Sermon on the Mount: The Golden Rule

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My sister-in-law has been staying with us all week while she completed a training here in Des Moines for her work place.  It was really nice to come home in the evenings and to be with not only my husband, but both of his siblings every evening.  We relaxed, had nice meals together, caught up on what was going on in each other’s lives and played a lot of cards.

One of our go-to games is pinochle.  You play the game with a deck made up of only 9’s through Aces, but we play with four of every single card.   There is a bid phase, a meld phase, and then a playing phase.  It’s kind of a complicated game, but once you get the hang of it, it goes fairly quickly.

Like any card game, there are endless variations on the rules.  And the thing about pinochle is that whenever we play at my sister-in-law’s house, we play with a different set of rules than when we play at their dad’s house.  In one case, a four of a kind can earn you anywhere from 40-100 points, and in the other, it’s worth absolutely nothing.  When I looked down at my hand about halfway through the game and saw four Kings of Hearts, I suddenly wished that we were playing at her house instead.

But, the house rules prevail.

A couple of weeks ago as we gathered here to explore the Sermon on the Mount, we talked about the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, as explained by Jesus.  He took some of those well-known laws from the Ten Commandments and actually made them harder… in the end, reminding us that our aim is to be perfect, to be complete in our love.  Jesus puts his own spin or variation on them.

Now, the difference between a rule and a law is hard to distinguish.  Laws are official, because they are created and enforced by the political structure of the time – whether it is a democracy, like the United States today, or a theocracy, like the early Jewish monarchy and they have official consequences.    But rules, are standards of behavior that guide our actions and tend to be dictated by the community or environment or home that you are in.  There are consequences for rules, too, but they tend to be less severe – like a loss of privilege or opportunity.

In the case of a card game, you could think about the law being the standard way a game is played. In the game we were play, for example, a Queen of Spades and a Jack of Diamonds is a what is known as a pinochle and that is same everywhere you play the game.   But the variations, the house rules, vary and tell you a little bit about what that particular community values about the game itself.

Much of the Sermon on the Mount is made up of these “house rules.”  Jesus describes for us how it is that we play this game of life as people who are part of the Kingdom of God.  He lays out the variations that are going to guide our life and our relationships if we want to be part of this community.  These aren’t formal laws with defined consequences, but rather describe the standards that we should aspire to embody if we are going to be part of God’s Kingdom.

And the section of the sermon that we focus on this morning is no different.  When it comes to relationships, when it comes to how we live together in community, Jesus lifts up this idea of reciprocal relationship… that you should give what you want to get.

He talks about this in terms of judgment:  Don’t judge so you won’t be judged.

He talks about it in terms of seeking:  That just as you expect to get the things you need from your earthly parent, so your heavenly parent will give you good things.

And he talks about this in how we treat one another in general: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

 

Now, Christianity isn’t the only community to have ever expressed this rule.

In the Hindu faith we hear: This is the sum of duty:  do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain. (The Mahabharata)

In Buddhism: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself. (Udana-Varga)

Islam teaches: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. (Hadith)

Confucius says: What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.

And as a contemporary of Jesus, Seneca taught: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.

What is interesting is that in many of these other cultural and religious expressions of this idea, the rule is usually expressed in the negative.  Don’t treat others how you wouldn’t want to be treated.  It is about refraining and restraint.   And the section on judgment certainly fits that kind of characteristic when it encourages us to not point out the specks in our neighbors eye – to refrain from judging.  But Jesus also expresses this rule in the positive light – Treat others the way you want to be treated.  As MacDonald and Farstad write in their commentary on this passage, Jesus “goes beyond passive restraint to active benevolence.  Christianity is not simply a matter of abstinence from sin; it is positive goodness.” (Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments).

