Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Heart of the Law - Matthew 5:21-37

Matthew 5:21-37

If we would have had Worship this morning, we would have continued to look at the Sermon on the Mount. 
You Might remember that Jesus had gathered his disciples around him and had begun to teach them. As he taught them, a crowd began to gather in to listen to Jesus teach. At this point in Jesus has been teaching about what he expects from his disciples in terms of the Law. The Law being the commands and ordinances God had given to the people of God to help them understand what it meant to be a people to live in such a way that they reflected the character of God to the world around them.
Jesus has said elsewhere that the Law can be summed up in one two-part command: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus at point is elaborating on what it means for us to not only Love God, but for us to love one another in the manner in which God would have us love. In fact this section of the Sermon on the Mount mirrors the commands found in the latter half of the Ten Commandments, the core of the Law given to God's people via Moses on mount Sinai when the Hebrew people covenanted with God for God to be their God and for them to be the people of God.
The first part of the Ten Commandments deals with what it means to love God. The second part deals with loving others. Jesus begins with looking at the command against murder. He says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’” He then goes one to say that if you are angry with someone that a kin to murder. He also says that speaking unkind words, calling people names is a kin to murder.
Jesus is explaining that the command to not murdering others is about more than simply not killing them. When we respond to those around us in unloving unkind ways we are breaking this command, whether we would EVER even think about murdering someone or not. Jesus goes on to say that if someone has a problem with you, even if you realize this in the middle of making an offering at the temple, you should go seek to make things right with you. He also says that when you have done something wrong and someone has a problem with you, you should settle that disagreement as well. Whether you are at fault or whether you are not, you are to work to set things right with the people around you.
Jesus then moves on to the command against adultery. Most people would agree that stepping out on your spouse not an acceptable thing to do in our society. It is not the proper way to treat a spouse. Jesus says that if you look lustfully at someone else that it is the same as adultery. Again, this is about how you are treating other people. First of all, how you are treating your spouse but also how you are treating the people in the world around you. Whenever you look lustfully at someone, this is more than just noticing that someone is attractive. The world is full of handsome men and beautiful women and most of notice this from time to time and that is fine. Lust is when you look at another person as the object of desire. Lust is the line between noticing someone that looks nice, to objectifying another human being. You notice the attractive waitress, or you notice a pair of legs. When a person is simply their parts, particularly the parts you like to look at, you are objectifying them; treating them as a thing instead of a person.
But, this is also about how you are treating your spouse, when you objectify a stranger, you are also objectifying your spouse. When your head turns after a tall drink of water that just passed by on the street, and you turn that person into an object to be admired (perhaps even possessed) you are turning your spouse into an object as well, one that does not please you as much as that handsome thing that just walked by.
Jesus then goes on to say that if it is your eye that is wandering gauge out, if it is your hand that is wandering cut it off. Jesus believes that all people are people. People are never things, they should never be treated as less than human, there is no excuse to keep treating people in ways that dehumanize them, objectify them in anyway. Jesus says that his disciples should be willing to go to extreme measures to love others properly at all times.
He then goes on to talk about divorce. We should begin by noting the words Jesus uses when it comes to divorce. Jesus talks about a husband dismissing his wife. Jesus is speaking in a time when all a husband had to do was give his wife a writ of divorce and he could be done with her, for whatever reason. This is once again about treating people properly. When you take this in context and remember this is one sentence after Jesus just warned people about lust, we must assume that the two are connected. When you dismiss your spouse to run after someone else, that does not make things “right.” Just because you freed yourself up to chase after the new “object” of your desire, does not make it right.  Again, this is about treating people with respect and dignity.
Jesus rounds things out by talking addressing the final commandment on bearing false witness. Jesus says that we should speak truth at all times. Our “yes”, should mean, “yes,” and our, “no,” should mean, “no.” Disciples of Jesus should be people whom others can trust. We should not have to say, “I swear.” Those who know us, should simply know that what we say is good and right. The language we use, the words that we use, we should always be speaking in such a way that those around us know that what we say can be trusted.
