2/12/17: Cruciform Love, Matthew 5:21-26
First Lesson: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Second Lesson: Matthew 5:21-26
Rev. Scott Dickison
Amy Butler is the pastor of the historical Riverside Church in the Upper Westside of Manhattan. And late on Saturday evening, two weeks ago, she decided to scrap the sermon she had prepared for the next morning which was to be on the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, should would simply preach the Sermon on the Mount. And so as the faithful in Christ assembled in that breathtaking gothic cathedral, Amy climbed into that historic pulpit and proceeded to read from the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5 through 7. And here I’ll confess to you that this option wasn’t looking so bad earlier this week when Audrey and I were up for Mac’s 3am feeding, which was just 3 hours after his midnight feeding and 3 hours before his 6am feeding.
But Amy did this and at the coffee hour following worship she was somewhat surprised at the number of folks who came up to her—a higher number than usual—to tell her that they really did not like or agree with certain parts of her sermon that morning. “That was a little harsh pastor.” “We don’t need that much politics from the pulpit." The words of Jesus. From the New Testament.(1)
The good news is seems, is that at least she knows they were listening!
This sermon of Jesus may have been given on the mount but’s it’s actually a great leveler: there’s something to offend everyone. Or if not offend then at least unsettle.
The vision that Jesus casts for the church, this new creation that is to anticipate the Kingdom of God, is hard for most anyone to hear but perhaps even harder to hear the more comfortable you are in the world as it is, because much of what Jesus intends to do in the sermon is flip this world on its head. Make the last first and the first last. Anoint the poor, the suffering, the grieving as blessed. Create a community that stands as a visible alternative to the practices of violence, power, greed, retribution and fear that we so often see in the world as it is. Committing to live together in peace, finding joy where we can, and treating all people—all people— with compassion. Some would even say these demands he lays out are impossible, to the point where for most of Christian history conversation about the Sermon on the Mount has centered on the question of whether or not Jesus really meant all that stuff! Was he serious about loving our enemies and praying for those who wish us harm? Are we really not to resist an evil doer and give to everyone who begs of us?
Fortunately for me at least, Julie is preaching next week and will have the task of opening up those very offensive suggestions of Jesus. Our task this morning should be much easier. No command to love our enemies today, just a command to not ever get angry with our friends and family and those closest to us—piece of cake!
You’ve heard it said, Jesus begins, in his typical way, You shall not murder, but I say to you—this is called “antithesis.” The thesis, what we know to be true, is spoken first, followed by the antithesis, which is the thesis after it’s been tumbling around in the dryer for a cycle or two.
But I say to you, 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.
One thing that the Sermon on the Mount does is correct in misconceptions we may have about Jesus’ command to love as being some kind of soft, gutless, cotton-candy eating, puppy-petting, lukewarm coffee drinking, anything goes kind of love. Love the way Jesus means it, love as a way of life, is demanding. It’s gritty and hard and and we’ll fall short of it more times than we care to admit, but that’s okay because it’s to be lived out over the long haul. Jesus is a hardliner when it comes to love. He’s a hardliner when it comes to how we’re to treat each other.
The old law condemned murder, and rightly so, but Jesus says this doesn’t go far enough. You see, if you go back behind the law of Moses, at the heart of it is a reverence for life—this is crucial. All life is sacred and holy because it was created by God, and human life is especially sacred and holy because it’s fashioned in the image of God. Murder rejects that. It defaces that which God has set apart as holy. But Jesus knows what you and I know, which is that there are other ways besides murder to do this, to reject the image of God in another.
To hold contempt in your heart for a brother or sister.
To curse or insult or demean a brother or sister does the same thing, if to a lesser degree.
Humans have an incredible imagination and have come up with all sorts of ways to devalue other people—all sorts of ways to internalize the differences among us. Jesus says, in this new creation called the church, there will be none of this. He takes a hard line here, about loving others, living in peace, living in right relationship with others—in fact, this line is so hard, that he even seems to put it just a half step before living in right-relationship with God.
If you’re coming to offer your gift at the altar, he says, referring to how Jews were expected to go to the temple and offer sacrifices to make amends with God—if you’re coming to offer these gifts and you remember that a brother or sister has something against you—leave your gift right there at the altar, and go find them. Be reconciled with them first, and then come and be reconciled with God.
Isn’t that something?
Yes, get right with the Lord, but before you do that—before you can do that, get right with each other. And it’s not just here, this seems to be the precondition all the way through the gospels: reconciliation with each other is a necessary condition for being reconciled with God. How can you love God and say that you hate a brother or sister, Scripture says elsewhere? To love God means to love what God loves—to love whom God loves.