The Golden Rules that Jesus give us are proactive.  They invite us to take a situation and to pour God’s mercy, love, and grace into every aspect.  We should look upon every encounter with others and ask in every circumstance – how would I want to be treated in the midst of this.  And then, we are supposed to do it.  Not just think about it, but do it!  William Barclay notes that this law invites us to go out of our way to help others, and it is something that “only love can compel us to do.  The attitude which says, ‘I must do no harm to people,’ is quite different from the attitude which says, ‘I must do my best to help people.’” (The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1)

And Jesus calls us to do our best to love all people, whether or not they deserve it.

Think about even the “law of retaliation” that comes earlier in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus reminds us that the reciprocal nature of our relationships in the past has been about an eye for an eye.  We give back what we have been given.  But Jesus challenges us to be proactive in our love… that if we are slapped on one cheek, to turn the other to them as well.  If we are sued for our shirt, we should give them our coat also.  In many ways, we are being asked to love first and ask questions later!

The world that we live in today is starkly divided.   There is a lot of pain and disagreement and conflict that is not only reflected in national politics, but it often takes its root in our homes and families and churches, too.  When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues shared that their family has cancelled their annual reunion because they have such differing political views they can’t be in the same room together any longer.    Our larger United Methodist Church is so divided about whether and how we will welcome people of varying sexual orientations that we are in a season of deep discernment about if we can even remain a united church and what it might look like if we did.   I experience this in my own family, too.

And maybe that is why a commentary piece from foxnews.com really hit home with me.  The author describes how she and her husband find a way to live together in the midst of their disagreements and I’ll share the article to our church facebook page if you are interested in reading it.  What struck me about the piece, and why I share it today, is that it lifts up that you have to start with love.  You have to start with the Golden Rule.  You have to start in a place of generosity and mercy and kindness, treating those who radically disagree with you with the same respect and graciousness that you would hope to receive back.

Jennifer Dukes Lee calls us to resist trying to be right and to not judge others by putting them in boxes.  She calls us to think before we speak and to ask if what we say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.  And she tells us that when we truly live in these ways, when we let love define what we do, that we can show the world that it is possible to live in the midst of diversity, if we put others first.  (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/02/16/trump-or-never-trump-what-to-do-when-cant-agree-with-people-love.html)

In this season of our national and state and home life, we need to  remember the house rules that define who we are as people of faith.  The rule of love and compassion.  The rule that invites us to put others first.  The rule that leads us to treat any person we meet the way we would want to be treated… whether they deserve it or not.

The Sermon on the Mount: Lord’s Prayer Lessons

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This morning in worship, we built our entire service around the Lord’s Prayer, using songs and brief meditations to help us focus on the various parts of the prayer itself.  Below are the three meditations:

 

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…

 That little tiny phrase is one of the most subversive and radical things that we can say as Christian people. And we say it every week. Too often, we rush over the words, practically tripping over them to get to the end, because we know the Lord’s Prayer so well.

For the last two thousand years, Christians have tried to let God use them to bring about glimpses of the Kingdom on this earth.  If we are going to be daring enough to pray for the kingdom to come on earth – then let us also be daring enough to participate when we see it!

In, “Listening to your Life,” (page 304), Fred Beuchner writes:

“…the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born within ourselves and within the world; …[it] is what all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know… The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”

We are homesick for it and yet it is as close as our next breath. Thy Kingdom come on earth.

Thy Kingdom, Oh Holy Lord, come on this earth and pull us beyond the borders we have artificially made.

Thy Kingdom, Oh Lord and King, come on this earth and root all of our actions in the care of your creation.

Thy Kingdom, Blessed Ruler, come on earth and let us find the boldness to feed and clothe and heal our brothers and sisters without waiting for the government to help.

Thy Kingdom, Glorious King, come on earth and make us uncomfortable. Don’t let us be content with peace in our hearts until your peace truly reigns over the nations.

