But I Say to You
Lectionary Texts: Matthew 5: 21-37
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, February 12, 2017
- So, The Bible is Not a Magic Mirror
So, why do you read the Bible? Is it to get answers to life’s deepest questions? Is it to find your way through this somewhat murky environment that we call our world? Or maybe it is just to make you feel better, maybe not so alone, maybe not so hopeless? For whatever reasons we read the Scriptures, we really would rather they be clear cut, maybe some simple if-then statements, like “if you obey God’s commandments, then you shall live.” That’s what we found in places in the Old Testament. It all seemed so clear. All you have to do is this…
Some of you have met Maynard, my dog. I don’t know much about the first year and a half of Maynard’s life. Somehow he ended up trying to find food on the streets in downtown Houston, then he ended up at B.A.R.C., the term that Houstonians call the huge dog pound in central Houston from which most dogs never emerge, then he spent several months in foster care, then I found him on the internet. So, when he came to live with me, it took us a while to work into a rhythm. Part of that work entailed Maynard eating three Bibles over the course of about a week and a half. Yes, three Bibles…A couple of people asked me if he ate the whole thing. No, I answered, he’s just like the rest of us. He just picked and chose what he wanted to digest. We’re like that. We pick and choose the passages that tell us what we want to hear—you know the ones that make us feel good or that validate and affirm the life that we’ve chosen with the hope that it is the life that God desires for us.
It’s like the mirror in the Snow White story. Remember the magic mirror? Every morning, the hopelessly vain evil queen rises, dresses, coifs her hair, applies her make-up, and then admires herself in the mirror. But as we know, it’s not an ordinary mirror. This mirror can carry on a conversation. Better than that, this mirror tells her exactly what she wants to hear. Every morning the evil queen looks into the mirror and says, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” And the dutiful mirror, perfectly rehearsed answers, “You, my queen, you are the fairest of them all.”
But even brainwashed mirrors can go rogue now and then and one morning when the queen looked into the mirror with the familiar question, “Mirror , mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”, the mirror replied, “Snow White, my queen, Snow White is the fairest of them all.” You know, the truth hurts, doesn’t it? Sometimes we would rather just live our lives with a magic mirror affirming that everything we do is the right thing, one that would somehow allow us to hide in a fairy tale. But life is not a fairy tale nor is the world that we find in the Bible.
- You Have Heard It Said…
So, for the third week in a row, we have more wisdom from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Truthfully, this passage is probably not something that I would have chosen to preach or one that you would have chosen to read, given the chance. This is no pretty little story—just straightforward teachings. You see, we really ARE supposed to do this. There are contrasts with those teachings that are “usual” all through it. (“You have heard…but I say to you.”) It’s a pretty radical way of looking at things. And here, it is not just behaviors; it also applies to attitudes and emotions. Indeed, it is about every aspect of our being.
Jesus acknowledges what the “usual” view of righteousness was (and perhaps is)—that a murderer will be judged, that those who leave offerings will be rewarded, that adulterers will be punished, etc. Sure, we know all that. Jesus is a good teacher. He starts with what his hearers know and to which they can relate. But Jesus’ whole point is that it’s not enough. Jesus doesn’t frame his words as prohibitions but rather expectations. It’s his way of not abolishing the law but fulfilling it. Following God is not about following rules; it’s about going beyond them. Following Jesus is not about following rules; it is about reordering the world itself.
See, God does not have a checklist of what is right or wrong. Rather, God became flesh, dwelt among us, and showed us what it meant to live with an ever-present God in our midst. Once again, the choice is life. But abundant life demands a lot. We are not called to be right or good; we are called to not only avoid sins, but to live as those whose God is in our midst.
Now, that said, we often get hung up on the specifics of this passage. Murder we get. But, then, anger is a little harder. I mean, anger is a valid human emotion. But when anger becomes destructive of the relationship, it needs to be stopped. Maybe it’s a call to learn to talk to each other. I don’t know. The one about divorce always hangs us up. So is that a call to stay in a marriage that is not good for those involved? Well, keep in mind that in the first century culture in which this was written, a man could just divorce his wife for no reason, shutting her out and leaving her penniless and alone. Women were not educated and generally did not work. In effect, it was what we would talk about as abandonment. So, Jesus is saying, “you owe her something. She is a valued person.” What it boils down to is that we need to learn to read these words of Jesus the way that Jesus meant them rather than the way our society looks at them and interprets them.
You know that saying that people like to spout that says “the Bible said it so it must be so.”? Well, the truth is, there is so much context wrapped up in the Bible that we sometimes don’t know everything about it. The important thing is that Jesus’ words were calling us to be something more, calling us to be different. Jesus wasn’t dismissing the words; he was reforming them. This Way of Christ is, in effect, a reordering of everything we know. It is the way to life abundant. But it demands more and it promises more. The laws are not about keeping us out of trouble or, for that matter, even statements on morality. They have to do with relationships, with that Body of Christ embodied in our midst. So how does our community and our culture treat everyone? Where are those places where we as a community fall short? Where have we forgotten that it is not about rules and laws; it is about relationship, about unity, about living the Way of Christ?
III. But I Say to You…
And in our own lives, in our own context, in our own sometimes mixed-up, confused, and even scary world, what is Jesus trying to say to us? What would it mean if we really listened to Jesus’ words? I mean, if Jesus had preached that to us with all these threats of judgment, we would have shut down a long time ago. After all, we don’t come to church to feel bad. We come to church to hear of God’s grace and God’s forgiveness and to feel better about our lives. Isn’t that right? We don’t want to hear about our sins. Do you have the sense that Jesus is trying to get our attention? But I say to you…
Yeah, sin is a hard thing to talk about. It’s a hard thing to look at, particularly, when that mirror is showing us someone that we don’t really want to be. Where did we go wrong? And what will everyone else think? And, after all, we’re good Methodists. We don’t need to talk about sin. We have grace. Really?