Later on in the Sermon, when Jesus teaches us the prayer we say together every Sunday here in worship, he says, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, and then he follows with this clarifying line: For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but (and when ever there’s a “but” in Scripture we need to slow down and hear it) if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. I wonder what would change if we recited that line together each week?
I heard once of a tribe somewhere deep in the Amazon many years ago that went a step further.(2) Apparently in this tribe, if someone was known to have committed some moral indiscretion, that person was to sit in the middle of town for three days, right where everyone would walk by them throughout the day. And when everyone from the community would walk by this person, they were to tell them every good thing they could think of about them. To stop and recite to this person—who had ruptured, in some way, the social bonds that they lived by—all the things they loved about them; to remind this person—and themselves, perhaps—that they are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. And this would continue for three days, and after that, the matter was done.
The anthropologist who observed this practice wrote down in his journal, “I hope when the missionaries get there, they don’t mess that up.” I have my doubts.
For too long Christianity has perpetuated to an anemic understanding of the love Jesus commands. We’ve lifted a cross with just one piece of wood. We’ve been content with a kind of top-to-bottom, earth to heaven, God and us, vertical kind of love—important as it is—but this often comes at the expense of or even serves to distract us from that other love to which we are called, the love that Jesus seems to think is every bit as important, and should even be our first priority: the side to side, person to person, child of God to child of God, the black to white, the gay to straight, the male to female—how many more shall we name? Jesus calls us too to this horizontal love—the love that calls us to love our neighbor as our self even as we love God with our whole hearts, and tells us that there’s really not much difference between the two, at least in practice
To call it Christian love, you can’t have one without the other. To call it Christian love, Christ-like love, cross-like love, cruciform love, you must have both. Yes, be reconciled to God, but first be reconciled with each other—this must be the first step, and like so many first steps, its often the hardest.
I’ve shared this with you before, but one of my favorite sing-songwriters, David Wilcox, tells a story about two neighbors who somewhere along the way had a falling out—apparently there was a stray cat that they both were taking care of and after a while one of them took the cat into his house and the other thought that it was his cat, and so whenever they talked to each other they’d trade a few barbs, and wind up storming off until after a while they just stopped talking altogether.
One day a traveling carpenter came up to one of them out in the yard and asked if he had any work to do. And the man said, Yeah, I’ve got something for you to do. You see that house over there, that’s my neighbor; his property starts down there at that little ditch in the ground. He calls it the creek! He dug it with his plow! He went up on the hill and changed the way the spring comes down! The creek. It’s got a little trickle running through it. Well, if he’s gonna try and divide us with that thing, I’ll just finish the job.I want a fence—all the way across, so I don’t have to even look at him. Could you do that for me? The carpenter says, Yeah, I could do that but I’ll need some more wood. Why don’t you let me get started with what you have here and go into town to get some more wood so I can finish the job.
So the man goes off to buy more wood, and after a while he comes back, driving up that ole rutted road in his truck full of lumber, only when he looks out over his property line to see where that new fence ought to be, he sees that the carpenter has built not a fence a bridge. Out of his wood! Onto his land! And here comes his neighbor! Walking across that bridge, built with his wood, onto his land, and he walks up to him with his hand outstretched and a big ole’ stupid smile on his face, and he says, You’re a brave man. I thought you’d never want to hear the sound of my voice again. I feel like such a fool. Can you forgive me?
And then the man finds himself taking his outstretched hand and hears himself saying, Aww heck, I knew that was your cat. Then he sees the carpenter walking away and calls out, Hey, I’ve got some more work for you if you need it. But the carpenter turns and says, No, you’ll be fine, I’m needed elsewhere.(3)
Be reconciled to each other, Jesus says. If you find yourself coming to worship and bowing your head to pray, ready to ask God for forgiveness, don’t look up, don’t look down; look to one side and then the other. What must be made right here? Go and do that first.
And I wonder, what if we were to do this each week? What if during the prayer each week after I strung a few words together, and we all prayed the prayer our brother Jesus taught us to pray, and after we all said amen we opened our eyes to see half the room has left and go see how they’re needed elsewhere?
Would we be any less the church?
Would we be any more the church?
(1) Amy Butler, “The Sermon on the Mount is Counter-cultural. That’s the Point.” Baptist News Global, 2/7/17. https://baptistnews.com/article/the-sermon-on-the-mount-is-counter-cultural-thats-the-point/#.WJ3Yw7GZOV4
(2) This is my best rendering of a story Tom Long told during a workshop at the McAfee School of Theology Preaching Consultation in Chattanooga, TN, October 2015.
(3) David Wilcox, “Carpenter Story,” from his album, East Asheville Hardware.