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Sunday, February 23, 2020

“Pearls Before Swine…”

A sermon based upon Matthew 7: 1-6
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 23rd, 2020

Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” and the Charlie Brown cartoons were always my favorite, both as a child and as an adult.  And it certainly helps that the late Charles Schultz’s creativity was greatly impacted and influenced by his own Christian faith.   I believe this to be one reasons his cartoons have had such endurance and ‘staying power’.

For example, in one of those famous cartoon’s, Linus has his security blanket in place and his thumb resting in his mouth; he looks troubled. Turning to Lucy, he asked,
Why are you always so anxious to criticize me?”
“I just think I have a knack for seeing other people’s faults.”
Linus threw up his hands, “What about your own faults?”
Without hesitation, Lucy explained, “I have a knack for overlooking them.”

Schultz’ wit and wisdom found its source not only in humanity, but also from Jesus’ own ‘cartoon’.   In today’s text, Jesus gives us a hilarious picture of a person walking around with a ‘log’ in their eye while trying to find a small ‘speck’ in another person’s eye.  Jesus makes the picture funnier, making people judge others look like they are fumbling, bumbling idiots like Laurel and Hardy or The Three Stooges.  Jesus asks: ‘How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye, when there is a log in your own?”

It’s hard to miss the humor, but do we get the message?   And what kind of message is this: “Do not Judge?”  At the end Jesus concludes with an even stranger picture: “Don’t give what is holy to the dogs, and don’t throw your pearls before swine!”  What in the world does not judging others have to do with logs, dogs, and hogs, and especially with pigs in pearls?   Can you picture it? 

DO NOT JUDGE…  (v. 1)
Let’s begin with his command “Don’t judge!”   Who can actually follow that?  Even children at play can be very judgmental.  On the playground children choose the ‘best’ to be on their team.  Some are included, others excluded.  It can even be damaging to young psyches; “We don’t want ‘four eyes’ on our team!”  He can’t hit.  She can’t throw.  They can’t run.  Pick her.  Pick him, but don’t pick them!  You know how it goes. 

Children can be brutal.  For example, while visiting a neighbor, five-year-old Andrew pulled out his kindergarten class picture and began describing each classmate. "This is Robert; he hits everyone. This is Stephen. He never listens to the teacher. This is Mark. He chases us and is very noisy. And in the middle, this is me. I'm just sitting here minding my own business."

As disciples, Jesus makes our human tendency to judge others an issue in Christian discipleship and it’s most relevant.  God has called us to be holy people, and to be live righteous lives as the salt of the earth and as light for the world.  Judging what is wrong can be crucial and important, especially in a world like ours.  It’s more important now than ever, “If you see something, say something!”  And that’s not just to promote right living, it can save lives too?  But how do we ‘judge’ without being judgmental?  How do we say something, without appearing to be condescending?  When we know that someone isn’t living by the standards we are, how do we keep from judging them?  As Jesus implies, how can we promote what is right and point out what is wrong without becoming hypocrites? 

Once, during a lecture on Christian Living at a New York Seminary, Christian Ethics professor Stanley Hauerwas challenged those present: “We, the church, he argued---we who follow Jesus Christ—should be happy and filled with joy so that everyone who sees us will want the life we are living.  They should want to follow Jesus because of who we are and how we show Christ’s love.  We should, as Evelyn Underhill has said, be ‘contagious Christians’.  Unfortunately, we Christians and we churches, and we preachers too, spend less time ‘infecting’ people with Christ’s joy and more time ‘vaccinating’ people against Christ with our poisonous, pious, judgmental attitudes.”  (Quoted by Lucy Hogan in “Preaching the Sermon on the Mount”, Fleer and Bland, eds, p. 151).

Ouch!  But he’s right.  When we live right, do right, and preach right, we can appear to have a high and mighty attitude that turns people away from Christ rather than turns them toward Christ?   Jesus’ warning goes to the heart of what it means, as the saying goes, to hate the sin, but still love the sinner?  In a world that is filling up and running over with the kinds of sin and evil that send a whole nation ‘down the tubes’, how can do we name the sin, without condemning the sinner? Even more importantly, how can we become more ‘contagious’ as Christians, infecting people with Christ’s joy more than we vaccinate people against Christ with “poisonous, pious, judgmental attitudes.”

Interestingly, this very kind of question of how to ‘love a sinner’ arose early in the history of Christianity among a community of monks lived separated from the world.  They were living in the Egyptian desert in an attempt to leave the sinful world behind so they could follow Christ perfectly.  One day, however, one among their brotherhood had committed a serious sin. That sin threatened their community of ‘perfect’ living.  The council met and requested the main Teacher to attend a meeting to judge their brother. When the teacher refused to come, they sent an urgent delegation to require his presence.
“Since you insist,” he said, “I will come in half an hour.”
When he arrived, the Teacher entered the room carrying a leaking water jug on his back. Members of the council asked, “Teacher, what is this?”
He replied: “All day long my sins run out behind me and I am unaware of them. Yet despite my blindness to my own sin, today I am being asked by you to judge the error of another.” When the brothers understood the Teacher was implying, instead of condemning their brother, they forgave him and said nothing more about his sin.

But here’s exactly the challenge, isn’t it?   Their brother had sinned.   He needed correction and help too.  To have refused to point out his sin could have brought him and their community hurt and harm.  If they overlooked his sin, he could have continued in his sin and it would show that his brothers didn’t care about what he did, nor did they really cared about their community.  The problem the Teacher was pointing out was not simple their ‘judgment’ of what was or wasn’t a wrong, but that they were rushing to judgement without being open and honest about their own sins and failures.  The Teacher’s point was that he, nor they, were as perfect as they thought they were. 

Maybe it’s because people are feeling so much pain and hurt these days that our culture today gladly hears Jesus words: “Don’t Judge, lest you be judged!”   Political correctness is in vogue and all the buzz.  Today, it can appear to be more important to be keep our mouths shut, to look the other way and to be kind and nice, than it is to speak up about what is right or wrong.  In an increasingly violent, cruel, and hateful world, pointing out another’s wrongs or faults, might even be dangerous and more trouble than its worth.  

But does this really promote a better future, when we allow no one to point out to us what is right and what is wrong?  Do we really want to live in a world where nothing matters?  Do we want a world where no one cares what we do, and we are left alone to our own devices, where we overlook almost everything so that we end up with no standards, no ethics, or we make no judgments at all?  

Although Jesus clearly warns, “Don’t judge, lest you be judged, he also says a couple of other very important things too.   We are only getting half of the picture if we stop with ‘Don’t judge…’. 

