You know when you wake up on Christmas morning and there’s kind of a giddy anticipation of what’s to come? When you’re just so looking forward to the day spent with family and opening presents and all that good stuff? Well, I woke up one morning this past week which was categorically the opposite of that feeling. You see, our son does this thing where, every night around 2AM, he comes in our bed room and sleeps in our bed. I don’t know how a 3-year-old manages to take up half of a queen-size bed, but he does. Anyway, an hour or two later, I wake up to the sound of him coughing, and then I feel something dripping down my back. That’s right; my son barfed all over me. For some of you, this is like, your worst nightmare. But for me it was just a normal Tuesday.
So, I angrily walked down the hallway to the bathroom, took a shower, and proceeded to drive to Giant to get Boston medicine and stuff. And on the way to the store, I heard the radio show host highlight this headline which has been in the news recently: “Decades of data suggest parenthood makes people unhappy.” At that moment, I knew I had to swallow my anger and my frustration and be a little more loving and understanding. Now, we’ve all experienced this, right? Maybe not in this situation where you get puked on, but maybe with a co-worker or family member who treats you poorly, only to later find out later that they we’re going through something at home and they unintentionally took it out on you. We’ve probably all been on either end of that situation. And it’s easy to be angry or hold a grudge from those moments, but our text this morning speaks explicitly against this kind of thing, and we’ll see why as we go.
Now, this text is toward the forefront of what we call the “Sermon on the Mount.” This is where we get things like The Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. Now, the Sermon on the Mount runs for two full chapters in Matthew, from ch.5-ch.7. There’s a similar chunk of text in Luke’s gospel, called the Sermon on the Plain, which comprises less than a chapter, but the sermon in Matthew’s gospel is longer and more in-depth. And if you think my sermons are long, they’re nothing compared to Jesus’ sermons and the sermons of the early church. There’s this scene in the book of Acts which I think illustrates this well: 7 On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. 9 A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead.
In other words, Paul was preaching one time, and a guy got so bored he literally died. So, next time you think I’m going a little long with my message, just think about Eutychus. Anyway, this is kind of what happens with Jesus. He sits down with his followers on a mountain and begins to teach, and just never really stops. During the season of Lent, we’ll be walking together through these sermon series called “REVOLUTION” where I’ll be teaching exclusively on parts of the Sermon on the Mount, and this is where we’re going to start: 21 You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that 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.
So, at the beginning of this text, Jesus starts off my citing something all the Jews in the audience would have been familiar with, and that’s the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, we see the same prohibition: “You shall not murder.” And in both these texts, the Hebrew word used is רָצַח. This word literally means something like, “to dash in pieces”, and is often used figuratively to describe some kind of violent killing or murder, and not killing more generally. The traditional “thou shalt not kill” that we’ve all heard is from the old “King James” translation of the bible which actually botches a lot of these more nuanced words in English. So, as always, I’m just pointing out a problem. These passages are speaking about “murder” in particular, not killing in general.
Now, after Jesus goes through this, he says, “But I say to you…” This is a common form through much of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has this two-part, “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you” model he uses when he teaches. And he says, But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgement; 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. You all should be starting to see a pattern emerge in Jesus’ teachings, and that’s that – just like the text from last week -- this escalates very quickly. It really gets out of hand fast. And this is a thing we see over and over again with Jesus, right? He tends to take something – an idea, a philosophy, a part of the law – and radicalize it. He radicalizes the idea of family, such that we don’t just belong to those whom we’re biologically related to, but to all those we’re in relationship with. He radicalizes the idea of inclusion by extending fellowship, not just to his fellow Jews or friends, but to those considered unclean and disposable by most of society; people like tax collectors, sex workers, day-laborers.
And he radicalizes the idea of love at times like this. Because he takes something that’s already so radical – something like murder – and says that the underlying cause of the action is just as bad as the action itself. And on the surface, this sounds absolutely ridiculous. I mean, you can’t be judged and brought up on charges for something that’s not objectifiable. You can prove whether or not someone is guilty of murder but you can’t prove whether or not someone is angry if they don’t show any outward signs of anger and they’re just boiling. But this is what really shows the difference between God and the world.
We’re subject to the judgement of the government’s courts and the church’s councils based upon the things we’ve done, but when it comes to God, our hearts are on trial. And what saturates our hearts is what we will become. If it’s love, we’ll become incarnations of love. If it’s anger, we’ll become incarnations of anger. And, according to our text, we should go to any and all lengths to strike out even the smallest ounce of misplaced anger. That’s where the second half of this passage comes in: 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 and offer your gift.
