Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 5: 21-48 selected verses)
Not just grace, though. Outrageous grace.
So what does that look like, exactly?
When I was a junior in high school, my English classroom was right over the back of the school auditorium. So when the girls chorus practiced during 5th period, our teacher, Mrs. Norton, would look over her shoulder as if her glare could penetrate the cinderblock walls to the stage below. Then she would turn to face us and roll her eyes, dragging it out for added emphasis. She wanted to make clear that she was none too pleased. She left no room for doubt.
If I’m brutally honest, Mrs. Norton was not a very likable person. Not very grace-ful, much less outrageously grace-ful.
Except for something she said in class one day. We were reading Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and talking about the interplay between the characters, the dynamics of their relationships – which, if you know the story, is simultaneously complicated, tragic, and beautiful. And somewhere in that conversation, this person who lacked any semblance of grace managed to voice to it. She said: You know, every person that you come into contact with in your life, no matter how long or how short you know them, every person becomes part of who you are.
It’s highly likely that you’ve heard me share this before, and that’s because it’s become a mantra of sorts for me. It has found its way into songs of mine, into sermons. I find it tremendously enticing and somehow theological: this idea that everyone I meet in my walk of life – not only my wife, who knows me as well as anyone, but even the random person I briefly spoke with on a flight last year, even the person that I don’t really get along with all that much – everyone is a part of who I am now; who I always will be.
I’ve tried before to find this in the Bible; it seems like something that would be in there. And while I haven’t found it yet, I get this sense that it’s exactly what Jesus was getting at as he went deeper into his sermon on the mount; revealing to those gathered there, and to us, this kingdom of God on earth that he’d come to bring us. As we said last week, he begins his debut sermon talking about everyone but himself – the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and then we who are salt, we who are light.
And now in our passage today, finally, Jesus starts talking about himself. And the more he does this, the more it becomes clear as to why he waited so long. Because what he has to say is kind of unsettling. You have heard….. he says, as he quotes or paraphrases well-known laws of the Torah. But I say to you…..he counters, offering a much broader interpretation than what we might’ve heard or wanted to hear.
Again, putting ourselves in the shoes, the sandals, of those who came to hear Jesus that day – what are we supposed to do with this? We’re not supposed to kill – okay, that’s a no-brainer. But to not hold on to our anger – that’s a tall order, is it not? We’re not supposed to use God’s name in vain – our grandmother told us as much. But to never lie at all? And we’re not supposed to fight violence with violence – makes perfect sense. But are we really supposed to just suck it up and take it?
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how when Jesus finally starts talking about himself, he winds up talking about us too. So I guess we can look at these at face value; Jesus giving new meaning to the old laws, setting the standard higher for those of us who want to follow him.
Although I can’t help but wonder if Jesus is up to something more subversive here; more radical than simply recasting the “do’s” and “don’t’s.” Just look at the things he’s talking about – not at face value, mind you, but beneath the surface: look there and what do we see? We see the depth of human emotion. We see fractured relationships. We see false truth. We see violence.
All of which revolve around a common center; like the spokes of a bicycle wheel coming out of the same source: and that is human brokenness. Something we all encounter one way or another, some of us more than others, but it is nevertheless a shared experience in the human experience. Human brokenness. And this brokenness manifests itself in the depth of our emotion, in fractured relationships, in false truths, in violence – all the things Jesus addresses here.
And why does Jesus do this – in his very first sermon, nonetheless? Because he knows that if his mission in the world is going to have any amount of impact, if he really is going to build God’s kingdom on earth with us, then he has to embrace the root cause of what makes our human experience what it is. He has to address the fact that kingdom-living is not just about how each of us lives our own lives, but how we live it with each other.
And right there is where the rubber meets the road, right? It’s one thing to live your life as if all it means is following some predetermined laws and checking them off your list. It’s another thing to live the way Jesus calls us to live – not in isolation but in community, not in putting on airs but in authenticity, not in pretending to be someone we are not but daring to face who we really are. In other words, to first embrace the human brokenness we find in ourselves and then embrace the human brokenness in others.
