Canceled for Snow

Canceled for Snow

Robert P. Hoch

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore, MD 21201

February 16, 2020

Matthew 5:21-37

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come 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. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If 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. 30And 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.

31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But 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.

33“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.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

I don’t know what your initial reactions to Jesus’ teaching today might be — if you were expecting, say, personal improvement, some tips on living your best life, but not necessarily revolution, perhaps you would feel as if Jesus asks too much. That is, we could maybe hold-off from the homicidal impulse but maybe not the I’m-really-ticked-off-with-you impulse. About calling someone a fool. That’s a little antiquated. I haven’t called anyone a fool for a while. Maybe we say, “What were they thinking?” Or, in the South, “Bless his heart!” — which really means, “He’s not the sharpest marble in the world.” It’s a distinction without a difference. A fool is a fool by any other name. And there are a few other thorny issues in this text, that is, the sexual ethics part of the text. There’s a song, I read about it somewhere, and it goes, “They can’t put you in jail for thinking thoughts.” That may pass muster with our standards but apparently not Jesus’ standards — even your thoughts will get you in trouble!

On the whole, a teaching like this can make you feel pretty helpless. Or jumpy, as in, “Don’t even bother — the standards are impossibly high!” Or resolve that when we meet Jesus in heaven, we’ll tell him what we really think. In the meantime, we take the bits of Jesus’ teaching that we like and set to one side the bits we don’t.

Usually, preachers lace into their congregations for picking and choosing. But I’m not so sure that all picking and choosing is bad. Take potlucks. I like potlucks: you get to take a plate and fill it with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and maybe a heap of something else. Even more than what I eat at a potluck, I like the picking and the choosing of the potluck experience. We probably treat the Bible a bit like that. Some we take, some we leave, some we ignore, some we reject as simply incompatible with our dietary experience of the world, of God, of human nature.

So, pick and choose. But, at the same time, in order for that kind of picking and choosing to rise to the level of interpretation, where we’re not simply nibbling around the edges but actually digesting the whole claim of scripture, we need to spend some time with Jesus’ teaching. And most of us, while we like potlucks, also want to have an authentic encounter with the Jesus we meet in Scripture. With that, I propose, we dig in. Fork a big, heaping portion of Jesus’ sermon onto our interpretive plates.

The first thing we might notice is the form of our text. The form of our text actually helps us digest what Jesus is getting at. He employs a three-part formula: on the one hand, a thesis (a statement that is generally accepted); and, on the other hand, an antithesis (a statement that seems to oppose the generally accepted principle), and then, as explication of these two seemingly contradictory requirements, a focal instance, by which Jesus makes it plain for his listeners, what this looks like in living color.

The thesis statement is the generally understood and accepted principle for good behavior: You shall not murder; You shall not swear an oath; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not divorce except with reason. All of these are understood norms for ethical behavior. These form the theses statements in our text.

And, by the way, those aren’t bad norms. Contrary to what you might have heard, Jesus does not reject the law of the Old Testament. If you did nothing else in life but refrain from committing murder, you might not be half bad with a strict reading of scripture. But Jesus isn’t merely interested in us fulfilling the norms, even good norms. Jesus aims to shock us, if you will, into the new creation, where love, peace, purity, and truth rule.

What is this rule? The prophet Isaiah helps us here — the prophet sees a vision of a world where lambs lay down with lions and a child plays at the den of the poisonous snake and no one harms anyone, because all of us are full of the knowledge of God. So full, that prey and predator are reconciled. Lions eat straw rather than flesh. Our nature transformed, into a new creation.

The picture of a lion eating straw is almost impossible to imagine. Maybe we filter it out. I’m sure there’s an artist somewhere who has tried to wrap their mind around it. Maybe that’s why Jesus introduces the thesis and antithesis formula. Jesus restores the shock of the new creation, delivering that shock through the antithesis statement. Still lions in nature, but now living on a diet even a lion would struggle to swallow (pun intended). That is, thesis: a good lion eats meat. Antithesis: a lion in the new creation eats straw and befriends sheep. The antithesis turns the thesis statement inside out, so that you get to the genome, the DNA, the deep God-code inherent in the norm.