Now, at first glance, what Jesus is asking doesn’t seem like a big deal. If you remember a conflict you have with someone when you’re getting ready to sacrifice your animal at the temple, go and reconcile with your friend or whoever, and then come back. But when we enter into this context, it’s actually a much bigger deal than that. Remember: Jesus is probably giving this sermon somewhere in Galilee, and the only place to properly offer a sacrifice was in the temple in Jerusalem. Now, if we look at this map, which I’ve shown you all before, we see Galilee up towards the top and Jerusalem down toward the bottom. The distance between the two is something around 100 miles and probably would have taken a week or two to travel. So, when Jesus is saying this, he’s not talking about something as simple as walking a few minutes down the road. He’s talking about leaving Jerusalem, making the long, dangerous journey back to Galilee, reconciling with the person, and then making the same long, dangerous journey again to the temple. He’s talking about risking everything to get your house in order and get right with your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
This may be something that none of you have ever considered before, but why do we pass the peace every week? I mean, in a lot of ways, it’s just part of our routine and it’s easy to overlook it, but it’s rooted (at least in part) in this teaching where Jesus radically condemns anger. I’ve said this before, but in the Methodist system, things that happen to pastors at one church inevitably become stories and sermon illustrations at the next church. And I’ve talked a bit about my last church. It was a little, rural church in central New Jersey called Neshanic UMC. It had like, 30 members who had all been members there for decades, except for this one gentleman named Alec. Now, Alec boasted about the fact that Neshanic UMC was the seventh United Methodist Church he had been a member of, which to a pastor, translates to “you kept getting into fights with pastors and leaving when you didn’t get your way.”
Anyway, the Sunday following the 2016 presidential election came around, and during our time of Joys and Concerns, I offered up a prayer for all our LGBT+ brothers and sisters; our Muslim brothers and sisters; our immigrant and undocumented brothers and sisters. Basically, everyone who was feeling afraid and anxious following Trump’s election. And I got an email a few days later asking me why I thought those groups would have felt so threatened. And we went back and forth for a few messages, until finally, he ended one of his emails like this: “You have a kind heart, but you have a lot to learn about how the real world operates. One day I’ll teach it to you.”
Now, I don’t know what it’s like to be shamed because of the color of my skin or my gender or my social status, but I definitely know what it’s like to be shamed because of my age. And I sat and stewed in that anger for days, for three primary reasons: 1) Yes, I was obviously angry at Alec for being so openly and unashamedly condescending. But there were other things that were almost eating at me more. 2) I was angry at myself for being so affected by it, right? I mean, anybody in here who’s a leader at work or school or whatever knows that it’s easy to get stuck into this rut of thinking that I should be able to just slough this stuff off. “I’m bigger than that. I should be able to shake this stuff,” right? And, finally, 3) I was angry that I had to walk up to him on Sunday morning and hold out my hand and offer him peace. Because I didn’t want to give him peace. I didn’t want to stop being angry with him. What I wanted was for him to realize what a jerk he was, and either own up to it or walk out the door in search of what would become his eighth United Methodist Church.
And it was in that moment that I heard this voice saying, “yeah yeah yeah – but it’s not about you. It’s about me. And in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a difference.” So, I did my best to follow Jesus’ teaching here. I shook his hand and offered him peace and tried my absolute hardest to mean it sincerely. And you know what happened? He came to my office the following week and apologized and opened up just enough for me to realize what was really going on in his life. It’s amazing, isn’t it, when we actually take the bible seriously? When we put aside our feelings and our compulsions and our egos and our uncomfortability, we can actually be obedient.
Now, I assume some of you have given up something for Lent. Anyway…this “giving up” something is rooted in the sacrifice of Jesus. It’s a way of readying ourselves to walk with Jesus by denying ourselves and taking up our cross. But, just like Jesus says here in regard to the person making a sacrifice at the temple, your sacrifice is null-and-void if you’re carrying it out while your heart is full of anger and spite. So, examine your heart. Find out if, in actuality, all is well with your soul. If there’s someone you need to be reconciled with, go and be reconciled with them. Just this once, allow the image of God in you to acknowledge the image of God in them. Lent is a journey of self-reflection, and it’s one we can’t avoid forever. It’s time to take a good, long look in the mirror and see if we’re the person God wants us to be. May love and peace go with you on the journey.