Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
The people of Egypt are making history before our very eyes! The resignation Friday of 30-year military dictator Hosni Mubarak now opens the way for a new future for the third most populous nation on the continent of Africa. The million Egyptian-pound question is what type of rule will the people of Egypt choose for themselves? Who will decide and what real differences will it make for them and for their neighbors in this strategic region of the world?
On a weekend when yesterday Americans honored the birthday of President Lincoln, a man who embodied the difficult choice for a new and more just future for all Americans, and tomorrow when millions of us will yield to the temptation to reduce love to an orgy of flowers and chocolates (heads up, guys, it’s Valentine’s Day!), I think it is good to reflect on the fact that the choices we make in life are either leading us toward life or death, good or evil, toward what is just or unjust, true or false, toward what is loving or hateful. The question is what is our frame of reference? What is the larger paradigm in which we understand our choices, and where our choices are leading us?
In fact, God has given a framework in which to understand, and guidance about how to pursue the way to life and the way to death. In Jesus' rather blunt words, there is the “way” to the kingdom of heaven and the way to hell. And we can choose to receive God's guidance, or ignore it. Moses said just before the people of Israel were about to enter the promised land, "...If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God... then you shall live... But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray, I declare to you today that you shall perish... I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life..."
C. S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, comments, "[E]very time you make a choice you are turning into the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other."
We are here today, I hope, because we seek to choose life, at least a better life. We are all here with some notion that without God, and without the guidance and affirmation of God, life very quickly becomes empty and shallow at best, and a miserable death, at worst. Surely, one of the main functions of any religion, the Christian religion as well as others, is to help us to choose to live a better life than we would had we not gotten up on a cold February day and gone to church. Surely God's ways will have a positive impact on our lives, as well as our community?
Yet, the trouble with choosing to be obedient and righteous people is that such were the very people who often caused Jesus so much trouble! A lot of good people, "scribes and Pharisees," people who had never cheated on their taxes or their spouses, people who knew Scripture backward and forward, people who lived by the book and kept themselves clean were the very ones who eventually joined in the screaming chorus, "Crucify him, crucify him!"
Jesus himself complicates the whole issue of choosing life by obedience to the law. Shortly after saying in his Sermon on the Mount that he did not want to "abolish the law," he seems to do just that! "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus' disciples (9:9-13). "I haven't come for you good people, " replied Jesus, "I've come to seek and to save the bad." "The Pharisees fast, why don't your people?" they asked Jesus. "Doesn't the wedding party begin when the bridegroom arrives?" asked Jesus (9:15-17). Forget your rules about fasting, let's party!" "Look!" they said. "Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!" (12:1-14). "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath," Jesus said. "Master, heal my daughter," pleaded the Canaanite woman. "Well, I'm really supposed to only go to the House of Israel," said Jesus, "but what the heck?" (15:21ff) He heals her. "Rabbi, Moses said a man could get out of marriage by giving his wife a certificate of divorce." "It was a stupid law made for stubborn people like you," said Jesus (19:3-9). Stay married. "You have heard it said of old... but I say to you..." (5:21-48). . . . That's our Jesus.
Is it possible to choose so much of life the way you think God wants it that you are so good, so right, you are wrong?? You can be so religious, as one of my friends said, that you miss the point of religion. As Paul said, "the Law kills!" Dry, dead, jot and tittle legalism can just suck the life out of religion until it is cold, calculating, posturing, and ugly. Mark Twain once described someone as "a good man in the very worst sense of the word."
But, you know, I don't think any of this is really our problem with today's gospel. The message that rules and regulations can't save, can't lead to new life, if once interesting material for a sermon, has become conventional wisdom. Most of us are in greater danger of antinomianism (no rules, no laws) than legalism. We have moved from the faulty conclusion that just obeying rules makes you right to the conviction that no rules are right. Learning that sometimes a rule must be broken, we now live as though anything goes. In a fight between legalistic scribes and Pharisees, on the one hand, and rule breaking harlots and tax collectors on the other, you know on whose side we are.