Thy Kingdom, Ancient of Days, come on earth and turn our allegiance from brand names and politicians and flags and nations … but help us imagine and embody life on earth, here and now, as though you were truly the king of it all and the rulers of this world were not.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I want to tell you a story about a church here in Iowa that took seriously Jesus’ prayer and the command to forgive. (from Becoming Jesus’ Prayer)  

Farmers Chapel UMC, “was burned to the ground by an arsonist. In the weeks and months that followed, the congregation had to wrestle with how to forgive the person who destroyed their 107-year-old church…. [so, their pastor] wrote an open letter to the unknown arsonist and had it printed in the local newspaper…” (
page 37-38)

He wrote:  “Our worship time is 9:00AM every Sunday. I tell you this because I want you to know that you are invited. In fact, we even plan to reserve a seat just for you. Our faith has a lot to say about forgiveness. Every Sunday we ask God to forgive our sins but only as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. That would be you. So if you would join us for worship, we could practice this kind of forgiveness face to face. I say “practice” for a reason. I don’t expect us to get it right the first or even the second time. Of course we’ll continue to work to forgive you even if you decline our invitation to worship. Forgiveness is the cornerstone of the faith we have inherited. Some people think it is impossible. They may be right. I only know that we have to try. Our forgiveness of you is tied to God’s forgiveness of us. We can’t receive something we are not willing to give others. So you see, if we harbor hatred for you in our hearts, we harbor the smoldering ashes of your arson. If we cling to bitterness, we fan the embers of your violent act. If we fantasize about revenge, we rekindle a destructive flame that will consume us. Forgiveness may indeed be impossible, but for us it is not optional.” (as printed in Becoming Jesus’ Prayer)

That church has been rebuilt and at the focal point of their worship space is a cross that has been built out of the charred timbers of their old building. Every single time that Body of Christ comes together, they are a living witness to the power of forgiveness. And when we pray Jesus’ prayer – when we truly pray it – we are asking… no we are begging for our lives to be changed. We are asking for this church to be transformed and for it to be a place of transformation.

 

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

All throughout the gospels, Jesus shows us what it means to be delivered from evil. 

He teaches about the ways that we should follow and does so with authority and power.

And when the demons show up, questioning his wisdom, he casts them out.

Ofelia Ortega writes that “the forces of evil know of the healing power of Jesus’ word; they are not submissive or indifferent. Jesus’ powerful teaching not only is fresh to the ears of the faithful, but it also disrupts the undisturbed presence of evil. Evil discovers that it is running its course.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, page 312)

All Jesus had to do was speak, and the evil powers of the world started shaking in their boots.

“Be silent.” Jesus commanded. “Come out.” He said firmly. And the spirit obeyed.

I don’t know what to tell all of you about evil, demons and spirits. I have never personally experienced them, although I know people who have. What I can tell you is that I firmly believe that God has power over the evil in this world.

The reign of God… the Kingdom of God is at hand. And when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, it is a personal prayer and we are talking about God’s authority and power within us. We are praying for God to help us tap into that amazing power that the people witnessed within the synagogue. We are praying not only to be cleansed of our own internal demons – but we are also praying for the power to love others who have their own internal demons.

A Cherokee elder was teaching his children about life.

A fight is going on inside me,” he said to them. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandchildren thought about it and after a minute one of them asked, “Which wolf will win?” The elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Every time we pray this prayer, we are feeding the wolf of love in our lives.  We are asking God to help us to be imitators of Christ, to be ones who can truly praise God as our King.

Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ Version of the Law

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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. 

Hell.

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.

Turning the Other Cheek and the American Justice System

Yesterday, the Tuesday morning small group at my church had an interesting conversation. Is it possible or practical to follow the commands of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in this world?  Can we do it?  And what barriers do we face if we try?

We were focusing on the verses about turning the other cheek, giving someone the coat off our back, and going the extra mile.  All of which are non-violent means of resistance.  All of which take incredible strength to practice.  All of which encourage you to treat an enemy, an oppressor, a perpetrator with kindness, gentleness, grace and love.