I think Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor has possibly written the most incredible book on sin that I have ever read. In her book entitled “Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation,” she depicts sin as our only hope. Well that’s a new spin on it! After all, aren’t we trying to avoid it? She says that “sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again.” In other words, no longer can we just sweep something under the rug hoping that it will go away, hoping that our good Methodist upbringing will shower us with grace and keep our sins closeted away where they need to be.
It’s a phenomenal way to think about it, to realize that in some way, holding the mirror up for ourselves or, if we can’t do that, hoping that someone in our life will be grace-filled enough to do it for us, can actually bring us closer to God, actually put us on the road to beginning again. God’s forgiveness is not just to tell us the past does not matter; the real and powerful purpose of God’s forgiveness is to say that we have such important work to do as God’s agents of redemption that we are given our future back to do that work. God DOES forgive us. But God always EXPECTS something from us.
The opposite of sin is not innocence. I don’t even think it’s righteousness. The opposite of sin is choosing God, choosing to look ourselves in the mirror—all of ourselves–and finally see that image of God in each of us, the very image that God has envisioned for us all along.
- A Tale of Two Sins
Thee is a story of two women that was told by Leo Tolstoy. In it, the two women approach a wise man to ask for instruction. One of them regarded herself a terrible sinner. She had deceived her husband and the memory of that infidelity tormented her. The second lived her entire life within the law and the rules. She wasn’t conscious of any serious sin that she had done. In fact, she was rather pleased with herself.
The wise man asked both women to describe her life. The first wept as she confessed her great sin. She felt that she had no right to ask or expect forgiveness. The second said that she had not committed any particular sin. So the wise man told the first woman to look for the heaviest boulder that she could find—one that she could barely manage to carry—and bring it to him. And to the second woman, he said, “go and bring me as many stones as you can carry, but they must all be small ones.”
So the first woman brought a huge boulder to the wise man and the second woman a small sack of pebbles that she had collected. The wise man examined the stones and said, “Now do as follows. Take the stones back and replace each one of them exactly where you picked it up, and when you have put them all back where you found them, come back to me.”
The woman left to carry out the wise man’s instructions. The first very easily found the place from where she had taken the huge boulder, and she replaced it where it had been. But the second had no idea where she had picked up her pebbles and had to return to the wise man without carrying out his instructions.
“You see,” said the wise man, “that’s how it is with our sins. It was easy to take the big, heavy boulder back to its place because you knew exactly where you found it. But it was impossible to remember where all those little pebbles came from.”
And to the first woman, he said, “You are very conscious of your sin. You carry in your heart the reproach of your husband and of your conscience; you have learned humility, and in this way you have been freed of the boulder of your wrongdoing.” “You, however,” he said to the second woman, who had come back still carrying her sack of little pebbles, “you, who have sinned in many small ways, do not know any more when and how you did wrong; you are not able to ask for forgiveness. You have grown accustomed to a life of little sins, to passing judgment on the sins of others while becoming more deeply entangled in your own. It has become impossible to free yourself of them.”
Perhaps Barbara Brown Taylor was right. Sin is our only hope.
- Better Than a Hallelujah
In one of his weekly email devotionals, Terry Hershey told the story of a Sunday School class full of children that were learning about forgiveness. “‘Tell me,’ asked the teacher, ‘what must we do before we can expect forgiveness for our sins?’ One little boy raised his hand. ‘Well, first,’ the little boy said,’ we gotta go do some sinnin’” Ok, it’s sort of funny. But, there really is a deeper truth to it. We don’t live in a fairy tale. God did not create a bunch of robotic, perfect creatures and claim them as children. God created us—sometimes cheating, sometimes lying, sometimes sinful, always wanting to do better, always wanting to find our way, always searching and wondering what it is God desires for us. I don’t think God wants or expects us to remain innocent. If God had wanted that, we wouldn’t be here at all. We would have no reason to be. Faith would be non-existent. Innocence has no reason to choose God. Innocence does not need faith. Maybe the little boy was right. Maybe we “gotta do some sinning” to realize what an incredible God created us. Maybe Jesus WAS just trying to get our attention, trying to get us to reach beyond ourselves, to see BEYOND the mirror, to see not who we are but who we can be.
We are not innocent; we are forgiven. But that’s not an eraser on the giant chalkboard of life. God’s forgiveness comes when we don’t deserve it, when we haven’t earned it. It comes in the darkness; it comes at our lowest point; it comes when sin is our only hope. It is grace. And it is better than any hallelujah we can utter.
Writer Sue Monk Kidd once said that “I discovered that in the spiritual life, the long way ‘round is the saving way. It isn’t the quick and easy religion we’re accustomed to. It’s deep and difficult—a way that leads into the vortex of the soul where we touch God’s transformative powers. But we have to be patient. We have to let go and tap our creative stillness. Most of all, we have to trust that our scarred hearts really do have wings.”
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?” It is that you that is staring back—doubtful and assured, sinful and forgiven, speaking the truth in love with a tiny piece of God in you—only an image, a faint glimmer that holds your whole life in its hands. That’s all that God needs to create beauty, to create wonder, to create life. You see, God has done this before—many, many times. And for God, that is better than a hallelujah. But I say to you, it is the very mirror that shows us the image of God. We just have to really look to see it. Jesus wasn’t telling us we were bad; Jesus was trying to get us to see who we really were so that we would then see who we could be.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications), 59.
 Terry Hershey, “Sabbath Moment: Just to Boogie”, 07/16/2012.