When we head back home to Cedar Rapids, one of the things that I like to do, as long as the weather is warm, is play disc golf at Jones Park.
We always start at tee 15 – in part because the parking is better there on the hilltop pavilion, and there are bathrooms handy if you need them. And looking out from that hill, you can see the entire park. The pond, the golf course, the playground and the pool, and just over the tree tops, you can see Mount Trashmore.
Mount Trashmore is the unofficial name of the city’s beloved landfill. It is 208 feet tall and takes up 65 acres of land. That is as much space as 50 football fields!
Now, I mention this, because that heap of garbage reminds me of another dump, which Jesus refers to multiple times in the Sermon on the Mount.
As we heard our gospel reading this morning we caught just a snippet of this section on the law and if we continue for another 28 verses, we hear about how Jesus believes we should treat one another. He talks about anger, adultery, divorce, promises, revenge and how we should treat our enemies. And we’ll get there, but first, I think we need to spend a minute with a little four letter world.
This is how we translate a word that shows up three times in Matthew chapter 5 – Ghenna.
Ghenna is actually a place, the Valley of Hinnom, and it was literally a trash dump… it is a valley of garbage… it is a place for filth and waste… a place to burn and destroy the refuse of our lives. This smelly, disgusting, ugly, awful place is what Jesus is pointing to in our passage today.
Let’s forget, for just a moment, that we have typically read the word “hell” here. Instead, put ourselves in the shoes of the first century Jews who might have been sitting on the hillside listening to Jesus teach. Imagine you can see that valley of garbage, gehenna, somewhere off in the distance… much like I could see Mount Trashmore from the hill top in Jones Park. Maybe it is just the faint smell of burning garbage that lingers on the air. Maybe it is just the rising smoke from the fires. Maybe you can actually see the heaps of trash, even from far off, just outside the gate of Jerusalem.
And as you look out at gehenna, Jesus tells you what it means to be part of the Kingdom of God.
It takes love.
That, after all, is the summary of the law we find in Deuteronomy and echoed here in Matthew… love God with everything that you are and love your neighbor as yourself.
And we know, somewhere deep inside of us that this is what we should strive for.
We know, that this is how we were made.
And, we know, that this is where we are headed…
This is the Kingdom of God. Love. Trust. Forgiveness. Honesty. Faithfulness.
And from the beginning, there have been some rules, some laws that God has invited the people to follow to embody that Kingdom. Jesus tells all of those people, that he is not here to do away with those laws, but to show us what it means to live them fully.
It is all about the Kingdom of Heaven. Kingdom attitudes, Kingdom witness, Kingdom behavior.
And in this sermon, Jesus wants to talk about the trash that gets in the way of us truly living like Kingdom people. He’s talking about the garbage that has to be cleared out of our lives in order for us to be a part of this community of God.
Jesus is inviting us to let go of the things that hold us back from God’s transformative grace and love. Cut it off, throw it out, put it where it belongs… on the trash heap, out with the garbage, never to be seen again.
He is not talking about eternal punishment in some fiery place… but about what cannot, will not, be a part of the kingdom of Heaven.
If we are not honest about our failings and our missteps, if we are unwilling to clean house and transform our lives, then we are throwing ourselves out with the trash. By refusing to examine our lives, we live out there in the dump all of our own free choosing.
You know, we have this image in our minds of what the Kingdom of Heaven should be, and we look around us and we see a lot of signs of brokenness, pain, and waste in our lives.
There is death and murder. There is violence and anger. There is lust and revenge and envy everywhere.
All of those things that can turn our daily lives into a garbage dump.
And right here, in this sermon to the people, Jesus tackles some of the toughest situations we face in our relationships and in the scriptures: murder, adultery, divorce, oaths and promises, revenge…
In each and every single one of these verses, Jesus challenges us to live like Kingdom people.
Not once does he give us an easy out.
Not once does he allow us to justify our actions.
Not once does he say we can ignore the wisdom of earlier days.
No. In every single one of these verses, Jesus takes a simple law and makes it harder.
Don’t just restrain yourself from killing that person… Jesus says – don’t even be mad at them
You’ve been told not to commit adultery, but I say to you – don’t even look at someone who isn’t your spouse with lust.
Divorce has become as simple as writing a letter when the spark has gone – but I say to you unless your spouse has broken the fundamentals of the covenant, and committed adultery, don’t give up on your relationship… and even then give it another try.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Don’t make oaths that are more than just yes and no.
Don’t seek your own revenge but love your enemies, pray for those who seek to destroy you. Turn the other cheek.
And he ends this whole section by saying what I think are the hardest two words in all of scripture: Be perfect.
What?! Be perfect? How do we do that? How can we get there?
There are two main theories about what Jesus is trying to do here.
The first, is that Jesus takes the old testament law and turns it into SUPER law… that to be Christian really requires more morality, more legalism, more demands.
The second, is that Jesus makes the law so hard we can’t live up to it. We can’t do it. We are utterly helpless when it comes to the law and therefore, we need Jesus to save us from our own downfall. So, the law convicts us… and then the law ceases to matter because Jesus is here to save us.
I’ve never been a black and white girl. I’m not a fan of either/or choices. So, I want to share with you today a third option… a both/and.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus pointing to this future Kingdom reality and he’s inviting us to live in that reality now. He knows we are helpless to do it on our own, but he wants us to try anyways.
Be perfect, he says.
My friend Jack works with addicts and one of the things he reminds me often is that the goal of recovery groups is to help you become clean and sober. It is a community of folks who are all seeking the same end goal. Life and life abundant. Perfection. Love.
At the start of the journey, a life of sobriety is almost unimaginable. It isn’t who they are. But they know where they are going. They know who they are seeking to be. And so they try. They hold one another accountable. They talk about when they get it wrong and they keep going.
Maybe the church needs to be a little bit more like a recovery group. We need to be a group of people, banded together, helping one another get over our addiction to sin and death, and trying to live into the kingdom of God.
And in order to do so, we have to start letting go of some of the garbage in our lives. We have to throw it out… because in the end, it just won’t do in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus calls us in each of these situations to love. Not mushy gushy love – but real, genuine, difficult, honest love. Love that forgives wrongs. Love that seeks peace. Love that refuses to fight back with violence and hatred. Love that is strong enough to overcome.
Is it easy? No.
Will we get it right on the first try? No.
Are we supposed to try anyways? Yes.
Again, and again and again.
We are supposed to try to live our lives here in the Kingdom… and not out on the garbage dump.
Live into the Kingdom of heaven… where love is our first and not our second impulse.
At Conspire worship today, we are going to sing a song during communion called, If We’re Honest.
And the song reminds us that I’m a mess and so are you… but If we’re honest, it would change our lives. If we’re honest, it would set us free. If we lay our secrets, our shame, our mistakes, down at the cross then we find mercy waiting for us.
Today, friends, I invite you to throw your past and your mistakes and the failings of yesterday on the trash heap. Let go of them.
And let the people who surround you in this place, this morning, help you live into the Kingdom of God we all seek.