At the Feet of the Rabbi: Part 3

Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.

It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. 

I want you to be everything that’s you, deep at the center of your being. 

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. 

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

When anger rises, think of the consequences.

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.

I remember Mrs. Rhodes in 6th grade teaching us about Confucius.  I remember distinctly her teaching us about, “Confucius say.” Confucius was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history.  The philosophy of Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. He espoused the well-known principle “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”, i.e. the Golden Rule.

We’re continuing in our sermon series “At the Feet of the Rabbit.”  Remember what was said last week, 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” He speaks with authority, not just moral sayings.  He doesn’t just list “the rules,” he fulfills them.  He speaks authoritatively on the word of God because he’s not only a part of the Triune God, he is God’s son, whom God broke through the Heavens at his baptism and said, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I’m well pleased.”  This is our Rabbi, whom we’ve chosen to follow, whose dust gets into the nooks and crannies of our hearts and lives, who shows us the way to live.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus preaches some pretty harsh-sounding warnings to us about the consequences we face should we fail to practice righteousness within every aspect of our lives.  This is not the Beatitudes and not the aspirational salt and light passage, this is where our Rabbi gets gritty. 

Matthew 5:21-37

Concerning Anger

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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

Concerning Adultery

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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. 30 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.

Concerning Divorce

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Concerning Oaths

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Have you seen those “Stop Smoking” commercials?  They were much more frequent in Florida because of a statewide initiative “Tobacco Free Florida.”  Every time I hear or see one of those commercials, I want to change the channel or mute it and not watch because I don’t want to put the images in my head of the effects of smoking.  It’s much like this passage, it’s like Jesus giving us real talk, not putting into a list of rules, but explaining why we should do or not do something because of the EFFECTS.  He wants us to lead righteous lives.  Even more graphic are the remedies Jesus prescribes as treatments for our righteousness-deficiency. We are wrong if we read Jesus’ words about cutting off our right hand or plucking out our eye as just the reflection of some ancient barbaric code of justice. Jesus’ directives are violently vivid metaphors that tell us that we must simply stop doing the things that harm others or ourselves before those old behaviors or destroy us.

Speaking of those old behaviors, how are those new year’s resolutions going?  Many of our resolutions and our Lenten practices of giving something up or adding something are about creating habits.  It’s easy for us to throw away a broken piece of furniture or shoes that need to be resewn or resoled.  It’s much harder to fix it.  It’s much a harder to take it to the carpenter or the cobbler and give them our broken pieces.  Have you ever restored a car or painted a piece of furniture or the kitchen cabinets and it feels like it’s transformed?  It’s like it’s a whole new thing.  As it says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  It takes the hard work of putting in place life-giving and life-transforming habits, and not nasty, will only lead to you hurting yourself or others habits.

– If you want to be healthy, … stop doing those things that harm you or inevitably will hurt you.

– If you want harmony in your life, … stop doing those things that cause discord and agitation.

– If you want peace in the world, … stop doing those things that lead to war in your relationships and within yourself.

– If you want a closer relationship with your children, … stop doing those things and saying those things that build up walls between you and spend quality time with them.

– If you want to rekindle the romance in your marriage, … stop doing those things that create animosity and monotony, drop the masks and start really connecting.

– If you want to live in a close-knit, caring community, … stop hiding behind your front door or your masks and get out there in the land of interpersonal risks.

– If you want a spiritual life that fills you up, … stop pouring all your energies everywhere but toward God and the rest of life will fall into place.

Sure it’s easier to say, than do, but if you have the right motivation, you can do anything.

Ida was recovering from a heart attack. “Doctor,” she pleaded with her cardiologist, “you must keep me alive for the next two years. I want to attend my grandson’s bar mitzvah.”

“We’ll try,” he replied. And in due course, Ida did indeed attend the joyous rite of passage.

Sometime later she again spoke to her doctor. “My granddaughter is to be married in 18 months. Please help me to be able to attend her wedding.”

“We’ll do our best,” he replied.

Sure enough, 18 months later, Ida proudly presided over the reception in a sparkly gown.