The next thing Jesus says is exactly what the monetary Teacher implied.  Before we ‘see the speck’ in someone else’s eye, we must see the ‘log’ sticking out of our own.  Again, it’s a funny picture, but Jesus is saying something very serious.   What Jesus means is that when we follow him, we must never think that we are better than anyone or everyone else.  Even when we have the light of Jesus shining in us and when we something going wrong, we must still be careful in how we address another’s failures or faults.  Besides, pointing out someone else’s faults isn’t what being a Christian means.   That’s the Holy Sprit’s job, not ours.  Besides, as Christians, we’re supposed to be like Jesus.  This means that our primary work is to be about trying to rescue people from their sin, not condemning or judging people about their sin.  Judging people is a log in our compared to the speck in them.

When a few of us where studying about how to sponsor a Dinner Church in our communities, Verlon Fosner, the founder of the Dinner Church movement, reminded us that in this increasingly secular world, where Christians and churches are less attended and much less understood, churches need to be more about rescuing people than judging them.  Making this more specific, he explained that our primary agenda should be creating opportunities to care, to love, and to listen to people and their struggles, rather than focusing on fixing them.   He also said that too often we in the church have thought that it is our primary saving and rescuing task to get people to confess their sins, then we can introduce them to Jesus.  But he advised, that if we really want to offer healing and help, we need to bring Jesus to them.  We bring Jesus to them, he said, when we, through love and mercy, invite them to the healer.  The path toward rescuing does not begin with overcoming sin, but it begins with Jesus.  Jesus is the healer.  We overcome our struggles and our sins through him.

What Fosner is saying is that we all need Jesus, before any of us can honestly confront and challenge our sins and shortcomings.  And this right way to confront and to challenge ourselves begins when the Spirit of Jesus is with us.  And if you’re going to point out any sin, whether in you,  in the world, or in anyone else, you must be with Jesus so you admit your own sin first.  For only when you put your own struggle and weaknesses on the table first, can you talk to anyone about theirs.  Fosner, in his Dinner Table Approach, called this naming our ‘limitations’ first, which invites a safe place where someone else can freely share their own ‘limitations.’ This is the only way we can keep from becoming ‘hypocrites’ in our work and witness.  And just like we would be patient and kind to ourselves, we should show kindness, compassion and show consideration of others, even when they have failed us.  

Back during the 70’s, I once heard the youthful Christian singer, Sammy Hall sing a wonderful song in a Statesville church, that later Glenn Campbell recorded and made very popular.   That song had a special message about not being judgmental, even if we see someone ‘falling by the way’.  Do you remember?  It went:
If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he's sowed. 
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say, you're going the wrong way.
You got to try a little kindness, Yes show a little kindness
Just shine your light for everyone to see. And if you try a little kindness
Then you'll overlook the blindness. Of narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets.

What I love about that song is that it works both ways, just like Jesus’ words do.  It’s not only reminds us not to be ‘narrow-minded’ judgmental people, but it also reminds us that we should show kindness when we stop and say to someone, ‘Your’re going the wrong way!”  Did you catch that?  And where does this attitude of kindness come from?  How do we overcome the ‘blindness’ of seeing someone else’s sin but failing to see or admit our own?   Kindness grows in us when we realize that the judgement we dish out, will be dished out back upon us.   ‘Kindness’ overcomes ‘blindness’ when we, as Jesus says, first see the ‘log’ in our own eye first.  When we face, understand, learn about, and confront our own ‘limitation’ or struggle first.  When we realize how much we also need kindness, we will then be able to see how much others need the same.  This is why we must ‘see the log in our own eye first’.   As a wise childhood saying goes:
 “There is so much good in the worst of us,  And so much bad in the best of us,
That it hardly behooves any of us   To talk about the rest of us.”

But seeing the log in our own eye, and then showing kindness those who struggle in sin, doesn’t mean that a wrong or sin shouldn’t be confronted at all.  This is why Jesus concludes that after we ‘take out the log from our own eye’ we can then ‘see clearly’to take out the speck from our neighbor’s eye.’  

This reminds us that Jesus surely isn’t saying that we should never confront sins, deal with hurts, become accountable, seek fairness and work toward justice in life.   If we didn’t confront wrongs, relationships would remain in ruin and fellowship with others would remain shallow, if not impossible.  Ignoring sin or wrongs was never Jesus’ intent.  Jesus’ point is that we only do this as fellow strugglers.   

During the 1930's a woman came asking the great Gandhi to get her little boy to stop eating sugar; it was doing him harm. He gave a cryptic reply: "Please come back next week.” The woman left puzzled but returned a week later. The Mahatma said to the young fellow, "Please don't eat sugar. It is not good for you." Then he joked with the boy for a while, gave him a hug, and sent him on his way. The mother, unable to contain her curiosity, lingered behind, "Bapu, why didn't you say this last week when we came? Why did you make us come back again?"  Gandhi smiled. "Last week," he said, "I too was eating sugar."

We only confront sin and wrongs, with the understanding that we are sinners too.  This is why I want to conclude with two assumptions Jesus had, which supported his command not to judge.  The first assumption that we aren’t God.  And because we aren’t God, we are never able to judge completely or absolutely; only God can.  This is the main reason we shouldn’t judge others.  Of course, we have to confront wrongs and damaging sins, but if we starting judging others we are playing God, and that puts us in danger of God’s judgment.   The second assumption is that there is only one righteous judgement that we can make now---that judgement is love.  Now, this doesn’t mean we let every thing go in the name of love, but it means that love is the only way that God judges, because God is love.  Scripture says that we are “all sinners” and “no one is righteous, not one single one”. 

And what has God decided to judge the world?  Scripture says that he has turned all judgement over to the Son.  “For God so loved, that the gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him, will not perish, but have ever lasting life.”  The judgement God pronounces on the world is that God is love, and that we are sinners---we fall short of that love.  And in a situation like that, God has offered us forgiveness—all of us.   Through the life and death of Jesus, God has offered the world his Son, as the final sacrifice, the once and for all offer to forgive our sins.  This is what I mean, that love is how judges the world right now. 

This does not mean there isn’t a final judgment, a time when God will make a final judgement based upon the deeds we have done, and the life we have lived.   Scripture, both among Jews and Christians, has always asserted God’s right to be the final judge.  But for now, right now, in our lives, God’s judgement is love---and our Judgments must be also be offers of forgiving love toward one another.   In the parallel passage to Matthew’s, Luke’s gospel adds a clarifying word about forgiveness: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." (Lk. 6:37-38 NRS)

Interestingly, for those of you who are familiar with Shakespeare, will remember that one of Shakespeare’s plays is named for this passage in Luke, “Measure for Measure”.  In that play Shakespeare tells of a Lord who goes away, and leaves his assistant Angelo in charge.  Angelo begins to rule in very harsh, condemning, unforgiving ways, and is remined by one of those he harmed, that he might someday need God’s mercy which God provided in Christ.  The lady warns in Shakespearian language:
If He, which is the top of Judgment, should But Judge you as you are? 
O, think on that; And mercy then will breathe within your lips, Like man made new.”  (Measure for Measure Acts 2, Scene).

