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Sermon transcript for February 20, 2011

Rethink Law

Matthew 5:38-48
Belmont UMC—February 20, 2011
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

We are spending these weeks with Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, words that challenge us to see the world in a different way. We considered the words of The Beatitudes, heard Jesus’ call for us to live as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We listened to the reading of these words of scripture that still surprise and stun us. These words were the heart and soul of Jesus’ world view; this is not only what he believed but it is how he lived. And he is calling those who will journey with him to live the same way.

Today’s text continues Jesus’ guidance on how we live in relationship with others, and Jesus’ words this week contain some of the most stunning of the Sermon on the Mount. He continues with the repetition of phrases, “You have heard it said . . . but I say.” Jesus quotes from the Torah Law and then he takes the law to another level. He is taking these words that are very familiar to the Jewish audience and reframing them in a new way of thinking about the law.

And there is a key verse in the sermon that helps us understand what Jesus is doing. In verse 17 he says, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” The word “fulfill” has a couple of meanings. It literally means “to fill up” as in “to fill up with meaning.”  It can also mean “to bring to fulfillment.” Jesus does give a deeper meaning to the law. It is not merely about dutifully obeying the rules but it is about embracing the spirit and meaning of the rules.

We may not commit murder but we may be damaging lives and relationships with our anger. We may not commit adultery but we damage lives and relationships when we long for what is not ours. The law is not merely about what we do or do not do, but it is about how we think. Later in the New Testament we see that “to repent” is not to merely say we are sorry, but it is to change the way we think. The Greek word metonoia, used for “repentance” means to change one’s mind or mindset. Paul would write that we are renewed “by the transforming of our minds” not our actions. Jesus is inviting those of us will journey with him to think differently about the law and about life itself.

Sometimes the laws become so important in themselves that we forget the meaning of them. I always say there is a story behind every rule and I’ve arrived at churches to find some rather interesting rules that were dutifully followed but no one could remember why.

I used to visit a small store in one community. The store owner had acquired an antique barrel at an auction and he put it near the check out counter for everyone to see and enjoy. One day he noticed that people who were waiting to check out were placing their items on the barrel so he made a large sign and put it on top of the barrel that read, “Do not set anything on the barrel!” Then he noticed that people were leaning on the barrel and he made another sign, “Do not lean on the barrel!” One day he saw some children touching the barrel and another sign went up, “Parents! Do not let your children touch the barrel!” Someone accidentally kicked the barrel so the sign was added, “Do not kick the barrel!” One day I made a comment to the check-out clerk, “Looks like the barrel is lost in a sea of signs.” He rolled his eyes and said, “Trust me, it’s no longer about the barrel; it’s about the signs.” The purpose of the barrel was lost.

Some folks in Jesus’ day loved the laws more than their meaning and intent and they had lost sight of its deeper meaning. Some folks in our day do the same. The laws were there to help the people stay in love with God and with each other.

The laws were for the people, not the other way around. So when it became of choice between the laws of ritual cleanliness or open table fellowship, Jesus opted for open table fellowship. When it was choice between obeying the strict interpretation of Sabbath observance or the healing a withered hand on the Sabbath, Jesus opted for the healing. (The Seeds of Heaven, Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 6)

But Matthew also sees Jesus as the fulfillment of the covenant that began long before in the hearts and minds of faithful Jews. What this text is not doing is pointing out the differences between Jews and Christians. Some people read the text this way, “You have heard it from old (that is, from the Jews), but I say this is how the Christians live it.” That was never in Matthew’s mind as he gave us these words. In fact, Matthew was writing to the Jewish community and he saw Jesus words as a continuation of what happened in the Jewish story and the covenant with God. Matthew would be shocked to see an Old Testament and a New Testament. Jesus is the fulfillment of what God had been doing among the Jewish people for a long, long time.

Our texts today challenge us to rethink our interactions and relationships with others in the world. They challenge us to avoid retaliation, to give to those who beg of us, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. These words were given to a struggling community of believers who were the victims of persecution and violence, living under the oppressive Roman rule.  

And in this context we hear Jesus telling his followers, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you do not resist the evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” I recently heard someone misquoting this text in a TV interview to justify one of our recent wars. The interviewee said, “Even Jesus said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’” Isn’t it amazing how often we hear these words used to justify our own preconceived ideas?

If we read the Sermon on the Mount and take these words of Jesus seriously we cannot find a justification for war or violence of any kind. But Jesus is not asking his followers to have a passive relationship with the world, but Jesus’ words encourage us to actively engage the world with acts of justice and compassion, and in this passage, active nonviolence and profound resistance. This is a new way of thinking, indeed!

If we look around our world at all the places where war is taking place, we see that war is not working. War provokes and war begets more violence. We’ve spent a trillion dollars and sacrificed thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan with little to show for it. But this past week we saw what happens when people are willing to engage the world with active nonviolence and profound resistance. In Egypt the people spoke loudly but peacefully and they overthrew an oppressive government.

This week U.S. Representative John Lewis was awarded our country’s highest honor, The Medal of Freedom. In the 1960’s Lewis was the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters all over the South, including here in Nashville. In 1965 he led a peaceful March from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama. Lewis and the others were severely beaten by State Troopers. This day was known as Bloody Sunday, but it was this event that is credited with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This peaceful walk was one of many courageous and sacrificial acts of those who believed that there is power in nonviolence. There are consequences to nonviolent resistance, but the outcomes have been dramatic.

Jesus said to give to those who beg of you, go the extra mile (probably a reference to the practice of soldiers requiring innocent bystanders to carry their armor), and love your enemies. All of these are difficult things to do and run counter to our human nature. Our tendency is retaliate, screen the beggars, take care of our own first and hate our enemies. This is a new way of being in the world, but Jesus shows us that the world is changed by those who engage the world with kindness and compassion. It is a call to a higher understanding of the law and a better way of living among others in our world.

On September 11, 2001 when our country was attacked by terrorists, we made a quick decision to gather in the evening at Grace UMC for a prayer service. The word went out via telephone as we did not have the means of sending mass emails at that time. The sanctuary was packed that evening, all the seats were filled and people stood along the walls of the sanctuary. We sang hymns and prayed and read Psalms of comfort and hope.

We gave people 3 X 5 cards and invited them to write prayers and bring them to the front. We posted the prayers on a wall in the church where they stayed for months. Prayers were being added to the wall all the time. Each week we took a prayer from the wall and used it as a unison prayer in the Sunday services. One of the most beautiful prayers was a prayer for those who attacked our country. It was compassionate and forgiving and it made us uncomfortable to pray it aloud. As one of our church members said after worship, “I couldn’t bear to say the words of that prayer, but I knew that it’s the prayer Jesus would have prayed with us.”

Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount continue to challenge us! We hear these words and we hear the call to follow Jesus on this journey, a journey that leads to a new way of thinking and a new way of engaging the world with love and hope.

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