This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on February 12, 2017. The original title was “The Fine Print,” but “That Muttering Man in a Bathrobe,” if not more appropriate, is certainly more fun!
It is three in the morning. In a room lit only by the glow of a television a solitary figure shuffles back and forth in his bathrobe, brooding, seething. Absolutely convinced that he is right, the arguments against his opponents ricocheting through his mind, he mutters under his breath and gestures forcefully. He is in a position of power; how dare anyone question him. How could they not see how wonderful he is?
We know this shadowy figure, susceptible to fits of anger and lustful passions, all too well, and we will return to this scene in a moment. But first let’s turn back to the text from Matthew in which Jesus interprets and expands upon the Ten Commandments.
Here, in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus continues teaching his disciples.
Responding to those who believed that Jesus represented a break from Judaism, Jesus makes it clear that he has not come to abolish Jewish law but to fulfill it. He then forcefully emphasizes the importance of following and teaching the law. Those who break even one little commandment will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
As if this isn’t scary enough, Jesus then explains the “fine print” of this contract with God.
Beginning with the commandment, “You shall not murder,” Jesus then lowers the bar saying, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment,” even going so far as to say that anyone who says, “’you fool,’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
So, in case that’s not clear, Jesus is saying that we don’t have to literally murder someone to break God’s commandment not to kill. Simply being angry at or insulting someone is enough to break the covenant with God and experience harsh and eternal consequences.
And in case you’re not already freaking out, I’ll share just one more example of this “fine print” from our contract with God. Jesus next interprets and expands upon the commandment against adultery, saying that anyone who has looked at another with lust has already committed adultery in their heart. Some will remember that 40 years ago, President Jimmy Carter, in an interview with Playboy magazine, famously admitted, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Carter, then and still a Sunday school teacher in his church in Plains, Georgia, knew his Bible and was referencing this passage from Matthew.
And, lest any of you still not find yourselves convicted by Jesus’ apparent condemnation of anger and lust, he concludes this teaching with these words:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away, it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”
I’ve always wanted to end a sermon right there. Just drop the mic and walk out of the pulpit.
But, the story of Jesus’ life doesn’t end there nor should any sermon we preach or lesson we teach about Jesus.
One of the phrases that was coined during this past election season was “some things are meant to be taken seriously but not literally.” I don’t care to revisit that phrase in its political context, but it seems relevant here. Jesus admonishment to pluck out our eye and cut off our hand when they cause us to sin are hyperbole, a literary device that uses obvious exaggeration to make a point, to grab our attention and say, “take this seriously, not literally but take it seriously.”
And what is the serious point that Jesus is making? The commandments matter. Morality matters. Accountability to our relationships matters.
This may sound obvious, but I sometimes wonder if mainline, progressive Christians can emphasize God’s grace, forgiveness and love so much that we can overlook and excuse bad and hurtful behavior, our own or other’s. We can justify our anger because of our belief that we are right. And we can shrug off lust and even excuse adultery with an appeal to love. After all, in a pinch we can always fall back upon God’s love and forgiveness.
So here, using the strongest possible language, Jesus is emphasizing for his disciples and for us that morality matters. Though he embodies God’s grace, forgiveness and love, this grace, forgiveness and love is meant to be lived out by us in our relationships with one another by following God’s laws and then some.
Which brings us back to that agitated, shadowy figure pacing up and down in his bathrobe at 3 in the morning. Some of you who have been paying attention to the news this week may think you recognize this scene and have an idea where this is going. There was an article in the New York Times. Well, you would be wrong.
That muttering maniac was me, at 3 o’clock Saturday morning. I woke up with my mind churning away on conversations I had had on Friday afternoon. On the surface it was nothing, not a matter of national security or human rights. The conversations had been about how to organize this service, in particular how to fit in both the blessing of our service members and the baptism of Thomas Smith in a way that was meaningful, accommodated other commitments, and didn’t disrupt the flow of worship. I realize that to almost all of you this sounds ridiculous. But I can tell you that people shared a number of different perspectives on this topic in these Friday conversations. So, I made a decision. As Senior Minister, I certainly have the power to make such decisions, and I thought I was making a decision that was good and right. I was convinced of it. That decision is reflected in your bulletins.
But not everyone agreed with me. I won’t name any names (Rev. Kev), because the who and what and why are not important. Everyone had perfectly understandable reasons for their opinions, all had good intentions. But what is important is that I got pretty knotted up about it. Knotted up enough to be up at 3 in the morning pacing, arguing my case to no one.
And that’s when Jesus spoke to me, “So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with them.”
Darn you Jesus!
In an instant, I realized that the issue wasn’t other peoples’ problems, it was my own righteous indignation. And that certainty that I was right caused me to judge other perspectives and closed me off to other options. It wasn’t “them” it was me!
And as soon as I realized that and let go of my own way, I recognized that there were indeed other options, options that hadn’t even been considered. And will you look at that, we blessed service members and baptized a baby and are worshipping God with gladness. God is good.
I share confessionally, what, in the greater scheme of things, is pretty insignificant, because this example demonstrates some things that are likely true for many of us.
First, we are all convinced that we are in the right from time to time. We all get self-righteous, indignant and even angry, even pastors. Thankfully, there isn’t time to make a confession about lustfulness, but as Jimmy Carter showed, many of us experience that too, pastors included.
Jesus is telling us to take these things seriously. Morality matters, not to please God, but that we might live together in loving communion with each other.
So that is one important message in this morning’s lesson. And the other is this. We are all implicated, right? Who among us has not been angry at someone or felt lust toward another? I won’t ask for a show of hands. These feelings are part of being human. Try as we might, despite our commitment to live moral lives, we will come up short, just as I did.
And when we do, Jesus will fulfill the law in our stead. When we come humbly before God acknowledging our failings and limitations, we will be met by God’s grace, forgiveness and love in the person of Jesus Christ.