We all extolled these virtues and talked about how we try to practice them in our daily lives… until one gentleman raised a serious question he was currently grappling with.  My friend was hit by a truck while riding his motorcycle and he lost the lower half of his right leg.  And between doctors and family and lawyers, everyone is trying to figure out how to get him what he deserves in the process.  His question to us:  If we truly want to live like Jesus calls us to, then shouldn’t we drop all charges and refuse to sue and not focus on what we “deserve?”

How do you even begin to answer that question?  Jesus didn’t live in a time of health insurance companies.  There are real financial burdens involved with the medical care that he has and will continue to need.  My first inclination was to respond that within the system we live in, we need to ask how can I act in the most Christ-like and compassionate manner… but I found myself hesitant to say that we should subvert the process entirely.  I realized that we tend to ask fairness and justice questions rather than thinking about mercy questions.

In fact, later in the conversation when asked what we would do if we were robbed, our first responses were to call the police.  We instinctively favor what is “right.”

Our society has built into it all sorts of structures that prevent us from living out the Jesus ethic.  Yes, they provide stability and a process to follow when we are wronged, but they also immediately seperate us from one another.  They incorporate a third party that will act and decide so that we don’t have to deal with the mess of real relationships.  That is not to say that life in our system is not messy… because it is.  And yet, by using the system, we take ourselves out of the equation.  By preventing abuses of revenge and retribution, we also have prevented forgiveness and mercy to have a say.

Perhaps one way to navigate the problem is to try to act as Christ-like as possible in the midst of the structure.  Let the insurance company/doctors get the money they need to cover your care, but don’t ask for damages above and beyond.  Act with compassion towards the perpetrator.  Reach out in love.  Overwhelm them with forgiveness.  Be a witness to everyone that you refuse to get anything out of it for yourself.

Another option is to simply forgo the system all together.  Don’t call the police when you are robbed.  Refuse to file the insurance claim when the guy rear-ends your car.  In doing so, we can extend grace and compassion… but this in itself can also be lazy discipleship.  By not doing anything, we may never get the opportunity to build a relationship with the person who has wronged you.  Simply looking the other way is not the same thing as facing someone and turning the other cheek.  The ethic Jesus prescribes is active and personal and engaging.

And his ethic is transformative.  In each of those verses about how we should respond to oppression, we actually taunt the person who has harmed us to go farther. We don’t just give our coats, but take off our shirts.  We don’t simply accept a slap in the face, we force them to hit us with the back of their hand.  We don’t simply walk one mile, we continue walking and put their own abuse into a category that becomes problematic for them. We force them to see us not as a faceless victim who can be used, but as a person.

There is something about that response that is not very kind at all.  We hold them accountable for their actions by forcing them to take their current line of abuse to an extreme.  We make them realize that we are human beings, and in turn, they see themselves in a different light

Perhaps this is where restorative justice can actually play a role if we work within our current systems.  Through the building of relationships, through mandating that someone do community service in response to a crime of theft, or work to nurture life in the wake of a murder, we give them the opportunity to be transformed… to become more fully human themselves, while also helping them to see the humanity in other people.  And, it gives us an opportunity to be transformed and healed as we navigate our way through anger and frustration to a place of forgiveness and hope.

How Should We Love?

Last week, we talked about a little place on the southwest side of Jerusalem… does anyone remember what that ugly and awful place was called?

Ghenna!

Ghenna is 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…

And this smelly, disgusting, ugly, awful place is translated in our modern bibles as “hell.”

We spent all of last Sunday talking about ghenna so that we could prepare ourselves for a conversation today. Because that word – ghenna – shows up three times in our passage this morning. One third of all the times Jesus uses the world we now think of as “hell” show up right here.

So let’s dive in, shall we?

And let’s start by getting out the trusty whiteboard and doing some brainstorming…

We are going to assume… although that might be a dangerous thing… let’s assume that none of us wants to live in ghenna – in the garbage dump – in hellish conditions… is it alright if I start with that assumption?