Jesus is getting to the heart of what it means to live, to act to be the people of God. Disciples of Jesus are people who treat those around them with love at all times in all things. What Jesus is doing here is not elaborating on the commandments, nor is he making them stricter, but instead he is opening up the heart of the law, exposing the intent behind the simple rules God has laid down for living. Jesus is teaching us that following the ten commandments, living the way God wants us to live is not simply a set of commands about doing or not doing the “right” things. Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not about living by a certain set standard. Being a Christian is not a checklist of how to live our lives.  It is about loving the people around us, it is about acting and reacting in kind, loving, caring ways to each person in every situation. It is about how we treat; how we speak to and about; how we think about one another. Jesus disciples, Christians, exemplify the love God has us by living out that love in all we do, all we say, in each and every action and interaction we have with our fellow human beings each and every day.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Righteous Salt and Light - Matthew 5:13-20

Jesus has gone off a little ways from the crowds. He has gathered his disciples around him and he is teaching them. But as he has been teaching, the crowd has gathered around. They have come into the circle wishing to hear what it is the teacher is teaching. They want to know, they want to learn. Let us join the crowd that gathered around Jesus that day, as we listen to the lessons our Savior is teaching, in what has come to be known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”
Jesus is speaking about salt, light and being more righteous than the strictest adherents to the Law. Phrases like “Salt of the earth,” and “Light of the world,” I have had heard explanations of these exhortations, Sunday school lessons, sermons, Bible study talks, as well as cute little Children’s songs, as long as I can remember.  “This little light of mine . . .” This is a passage that is not unfamiliar to those of us who have grown up in the Church. But that does not mean that it is not a passage does not still have something to teach us.
Salt is an amazing thing. We cannot live without salt, our bodies need salt to survive, but too much salt will kill you. (I am sure more than one of have hear that from our doctors)  Salt is a fairly simple compound. NACL, Sodium Chloride. It is made up of two elements, which on their own can kill you. Chlorine is a poisonous gas which if combined with water is explosive, and considering we are comprised of, something in the neighborhood of, 65% water, that is not a good thing. Chlorine on its own, it is not something I would advise ingesting. Sodium is a metal and is not particularly good for you and is somewhat toxic. But salt, the perfect combination of poisonous, explosive gas and toxic metal, is something you cannot live without, and in the just the right amount makes almost everything taste better.
Salt; salt is . . . well salty. It is used to bring out the flavor of food; to make food taste good. Salt is one of the three main ingredients that make bread, bread and bread was one of the main stays of the ancient diet. It is also used to keep meat and fish from spoiling. It was one of the single most useful things used by ancient societies.
It was valuable. Everyone used it and everyone needed it. It was even a form of currency. It was used to pay Roman soldiers. The “salary package” of every Roman soldiers included a certain measure of salt. In fact the English word we use, when we are talking about how much we pay a person, Salary, is rooted in the word Salt.  Ever heard someone who is a hard worker referred to as being “worth their salt?” This references that idea that a person who works that hard is worth the salt given to them in pay. Salt was an important and valuable commodity in the ancient world.
The thing about salt is that if it is misused it becomes worthless. If you use too much salt, it ruins the taste of the food (and we all know, too much salt is just plain bad for you), if you don’t use enough salt, it doesn’t do its job, it is as if you have not used it at all.  Too much, too little, either will render it useless, might as well have not used it at all. Might as well have just thrown the salt out on the street to be trampled by all those who passed by. Which I know is something we do, around here, throughout the winter, on purpose. Salt’s limited ability to de-ice a road was not one its many properties which ancient people had discovered. Doing such a thing with something so valuable would have been unheard of. Using too much, or too little, thus robbing salt of its intended purpose, to make food taste good, was robbing if its saltiness, and to do so, was as bad as throwing it in the street. If salt was not salty then it might as well be nothing more than dirt beneath your feet, trampled on, ignored, useless.
Light was also just as important but in a very different way. Light as such was not a commodity to be bought or sold. The elements needed to make light were very valuable. In fact the miracle, which the Jews celebrate at Hanukah is a miracle of the continued replenishment of the oil needed to keep the Temple lamps lit at a time when they were unable to purchase the needed to oil needed to keep the lamps lit. Light was very important and as such had a certain value.
Darkness was nearly a tangible force, which consumed and oppressed everyone with the Sun’s setting. Predators hunted at night. Those who wished to do you ill could hid in the dark and much more easily surprise you and over take you, beat you, rob you, do all sorts of harm to you and then run off into the night, without ever truly being seen. In order to see at night when the moon was hidden behind clouds, in the woods where the light of the heavens does not easily penetrate, if it is gone as it is for several days each month, or at the dimmer points of its cycle, it could be impossible to see your way at night. A light is needed to see in the dark. This is why we have headlights on our cars, street lights lining our streets. This is why electric lights were invented, because the dark is dangerous.
Dark is, well, DARK. But even at night a city can always be seen. At the time Jesus spoke these words, much like today, but to a lesser degree, the cumulative effect of a city worth candles, and lamps, created a light that could be seen in the distance. A City worth of light can be seen, even on the darkest night. A city, on a hill, at night, could not be hidden from the surrounding countryside. It is because of the cumulative effect of small lights, that during the Second World War, when the Germans often performed air raids during the night, the residents of London, had blackout curtains and were instructed to turn off all their lights when they knew the German planes were coming.