This is something we all should think on, and our judgements would be ‘made new’ too.  When Jesus said, “God did not send to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him….” (Jn. 3:17), why would we ever dare think that God has sent us to do what the Son didn’t do?  Our job is to get the ‘log’ out of our eye, so we can help our neighbor with their ‘speck’.  We only help our neighbor with their ‘speck’ because they have come to us, knowing that we will love them and not condemn. 

And this brings us finally to the ‘pig in pearls’.  Removing logs and removing specks is only done among Christians and disciples who love and care for each other.   This work of accountability, reconciliation, and forgiveness is something than can only happen only in a bond of love.   Only among those who submit to the rule of love under the Lordship of Jesus Christ are able to confess and correct each other in love.  So, don’t judge, unless, as Shakespeare said, “mercy breathes upon your lips.”  Amen

Sunday, February 16, 2020

“Where Your Treasure Is…”

An sermon based upon Matthew 6: 19-24
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 16th, 2020

Recently, the effects of walking through a park were studied by the University of Vermont. That study suggested that the feelings we get when we walk in the park or stroll in the country side are similar to the euphoria we felt, as children, at Christmas. .
Doesn't that make you want to go for a good, long walk this afternoon? 

In today’s Bible text, Jesus reminds us of some things to look for.   He depicts some very familiar country images.  Long before the rise of psychological science, in this part of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus revealed his concern about the mental and emotional health of his disciples. 

With our own more obvious needs to think more about mental health these days, especially with the increase of gun and hate violence, the things Jesus says about worry and anxiety are even more important for us to understand. 

So, let’s get right into it.  What makes you worry?  We all worry about something, and there is a ‘fine line’ between what is bad worry and what is good, natural, necessary concern.   The kind of worry Jesus is speaking about is excessive, life-paralyzing, debilitating worry---worry that keeps us from doing the kinds of things we need to do in life.  

You can worry so much about having a wreck, that you never learn to drive.  You can worry so much about failing, that you never try anything new.  Or you can worry so much about what somebody else thinks, that you never say or do anything challenging.   

Worry that robs us of growing and developing, and living life in its fullness and freshness, this is the kind of worry Jesus is talking about.

In a pleasant stroll across the natural landscape Jesus says, “Look at the birds….”    “Consider the lilies of the field…”   What he means is: Birds don’t worry about finding food, they just go after it and they find it.  Flowers also don’t worry how they will survive, they pick up all the nutrients they need, they in the sunlight and they grow and glow in their beauty.  Birds and flowers don’t have worry nor anxiety.  They just exist.  They trust.  They just live.  In their short, brief, and constantly endangered lives, they still don’t worry.  So, learn from them, Jesus says.  Live.  Learn.  Love.  But don’t worry.

Jesus was a pragmatist.  He certainly wasn’t a scientist.  And Jesus was also being overly simplistic for the sake of making his point.  Yet, he still makes a valid, most practical, and needed point.  Even modern people, people who think they know or have all the answers, still need to gain the wisdom it takes to apply all that knowledge.  

And just because we know and have so much, doesn’t mean we don’t also have fears, worries or anxieties.   In fact, the more we know, the more likely we will have increased anxieties about what we know.  Don’t we know people who don’t want to hear the news or read the paper, because they fear that what they learn will depress them even more?  Don't we also know people who don’t want to go to the doctor or have a medical examination because they fear they might learn they have some disease?   

The eye doctor told me recently that I needed to be tested for Glaucoma---an eye disease due too having much pressure in the eye.  She said my eye was a little enlarged.  While the pressure in my eye was as low as it could be, she said a few people might have Glaucoma from having too low of pressure, rather than having pressure that is too high.  It’s rare, but she still wanted to rule it out.  I already had it ruled out, and there was something in me that didn’t want to know, but needed to know whether I wanted to or not.  I suggested that since the office had a new piece of examination equipment, they had to find ways to pay for it.  At least I was helping.  I was nervously joking too.

Knowledge can be a wonderful gift, but we still have to know ‘how’ to use and handle that knowledge we have to face in life.  Remember ‘the knowledge of the tree of good and evil’ in the garden of Eden?  Scientists used to think that our brains are like computers, as they are programmed from birth.  Recently, they have come to understand that our brains are 'deep learners'.  Instead of already being programmed, our brains learn through the good and bad experiences of life.    We acquire knowledge, and quickly learn from it, but even with such astounding speed and ability to learn, we also have to develop the emotional strength we need to deal with all that knowledge.   And we gain emotional strength, not through how much we know, but by experiencing and living in loving, happy and healthy ways, rather than unhealthy ones.  

Even with all the knowledge and skills we might acquire, what do we really gain, unless we also learn to trust, to love, to care, and to hope, no matter what happens.   And this is exactly the direction Jesus going with these beautiful, peaceful pictures.  Jesus observed and learned about life from life.   Through these ‘life’ pictures, Jesus points us to the simple realities that give us trust and faith in life, because God is life's creator and sustainer.   And just as God gives the birds and flowers what they need, God will also sustain us, and give us what we need.  Trust God, and then get on with the work of life, and these things will take care of themselves.  This is the simple message Jesus gives.

Of course, life’s not always that simple.  And we should never make Jesus’ words more or less than what Jesus meant.  Jesus would never have looked at the demoniac who was cutting himself and said too simply: Don’t worry!   Jesus had to first challenge the demon that was living in him.  Jesus also didn’t tell Martha and Mary ‘not to worry’ when their brother Lazarus died.  The Bible says “Jesus wept”.  Jesus wept because dealing with life and death can be painful and difficult, but there is still hope.   Jesus also told people who would consider following him, ‘to count the cost’, and to ‘take up their cross’.  Life can be challenging, complicated, and there are no ‘easy buttons to push our way through life.   Thus, Jesus’ encouraging words are not meant to be simple fixes for life’s most complicated issues.  But they are words that point us toward trust, toward having confidence, and toward having faith that God is for us, not against us.

But we also need to understand that some worries in human life can be more easily overcome than others.  Sometimes people have worry, not because of bad choices, but because of emotional, psychological, spiritual, and mental issues that are not simple, and must be faced in multiple ways.  They will need medicines, treatments, counseling, and to learn new ways to cope.   Again, Jesus is not giving a simple ‘mind over matter’ or ‘faith solves everything’ prescriptions for every single human problem.  But Jesus is trying to give his disciples the most basic encouragement in facing what happens in life.  He wants them to know that learning faith, and living faith, begins with trust.  And learning to trust God, is the most basic 'first' choice we make for the sake of our own mental, emotional, and spiritual health. 

Trust!  Don’t worry!  Jesus is asking his disciples to make a choice.  And Jesus is not giving a command to exert control or power over us, but Jesus is putting the power we need to overcome worry back into our lives—he is giving us the power of choice.   