That leads to a question… What kind of a community do you want to live in?

(whiteboard)

Photo by: Jon Wisbey

What makes this community liveable… what makes it desireable… is that love is the center of each of these relationships.

I believe that this ideal is based on what we find right here in our scriptures for this week… it’s based in the summary of the law we find in Deuteronomy and in Matthew… love God with everything that you are and love your neighbor as yourself.

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. No more tears, no more pain.

But the question is… how do we get there?

As Jesus walked and talked and lived among us, everything that he did pointed to this reality. As he spoke with people he told them that the Kingdom of heaven was already here… that we have glimpses of this reality… but it is not yet fully here.

And we look around us and know that to be true.

There is death and murder. There is violence and anger. There is lust and revenge and envy everywhere.

It isn’t fully here yet.

I know that.

You know that.

Jesus knew that.

But right here, in this sermon to the people, he refused to let the people off the hook. In this section, Jesus tackles some of the toughest situations we face in our relationships and in the scriptures: murder, adultery, divorce, oaths and promises, revenge…

All of those things that turn this reality into a garbage dump.

In each and every single one of these verses, Jesus challenges us.

Not once does he give us an easy out.

Not once does he 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. To be Christian, you just have to follow all of these new laws, along with the old ones. There certainly are brothers and sisters out there who do just this… who make perfection and holiness and morality the substance of their very being and heap law upon law upon law.

The second main way of understanding these passages is that Jesus makes the law so hard that we can’t live up to it. We can’t do it. All of us have anger in our heart. All of us think our brothers and sisters and idiots sometimes, all of us break promises. This second perspective teaches us that we are utterly helpless when it comes to the law and therefore, we need Jesus to save us from our own downfall. And we all know folks out there, brothers and sisters in Christ who help us to hold our lives up against the law, see our failings, and our guilt and our shame. In this perspective, the law convicts us… but in many ways, the law ceases to matter. As long as we have Jesus to save us, it doesn’t matter if we make mistakes.

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.

And so what I see happening here in the sermon on the mount is that Jesus is challenging us to be perfect.

He’s telling us we can’t do it, and telling us we need to do it all at the same time.

He’s 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, but he wants us to try.

Jackie has been working with addicts as a part of his new ministry with the CMA. As we talked about these passages in Sunday School last week, he reminded us 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 unimagineable. 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.

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 this whiteboard reality.

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 wrong. Love that seeks peace. Love that refuses to fight back with violence and hatred. Love that is strong enough to overcome.

How do we do that? How is it possible?

Last year, a friend gave me this album and in particular this song – Forgiveness – spoke to me.

I want to share it with you today, because it speaks to the heart of what Jesus asks us to do….

(show video)

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.

Where forgiveness is our first and not our second impulse.

Where relationships and not rules determine our actions.

You can go ahead and throw your past and your mistakes and the failings of yesterday on the trash heap. The question is… how do you want to live today? And are you going to let Jesus Christ help you to do it?

Ghenna

One of my favorite things to do as the weather warms up is to get outside and play some disc golf.

A week and a half ago – before winter decided to come back and pay us another visit – I was able to play my first round of the year at Jones Park in Cedar Rapids.
We always begin our rounds at Jones on tee 15. The parking is better by the hill top pavilion, and there are convenient bathrooms there for when you are waiting for other friends to arrive.
That’s where I found myself on that Wednesday afternoon. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and as I waited for a friend to join me, I sat on the grass and soaked in the warmth for the first time of 2011.
Looking out from that hill, you can pretty much see the whole park. The pond, the golf course, the playground and the pool, and oh yeah, just over the tree tops, Mount Trashmore.
For a while, I thought Mount Trashmore was simply the name my friends and I affectionately called this heap of trash. But apparently, the city’s former mayor coined the term decades ago and “Mount Trashmore” has remained as this landfill’s unofficial name.
It is located on the southwest side of town, and was officially closed in 2006 as work was being done to cap off the heap of waste… allowing green grass and vegetation to grow over it. But all of that changed in 2008 when flooding necessitated the use of the landfill for all of that flood debris.
Three years later, dump trucks are still making their way around the landfill and it keeps growing and growing and growing, high above the city’s treeline.
That heap of garbage reminds me of another dump – one mentioned in our scriptures for today.
Unfortunately, due to some poor translating, most of us don’t know about this lovely little waste pile that was once located on the southwest side of Jerusalem….
Will you pray with me?

