Thursday, April 17, 2008

Sermon for March 20, 2007

Salt and Gospel; Law And Light
Matthew 5:13-20

Based on the Sermon“Following the Kiss” by William Carter. He said what I wanted to much better than I could have.

“You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!”

Fiorello LaGuardia was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII. He called 'the Little Flower' by adoring New Yorkers because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, and take entire orphanages to baseball games. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.

Within a few minutes, the bailiff brought a tattered old woman before La Guardia, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor.” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions--ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He took out a bill and said: “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”

The following day, the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

I like that story. It reminds me of the tension between law and grace, between following the rules and finding forgiveness. In today’s gospel text, Jesus is preparing to give us a number of new rules. The issue is what is the place of God’s Law in the life of grace. Or to put it another way, how do we live with religious rules in light of a Savior who comes to help us when we break the rules?

The place to begin is by looking where today’s passage is located. Right after this passage, Jesus teaches a list of difficult rules: You have heard it said, ‘Don’t murder,’ but I say don’t you dare to insult anybody else. You have heard it said, ‘don’t commit adultery,’ but I say don’t even treat another person as an object to grab and possess. You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.’ but I say, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. Your love must be complete, perfect, as your heavenly Father is complete and perfect. What a tough list that is! The burden is even heavier when Jesus says, “If you break one of these commandments, you’re at the bottom of the kingdom’s heap.”

Look again where today’s passage is located. Right before this passage, Jesus speaks about the gracious embrace of God. “Blessed are those among whom God is working. Whoever is poor in spirit, pure in heart, hungry and thirsty for justice - - - blessed are you in the glory of God’s kingdom.” They are kissed by grace, even if they are denounced by the world. Then comes the text for today, with its two affectionate nicknames: “You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.” All of us who hear Jesus speak are given a new identity. We are sent out to give the world a better flavor. We are lit up in order to enlighten. Once again, we are kissed by God. The rest of the text, however, lies between the kiss and the commandment.

In the Sermon on the Mount, after 14 verses of kindness, there are 93 verses of instruction. That’s a lot of do’s and don’ts, shoulds and shouldn’ts, and I-say-unto-yous. And in a general way, that’s the pattern of how laws are given in the Bible. Remember the Ten Commandments? Before God thunders down the commandments from the mountain, God says, “I brought you out of Egypt. You were slaves, and I saved you.” That’s the kiss. It comes first. It’s the same pattern as the Sermon on the Mount. First comes the kiss, the blessed sign of God’s love and grace. Then comes the commandment, the outer evidence that we are God’s distinctive people.

However, the church has always wrestled with a problem with the Sermon on the Mount. How do we hold the kiss and commandment together? Ever since the beginning, good religious people like us have tried to live with one and without the other. Some would say the kiss is enough, and nothing else is necessary. After all, the heart of the good news is that God cherishes us, particularly in a brutal, dangerous world. So why not bask in God’s eternal mercy, and do whatever we want?

I’ll never forget that fateful day as a fifth-grader when I closed my bedroom door and blurted out a few dirty words. I was fairly sure there wouldn’t be a thunderbolt, and there wasn’t. I got away with that awful crime, and felt good that I got away with it. In fact, I felt so free that a few of those words rolled off my tongue at the family supper table. I was exiled to spend the rest of that evening in my room. Never a quick learner, I tried out my newfound freedom again at Scout Camp. I remember trying to console my bunkmate who had been yelled at by the scoutmaster. I said ,”Yeah, the scoutmaster is such a ________” (fill in your favorite expletive). As I spoke, I saw a shadow looming over me. As I turned around, there stood my scoutmaster who heard every word I said. I took me a few embarrassing moments like that to realize that freedom comes with some awesome consequences.

On the other hand, you probably know someone who keeps all the commandments and ignores the kiss. “All that gushy grace?” they say. “It’s a distraction from our duty.” For some people, duty is what life is all about: do the right thing, live the right way, walk the right way. Living within those boundaries can be a great comfort. A man I know drove all night to visit a sick brother. It was a long trip. He was tired. It began to rain. About two o’clock in the morning, he drove through a small town. He slowed down to thirty miles an hour. Nobody was on the street, but he knew how small town cops can be. Suddenly he heard the siren and saw the flashing lights. He pulled over and rolled down the window. The police officer said, “Mister, did you see that sign back there?”
“What sign?”
“School zone - 15 miles an hour.”
“But officer, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning.”
“Did the sign say, ‘School zone except at 2 o’clock in the morning’?”
“But officer, it’s raining. My windshield wipers aren’t working very well.”
“Did the sign say, ‘School zone except at 2:00 when your windshield wipers aren’t working’? The law is the law.”

I can understand that. I don’t like it, but I can understand it. Legalism is the most comforting religion of all. Everything is certain and clear. Did you steal the loaf of bread? Cut off your hand. Did you lust over that Sports Illustrated swimsuit model? Pluck out your eye. Did you relax one iota of the Word of God? Go straight to hell. How can you argue with a religion like that?

It would be a wonderful way to live . . . if only it looked like living. When life is reduced to a checklist, the soul withers. It’s all duty, no delight. It’s all work, no sabbath. More to the point: it’s all commandment, no kiss. Now the Gospel of Matthew has its legalistic streak, to be sure. The writer loves to flash his teeth and frighten us into holy living. Why, you can hear it in the passage we heard this morning: “unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” That’s hard to hear, until you also hear how the opponents of Jesus lived by commandments without kisses. They went through the motions, like actors on a stage. They talked a good talk, but their speech was self-serving. Jesus said, “Your righteousness needs to exceed all of that.” And if we aren’t sure what he’s saying, Jesus went to great pains to show us. The law said, “Don’t touch anybody with a skin disease; it might rub off on you.” Jesus touched a leper and said, “I choose to make you clean.” (8:3) Some said, “That’s a little excessive, don’t you think?”

The rules said, “Don’t mingle with sinners; whatever they have might rub off on you.” Jesus ate with people of ill repute, saying, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.” (9:13) His enemies said, “Don’t you think that’s going a bit too far?”

The traditions said, “Important people need important positions and important titles. Hang around people like that, and their prestige might rub off on you.” Jesus said, “Don’t get caught up in titles, pomp and circumstance; God alone is Teacher, and you all have a lot to learn. In fact, here’s lesson number one: the greatest among you will be your servant.” (23:1-12) The critics said, “Aren’t you stepping over the line?”

Well, maybe he was. He practiced what he preached, and somebody nailed him to a cross. He took upon himself all our failures, all our mistakes, all our broken commandments. When we could not be righteous, he showed us the deep righteousness of God. And he said, “Don’t think I came to throw away my Bible. I came to flesh it out and make it complete.” Keep the whole picture in view: Jesus said, “Blessed are you! You are salt. You are light. I have commandments for you to keep.” When we couldn’t keep the commandments, Jesus took up a cross and kissed us again. Ever since, we are under obligation to keep all the commandments. And when we can’t keep the commandments, Jesus kisses us again, and says, “I forgive you.” Then he requires us to keep his commandments. On and on it goes. Day in, and day out. We are continually loved, yet never off the hook. That’s what it means to belong to God. We know the kiss. And we are called upon to do the commandments. The true child of God is the person who holds both together. Have you ever met someone like that? It’s the person who begins each morning with the words, “Lord, you have claimed me as your own; so I’m going to live as if I belong to you.”

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