Ten years passed. Ida continued to thrive. She visited her cardiologist regularly and carefully followed all his instructions. One morning she called him. “Doctor,” she began, “I’m feeling fine, but I have another request to ask of you. Remember how you saw me through to my grandson’s bar mitzvah?”

“Yes.”

“And, later, how you helped me attend my granddaughter’s wedding?”

“Yes, that was a great day for you.”

“Well, as you know, I’ve just celebrated my 80th birthday. And I just bought myself a new mattress.”

“And …?”

“It has a 20-year guarantee.”

Jesus wants us to follow and act and live as his disciples because he wants the best for us.  He wants us to jump into the deep end of the pool, not so that we can tread water all our lives, but because he wants us to swim and then float and rest in his grace.

Concerning anger, Jesus says that the rules of the shallow end are “you shall not murder” and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment” (v. 21). These seem like completely sensible rules, especially since no one wants to swim in a pool in which people are drowning each other. He moves into the deep end where it gets harder: “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment” (v. 22). For Jesus, avoiding murder is not enough. We are also supposed to control our anger. For Jesus, the goal is not revenge but reconciliation. He always wants us to work for peace. “When you are offering your gift at the altar,” says Jesus, “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” (vv. 23-24). In a similar way, Abraham Lincoln advised that the best way to destroy an enemy is to turn him into a friend, and Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Concerning adultery, Jesus says that the rule of the shallow end are that “you shall not commit adultery” (v. 27). This is a very sensible rule, since faithfulness in marriage is the glue that holds families together. When the covenant of marriage is broken, people suffer — men, women and especially children.

But Jesus is not content to enforce the rule against adultery. If we are going to swim with him in the deep end, we need to see that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (v. 28). Jesus is warning us that it is not healthy to do one thing with our minds and another thing with our bodies as it is in Platonic dualism. Instead, we are to keep the two together.

Bromleigh McCleneghan, the author of a book called Good Christian Sex, believes that the rise of “emotional affairs” proves that Jesus knew what he was talking about. When you hold mind and body together, says McCleneghan, “you don’t actually have to commit adultery to sin against your partner.” This is a tough goal, for sure, but it leads to healthier relationships.

Concerning divorce, Jesus reminds us of the shallow end rule: “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce” (v. 31). This rule seems reasonable, although it does make divorce a rather easy thing for a person to do.

But in the deep end, Jesus says that “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery” (v. 32). Here, Jesus is saying that divorce should not be an easy thing for a person to acquire, because marriage is one of the foundations of family and community life, and it’s a loss in way or another.

Finally, concerning oaths, Jesus notes that the rule of the shallow end is that “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord” (v. 33). Once again, this is a very sensible rule that encourages people to keep their promises.

But Jesus offers a higher challenge: “Do not swear at all” (v. 34). Instead, “let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (v. 37). Jesus is saying that all words should be truthful, not just words spoken under oath. When we jump into the deep end with Jesus, everything we say should be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — not just the things we say with our hand on a Bible.

A cleaning woman who’d been converted at a Salvation Army meeting was asked what difference Jesus made in her life. She said, “I don’t sweep dirt under the carpets anymore.”  There should be a change.  There should be repentance.  Anger, adultery, divorce and oaths. The words of Jesus on each of these can challenge us, stretch us and sometimes make us feel inadequate. But the good news is that Jesus is always swimming right beside us, helping us float in his love and grace. He will stretch us a little more each day, until we are able to achieve the goals he sets out for us: Working for reconciliation, being faithful to our partners, strengthening our marriages, and speaking the truth.  As Oswald Chambers says in My Utmost for His Highest, “A gilt-edged saint is no good; he is abnormal, unfit for daily life and altogether unlike God. We are here as men and women, not as half-fledged angels, to do the work of the world, and to do it with an infinitely greater power to stand the turmoil because we have been born from above.”  It’s a high calling, sure, but God’s grace is enough to cover all of our mistakes and he spurs us ever on to repentance.  Even when we’re afraid to jump into the deep end, even when we can’t remember how to swim, it’s always enough.

