(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on August 3, 2014)
I made this great pitch two weeks ago about how great it was going to be to study the teaching of Jesus in the sermon on the mount.
Then Elizabeth did a great job last week affirming how we are salt and light in the world. Now this week, things start getting challenging. Today is where the rubber meets the road a bit, and we’re faced with this tension, this difficulty when we look at this in community.
Some of us are still wrestling to accept that truth that God truly does love me, no matter what…no matter what I do or who I am. We grow up with these messages that we never really, truly measure up. So some of us need to hear, over and over and over again, the truth that God loves us, no matter what.
Then there’s another whole aspect of life with God. To use a word we don’t use all that often, but a word that is a biblical word, there are times when God brings conviction into our lives. The Holy Spirit looks at our lives and says there’s something in your life that needs to change. I want you to live better because of it.
What’s hard in a community is that I know on any given Sunday, we have people here who are across the spectrum. There are some who are still wrestling with that basic truth that God loves me for who I am; and there are some who are in sort of this blind spot of not being willing to see the things in us that need changing and correcting. People need different things emphasized at different times, and it’s almost impossible to have everyone in the same place at the same time.
I don’t know where you personally are today, so I want to take the time before we enter this section where Jesus is really challenging us with how we live, take the time first to remind us what we said a few weeks ago, so you can keep it in the back of your head. Like we said with the Beatitudes, this teaching all begins with the reminder that God’s love for you is not dependent upon you and me acting correctly. God loves us. And God’s love calls us as well, to live as we were made to live.
Jesus begins a pattern of teaching here that will continue through the sermon on the mount.
“You have heard that it was said…” Jesus will often begin with a teaching from the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. You know this, he says. You’ve heard this. This has been truth up to this point.
“But I tell you…” This is our cue that Jesus is taking what has always been known as truth, and now he is going to deepen it, expand it, make it include more. You’ve accepted this, but now I want to take you further, deeper.
I think it’s even more than that. I think the underlying tone of this pattern of teaching is something like, “You have heard that it was said…and you feel pretty confident you’re doing that, you’re on the good side. But I tell you…I want to challenge you with something that moves you away from justifying yourself, and moves you more toward being someone who truly loves God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…toward someone who loves others as you love yourself.”
This reminds me of one of the most challenging stories Jesus told, challenging at least for people like me who have ministry as our vocation. In Luke 18, Jesus tells about two people who show up at the temple. One is a Pharisee, someone who followed the letter of the law to a “t”. As the Pharisee prays, he gives a bullet point prayer showing all the things he can check off the list: “’God, I thank you that I am not like other people–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
If this were in the sermon on the mount, you could hear Jesus saying, “You have heard that it was said: don’t rob, don’t do evil, don’t commit adultery. Fast and tithe. You’ve heard that it was said, ‘Be like the Pharisee’. But I tell you…be like the tax collector.” Because in Luke 18, the hero isn’t the Pharisee, confident in what he does and doesn’t do. It’s the one who is challenged to face his own wrong doing, the tax collector: “’God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Rather than look at what is taught and feel good about who we are, Jesus pushes us to recognize the depth of his call on our lives. We will see over and over in the sermon on the mount that Jesus challenges us to examine our lives and see where we need to change course.
Look with me at Matthew 5, verses 21-22.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago,’ You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. ‘ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister,’ Raca, ‘ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says,’ You fool! ‘will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (TNIV)
I don’t think you need an excellent communicator in order to get the gist of this story. Life as Jesus intends us to live it is more than avoiding certain behaviors. Our attitudes and emotions count too. It’s not enough just to keep our actions pure-we’re also challenged to recognize our attitudes and emotions that discount or reject other people. We’re challenged to look at how deep the call to love truly is.
You can go deep on these verses if you want to study further, learning what the word “Raca” means and why it was so bad, trying to define exactly what kind of anger subjects us to judgment. It’s good work to do. But the main gist is pretty easy for us to grasp by reading a good english translation. I’m not allowed to exempt myself from doing wrong just because I haven’t killed someone. If I take Jesus’ teaching to heart, I have to carefully examine my attitudes and words towards others, and hold them against the gold standard of loving my neighbor as myself.