Easier said than done, right? And I’m not sure which is harder, really. It’s hard to be gracious to others sometimes. Some year ago, sitting at a stoplight here on Providence, I gazed with a mix of fascination and trepidation at the back of the car in front of me, covered in bumper stickers, all with a similar vibe, the ones I remember saying:
The more people I meet, the more I like my dog.
Sometimes I wake up grumpy; other times I let him sleep.
I can only please one person a day. Today is not your day and tomorrow isn’t looking good either.
Support yogurt – it’s the only culture some people have.
How can I miss you if you won’t go away?
I found myself so curious about the person behind the wheel of that car – what were they like? Introvert or extrovert? Organized or free spirit? Republican or Democrat? Duke or Carolina fan? All the categories we readily put people into so we can determine if they are like us or different from us. We do this all the time. So much dividing us these days, so much standing in the way of community. It’s hard to be full of grace sometimes.
And that’s with other people. But how about ourselves? That’s not any easier, is it, to embrace our own human brokenness? Guilt gets in the way; shame sends us running in the opposite direction. It is hard to be gracious to ourselves.
And so here we have Jesus standing before the crowds, before us; telling us that the kingdom of God is here; and because of that we need to live differently, we need to learn to live with each other in spite of our human brokenness. You have heard that it was said, my friends. But I say this to you.
One commentator has this to say:
In these verses, Jesus shakes the old law down to its very roots. In fact, that’s what the word “radical” means — the base word “radix” means “root.” Jesus is rooted in the law, and because of that he calls his disciples to live a life with a much deeper rootedness than the legalism of scribes and Pharisees. And what was the key difference? It’s that the Pharisees were more concerned with what people did or did not do with their hands. Jesus, however, is much more concerned about what people had in their hearts and how that translated to their relationships with people as a sign of God’s new world.
Hands are great. We can grab things with them, write and type with them. We can wave at others, shake their hands. But our hearts – that’s where Jesus tells us it’s at. Hearts feel, hope, dream, love. Hearts give meaning to what the hands do.
And I wonder if that’s what Jesus was getting at here – beyond simple “do’s” and “don’t’s,” beyond basic exhortations like not being angry and going the extra mile. I wonder if what Jesus really wants from us is to acknowledge and embrace the fulness of our human brokenness – and, because of that, to know that we were not created to be to ourselves, blazing our own trail, making our way alone. That we all are, in fact, tied to each other; symbiotically; and that is the very reason we were created.
I wonder if what Jesus wanted us to hear in this sermon of his, really hear, is the scandalous, outrageous grace that lies at the heart of his kingdom. When we as the gathered people of God fully and completely celebrate our togetherness; when we join with each other and honor each other – even as we disagree, even as we wrestle with differences – when we can do that more often than not, then we can truly begin living our calling to follow Jesus.
Which means, first of all, that my 11th grade English teacher was right. She actually knew what she was talking about. And it also means, as followers of Jesus:
That we don’t simply condemn the act of murder, but we promote the value of all life, no matter how young or old, how rich or poor; no matter their nationality or religion or lifestyle or sexual preference;
That we not only refrain from throwing God’s name around, but we condemn any language that tears people down, that dehumanizes, that strips people of the image of God that lies inside each and every one of them;
That we not only press for fairness and equality – “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” – but we seek justice for those who have no power or privilege, and use our power and privilege to elevate their voice above our own as we combat violence with love.
There’s an old story about an ancient rabbi who one day asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and a new day was dawning. “Could it be,” asked one student, “that it happens when you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?”
“No,” answered the Rabbi.
Another said, “Well, could it be when you look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?”
The rabbi shook his head.
Still another said, “Rabbi, I’m wondering if it happens when you look off in the distance and see faint signs of light where there was once only dark.”
“That is close,” the Rabbi replied, “but still incorrect.”
The pupils were stumped. “Well then, Rabbi, when is it?”
And the wise old teacher responded: “You can tell when the night has ended and the new day is dawning when you look upon the face of any person and recognize that they are loved by God and therefore are your sibling. Because if you cannot do this, if you cannot see the sibling in those around you, then no matter what time it is, it is still the night.”
May the dawn of a new day show us, my friends, that everyone is a part of us; that we are bound in our shared human brokenness, that the heart always wins out over the hand, and that we are forever rooted in God’s outrageous grace.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.