Big deal that Jesus abrogates religious laws about how we keep the Sabbath holy, how we prepare ourselves for worship, the sort of company we keep, the sanctity of the marriage bond -- we never kept any of those laws anyway...
But then he throws at us, "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets...till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so, shall be called least in the kingdom... unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven..."
Go through the rest of the sermon. Jesus takes an older command, difficult enough to keep even for a scribe or a Pharisee, and he intensifies the command. "You know you are forbidden to murder your brother. I forbid you even to be angry with your brother. Call him a fool, you'll go to hell" (5:21-22). "You know that adultery is a no-no. I say, look at another person lustfully, and you've committed adultery of the heart" (5:27-28). "If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off" (5:29-30). "Remarry after divorce, I don't care what the law calls it, I call it adultery" (5:31-32). "Somebody hits you on the right cheek; offer them your left as well" (5:38-42). Love your neighbor, invade your enemy? I say, love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you. Do not lay up treasure for yourself on earth. Judge not, lest you be judged. Enter by the narrow gate" (5:43-45). No wonder Matthew reports that, when Jesus got finished with this sermon, "the crowds were astonished at his teaching!" (7:28).
Choosing life for the people of faith for centuries meant choosing to play by God's rules, to take seriously the commands which God gave to his people, to be obedient to the Lord. This was the way of life. And for Jesus, when it came to really living into the fullness of the law, his advice was not just to keep the law like the Pharisees and scribes, but to go beyond the law, go deeper to the heart of the law!
This sermon on the Mount stands as a guardian against every immoral or antinomian misunderstanding of the gospel. And what a guardian it is. Here we encounter the bracing un-sentimentality of Matthew's moral gospel. Here he challenges us to be good, really good, if we would be God's people.
I think our problem is, however, and the trap that we can fall into, is to think that our choices are binary, merely this way or that way, law or licentiousness, religion or no religion. In fact, there is a third way, the tertium quid of the gospel…
May I suggest that it’s not as much about which rules we should follow. It’s about who rules in our heart. It’s about who we follow…. Mercifully, Jesus offers us himself as our way. He says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He invites us into a living relationship with him. He gives us his Spirit to lead us into a life that connects us to the great historical framework of biblical ethics and morality, but sets us free to live a life which is holy and pleasing because we are living by grace through faith in him. We live forward into life with the faith that his self-emptying love is more powerful than our self-absorbing individualism; that loving our neighbors – even our enemies - is more sustainable than might makes right; that compassion and mercy is more life-giving than judgmental moralism and condemnation… As followers not of a code but of Christ, our new rule (or measure) for righteousness is the law of love.
Fortunately, God demands excessive things of us, responding to our failures through excessive forgiveness and grace. Luther says that's why Jesus begins his Sermon with, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (5:3), because even if you felt rather rich in spirit when we began this sermon, by the time Jesus gets done with demonstrating your lust, violence, covetousness, and sin, everybody looks poor, thus rendering you into exactly the sort of person Jesus loves to love.
The foundation for goodness that would lead to life is this: Not the mere mastery of ritual obedience or skillful reinterpretation, but relationship with Jesus Christ, who both commands us to deepen our understanding of God's holy law, and gives us the resources to do so, namely his gracious presence among us.
At the end of Matthew's gospel, after the sermon has been preached to astonished disciples, Jesus tells us to baptize and teach the world "all that I have commanded you." All? Yes, all, even the bit about turning the other cheek, giving away all that you have, loving your enemy… all... Then comes the punch line that makes the fulfillment of the commands possible and the burden of the law bearable: "Lo, I am with your always - even to the end of the age..."
I don’t know where you are in your life journey, or what you’re facing in your personal life, your school or your work… But it’s true for us in this church. It’s true for families and lovers and friends. It’s true for the nation-makers of this world:
Our choices matter. As Moses said, "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you."
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.