Today, we begin to look at the third section of the sermon on the mount contained in Matthew. Here, Jesus moves from our attitudes and our witness to the world, and he dives into some teaching about how we behave – how we act – and in particular, how we treat one another.

This whole section actually contains Matthew 5:17-48. Jesus talks about what we should teach one another, talks about anger, and adultery, divorce, promises, revenge, and how we should treat enemies. And we are going to get to the meat of that text – the relationships – next week.
Before we get there, however, I think we need to spend some time with a certain four letter word.
In most of our English translations of the New Testament three greek words are translated into one English word – Hell. These three are hades, which refers to the greek place of the dead, tartaroo – which shows up only once in 2 Peter 2:4 and refers to a dark abyss within Hades where the supremely wicked are punished (again from Greek thought), and gehenna – a word used 11 times by Jesus throughout three of the gospels and once in the book of James.
That word, gehenna, shows up three times in Matthew chapter 5 alone.
Each and every single time it shows up, Jesus warns us that unless we change our ways, unless we do something, we are going to end up there.
So – before we look at those relationships in our lives, I want us to think about what “there” is…
The greek word gehenna is actually made up of two Hebrew words… one meaning valley or son (as in child) and the other is a proper name. So this word gehenna means either the son of Hinnom, or the valley of Hinnom.
The Valley of Hinnom is a real place just on the southwest side of Jerusalem. It is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament – both in the setting of borders for the tribes of Israel and also in describing the religious practices that took place there. The Valley of Hinnom was in most cases the site of despicable actions. Pagans and even some of Israel’s kings had made child sacrifices there in the valley by offering them up in fire. As time went on, the Valley of Hinnom became not much more than a garbage dump on the edge of town.
That is presumably what it was at the time of Jesus. A place of trash and waste. A place to throw unwanted things. Continual fires burned there in the dump to consume the garbage and to prevent pestilence. In John Wesley’s notes on the Matthew 5, he reminds us that if any criminals were burnt alive as punishment, it was there, in that horrible place.
As I researched this valley, this place called Gehenna, I read that some think the poor, the unwanted and criminals were actually buried here, rather than in nice and expensive tombs that a good burial would have entailed.

Gehenna is a place for garbage. It is a place for that which is unwanted. It is a place to destroy waste and filth.

Let’s forget, for just a moment, that for two thousand years we have translated this greek word Gehenna into little tiny four letter word like hell. Let’s instead put ourselves in the shoes of the first century Jews who might have been sitting on the hillside listening to Jesus teach – as he does here in Matthew.

Let’s, for the sake of argument, pretend that they 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 rising smoke from the smouldering fires. Maybe it is just the faint smell of burning garbage that lingers on the air. Maybe you can actually see the heaps of trash, even from far off, just outside the gate of Jerusalem.
Imagine you are there… and then hear again these words from Jesus.

21“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, You shouldn’t commit murder, k and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of gehenna (fiery hell). 23

…And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into [gehenna]. 30 And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into [gehenna].

Do you hear those passages differently, knowing about this burning garbage heap just outside of Jerusalem?

As Jesus used this word, gehenna, with his followers, their minds immediately drifted to this valley where the waste of their world was destroyed.

Time and time again, Jesus uses everyday and common things to help the people understand some ultimate truth about God. He talks about flowers and yeast, seeds and vineyards, buildings and rocks and even garbage.