The next few verses are specific and practical, and they are where I want to spend more time today.
‘Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.’ (TNIV)
I’d like to unpack a principle first…because, you know, that’s what we pastors like to do, find principles and expound on them. But we don’t get off the hook. I am going to ask us to literally and actually use this verse to examine ourselves, and do something if necessary.
First the principle. “If you are offering your gift at the altar…” If you are in the very act of worship… If you are encountering God at that very essential, deep place of worship, the place where we recognize the wrong we have done to God and offer sacrifice and repentance in order to receive forgiveness… If you are at that very raw and personal and beautiful place of communion and healing with God… don’t think that this beautiful, vertical encounter with God can ever be separated from the anguish and beauty and grittiness of our horizontal relationships with other human beings.
The vertical connection with God is wrapped up with the horizontal connection with others.
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you…” This is fascinating. Notice the responsibility here is placed on the person who may have done the wrong. Many times we feel hurt and wounded and wronged and want to confront someone and have them realize how they’ve hurt us. Nothing Jesus says prohibits that. But instead Jesus chooses to focus our attention on ourselves, and the wounds we may have caused others, the ways others may have something against us.
The responsibility is placed on the one who has done the wrong to make it right.
If you’re encountering God in worship and you remember somebody has something against you… “leave your gift there in front of the altar.” STOP! If something isn’t right in your relationship with another person, stop worshipping! Whoa. Really? Isn’t God more important? Isn’t God first? Isn’t a life in God’s presence our first and foremost goal?
I think Jesus wants us to understand how often we make the mistake of letting our relationship with God somehow be thought of as something separate from how we relate to other people. And instead, he is teaching us how interconnected the horizontal and the vertical are. They are so interconnected that part of coming to God for worship and healing and forgiveness is examining our own lives for places where we have wronged others.
Stop. Go make it right.
“First, go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.”
You can guess what I am going to ask you to do. We today are going to directly and immediately apply this scripture to our lives. We’re here in worship. We no longer offer physical sacrifices, but the same idea is present. We come to worship God, knowing we have areas of brokenness and sin. We offer our lives to God, and offer our repentance, anticipating God’s forgiveness. This is one of the key aspects of our worship together!
As we do this, Jesus is teaching us to remember. Do we have someone in our lives who “has something against us”? Notice how broad that is. Someone could have something against me because I’ve truly done something wrong to them. Someone could have something against me because of a misunderstanding. Someone could have something against me that is not justified and not my fault at all.
But the responsibility rests on me. Do I have someone in my life who has something against me right now? If so…leave the act of worshipping God and make it right.
This might mean taking time right now to write a note to someone asking forgiveness or setting up a meeting to talk. This might mean going to someone in the room and asking forgiveness. This might even literally mean getting up and leaving this room and going to someone you need to make things right with.
God will always be here to worship. In fact, you can’t really “leave God” to go fix stuff first…God will go with you as you work to reconcile. But we are literally going to give time right now to examine our lives and see if we have wronged someone and need to take action to restore a relationship. [GIVE SPACE]
Let’s look at the next few verses as we finish today.
‘Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.’ (Matt. 5:25-26, TNIV)
Here again, I notice the burden of responsibility is on the person who may have done the wrong. Jesus addressed the person who has been accused-maybe of a crime, but probably more likely a civil suit where they are accusing you of wrong.
In this case, the burden is not on whether or not you should bring a suit against someone else. Paul addresses that issue in Corinthians. But here, Jesus says if anybody is suing you, I’m encouraging you to do all in your power to settle the matter, to make things right out of court.
With both of these teachings, Jesus pushes us to focus on how we have hurt others, not on how others have hurt us. Jesus pushes us to examine where we may have done wrong by someone else, and to immediately go and do whatever is in our power in order to make it right.
The world would be a better place if we all did that, don’t you think?