Light allows you to see what cannot otherwise be seen. In the dark very little can be seen, vague outlines nothing more. Light a candle and once your eyes adjust, you would be amazed at how much you can see with even just one small light. The more light, the more that can be seen. So Jesus is speaking very logically when he says that no one lights a lamp and then covers it up. (hide it under a bushel – No!) It makes no sense. It is a waste of light, it is a waste of oil and wick. It is a waste. You simply do not do it.
Jesus tells us that we are the salt and light of the world. We make things taste good. We preserve that which would otherwise spoil and rot. We allow things to be seen clearly. We illuminate what was otherwise engulfed in the frightening, oppressive force of darkness. In short, Jesus says that his followers are two of the most useful and most valuable things used in the ancient world. If we do not enhance flavor, if we do not glow brightly in the dark, if we are salty-less salt or covered lights, we are useless, we are ridiculous, we become worthless.
And then he tells us that we must be more righteous than the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a group that was formed after the exile. Their intentions were good, at first. They saw what had happened when the people of God had not lived by the statutes and ordinances laid out by God. They saw that the consequences of disobeying God’s law were bad, very bad indeed.
So they wanted to be sure that nothing like the Exile would ever happen again. So they sat upon a quest to follow the law in all things. They even worked to bring clarity to the unclear places of the law, but defining every detail, accounting for every possible scenario and explaining how and what to do in every circumstance. And they worked to follow ever detail laid out, to never deviate from the strictest applications of the law. And they worked to hold all of their fellow Jews to these standards as well. They did not want their people to be sent into exile by God again. They wanted God to be pleased with them at every turn.
I think it comes as no surprise that people who were so focused  on the minute details of following the all in all things, they lost their way as some point. They became so obsessed with this strict adherence to the law, they somehow forgot the God who had given the law; the God who really just wanted to be their God and for them to be God’s people.
They had forgotten the heart of the covenant, even as they recited it morning, noon and night, (literally what the law told them to do), they had forgotten that the core teaching of the law: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The law was a description of what it meant to be a community of people who lived this all-encompassing love for their God and for the world around them.
Even as they were working to be the people God wanted them to be by, living out all the minute details of the law, they were failing at being the people the God of the law was calling them to be. They were un-salty salt, they were light-less lights. Jesus told those who were listening, you must be more righteous than this. Your righteousness must be salt that is actually making food taste good, you must be salt that keeps things from rotting and spoiling, you must be light that can be seen throughout the house, you must be a city on a hill that cannot help but be seen by all those around you. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all you might, and (as Jesus says elsewhere) your neighbor as yourself.
We are salt and light and to be such, is to be righteous. To be righteous is to be salt, making a world which tastes, bitter, and bland taste good. We are that which makes the lives of those around us good. We take away the bitterness, as well as the blandness. We are goodness, we are kindness, we are grace and peace in the lives of people around us.
The thing about salt is when it is doing its’ job, you don’t necessarily know it is there. Things are just good. They taste right. But when it is not boy do you notice. Be salt. Make things good, set things right. Be kind, be gracious, be helpful and just. To be righteous is to be salt in a bland and bitter world
To be righteous salt is to be an influence that counteracts the natural decay in the world; inhibiting the rotting that is going on all around, in our society, in our country, in our world; as well as in the lives of the individuals around us; to help the hurting, to lift up the weak, to break down the barriers, which trap some within and hold others out. Work to create a world where all are valued equally and all know that they are loved, and cared for, not only by us, but by a loving God who is the driving force behind people who are working to bring God’s preservative love to every part of our world. We are to love, to be preservative salt, to keep things from decaying, preserve the world, keep it from spoiling, from going bad. To be righteous, is to work to keep work against the forces which rot our society, decay the livelihoods and spoil the lives of people in our world. We are to work to bring kindness, mercy, justice to systems, to people, to keep it all from going bad. To be righteous, is to work to keep the world around us from decaying, from rotting from going foul, being spoiled. We are righteous preservative salt.
To be righteous is to be light; to allow things to be seen clearly. Good light that allows all in the house to see. To take away the fear, the danger found in the dark. We are to be a city on a hill, something a weary traveler can see from far away, and head toward; knowing that with us there is safety and security. The light we shine illuminates all that we are doing to bring goodness, graciousness, mercy and justice to this world. Our light shows the world the love of God, in our actions and in our lives, as we work to love God and others in all things, just at the “law” calls us to.
To be righteous is to be salt and light in a world that so desperately needs both. To be righteous is to live a life of radical love in all things in the face of blandness, bitterness and all-consuming darkness.
“This little light of mine. I'm gonna let it shine. . .”