The sermon for week February 13, 2011
YOU HAVE HEARD IT SAID...BUT I SAY TO YOU, Matthew 5:21-26
Last week I mentioned the multicultural congregation in Chicago where I served as interim pastor for three months while their pastors were on sabbatical. The church was located on the north-side of Chicago in a neighborhood appropriately called Andersonville. Three short blocks from the church in one direction was Clarke St. where block after block there were fine restaurants, galleries and little boutique stores. In the other direction almost an equal distance away was Lake Michigan and forty, fifty story condo-apartments, many worth over a million dollars. In between were beautiful old homes and brownstones, and in the shadows, along with the affluence, the homeless, the destitute, the mentally scared and the refugees.
One of the programs of the church was to open up its shower room every day for four hours to those living on the street. They would come to the church, place their name on a list, sit in a waiting room and when it came their turn they would be given a towel, soap, shampoo, and afterward a bag lunch as they left, all of it provided by the church. It was a small but significant way the church had of responding to the needs of these men and women.
While I was pastoring this church, one of my favorite activities was either to walk up to Clarke St. or in the opposite direction down to Lake Michigan where I could get better reception on my mobile phone. I love to walk and one of the first lessons you learn very quickly in a city like Chicago is that when you do walk you do so with a sense of purposefulness and with your gaze straight ahead, otherwise you are vulnerable to being asked time and again for the change in your pocket or the dollars in your wallet. This was particularly true in walking to the lake where half way there you had to pass under a viaduct above which was a CTA train stop.
So, I did my walk, heading toward the lake, noticing ahead of me, the men loitering around the railroad underpass. I quickened the gate of my walk and looked neither to my right or left. They were hanging around on either side of me and I passed them by, almost self congratulatory until I heard a voice say, “Hi reverend,” and I looked back because I was already passed him, and it was one of the men, who not an hour before, I had briefly engaged in conversation with at the church as he waited his turn for the shower. Then it was man to man, human to human, now, on the street I had made him nobody as I passed by. I turned back and smiled but kept on walking as though I needed to be somewhere, but I was mortified, sickened in my own soul by what I had done.
The voice of Jesus spoke as clearly in my head as it did for those who heard him in person when he preached the Sermon on the Mount, and repeatedly, over and over, said to them, “You have heard it said...but I say on to you.” We did the required in the church, offering showers and bits of conversation and a sandwich, all very genuine, but I had failed on the streets. I don’t think the gentleman was condemning me by his greeting. I think he was just being friendly. We had talked in church and he was saying ‘Hi’ on the street. But, for me, it was a pierced arrow, especially when he had used the word, “reverend.”
I think, not to sooth my own conscience, we all face the same stabbings of our moral consciousness. How ever much we have done we know it is not enough. We feel guilty, self condemned. We always know, we could have done more, whether it is our financial pledge to the church or our volunteer involvements in the community, yet is this the goal of Jesus, to increase the amount of guilt we carry in our lives? Our problem is this guilt so abides in us that it takes us away from the very thing I believe that Jesus is trying to teach us and that is the beauty and the sacredness of all life and each life that shares this time upon the planet with us.
Jesus isn’t trying to further enslave us through more laws and ethical demands placed upon us who are already wearied of soul trying to do the right thing. Instead, I believe Jesus is trying to get us to see the truth behind the reason the law existed in the first place and that is how beautifully and wonderfully made is all creation and everyone in it. If Jesus says to us you can be more or do more, it is not as lawgiver but as liberator, because he sees in us who we are, children of God, breathing the breath of God, created in God’s own image.
I said last week that when Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount, he didn’t begin with demands but blessing. He blessed the crowd, then before they had a chance to do anything, before there was any way they could have proved themselves, he said to them, “You are,” which in the first person to repeat those words is to say, “I am,” a name we share with God. Then in that basic awareness of ourselves, as we are, who we are, Jesus says to us, “You are salt. You are light. You are good works.” And why are you these things? It is because God said of you and all creation. “It is good. It is very, very good.”