And you begin to imagine a lion that eats straw; you begin to imagine a world where children have nothing to fear.

So here it is, in condensed form: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder [thesis] But I say to you, You shall not be angry with a sister or brother [antithesis].”

If we’d read through the end of this section, through verse 48, we would find six antitheses, each followed by a “focal instance” – where Jesus makes it plain, not abstract, but real, human, and messy.

For example, Jesus prohibits anger, which gets at the heart of the God-code prohibiting murder. Not many commit murder. But how many of us experience anger? It’s almost as if Jesus says, “If you would be my disciples, you cannot be angry.” And in the next breath, “So, when you do become angry, this is what you do.”

That’s the signal that we’re moving into a focal instance. Jesus moves from an abstract prohibition to a real human experience. Something like: You arrive at church. And as you do so, you remember that so and so is angry with you. Ordinarily, you would go to church, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Or you would go to work. Or you would fix dinner for your family. Or you would get your taxes done. Or . . . you fill in the blank. Norms for good behavior. You do them. Complete them. None of these behaviors violate norms of accepted behavior. Except, in Jesus’ view, we’ve still not addressed the root problem — that anger or hostility has not been subjected to love, in which there is no hostility.

So, when you get to that place, and you remember hostility lingering between you and a sibling, stop what you’re doing. Folding the clothes, making dinner, going to work, leading a meeting — interrupt that program with the God-coded impulse to be reconciled, to extinguish hostility with forgiveness.

Then, Jesus says go ahead and finish folding the laundry, leading the meeting, going to work, doing your taxes — and you’ll do those good things with a sense of inner beauty.

Elsewhere in Matthew, while he is in the temple, Jesus will say, “But I tell you here, in my person, is something greater than the temple”(Mt. 12:6) — meaning God’s reconciling love, in living form, is greater than the most beautiful physical edifice. The temple may be beautiful, awe inspiring, but I tell you that when enemies are reconciled, when love overcomes hostility, there is something greater than a physical temple.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, relates this focal instance — a couple he knew in one of the churches he served. They were a young family; parents were people of faith, and they had a couple of young children. They went shopping, taking their children along with them. It turned out to be crummy day. Maybe it was raining. Kids were grouchy. Mom and dad were quarreling. They weren’t really on good speaking terms.

And then, they saw a church, a cathedral. “Let’s go see it,” they said. When they were just about to go into the cathedral, mom stopped. “You know,” she said, “we can’t go in there, feeling so ugly toward one another. Can we just sit out here on the bench, and talk it through, and try to be a family again?” And so they did . . . and when they went into the cathedral, they enjoyed the beauty of that sanctuary, as people who had tasted and seen the beauty of the Lord.

Perhaps another focal instance. I well-remember the day I witnessed a same sex couple kiss just inside the sanctuary. Maybe someone would say that’s impossible to imagine, like a lion eating straw or a child playing by the den of a poisonous snake.

But we are bold to say, something greater than the temple is in this place!

And a final focal instance. Around here, we cancel church services occasionally. Not very often. Usually, it’s a critical reason. Snow maybe. Baltimore, if you get a dusting of snow, everything shuts down, including church. We don’t want people on the roads, risking an accident or a falling on slick ice. So, we send out notices. Spread the word. But I wonder what it would be like to “cancel” church to be reconciled.

“If you remember, there is a sister or brother who has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your sister or brother, then come offer your gift.”

We cancel services for snow. Could we imagine canceling our service for reconciliation?

Imagine it, like lions eating straw. One Sunday, the ushers would put a note on the church doors: “Sorry for the inconvenience, but our congregation has gone to be reconciled with our African American sisters and brothers at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, because of what happened between us in 1848, when we weren’t our best selves. We’ll be back next Sunday. Please pray for us.”

I wonder how we would experience this sanctuary, its beauty, where the call to reconciliation unfolded in our actual lives, in the focal instance of mutual love.

Perhaps we too would say there is something greater than the temple in this place. Amen.