Matthew 5: 21-26 2-12-17 Rev. Tony Clark ACCUCC
[ 5: 17-20 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 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. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.]
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 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. 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.
This is the third week of four that we are in the Sermon on the Mount, which takes up the entire fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. This third section of the Sermon on the Mount follows right on the words we heard last week about the law, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets…”
From there, today’s passage starts with a common Jesus phrase, “you have heard it said…” which points us back to ancient scripture—sometimes the words of the prophets, but usually the laws of Moses.
Just as in our time, laws that were written by people long dead had to be interpreted for the times, and just like today there was the question whether the law should be interpreted to the letter or to the spirit of the law.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus discussed laws about murder, adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, revenge, and finally hating your enemies. Jesus pushed his society to step beyond the letter of the law and live into the spirit of the law, which intended to build and maintain relationships in community. If you spend time with these passages, and I hope you do, you may struggle with how strict Jesus was on adultery or divorce; remember, though, that he was encouraging the patriarchy to see women as people with whom men must relate.
Today we are debating laws that were written centuries or decades ago— the 13th Amendment as it pertains to current incarceration rates of African-Americans, the meaning of the right to life as it pertains to the beginning and end of life, and laws about who can get married. We are also still debating what it means to be neighbor and what it means to be enemy. As you read the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ pronouncements, ask yourself, “In these laws that we are debating today, where might Jesus expand from living strictly in the letter of the law into a more relational way of living?”
We Arlingtonians have taken a big risk. In the midst of uncertain times, in the midst of the anxiety and fear that runs through our culture right now, in the midst of hearing about churches closing left and right, in the midst of feeling like the future of Christianity, our country, and even our world is uncertain, we as a congregation have decided to stay here. And not only stay here, but to update our facility and make it shine.
We have voted ourselves into a capital campaign which will match funds from our annual budget and funds available from the Endowment to do the work on our facilities. In uncertain times, this is a vote of certainty. It is a pledge, an offering, of great proportions to say to the uncertain times: we are certain that God needs us now and into our future more than ever.
It is a statement of certainty, it is a statement of faith, it is a statement of relationship between all of us and God, a statement we make with our offerings.
The passage we read today is a jarring juxtaposition between giving an offering and the commandment not to commit murder, which Jesus expands to include anger toward another. After reminding us of the commandment not to murder, Jesus said, “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.” And after that he gives a story about being jailed for not paying a fine.
It is jarring to hear something so familiar and comforting, giving an offering to church, stuck between comments on murder and anger and the talk of being put in jail. We take an offering every week, we hear great music, Koa and Alia help me take it up front, and we pray over it and move on out of our worship. It is not something murderous, not something angry, not something to be compared to jail.
Yet, I do believe that the offering we take and the pledges we make to our annual budget and to the capital campaign belong right here in this passage, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, a passage about discipleship and living in the community of Christ. The offering, as common as the 5-minute ritual we do every week, is not something any of us does on our own. It is something we do as community. It is something we do in relationship to one another. It is something we do in relationship to God and to our whole world. We set aside a portion of our budget to serve meals at GRIP, to give to Heifer Project, and to go to our denomination to maintain church camps and have leaders help us with things like the New Beginnings process. Together we put money in so that our building can be maintained for groups to have safe space to have an event. We do this in relation to everyone else who puts money in.
And, hopefully we give our offering in relationship with God. Jesus said that your offering should be given with a pure relationship to your sister or brother in faith which helps support a pure relationship with God. Jesus said, “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.” In other words, clear your heart before giving your gift, because any gift given when there is spiritual weight in your heart will carry that weight with it into the offering plate.
This is not easy. While I expect that most of us have kept the commandment not to murder anyone physically, I wonder how many have ever thought, “I could kill him!” If that is a fleeting thought, great, but even if it doesn’t become action, that thought can linger and brew into a dark cloud that hangs over all relationships, particularly the one with God.
Every family I know has a story about the aunt or the cousin or the father who never spoke to the rest of the family after some slight that occurred decades ago. In my family, it was my grandmother’s sister who visited with her children when my mother was young. She felt my mother got more attention than her children, and she kept that resentment her whole life, so that I never met her but only saw very old pictures of her. Resentment shows up in the families of our faith, too—Cain and Abel who disagreed about whether being a shepherd or a farmer was more pleasing to God; that resentment ended in murder, and Cain became un-Abel to stay in relationship with his family or God. Jacob and Isaac argued about their father’s blessing and ended in a decades-long exile from home for Jacob. These stories are there to remind us that resentment, anger, murder are all spiritual events that mar the relationship not just with another person but also with God.
Jesus implied in this parable that if your heart is harboring resentment toward another person, your relationship with God is not clean and your offering will not be given in purity.
I don’t know that I’ve ever really thought about the offering in that way. I don’t give much thought to my offering as reflection of my relationship between my neighbor and God. It’s something automatic, a repeated thing I do, and now it is automatically sent to the church from my bank. You will notice that I physically connect with it each week by tapping my phone, a symbol of the electronic giving, on the plate. This week, though my offering is a chance to reflect on any murderous or angry thoughts, any resentment I’m harboring, and how pure my relationship is with God. It makes me think about the ties that bind us together as a community—the idea of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of letting go of resentment in order to be in purer relationship with each other and God.
Jesus said that your offering does not merely reflect a sacrifice of time or money, but a sacrifice of ego, a humbling of spirit before God. The offering we take each week, the Capital Campaign for which we are seeking pledges, is a time to reflect on our relationship to each other and to God.
We Arlingtonians have voted to take a risk, to say that in these uncertain times our faith is certain, and that as a congregation we are committed to deepening our relationships, and to maintaining the ties that bind us with each other and with God.
God, as we take the risk to remain in relationship with each other and you in this place, move us to the spiritual place where all our gifts are given with pure hearts. And, God, when that is just not possible, may our prayers and blessings make these gifts reflect a purity of the intent for the gift. Amen.