Do you understand what this means?  No matter what we face in life, whether we go to the doctor or not, to the counselor or not, or whether we go to church or not, we still have choices to make in our minds and hearts.  We still have to choose to have ‘faith’ and ‘to trust’ when difficult situations arise.   And the choices we make, like when we ‘look at the birds’ or when we ‘consider the flowers’ are examples of the ‘power’ God has given to us, to choose, the walk, to decide to take a path toward trust and hope, rather than a path that continues on the road to despondency and despair.

One of the most important paths toward hope is to learn what is ‘hopeful’ and what isn’t---what gives us life or what robs us of it, what promotes wellness, and what causes disease, what promotes contentment or what produces anxiety. There are, of course, things in life that we can choose to do in life that will lead to greater burdens or to dead ends of trust and hope, and there are things that we can choose that will lead to fuller, more hopeful, and more confident living.  

It is some of these ‘hopeful’ and ‘healing’ ways of living Jesus meant when, in the previous verse, he spoke of evaluating our ‘treasures.”   Here, it is important to understand how the passages, the one about ‘treasures’ and the one about debilitating ‘worries’ can be related.  Of course, they can stand alone, but I believe they are better understood when we see how they are related.   For you see, too much of the unnecessary, destructive, and excessive worries of our lives, can come from having our focus on the wrong kind of treasures.   With both these passages, Jesus is reminding them and us, that we can overload our lives with the kinds of ‘treasures’ that bring more stress, lay on us unnecessary burdens and give too little of what life is supposed to be about.

An example what we might ‘treasure’ is given in a story about Coach Shug Jordan at Auburn University.  Once the Coach asked his former Linebacker Mike Kollin, then playing for the Miami Dolphins, if he would help his alma mater do some recruiting.

Mike said, "Sure, coach. What kind of player are you looking for?" The coach said, "Well Mike, you know there's that fellow, you knock him down, he just stays down?" Mike said, "We don't want him, do we, coach?"

"No, that's right. Then there's that fellow, you knock him down and he gets up, you knock him down again and he stays down." Mike said, "We don't want him either do we coach?"

Coach said, "No, but Mike, there's a fellow, you knock him down, he gets up. Knock him down, he gets up. Knock him down, he gets up. Knock him down, he gets up."

Mike said, "That's the guy we want isn't it, coach?" The coach answered, "No, Mike, we don't want him either. I want you to find the guy who's knocking everybody else down. That's the guy we want."

Most of us ‘treasure’ this kind of guy, don’t we?   We treasure this kind of life too.  It’s a is a very natural and normal thing, isn’t it?   We want to be a winner.  We want to come out on top.  We ‘treasure’ being the person who gets to the top and stays on top, knocking everybody else down and getting the things we want in life.  That’s what all the TV commercials say.  That’s what all the billboards and salesmen say.  Buy this.  Get this.  Do this and you’ll have what you want in life.   The problem with only having these kinds of goals, dreams or ‘treasures’ is that they are fleeting.  And when you don’t reach them, maintain them, or one day you can’t keep them going, your life begins to flood with worry, stress, and anxiety about what might happen next.

But Jesus says, as an alternative, that we should put our ‘focus’ and make our ‘treasure’ the kinds of ‘heavenly’ things that aren’t fleeting, temporary, or limited.   Interestingly, when Jesus speaks of ‘storing up treasures in heaven’, he’s really not talking about taking stuff with us into heaven, but he’s talking about living for, treasuring, and learning to cherish the kinds of ‘earthly’ things matter, that give us peace, and give us hope, not just now, but for the world to come.

In another football story, at the beginning of Football Season last year,  the star quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, Andrew Luck, shocked his fans and the football world by announcing his retirement at 29.  Fans booed him as he left the field, but in spite it walking away from his 500 million-dollar contract, he said there was no joy left for him in playing the game in pain.  For the past 4 years, the attempts to stay in top form and be one of the best players, caused him injury after injury, surgery after surgery, pain on top of pain.  Then he said something I thought was really amazing: “I’ve got to get on with some things I want to do with my life.”    Andrew Luck’s was making a better choice for his life.

But another football story, even greater than this comes from a star center Jason Brown, a North Carolina native, who played football at Carolina, was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, and had a 35 million dollar contract to play center for the LA Rams.  One day, Brown says, God told him to leave football and to raise food.  He listened.  He left a 37 million dollar contract and spent all his money on buying a farm in Louisburg, N.C.   Brown said he’d never been a farmer before.  But God told him to do it.  Now, he’s learning how by watching Youtube Videos, just like the watch Football videos to study his opponents.   Brown went on to explain, on a PBS television show, “Growing a Greener World” that he named his farm “First Fruits” because he would give the poor the ‘first fruits’, the first 10 percent of everything he grew.  And Brown didn’t even have a good working tractor for his 1,000 Sweet Potato Farm, but he does now, thanks a neighbor farmer who was willing to buy him one. 

What do you treasure?  Do you treasure the right kind of things?  That’s what Andrew Luck was learning through his injuries, suffering and pain.  That’s what Jason Brown learned too, as he made the decision to answer the call of God in his life, and seriously and compassionately raise ‘food’ instead of going through the rest of his life playing football.  

We all have choices to make, and one of the biggest choices is to discover what matters most in this very short life.  For, if we understand anything Jesus is saying here, it’s this: “You can’t have everything!” 

Isn’t this exactly what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, in conclusion, that you can’t ‘serve two masters’.    Now, Jesus gets to the core of most human worry and stress:  money, wealth, stuff.   You have to choose which master you’re going to serve, Jesus said.  You can’t love the both.  You’re going to serve one of these.  You’ll love one and you’ll hate the other.   The question, is however, not simply which one will you love, but the real question Jesus implies, is which one of these ‘masters’ will love you back? 

Isn’t that what Andrew Luck learned the hard way.   He loved ‘Football’, but Football didn’t love him back.   Jason Brown learned that too.   Once he loved Football, but when he realized there was something in life that was an even greater love, Jason Brown turned toward the greatest treasure of all---living his life, not just for himself, but living his life for his family, his community, and most of all for God.  

What is your life about?  Are you just focused on the stuff you can have, the things you can do for yourself?  No wonder your life is filled with distrust, anxiety and worry!   If you are being overcome with worry, why don’t you try focusing on treasuring something else.   Why don’t you treasure something that gives you something in return?  Now, this isn’t a different kind of selfishness, because the ‘treasures’ in life that give you and me something in return, which Jesus calls ‘rewards in heaven’, are the kinds of things we can’t ‘store’ for ourselves on earth. They are ‘eternal’ kinds of things we must give away, if we want to have them.  If we want love, we have to give it away to someone.  If we want to have compassion show to us, we have to show it someone.  If we want to feel less worry, less anxiety, and less stress in life, we have to not only find ‘peace within ourselves’, but we also have to share that peace and show that peace with those around us. 