Amen.

 

The Beatitudes

We continue this week in our series on the Sermon on the Mount, entitled, “At the Feet of the Rabbi.” If you weren’t here last week or don’t remember, we introduced the idea that it was no accident Jesus chose to operate out of the role of the Jewish Rabbi. Remember, Rabbi means “my great one” because these guys were the best of the best, and the most honored in society. We also talked about the “yoke” of a Rabbi being the body of knowledge and work that the Rabbi had soaked up over the course of his life, and that he then passed on through teaching and experience. Each Rabbi wanted his yoke to live on in his disciples, so disciples were expected to follow the Rabbi, word for word, move by move, step by step, all over the countryside to soak it all in. That’s why the ancient blessing was: “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.” It meant following so closely in his wake, or sitting so near his mud-caked sandals, that you lived and breathed your Rabbi and his yoke. THAT was discipleship, and isn’t it a good deal deeper than spending an hour on a Sunday every now and then? Absolutely.

This Rabbi is important to our series because the Sermon on the Mount is a tricky name. The truth is, WE have given it that name. Bible translators have said, “Hey, this guy is doing a bunch of talking  starting in Matthew 5, and the people are crowded around like a congregation, and he says great, quotable sayings…sounds like a sermon to me!” The problem we have today is that the word sermon doesn’t always carry a lot of weight anymore. A sermon for us can just be a 20-minute pop-off with some good jokes, and a 1-2-3 moral punchline. The first thing many of us think about a sermon is, was it a good one or a bad one. That was not the atmosphere in Matthew 5. If these people were intent on being disciples, of sitting at the feet of a Rabbi, of taking up a new yoke that would utterly direct their entire lives, this time on the mountainside was far more authoritative and substantial and moving than we can even imagine. That’s the attitude I want us to bring to this text too. I want us to sit at the feet of our Rabbi, hear his yoke, and very truly decide if we’re going to take it up or not.  Amen?

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Is EVERYTHING that seems successful or “winning” really a blessing? Every “good” thing? Look at the hashtag on Twitter at any given moment and see the crazy examples, some appropriate, some a totally false attribution. We’re speaking for God when we claim something is a blessing. Conversely, is every seemingly bad thing a lack of blessing? Aren’t we blessed even when we lose our job or fail in the eyes of the world?

In Jewish culture, failure or poverty or deficiency of any kind was a sign of a lack of blessing, a sign of sinfulness or God’s particular judgment.  Health problems could be traced back to our ancestor’s sinfulness.  For example, if someone were blind or had leprosy, they or their ancestors did something to deserve it.  Jesus is overturning this kind of thinking. He’s not just telling us about these poor downtrodden people groups, so that we’ll be “nice” to them, he is actively blessing them. He’s speaking the blessing into being. Or putting into words the heavenly reality that already is.  And it’s just the “other” people, he’s speaking truth into our lives as well.

He’s taking these seemingly “bad” things and flipping them on their heads and he’s giving us encouragement all the while.  Hear verses 3-12 from The Message version of the Bible.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

I can definitely relate to some of these.  Being at the end of my rope for one.  But don’t you see, Jesus is flipping the script, knocking the traditional understanding of blessing on its head and lifting up the tired, the poor, the downtrodden.  Not only that, he’s telling us to hunger and thirst after righteousness, be peacemakers, and willingly undergo persecution.  These are all earthly states with a heavenly reward bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

The Beatitudes are not just blessings but a call to action.

In the season of Epiphany, the Beatitudes are a call to action to point out just who Jesus really is.  Who God really is.  The Great God of the Universe.  The Beatitudes are a call to action to be Church, a call to action to make Jesus present and visible and manifest in our lives.  The Church gets the privilege of being on the front lines of these blessings bringing God’s kingdom to Earth.  Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” writes, “There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society… If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning…”

The Beatitudes are a call to action for the sake of creating the world God imagines.  These days, we need this reminder — when our imagination may be squelched. When our hope for the future might have been dimmed. When we think what we do and what we say and what we believe does not matter.  Jesus calls us to himself and asks us to walk in his ways, to sit at his feet, and put his teachings into action.  Jesus gives us the strength to stand with the voiceless; those he seeks to bless.  But too readily, we give up at the slightest opposition. We give up when we don’t understand or don’t want to do the deep work to know what our neighbor truly faces.

