key to understanding what Jesus is teaching.” That is also the case with Jesus’ words on divorce. I want to notice three things.

First, deeper than the dissolution of a marriage, Jesus is attacking the way that women had been victimized by the ease with which men threw them to the curb, justifying themselves by use of the religious ritual laws. Consider Deuteronomy 24:1-4, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.”

I included all four verses to demonstrate how easily a man could throw a woman away,”he finds something objectionable about her”. And do note that the entire point of this is protecting a man’s ritual purity. The woman is no more important than the tent out of which she was thrown. This, Jesus absolutely denounces and rightfully so.

Second, consider Jesus’ words from Mark 10:2-12, “Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Did you notice here that Mark – a copy of which I believe the writer of Matthew had right in front of him as he wrote – says nothing about “unchastity” as justifiable grounds for divorce. Even Matthew, in quoting Jesus attacking the divorce loophole in Deuteronomy, adds a new loophole that isn’t there in Mark. That is what we do to the law and Jesus knows that the powerless usually end up with the short end of the stick.

Believe me, I know how painful divorce can be, not only to the marriage partners but to their children, their extended families, their friendship networks. I also know that marriage partners are not property to be dispensed with when they have outlived their usefulness or novelty. But sometimes marriages end. Sometimes they need to end. Sometimes the pain and damage of staying together is worse than the pain and damage of divorcing. We are not called to judge but to love and few need the comfort and support of community more than those who suffer through the emotional and practical pain of ending a marriage. There is life after divorce.

Finally, when Jesus quotes Genesis in this reading from Mark the deeper point that he is making is not about the gender of the marriage partners but about how the partnership of marriage is rooted, not merely in human tradition or property rights, but in God’s will for how life works. Marriage isn’t for everyone but for those who choose to share their lives with another person, marriage is intended to be about trust, safety, love, mutual respect, and wholeness.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for the gift of marriage and the deep joy that comes from shared lives. We pray today for continued healing within those who have suffered the losses on both sides of a divorce, both the before and that after. We pray today for humility and honesty, that we might be encouraged to do all it takes to protect and nurture marriages. We pray for forgiveness, for peace, for insight, and for hope. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 5:27-30

July 13, 2017

“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.” Matthew 5:27-30

I was surprised yesterday by an article in the New York Times that the federal education authorities are looking at the stringent efforts by the Obama administration to crack down on sexual assaults on college campuses. I’m not an expert on this subject but Kelley and I do have two college students, a son at the University of Houston and a daughter at Baylor University. I’m personally in favor of taking as hard a line as necessary to insure the physical safety of students and to hold accountable those responsible for sexual assault.

If you have followed any of the news out of Baylor the past couple of years, you know that hasn’t always been the case. The rug has been mighty bumpy given all that has been swept under it along the way and that isn’t right.

Jimmy Carter because infamous for admitting in a Playboy interview that he was guilty of having looked at women with “lust in his heart” on more than one occasion. Given that he and Rosaylnn will be celebrating their 71st year of marriage this year, it seems safe to say that their marriage survived. My, how times have changed.

There is no question that pornography has been a driving force behind the ubiquity of the Internet. Online credit card transactions, streaming video, tracking devices, increases in available bandwidth all were conceived, developed, and improved because of the role of pornography. Why? There is a huge and insatiable demand. The consequences for human beings are devastating. It will only get worse.

People, and their quality of life, obviously matter to Jesus. Again and again in the Sermon on the Mount that is the key to understanding what Jesus is teaching. Where there is a law there is a loophole and Jesus sees right back through that hole to the intention of the law (safeguarding life and human personhood) and the danger of the loophole.

Healthy expressions of our sexuality belong within the safety of relationships that respect mutual personhood, that don’t treat bodies like property, that are free from violence, manipulation, and coercion, and where the partners are prepared to accept the consequences of their behaviors. The Christian church has not been an “old fashioned, judgmental, fuddy duddy” community by elevating the importance of sexuality within committed, monogamous, non-coercive relationships, it has simply been speaking the truth in love about the way that life really works. And the church has also come a long way from the old days – at least I hope so – where marriage meant “anything goes” and women were shamed if they spoke up against spousal abuse, violence, or forced sexual activity. Adultery is never just fooling around. Marriage is never a license to rape.

The graphic language Jesus uses ought to help us see that he takes this issue seriously. And well he should. We should too.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we are so quick to abuse the gifts of your creation, including our own bodies and the bodies of others, polluting our thought world and damaging our relationships. Give us the capacity to resist temptation, resources where people can get help if they need it, and a renewed appreciation for healthy boundaries around our sexuality. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Matthew 5:23-26

July 12, 2017

“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 brother or sister, 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.” Matthew 5:23-26

People get crosswise with one another all the time. People disagree with one another all the time. People have different opinions, different personalities, different life philosophies, different perspectives. Just about everyone wants to win. And everyone has a measure of self centeredness in all of this.

None of this ought surprise us.

Lately I have begun to realize that I am experiencing some shifts in my thinking about the Christian faith. I’m growing suspicious about how quick we are to define the faith solely in terms of forgiveness. You know the drill: “We are sinners, God is merciful and forgives us.” “God forgives us if we ask for forgiveness. All is right with the world.” “Jesus died for us so we can be forgiven.”

I think what is so troubling about that to me these days is how superficial it all is. When we reduce the fullness of the faith to a “happy exchange” (Jesus takes my sin stained clothing upon himself and gives me back a garment now white as snow) the trajectory of the faith has thereby shifted to a heavenly transaction, a holy accounting adjustment, with earthly implications that are decidedly optional. That simply does not fit with Jesus as I read the gospels.

Look at these verses today from the sermon on the mount! There is absolutely no question that Jesus puts the priority on earthly reconciliation rather than on imploring God for forgiveness. When we actually follow through with his words – seeking first to be reconciled to our neighbor and only then coming to the altar in worship – then worship becomes less about “getting right with God” and more about expressing our heart-felt gratitude that there really is a power built in to confession to our neighbor, forgiveness of our neighbor, seeking a new common ground, reestablishing a deeper relationship, that turns worship into an expression of gratitude and praise rather than a groveling for mercy that leads nowhere.

Of course the world reacts against this! There is a lot of money to be made and power to be gained by stoking controversy and division. My wife is a lawyer! She would be out of business overnight if people actually put a priority on reconciliation rather than recrimination. It would seem revolutionary if politicians suddenly shifted their focus to finding common ground rather than just seeking higher ground from which to attack one another.

This is why, for me at least, the church is at its best when it functions as a laboratory of love, a community willing to surrender itself to testing Jesus’ theories. Divisions and disagreements are inevitable, and every one of them is an invitation to go deeper into where love leads.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we know that feeling that arises deep within us when we feel offended or slighted or mistreated. Guide us then in our next steps. May we have the courage and the humility to speak up, to listen well, to tell the truth, to be humble enough to know where we have crossed the line and willing then to let go. In Jesus’ name. Amen.