For if we want to have a life that really counts for something, we have to learn how count like God counts, and how to give like God gives.  For unless we do, we will only have worries and fears that will never go away, because, in our hearts, we know that without God, and without God’s goodness, we will eventually have nothing to show for our lives at all.  

Bill Bouknight retells a familiar a man who, while walking on a beach, found a used magic lamp.  He rubbed the lamp and the genie appeared, inviting him to make a wish. The man pondered for a moment and then had a great idea. He requested a copy of the stock page from the local newspaper, dated exactly one year into the future. With a puff of smoke, the genie disappeared and in his place was a copy of the stock page, dated exactly one year into the future.

Gleefully, the man sat down to inspect his trophy.  Now he could invest with certainty, knowing which stocks would rise. But then he happened to glance at what was on the back of the stock page. It was the obituary column. And guess whose name was at the top of the list. It was his own!   Suddenly all those stock market gains seemed less important. Why? Because for the first time, this man had to look at life from an eternal perspective.  This was when he learned what really mattered, but it was too late.

The reason Jesus told us to choose the right ‘master’ is because we all have choices to make in life.  We can choose to have ‘treasures’ that are consumed by time, or we can have ‘treasures’ that transcend time.   Since we are mortal, and because there are always ‘powers’ that threaten to destroy our lives, even prematurely, if you want to choose a ‘master’ who gives you hope, confidence, and trust---and helps you overcome the anxieties and worries of life, choose this God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Father of Our Lord Jesus.  Why choose him?  Because he is the only ‘master’ who promises to give back, what you give to him.  Even if your life is unfairly taken from you, you can still trust him.   For not only can you ‘cast all your cares upon him’, you can know something even greater: ‘that he cares for you’.  Amen. 

Sunday, February 9, 2020


An sermon based upon Matthew 6: 1-18
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 9th, 2020

At the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works….” (5:16).   Here, after urging his disciples toward maturity in doing good, Jesus gives a stern, warning: “BEWARE!”
Beware of what?  What does a person who desires to be good, do good, who is good, have to be careful about? 

In describing his warning Jesus gives us a humorous picture of a fellow putting his money in the offering plate, holding a trumpet between his lips sounding off loud and clear!  This is not the way to give your offering, Jesus says; ‘do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing….’   Let your offering be ‘done in secret’, so that God can ‘reward you…’ (6:2).  This is the way you should ‘practice your piety’—your goodness, or your righteousness ---in secret, not trumpeting in public.

The second picture Jesus gives is stronger: “Whenever you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites; for they loved to stand…at the street corners….so they can be seen” (6:5).   No, when you pray, Jesus says, “go into your room and shut the door’…pray in secret….”   Don’t ‘heap up empty phrases…’   Don’t use ‘many words’ for the sake of words (6:7).  Don’t be like them, for you Father know what you need before you ask him.”  

During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s most men around here had long beards.  Churches in the area didn’t have electricity, so evening rival services were by candlelight.  Pastor William Linney, told in his book, School of the Prophets, how a man in a nearby Baptist Church was once praying a long prayer during one of those evening services and the prayer went longer, and longer, and longer.   It got so long, that in response, another fellow reached over and grabbed the candle and set his beard on fire, so the prayer would finally come to an end. 

Certainly, Jesus wouldn’t recommend this, but certainly made his point: “Don’t not be like them.”  Do not pray like that.  Long prayers do not make good disciples nor prove true discipleship.  It’s not about the prayer, it’s about the ‘pray—er’.    Following this, Jesus gives us a model of a good, brief prayer, we know as ‘The Lord’s Prayer”, which is only about 55 words in it’s original form.  In other words, you can say everything you need to say to God in about 55 words.  Prayer is less about words, but prayer is about you.  God already knows what you need before you ask.  It’s about you, not words.

The final picture Jesus gives is about fasting.  Now before you write ‘fasting off’ as some archaic religious practice, you need to understand what fasting meant, and what it might still mean. 

Think about it this way, in our society today, many people believe that life is about having whatever you want, when you want it.  This is one reasons we have a drug problem in America.  It’s also one of the reasons addictions to opioids is one of the greatest health problems today.  People still struggle to control their wants, desires, people still have difficulty dealing with pain and suffering.  In a wealthy culture like ours, we’re all so used to having, gaining, and getting, that we can easily become unable to control our desires and curb our physical appetites.   

Even in the ancient world, which had a lot less, controlling appetites and desires was a major issue of daily life.  Self-control was a major part of much of the moral discussion in the ancient world, as we’ve all seen why in some of those historical images of ancient Egyptian and Roman people living in luxury, excess little physical restraint, while the needs of the world went largely unnoticed.

What we need to understand is that ‘fasting’ was important to people of faith, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament too, not simply because it proved devotion to God, but it also reminded them of their responsibility to others.   Fasting was a way of managing and maintaining control over your own body, mind, and soul so that our own desires do not get out of control.  Even though we may call it a diet, rather than a fast, curbing our human appetites is just as important today, as it was then.

Of course, this act of ‘self-denial’ can be taken to the extreme, which is part of what Jesus is addressing here.  Here, Jesus uses the word ‘hypocrites’ again (v.5), pointing out how ‘they’ put on ‘dismal’ and ‘disfigured faces’ to show off pious deeds.  Speaking sarcastically, Jesus says, “Truly they will receive their reward’ (v. 16), but ‘when you fast, speaking to his disciples, he says ‘put oil on your head and wash your face’ (v17).  What Jesus is referring is how, in a dry, dusty, desert culture, people normally presented themselves in public.  It’s something like guys putting Brylcream or girls putting mousse in their hair before going to the office, or going out on a date.  Remember that?  The point is, when you ‘fast’, when you ‘go on a diet’, or when you’re showing self-restraint, it’s not about showing proving that you’re better than anyone else, but it’s about what’s deep within our hearts.

We can only understand why Jesus takes a different approach from ‘letting our light shine’ to doing things ‘in secret’ when we take seriously this word that keeps coming up in this text: ‘hypocrite’.   We all know the word to refer to someone who ‘pretends to be something they are not’.   That’s certainly part of it, but Jesus means something even more threatening to everything good in the world.  The hypocrite is the person who is appears to do good, and thinks they are doing good, but really, they are doing nothing good at all.   In fact, by doing what they think is good, by doing only what is good for themselves, they are doing no real good, for God, or for the world.   A hypocrite is not ‘letting their light shine’, because, they are only pretending and parading themselves, they are still living in the dark.