Jimmy Carter writes, “Christians who truly follow the nature, actions and words of Jesus Christ should encompass people who are different from us. It is not easy to do this. It is a natural human inclination to encapsulate ourselves in a superior fashion with people who are just like us — and to assume that we are fulfilling the mandate of our lives if we just confine our love to our own family or to people who are similar and compatible. Breaking through this barrier and reaching out to others is what personifies a Christian and emulates the perfect example that Christ set for us.”

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I look the other way?

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I assume someone else will?

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I explain away my perceived indifference because I don’t want people to think I take sides, because I choose to play it safe?

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or keep silent so as not to offend, not to disappoint, in fear of not meeting expectations?

Christ teaches that the greatest joy and happiness is not in the conveniences and pleasures of this life, but it is laid up in heaven for those who willingly to take up their cross and follow him.

I read a story about Mother Teresa when she first began her work among the dying on the streets of Calcutta, India.  She was obstructed at every turn by government officials and orthodox Hindus, who were suspicious of her motives and used their authority to harass her and to frustrate her efforts. She and her fellow sisters were insulted and threatened with physical violence. One day a shower of stones and bricks rained down on the women as they tried to bring the dying to their humble shelter. Eventually Mother Teresa dropped to her knees before the mob. ‘Kill me!’ she cried in Bengali, her arms outstretched in a gesture of crucifixion, ‘And I’ll be in heaven all the sooner.’ The rabble withdrew but soon the harassment increased with even more irrational acts of violence and louder demands were made of officials to expel the foreign nun in her white sari, wearing a cross around the neck.

One morning, Mother Teresa noticed a gathering of people outside the nearby Kali Temple, one of the holy places for Hindus in Calcutta. As she drew closer, she saw a man stretched out on the street with turned-up eyes and a face drained of blood. A triple braid denoted that he was of the Brahmin caste, not of the temple priests. No one dared to touch him, for people recognized he was dying from cholera. Mother Teresa went to him, bent down, took the body of the Brahmin priest in her arms and carried him to her shelter. Day and night she nursed him, and eventually he recovered. Over and over again he would say to the people, ‘For 30 years I have worshipped a Kali of stone. But I have met in this gentle woman a real Kali, a Kali of flesh and blood.’ Never again were stones thrown at Mother Teresa and the other sisters.”

The rocks still hurt.  The grief of losing a loved one is still sometimes raw years later.  Even though we know that God is with us and it’s not a punishment, it’s still hard to receive that diagnosis.  Perhaps we can’t even understand these words until we become poor or meek or contrite or mourning or persecuted. Perhaps we don’t know what they mean until our stomachs ache with a roaring hunger and our tongues stick to the roof of our mouths with thirst. Maybe, maybe we cannot understand the words when we feel the most blessed. Perhaps they only make sense to us when we hit rock-bottom. When we too are persecuted.  When we’re so ashamed of what we did the night before that our lips tremble. When we are about to lose the home  where we were raising our children. When we finally realize that we have no control over our addiction. When we are in such mourning, that we stare at the ground as we walk and we cannot look up.

We can trust in the words of the Beatitudes and in the arms of the One who has the final word.  On earth we may temporarily suffer, but we have the hope of glory.  Just before his death, John Wesley, an ardent abolitionist, wrote a letter to William Wilberforce describing American slavery as the most vile in the world.  Grasping the hands of those who loved him, he repeatedly told them farewell.  At the end, when nearly all his strength was gone, his last words were: “The best of all is, God is with us.”  The best of all God is with us.  Romans 8:31 says,31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”  Even if we face trials in this life, even if we feel like all hope is gone, when we call on the name of the Lord we will be #Blessed beyond measure.