Each of those common, everyday things used in his parables are more than what they seem.

And so when we hear about this continually burning garbage dump… we put a word to it – hell.

But before we add layer upon layer of meaning – before we take two thousand years of church tradition and meaning and pile it all up on that little four letter word, let’s look at what Jesus is using it for right here.

First, Jesus never says that those who break the commandments go to hell. He doesn’t even refer to it anywhere in Matthew 5 as a place of punishment.

No, Jesus is talking about garbage, waste, unwanted things. Useless things.

Jesus starts by talking about our attitudes and continues on with the witness we bear forth in the world and then Jesus starts talking about the law and the kingdom of God.

As he speaks, he tells us: As long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality… unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

All of it is about the kingdom. Kingdom attitudes, Kingdom witness, Kingdom behavior.

In this whole next section, Jesus is talking about what is useless, unwanted, cast out of the Kingdom of heaven…

Not about eternal punishment in some fiery place… but about what cannot, will not, be a part of the kingdom.

He’s talking about the garbage that has to be cleared out of our lives in order for us to be a part of the kingdom.

He’s talking about the trash that gets in the way of us truly living like Kingdom people.

He’s telling us that unless we are willing to throw those behaviors and attitudes and feelings away, unless we are willing to clean house and transform our lives… we might as well just throw our whole selves out there on the garbage dump – because we are useless to him. We are useless to God. We are useless to the kingdom of heaven.

If we are not honest about our failings and our missteps 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.

What does it take to live differently?  What does it take to be a part of the Kingdom of God?

You have to be willing to let go of that thing which is holding you 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.

God wants you to be a part of the Kingdom.

You.

Not the garbage of your past that you cling to.

You.

Fully redeemed, made clean and whole by his love and grace.

Are you going to hold on so fast to the sin of your life so that you can’t enter?

Will you let it hinder you?

Or will you throw it out where it belongs?

On the southwest side of town there is a garbage heap… take out your sin and leave it there… and come join us in the Kingdom of God.

Salt and Light

This morning, we seem an awfully long ways from the Kingdom of God.

Yesterday – eight years to the day since we sent forces to Iraq, we began bombing in Libya.

Unrest in Bahrain, Yemen, and other countries in the middle east is being showed on our airwaves.

Earthquakes.

Tsunamis

Nuclear reactors having problems.

Where is the Kingdom of God?!

It doesn’t matter if they are man-made problems, or natural disasters… it is hard to look outside and not tremble a little.

So, what do we do on a morning like this?

What is the church’s role?

This morning we look at the second section of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.

In “The Message” translation, Eugene Peterson, starts off these verses with these words:

Let me tell you why you are here…

You see, this whole sermon is full of instructions for the people of God. It reminds us of the attitudes we are supposed to carry with us into the world, like Charlotte shared with us last week. And it tells us what we are supposed to do – how we are supposed to live.

Today’s passage is all about our witness in the world.

We are here – the church is here – to season this world… to be salt.

I know that some of us here can’t always have salt, because of dietary restrictions, and perhaps you know better than all the rest of us about how useful salt is!

When you sprinkle salt on watermelon or on tomatoes – the flavor of those fruits become brighter and more crisp! When salt is added to soup, it becomes rich and deep. When we sprinkle salt onto roasted vegetables, or French fries…. Mmmm…

Salt takes what is already there and it brings out the flavors. It helps us to taste what was hidden.

That is our job as the church. We are supposed to point to the hidden work of God in this world and bring it out. We are supposed to help the world see and taste and experience God – even though they can’t always see him.

So, with all of the difficult and troubling things happening in our world today – how can we, as the church, help people to experience God?

First, we can point to the good news in each of these situations. We can lift up the stories of hope and life.