Why was Jesus so concerned with ‘hypocrites’?   Why was he concerned with people who give, even though they like to ‘toot their own horn’? I know churches and charities that gladly receive ‘big money’ and putting names on public display, as an example for others.  What’s so wrong with that?   I also know people who pray eloquently in public, what’s wrong with that?  We do need public, not just private prayer, as an example, right?   And what’s wrong with people, like Jesus’ fasting before his mission, or someone like a Gandhi, fasting to make a public protest? 

Of course, the answer is whether someone does something in public or in private, is not only about the merit of the deed itself, but it’s about the intent.  Like he does elsewhere, Jesus is getting to the ‘heart’ of the matter.   The way we live as disciples, is not for simply a show, but it’s about its about who we really are as persons, and what we are trying to do for the world, as people.  The good we practice, whether it be in public, or in private is to be is a good that works from the inside out.  This is a ‘good’, a ‘righteousness’ that seeks to challenges the world because it has already challenged and changed us.

Why was avoiding hypocrisy in our goodness so important to Jesus?  Why is it important that we live out our faith and our goodness in ways that are reflected in our own lives first?   And why is this as important now, as it was then?  Why should we, as followers of Jesus, still be concerned about how we practice our faith as it relates to others in ways that are genuine and authentic?

In answering this, let me tell you about Andy Root.  He has been a Lutheran Youth Pastor, but is now a noted practical, pastoral professor of Christian Living at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Root’s writing is important, because he is making some very interesting observations about being disciples of Jesus in a secular age--- an age where less people believe in God or religion.  In one of this articles, he told the story of a pastor, who has been in pastoral ministry for over 15 years, but now confessed ‘that most days he has no idea what he is supposed to be doing, and it makes him nauseous’.   Root says, this is not a ‘dead beat’, but he’s been pretty good at being a pastor too, he loves his calling, but that pastor is less and less sure that ‘anything he does means anything to anybody.’

Now, don’t get this wrong, pastoral work has always been challenging work, but today something is different, Root suggests.  We live in an increasingly secular culture where God doesn’t matter that much.  In a way, Root says, this is understandable.  Why should anyone live by faith people when we think we have all the facts we need already at our finger tips?  There was a time, of course, when churches were at the center of life and pastors were sought out for spiritual wisdom?  As child 55 years ago, I recall a Saturday morning TV show on WBTV in Charlotte called ‘Parson to Persons.  That show had prominent, local pastor’s discussing life issues and giving supportive solutions.  Who would watch something like that today?  The priorities of our world have drastically changed.  Even to most church members, there are many more important things to do than pray or worship on Sunday.  What matters is what people can count, measure, or manipulate to our own advantage. 

And this goes for church too.  Do you know that the most successful kind of church in this country today is the not a church that comes together to worship God, but it’s a church that ‘serves’ people—that is, it’s the kind of church that gives people what they need or want?  Now don’t misunderstand, I think it’s wonderful for people to go on mission trips, to help the poor, to get involved in social ministries, or even to come to church to become a better person.  These things are important, and I’m not belittling them, but they aren’t central to what church should mean, first of all.

The original meaning of church is to be an assembly of people coming together to give ourselves to God in worship.  Worship is not primarily about getting something.  True Worship is giving yourself to God and then leaving the sanctuary to go out into the world and serve.  But today, in our world, when God is seldom acknowledged in any kind of public way, people, both in the church and outside too, are having greater trouble sensing anything real, important, or tangible of God’s presence.  Unless people feel something in the music; unless they are doing something for themselves or for others, God only matters if God gives you a higher purpose for your own life (Rick Warren).  In short, even for most Christians: If God helps you, then God matters.  God is no longer God because God is God.   

What Andy Root is talking about is important because people, even Christians too, are live in a secular world that has more trouble believing in, trusting in, or acknowledging God as God.  And when God isn’t God simply because God is God, what’s in our hearts matters less than what’s in our heads.   What matters is only what we show, what we see, or what we do, so who seems less important. 

This is why our true, authentic, and sincere ‘witness’ is necessary to true discipleship, not only in Jesus’ day, but ours as well.  Today, people need to see God and good in us in order to see God or God’s goodness at work in the world.  We can all see, on the news most every night, how we are becoming a nation and a world filled with increasing hate, anger, violence, and unending negativity.  The only way we can influence this world, that is be ‘salt and light’ to influence our world in a different direction, is with a genuine, honest, and sincere witness to what is true.   One single Christian, or one single disciple being a ‘hypocrite’ can turn people away from goodness and God, but one single righteous person, doing good, as Jesus himself was and did, can still impact the world for great good. 

To show them (and us) ‘how’ not to be ‘hypocrites, Jesus gave his disciples this model prayer.  This prayer works against hypocrisy because it’s not only a model for prayer, but it’s also a pattern for living one’s lives.   When God is acknowledged as God, and when we genuinely acknowledge our need of God’s goodness and forgiveness, hypocrisy doesn’t get a foot in edgewise. 

Once I was getting tires on my car and while in the waiting area, came into a conversation with fellow from my hometown.  The fellow was just a little older than me, and I asked him if he went to church.  When he told me that he used to go to a certain church that I was familiar with.  I told him that I knew a certain person that still went to that church.  He answered, “Yes, he knew the fellow too, he just happened, many years ago, to have had an affair with his wife.”  Whoops!   You just never know when humanity will show up.

I answered the fellow with my apologies, saying, “I’m sure glad we have a forgiving God.”  But you could tell he was not the kind of guy who went to church much anymore.  He wasn’t bitter, though.  He even admitted that perhaps it happened accidently.  But I wondered, was that what that drove him away?   Did he just lose touch with God?  Did he think all Christians were hypocrites?   Who knows?  What I do know only God is God, and we are not. 

But it’s not just acknowledging God that works against hypocrisy in us, but it’s also acknowledging our need of God’s forgiveness, and our need to forgive each other too.  And sometimes we not only need God to forgive us, we need God to rescue us, or as the prayer says, to deliver us from evil---not just the evil out there in the world, but the evil that can get inside of us. 

This is the hope in Jesus’ prayer, that we will be on a journey in lives, giving ourselves to God’s will and acknowledging our need for God’s forgiveness and deliverance from all kinds of evil.  Let me close with one of my favorite stories.  It’s evidently a very old story because it goes back beyond the negative use of the word hypocrite. For you see, originally, the word hypocrite goes back to the actors who used to put masks on in plays, pretending to be someone they aren’t.  As I heard one actor say recently, ‘when I play someone I have to forget who I am, and become, at least in that moment, the person whom I’m playing and pretending to be.’ 

In the old story, a rough fellow, met a girl that he wanted to settle down and marry, but she was a much better person than him.  He didn’t think he had a chance with her like he was, so he put on a ‘mask’ and pretending to be someone better.  He was able to fool the girl and got her to start going out with him.  But one day, someone saw who he was, and told him, in front of the girl, to remove the mask.  When he slowly took the mask away, to his own surprise, and everyone else, he was no longer the person he used to be, but by pretending to be someone better, he had changed and became the person that he wanted to be.

