Leaning Into Grace

Delivered on February 12, 2017 to the three services of Stone Village Church in the Short North of Columbus, OH. More info on Stone Village can be found here. This sermon can be listened to following the link below or on the Stone Village Church podcast through iTunes.

The Word (Matthew 5:21–31)

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with 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 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. 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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

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

‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 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.

‘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.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

The words

A reading from the Prophet Isaiah, “[The People say,] ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house: when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

A reading from the Prophet Micah, “‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
 but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

A reading from the Prophet Amos, “[The LORD says] I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

. . .

“From Jerusalem to Jericho” was a study that was published in the July 1973 edition of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In it, seminarians were divided into four groups. They were called individually to a building on campus, where they were told that they were to give a speech in a different building. One group was told that they were to discuss job opportunities on campus and that they had more than enough time to walk to the other building. One group was given the same task but told that they were already running late. One group was given the task of preaching on the Good Samaritan, but they were already running late. The final group was to preach on the Good Samaritan and they had some time to spare.

Along the way, each person encountered a man collapsed in an alleyway. As the students walked past, the man would cough twice and moan. The condition of the man was not otherwise apparent.

The study revealed what you may already suspect: time was the most significant factor in whether or not the student stopped to offer any kind of assistance, with 63% of those who were not in a hurry offering assistance, while only 10% of those who were in a hurry took the time to even tell someone about the man in the alley upon their arrival. The authors of the study offer this quote, “Ironically, a person in a hurry is less likely to help people, even if he is going to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Some literally stepped over the victim on their way to the next building!). The results seem to show that thinking about norms does not imply that one will act on them. Maybe that “ethics become a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases”. Or maybe people’s cognition was narrowed by the hurriedness and they failed to make the immediate connection of an emergency.” End quote. Those who were to deliver a sermon about someone in need being helped did not stop to help someone in need.

In today’s Gospel message, Jesus draws on a long tradition that had been established through the prophets. He articulates the often overlooked but important truth, that there is no such thing as right relationship with God without right relationship with people. To keep religious law doesn’t mean a whole lot if you bear ill-will towards another person. Piety means nothing in the face of hatred and injustice. It doesn’t matter how often you go to church, or if you read the right devotional books, or if you say your prayers before every meal if you do not care about and for other people. These things serve to connect us to God, but should not be the end of our devotion.

Christ lived this through example, often going against the religious authority and the common understanding of the law in his efforts to demonstrate care for other people. He healed those with leprosy on the Sabbath. His disciples ate from fields on the Sabbath. He spoke with a Samaritan woman. He welcomed those who were rejected by others to his table. He did not observe periods of uncleanliness but instead made people clean.

At first blush, this seems like it makes things easier for us. Who has the time to look through and memorize all the law? Who could possibly fulfill all the commandments? But Christ’s words are not a dismissal of the law. They call us deeper, to understanding and trying to follow the heart of the law, through grace, by the movement of the Holy Spirit. Yes, God calls us not to murder, yet Christ calls us deeper to not even bear animosity in our hearts towards anyone. He calls us toward a state of being, an orientation, that allows us to see the world and others with his eyes. Beyond keeping the law for the sake of the law, he demands that we allow our hearts to be transformed.

Christ recognized that our perceptions and inner thoughts impact how we interact with the world around us. In a culture where a man could divorce his wife for not giving birth to a son, leaving her legally and social stranded, Christ told men that it wasn’t okay to abandon their wives after following the proper procedure, but that instead they should not use their power to harm someone in this way. Perhaps he recognized that faithfulness within the context of a relationship begins in our orientation towards our partners.

Yet, we know that there were examples when Jesus was angry. There were times when the models of our faith looked on other people with lust. We know that sometimes divorce is a necessary, healthy, and painful manifestation of a relationship. Who could possibly keep these laws? Who could possibly live up to this standard?

The answer is no one. We must lean into grace recognizing our shortcomings. Thank God that grace is abundant. Yet this is not an excuse to simply ignore these commandments. Grace is to be accepted, not exploited. We must look into the heart of these commandments and the teachings of Christ and allow them to transform us from the inside out.

When we look on one another with lust in our eyes, when we orient our hearts in such a way that people are only objects of lust, we dehumanize and objectify them. We make them one dimensional, only existing in our minds for a singular purpose. Even if we never act on this perception, we create an ocean of objectification that plays out on the minds and bodies of our neighbors. How we orient ourselves towards each other impacts how we live in relationship with people and with God. We must bear responsibility when we see our brothers and sisters in this light. It is our responsibility to acknowledge and seek to correct our patterns of thinking when they lead to the objectification of others. In the same way, we must hold others accountable when they make comments or behave in such ways that children of God are reduced to sexual objects.

Anger dehumanizes as well. But not just any kind of anger. Jesus got angry. He flipped tables and cracked a whip on those who exploited others in the temple. But Jesus displayed anger based in recognition of injustice, self-righteousness, or cruelty. I don’t think that this is the kind of anger that Jesus was talking about in this passage. When we harbor anger in our hearts, when we hate other people, we dehumanize them. Jesus goes so far as to say that when we allow this slow burn of anger to rot our hearts, it is better for us to drop our offerings at the altar and go reconcile. Holding this disease within us, speaking unjustly about other children of God is comparable to murder.

This kind of anger drives a wedge between us and the people in our lives. This kind of anger alienates us from other people, some of whom we may have loved dearly at some point. But it goes beyond interpersonal illness. When we dehumanize groups of people, when we harbor anger or hatred against the abstract other, we take upon ourselves the responsibility of what may befall them. When we as Christians perpetuate hateful words and patterns of thought that dehumanize and stoke anger against Muslims, we are responsible for the death of Muslim refugees that are turned away at our borders. When we as Christians dehumanize people fleeing crushing economic circumstances while being unable to obtain or renew proper documentation, we take responsibility for the lives affected by cruel and callous deportations. When we don’t speak out against the anger that leads to these travesties, our fasts and our feasts, our prayers and our petitions become offensive to God.

These sayings from Jesus call us into accountability by forcing us to recognize that we are responsible for not only the sins we commit with our own hands but also for the sins that occur because of our hatred, apathy, anger, objectification, and dehumanization. Disciplined religiosity is not enough. The right words and long prayers are not enough. This text forces us to close loopholes on ourselves, it draws us away from the frame of mind that any injustice is beyond our scope or responsibility, it calls us to let God soften and break our hearts. We must come to realize that we can never be in right relationship with God without being in right relationship with other people. We are called to boldly and bravely take responsibility for our biases and sinfulness, knowing that these sins have been forgiven, and repent, turning our hearts towards God and one another. From there we are to go out into the world and transform it as the salt and light that we are.

This message is challenging, I know. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that we are ultimately responsible for the results of the orientation of our hearts. Yet, you do not have to do it alone. You cannot do it alone. Because of grace and the transformative sacrifice of Christ Jesus, we can allow this time in worship with one another, the time we spend together at the communion table, to be a time when we can reorient our hearts and minds. We can reflect on our broken relationships and deep-seated biases. Part of the gift of Christ is that we don’t have to yet be reconciled to God or one another before approaching this table. The sacrifice meets us already at the altar. This meal is a gift for all people in all circumstances. If you harbor anger in your heart towards another, please begin the reconciliation here. If you know that you objectify and dehumanize the other, the transformation of your heart begins here. This is not a simple process. This is not an easy gift. Yet here we are. My friends, will you join me in this time together as we learn, and grow, and love, and are transformed. Let us be reconciled.
 Thanks be to God