So, when I am quickened in my soul and I feel a lost moment because of the way I responded to the person I passed by, the intent is not for me to use my rudeness to increase the guilt I feel in my life, but to be reminded in whose image I have been created. It is to say, “David, you are a better self than that.” And of the young man I ignored, it is to be reminded of the conversation we had back at the church and how we greeted one another person to person, man to man, seeing in each other the image of God. On the street was exhibited my blindness, but in those words, “Hi reverend,” Jesus healed that blindness, causing me to see again that man as he is, a child of God, created in the image of God.
Jesus asks so much of us, not as a matter of law, but because he sees in us what sin cannot dim, that we are created in the image of God, and we share that image with whoever it is stands before us. When Jesus says, “But I say on to you,” he is revealing Divinity, he is showing us what is always there, that we live in a world infused with sacredness and we all share in it. This is what the Gospel is about. It is about liberation. It is about a freedom to see and to be and to do, as you have been created, a person who mirrors the image of God.
At the end of this section of the Sermon on the Mount, and hopefully not to draw the thunder away from the lectionary reading for next week of which this verse is a part, Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (v.48). We have translated this word ‘perfect’ as though it meant conformity, through rule keeping to some outside standard or law. This is not the meaning at all. Rather, it means “whole,” “full grown,” and not flawless, but “wholehearted.” (Bonnie Thurstone, Dr. Kingsbury, Union Seminary, Virginia). It is being on the outside what you are on the inside, a child of God, and it is not rules or law that make this possible but grace and love, received and given.
I began by telling you of a time, passing under a viaduct where that light didn’t shine, but what abut when it does shine? What does it look like? Where do we go to see that light? Here’s my answer. It is in the twenty five years you and your pastor have shared together. You have and continue to live beyond the rules and in the realm of grace, showing the world what it means to live, seeing in one another the spirit of God. Do you recognize how special this is? Do you know how rare it is for a pastor and people to be together for so long, supporting and encouraging one another, trusting one another, forgiving one another, being there for one another. This isn’t keeping the rules. This is living a life of grace. This isn’t duty, this is love, and this is all that Jesus is trying to teach us, “love one another.”
A friend of mine once gave me a poem that reads:
What made us friends in the long ago
When first we met?
Well, I think I know:
The best in me
and the best in you
hailed each other
because they knew
that always and always
since life began
our being friends
was part of God’s plan.
George Webster Douglas
Sadly, that friendship didn’t last, but your friendship with one another, pastor and people has. You have seen the best in each other and hailed each other, knowing it was part of God’s plan. That is not to say that you didn’t see the quirks in each other, or that you didn’t have disagreements, and that you did through time have to forgive, but you heeded the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote and I paraphrase, “God did not make this other person or congregation as I would have made him or her. God did not give him or her to me as a brother or sister to dominate or control, but in order that I might find above and within this person, this congregation and this pastor, the Creator, the richness of God’s creative glory.”
I can tell you as one who served a long time pastorate, though not as long as your pastor to this congregation, that when he looks out from the pulpit on Sunday morning, there are no blurred faces. He sees every line and color and feature of each face and with it each story, the family, the memories, the ones you have told him and the ones you have created together through the years.
And in a different way, but just as intimately as Bill knows you, you know him as your pastor, the guardian of your secrets, the encourager of your dreams, the prophet and proclaimer of the Word revealed in Jesus Christ that continues to sustain you and make you who you are together, pastor and people, the Church of Jesus Christ.
You are salt to one another. You are light to one another, and if it was asked of me what does Jesus mean when he says, “You have heard it was said...but I say to you,” I would say, Look at the people and the pastor of Sylvania United Church of Christ. It is love. It is all love, and through that love, that no law can make happen, you see in one another the face of Christ.
Today you mark an anniversary. You pause, you celebrate, you say thank you. Then tomorrow you continue to be what you have been for twenty five years, a pastor and people making real for one another and the world the words of Jesus Christ who said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”
How beautiful upon the mountain are those who bring good tidings of great joy. Today is the day you have to say thank you to Bill for sharing those tidings with you the past twenty five years and that he continues to share those tidings and that he continues to be your pastor. Amen.