I like that story because it’s why Jesus teaches his disciples to pray; not because they are perfect already, but he wants them to become the prayer they pray.   Jesus still wants us, his disciples today, to become who we can be when we pray and live this prayer.  Will you conclude this sermon by praying this prayer with me in the great King James language most of us have learned:  Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever and ever.   

And I close with this ‘Amen’; this ‘so be it’: That you will not only keep praying this prayer and living this prayer, allowing God deliver you, not just from the evil in the world, but from the evil and can get inside of both me and you.  Amen.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

“Until All Is Accomplished”

An sermon based upon Matthew 5: 17-48  (Read only Matthew 5: 17-20) 
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDivDMin. 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership,   
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 2nd, 2020 

We had furnace problems at church.  Instead of meeting in the sanctuary we assembled in the basement and our sitting arrangements were different.  One fellow, who normally sat at the very back row, was sitting on the very front and listening very intently to my message on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.   

After the service ended, the man came up to me.  He first told me that he appreciated my sermon, but he was wondering how we could dare take Jesus literally.  ‘Surely’, he said, Jesus couldn’t have meant for us to live like this in the ‘real world’ These how we will live in heaven, right?   

That man was asking a good question.  Was Jesus being realistic when he said, Your righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees”?  He went on to explain this by saying: You’ve heard it said “Don’t murder, but I say don’t even get angry at your brother.   “You’ve heard it said, don’t commit adultery, but I say “Don’t even lust in your heart.  “You’ve heard it said, you may divorce your wife, but I say, don’t…”.  Don’t make vows, Turn the other cheek.” “Go the second mile,  and strangest of all, he said: Love your enemy?  What planet was Jesus on?  Didn’t Jesus realize he was talking to humans, and not angels?    

I hate to tell you this, but Jesus saved the hardest part for last.  Go to the end of today’s text and in most versions of the Bible you’ll his final summary.  Summing up all these, difficult, unrealistic, challenging, exceptional teachings, Jesus concludes:  ‘Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.’  Yea, right!  But God is in heaven, and we’re not.  Isn’t this where many people write the Bible off as ‘wishful thinking’?  Who can ‘be perfect’ like this, especially when it comes to loving an enemy?  

When I was concluding elementary school, Billy was who we would call a bully.  He sat in front of me, and constantly pestered me.  Once I thought he was going to choke me to death.  I had knelt down to pick up Diane’s pencil, like a gentleman should do, and Billy jumped on my back wrapping his arms around my neck.  My lights almost went out and he finally stopped.  He only stopped because Diane was pleading with him.  I was humiliated and felt like a fool I had not been taught to fight back. 

On the school bus that afternoon, I vowed (First exception to Jesusto myself that this would ever happen again.  couldn’t afford Karate lessons, so I bought simple self-instruction book on Judoa fighting method based on teaching self-defense, like most law enforcement, and military personnel learn.  I got my best friend to help me and we went through and rehearsed the basics together.  One day, before the teacher arrived in math class, Billy jumped on my back again.  I was standing up this time and made a move just like I had rehearsed.  I threw Billy over my shoulder and he landed on his back on the concrete floor.  He looked shocked.  People around were laughing as I walked away to go to my seat  

Billy never jumped on me again.  That was my second exception to Jesus, and I’ll have to admit, it felt very good.  It worked too.  It worked in a way that turning the other cheek never could.   

So, it’s here that we come back to the question the man asked me at church: Jesus couldn’t have meant this for the real world, could he?. I wish I could have given that fellow an easy answer, but there is no simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  Life is always more complicated than that, and righteousness and goodness, just like love, can get complicated too.   

But there is one simple answer I know that I you right up front.  If you try to live like this in the ‘real world’, you could get hurt.  Jesus did live like this and we all know what happened to him.  You certainly couldn’t ‘turn the other cheek to Hitler’.  You also couldn’t ‘love an enemy like communism that declares to you, like Soviet Communism once declared to our country, ‘We will bury you’!  One German Christian, who came to America because of Nazism, just like many others did because of communism, said that some evils in life call for ‘Christian Realism’ instead of ‘Christian Idealism’.  In other words, while we should do our best to follow Jesus in this world, since the kingdom of heaven hasn’t fully comeeven peace-loving Christians sometimes have to ‘get real’ in this fallen world. 

That German-American Christian, Reinhold Niebuhr, was right.  We must live toward Christian ideals, but now, in this fallen world, we have to ‘be realistic’ too, right?  But wasn’t Jesus just as realistic as any human could ever be?  Are we simply to write Jesus off every time we face an evil, or moral challenge?  Is this what Jesus words are finally reduced too—-a nice way to dream, but far away from the realities of our everyday life?  And if this is what we settle for, why did Jesus call us to be Salt and Light?  How can we be salt if we stay in the salt shaker? How can we be light by hiding these values and behaviors under a basket every time the world gets dark?  Shouldn’t being a Christian mean more than simply doing what everyone else does?             

Being Christian and following Jesus doesn’t have an ‘easy button’.  Having a savior who died on a cross who bids his disciples to take up their cross can’t be easy, and Jesus most certainly didn’t say ‘blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake’ for nothing.  When you follow Jesus there is a cost to pay, just like there is a cross to bear, but Jesus isn’t trying to get us killed.  So, what did Jesus mean?  

The key to understand Jesus’ radical commands must focus on what Jesus was teaching about God’s law.  In the ancient Jewish world, and still in many Jewish and Christian groups today, following and obeying God’s law is the way to live a good, moral, and upright life. This is why Jesus declares right up front, before he makes any moral challenge: “Don’t think that I’ve come to abolish the law.  I’ve come to fulfill it.” (5:17).   

As one commentator says, when it comes to the Law of Moses, we should think of Jesus as a great searchlight and a laser-beamWhereas a searchlight magnifies the light through a great lens and displays light powerfully across the sky and a laser intensifies and concentrates the light, the event and person of Jesus Christ helps the ancient light of God’s Law to be even more focused and enlarged.  At every place and in every piece of the law, Jesus asks ‘What is the will of God that stands behind each commandment he wants us to ask ourselves how may we be obedient to God’s will being expressed in the law. (Tom Long). 

We see exactly what this means in the opening of the gospel when Jesus reinterpreted Sabbath laws (Matt. 12: 1ff.).  After Jesus and his disciples got in trouble with religious leaders for plucking grain and healing a lame man on the Sabbath Day, Jesus pointed beyond the ‘letter of the law’ to the law’s original intent, which was to offer justice and mercy in ways that would nourish, sustain and restore God’s people. In other words, God’s intention was to give a day of rest for humanity.  Sabbath Law should never be used against people. This would violate God’s loving intent.   