This morning, for example, two people were pulled out of the rubble in Japan. An 80 year old woman and her 16 year old grandson had been trapped under her house for nine days following the earthquake and tsunami. According to CNN, the boy had crawled through portions of the rubble and made it on to the roof where rescuers finally saw him.

Nine days they had been trapped… but they survived. That is a story of life in the midst of destruction. And remembering those stories, pointing to those stories, telling those stories to our friends and our neighbors help us to remember that there is hope even in desperate situations. And as we tell that story, we can share the source of our hope – Jesus Christ.

Second, salt only works if it is actually being used… if it makes contact with its food… and so as people of faith, we need to be out in the world, helping folks, praying with them, listening to their stories.
In Japan, United Methodists had eight missionaries, six full-time mission volunteers and several retired missionaries on the ground when the earthquake first struck. But our United Methodist Committee on Relief also was quick to the scene to provide health kits, food, shelter and other necessities. The Wesley Center, affiliated with the United Methodist Women, is housing fifty displaced people in its guest rooms and meeting rooms.

All of that on the ground work there is possible only because we take seriously our call to be out in the world.

But it doesn’t just happen half way across the world through the work of missionaries. It also happens in our backyard. Every time you attend a youth sporting event or concert… Every time you mow your neighbors lawn, every time you sit down and have coffee with someone in town, you are like salt, bringing out the God flavor in this community. You are letting people know they are important, that they matter, and that you – and God – are there.

Jesus continues on in his sermon by putting this message another way – you are here in this world to be light – to help the world see God. This faith of ours is not a secret to be kept locked up – its meant to be made public – its meant to shine out wide and far.

So the third thing we need to do is to point to God not just in our personal and private relationships, but in public as well.

We can’t keep the good news hidden away. We can’t keep the power of God’s transformative love under a basket. We have to let it shine.

Sometimes, that light shines in the darkness and we help the world to see where people are broken and hurting. When we do this, we are public prophets, reminding people of God’s intention for our lives together.

A deacon in our United Methodist Church has heard this calling and uses music to raise awareness about the realities of human trafficking and slavery in our modern times.  Carl Thomas Gladstone’s Abolitionist Hymnal helps to shed light on some very dark realities in our world.  Through music, the light of Christ is shining so that others might be moved to action.

Sometimes, we are bring words of hope and comfort on a much larger scale, like when people gather together in a prayer vigil – their candles lighting up the darkness.

And sometimes that happens in political advocacy as well. This week, Utah passed some rather startling immigration reform. Although Utah is a conservative state, they have passed a law that creates a new guest-worker program. Anyone who has worked in Utah and their immediate family can receive documents if they pass a background check and pay a fine for entering the country illegally. But this law would never have passed if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not speak up. There are a large number of mormons in Utah, and as they have done missions work, they believed there was another way to respond to strangers and foreigners in our midst. Another way that was biblical and based in love. As one state senator said – “If the church had been silent, the bill wouldn’t have passed.”

Protesting, bumper stickers, the clothes you wear, the places you visit, the types of people you eat with in public… all of these things tell the world something about you… AND the God who you claim to follow.

Lastly, this whole message about salt and light is a reminder that we need to stand together as people of faith and be a witness in this world.

A few Sundays ago, we had a translation lesson. I reminded all of you about how poorly the English language handles second person plural words.

Well, that same problem comes up again today in the sermon on the mount.

Jesus isn’t just talking to you… or you… or you. Jesus is talking to all of us together.

Ya’ll are the salt of the earth. Ya’ll are the light of the world.

You together, all of you, working with one another, standing with one another, Ya’ll are my witness.

Whether it is on the streets of Libya or the countrysides in Japan, the alleys in Marengo or the farmland by Kostza… we are called to be salt and light. We are called to point to God.

It doesn’t matter if everything in the world is alright or everything is falling to pieces… that is our calling.

To pray, to work, to serve, to love, to listen, to speak… out there… in the world… on behalf of God.

May we be salt. May we be light.

Amen.