In a similar way, each of the radical commands we read in Matthew 5, Jesus is going behind and beyond the ‘letter of the law’ straight to the heart of the matter.  In each case Jesus implies that being righteous is not about cold, calculated, and sometimes even cruel legalistic ways of following rules, but the law is about a coming into a living relationship with the God of the law and becoming the kind of loving, caring, concerned person God has created us to be.    

Jesus’ radical call is to trust, obey, and to love God and others in such radical, surprising and personal ways, to meant to challenge the human situation so that people can be given an chance to be transformed and changed by God’s mercy and grace.  This is why told his disciples that their ‘righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees’.   The world can’t be challenged and changed if people only do what is right.   Hearts are only changed when we are the right kind of people.  The law is limited to show us what the good it, but it does not change the heart.   This is why the world must be challenged from the inside out, not only from laws and rules.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ day knew the law and followed it meticulously, but what they were failing to do was to feel God’s heart and love like God loved.  They failed to live and teach in a way that promoted healing that would shine the light of God’s love, even into the darkest places. 

The main message here is that only through acts and deeds of love will God’s law be fulfilled and will all be fully accomplished.   Living a good and faithful moral life does not boil down to mastering all the rules and religiously following them to the letter.   Who can do that?   

Normally, when society encounters a new wrong, what do legislators do but make and write a new law forbidding it.   Last year, when we had two mass shootings back to back, one in El Paso, Texas, and the other in Dayton, Ohio, there was an immediate new outcry for new gun laws.   Make new laws, and the violence will stop.   In another situation, as American’s face the rising costs of medicines, which seem to point to dishonest drug prices, there were more cries for increased regulations.  Then, when we hear about someone using the internet to break into people’s bank or credit card accounts, we also hear an outcry again for more and more laws.   

No one argues that we don’t need constantly need new laws and new legislation, but happens when you finally end up with more and more laws and less and less freedom.  You know how it goes.  Someone does something wrong, then you have a new law.  Then comes another way to do wrong, the comes another law, then another wrong, then and another law, and it goes on and on.   You understand where I’m going with this, don’t you?  This scenario recalls something I heard quoted in High School Debate Club: “You simply can’t legislate morality!”  And that’s so true, you can’t.  While we need laws, God’s and human, laws certainly aren’t the way to perfection, maturity, or salvation.  Having to write and live by ever-stricter rules of law means the opposite--that we are still living ‘infantile’ lives, and aren’t able to grow into the maturity of love.    

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians: “… if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. “ (Gal. 5:18 NRS).  That’s not simply wishful thinking.  It’s the sign of having a transformed mind and heart.   And this is exactly Jesus’ point in elevating the moral law to actual deeds of love that go above and beyond the law.  This is why Jesus says that if we want to be perfect or mature; we must learn to control our anger, we must learn to deal with our lust, we must learn to save our marriages, we must learn to tell the truth,  we must learn not to retaliate or seek vengeance, and most of all, we must even learn to love our enemy.   The late James McClendon understood exactly where was headed with all this.  He explained how Jesus did not say ‘Have no enemies.’  We all have enemies, but if we try to go against our enemies, and we only fight against our enemies, we’ll find they have friends, and we’ll make even more enemies.   No, McClendon said, Jesus was right.  The best way to get rid of an enemy is try to make them friend.   

In this passage, every time Jesus says You’ve Heard it said, but I say unto you…”, Jesus was not abolishing the law, but he is taking us back to what God when he gave Moses the law in the first place: “…You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:18 NRS).  Learning to love like God loves is what God’s law has always been about, but it’s still not easy, especially in world like ours.  That's why the man came to me after church with his question.  It’s always good to ask questions, for we would go out on the streets of New York City one morning, or most any American city for that matter, loving with our heart, without also using our head, we could be in the hospital before lunch.    

We must be ‘wise as serpents, and as innocent as doves’ when we follow Jesus, especially when we follow Jesus in this radical way loving each other in ways that go ‘beyond’ the law.   So, to I conclude with three simple, clear, very important words, each beginning with “C”, which give us wisdom for living God’s love in the ‘real’ world.  

The first word isChrist.  When we read such radical demands of love we must realize that this comes by Jesus’ own authority.  A way of following the law had been revealed to Moses, but now an even greater, more personal and fulfilling way life based on the law of love is being revealed.   Notice that Jesus does not quote any Scripture when he reinterprets the law, but Jesus acts as if he is the law giver himself, and that everything in Scripture has been pointing to Him all along.  By his example, Jesus calls for his disciples learn how to obey love, not just obey laws.   Obeying love is not easy, but it is the only way God’s light and love comes into the world. 

The second word is ‘Community’.  Recall those warnings on TV before someone shows you a dangerous trick: “Don’t try this at home!”  Well, in this text, speaking to his disciples and followers, Jesus is saying the opposite: “Do try this at home!”  When Jesus says we should love like God loves, Jesus is calling us to first ‘try’ to practice these life-altering words in a community of people, who are praying and living out Jesus’ prayer: ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven!’   When we live like this, we are ‘living’ toward in a community that prays and lives that the kingdom is coming, because God’s rule has come near in Jesus Christ. 
This brings me to the final word: Challenge’.  When we follow Jesus and live like Jesus, we challenge the darkness of the world.  This is how we begin to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’, not by going out and forgiving everybody of everything, loving them as if nothing has happened.   No, what Jesus is calling us to do is learn to love as if something wonderfully strange has happened to us.  This kind of radical love starts right here at church, as we live in a community that confesses, lives and loves because of our faith in Jesus Christ.   We first live God's redeeming love among ourselves, because we know who we are,  but then, as we grow and learn the depth of God love, it should spill over in our witness to the world.  This is what Jesus meant, when later in Matthew, he tells Simon Peter: “And I'll build my church on this rock and the gates of the underworld won't be able to stand against it.  I'll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven... (Matt. 16:18-19 CEB). 

Another great Jewish rabbi, Abraham Joshua Herschel spelled out God’s original intention to teach love, not just to give laws.  Rabbi Herschel wrote: 
“To meet a human being is a major challenge to mind and heart. 
I must recall what I normally forget.  A person is not just a specimen of the species called homo sapiens.  Each person is all of humanity wrapped up into one, and whenever one person is hurt we all are injured....  To meet another human being is an opportunity to sense the image of God, and to enter the very the presence of God.  According to rabbinical interpretation, the Lord said to Moses:  “Wherever you see the trace of man there I stand before you....”  

This is why Jesus goes beyond the law.  It’s only by loving that we truly encounter another person.   This is why the church that not only lives like Jesus, but also loves like Jesus becomes the church that ‘holds the keys’ to the kind of redeeming love the world still hungers for, even today.  We certainly aren’t perfect in living out Christ’s love, but if we truly love like Jesus loves, we will be perfected by it.   To be love and to love, is forever what it means to say that we have accomplished what this life is all about.  Amen.