Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"This, Not That" - Sermon from February 12, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“The Great Invitation: This, Not That”
Pastor Andrew Davis
February 12, 2017
Matthew 5: 21-37

        Do ‘this, not that’ seems like a random statement.  But, how many of you have encountered the phrase or been told by a parent, a boss, a family member, coach, doctor, or teacher to do ‘this, not that?’ I think everyone who has kids (even if we’re big kids) has used or heard that phrase before in order to get us to behave or listen.  So, if you eat your veggies (this), you’ll get dessert (that).  If you get your homework done (this), you can play your videogames or watch TV (that).  OR, do your chores (this), but don’t just sit around (that).   Or my personal favorite, eat your veggies (this), but don’t eat that dessert (that).  It can go on and on and on. 
        Cutting right to the chase here, our Gospel lesson from Matthew this morning gets into some very challenging and perhaps unsettling material here when Jesus talks of this, not that, also known as antitheses when we hear that “you have heard it said” and “this I tell you”.  As we are in the midst of Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount” as part of our series, “The Great Invitation,” Jesus is getting more into the nuts and bolts of what it means to BE his disciples.  Now, upon hearing some of these words from Jesus, it might make us think twice about taking up the great invitation because of how challenging it is, maybe even get us overheated a little because some of what Jesus is saying feels like it may be impossible to do.  These last couple weeks, we have been hearing how Jesus is bringing in a whole different way of life from what people are used to living, as God’s kingdom will not be like the kingdoms that the people were living in, and even today in the kingdoms that we live in.  But this morning, it’s like Jesus is raising the bar just a little bit higher on us in laying out some of the expectations when he says “but this I tell you,” which is part of the law that he says he came to fulfill when he says “you have heard it said.”  And as we have just heard, it is far from easy, even in today’s context to hear Jesus’s words about murder, adultery, divorce, and oaths or vows given some of our own experiences with what Jesus is talking about. 
Now what Jesus means by the law from what he talked about last week is the Mosaic Law, or Torah.  As the New Interpreter’s Commentary explains, “Matthew is a scribal teacher who is concerned not only to declare the absolute will of God as expressed in Jesus’ radicalization of the Torah, but also to provide counsel for day by day living for imperfect people who fall short of this call to live by the perfect will of God.”[i] So it’s basically a guide on how to live righteously in God’s kingdom, but Jesus elaborates and even takes things a little further when it comes to the this, but not that.  Basically,
the this in the text refers to the commandments as they have come to us not through Moses, but as interpreted in light of the person and message of Jesus Christ. Jesus is calling his disciples, and us, not just to understand the law differently, but to live differently because of this new understanding. As we talked about last week, again Jesus calls us not so much to “do” something as his followers, but to “be” something as his disciples.[ii]

        In three of the antitheses that we hear in the text this morning, Jesus is inviting the disciples into a new way of being when he tells them to live like this, not that: “you have heard it said,” but “I say to you.”  In the first of these antitheses, Jesus says in verses 21-22, “you have heard it said to those of ancient times, ‘you shall not commit 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” (Matt. 5: 21-22, NRSV).  Jesus is raising the bar a little bit higher when it comes to living righteously by saying that simply just being angry with someone is equivalent to murder.  Yet in our context today, it would probably create great stress on our legal system if we charged people with simply being angry with each other.  And given the level of anger out there right now, may God have mercy on humankind. 
However, this new way and embellishing what has already been is one of the challenges that Jesus presents that takes things a step further than what is already written in the Mosaic Law (that).  It’s also about living with a deeper level of integrity to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, something where Jesus is still inviting us to live today.  Instead of just talking of murder, Jesus invites us to let go of anger, let go of resentment, and let go of ill-will towards others.[iii]  Think of how we can change the world for the better when we do this, not holding onto that which may hold us down and keep us from fully living out our faith.  Are we willing to take that part of the great invitation and take it seriously? 
        Jesus goes on and talks about adultery and divorce, which might be unsettling upon hearing, but instead Jesus is more so talking about relationships.  “Again, Jesus is pointing not to ‘that’ – the laws themselves around the actions adultery and divorce – but rather, to ‘this,’ one’s motivations, one’s heart, and one’s thought…[instead, Jesus’s] words could be expanded to help us consider not just how we act toward other people, but what is inside each of us, in terms of how we think about other people.”[iv] In fact, in this passage on adultery, Jesus uses hyperbole, or exaggerated statements to make a point, especially when he says to gouge out your eye or cut off one of your hands if they cause you to sin.  Instead, “we need to pay close attention to what is on the inside, on our thoughts and our feelings, on what is deep inside our hearts.”[v]  This is what Jesus is talking about when addressing murder, adultery, divorce, and oaths. 
In the antithesis about oaths, Jesus is talking more about being honest, “think[ing] about our character by concentrating on our roots,” thinking of where we came from and keeping our honor and ancestors’ honor, especially in this day where the truth may be hard to find.  On the other hand, no matter how this text is presented, these are extremely difficult words to hear from Jesus, much less to preach about.  However, Jesus is showing the disciples and us that there is a higher ideal that is at stake when he says to do this, not that. 
The “Sermon on the Mount” is unlike anything people have heard, but when it comes to this, not that, we are dealing with the new way of living as disciples, letting go of anger and destructive behavior, honoring our relationships by practicing love towards everyone, and being honest by “honoring our commitments.”[vi]  This is what Jesus is showing us, light and love, even if it doesn’t feel really lovey-dovey in the text (maybe tough love), as we have to let go of the that, the destructive and harmful practices we may do in order to live into the new way, this that Jesus is showing us.  As my New Testament professor at Wesley, Dr. Carla Works explains,
The antitheses are daunting -- refuse to harbor anger, honor oaths whether in marriage or to your neighbors, desire justice so much that you would rather suffer a wrong than impose one on another, love your enemies and pray to God on their behalf. These teachings indicate that what a person does is only part of the problem. This kingdom demands radical discipleship so that even a person’s thought world is transformed by contact with God’s reign.[vii]

        So, like Jesus is showing us, the purpose of “The Great Invitation” is to raise the bar on our own discipleship.  How do we take the invitation seriously if we aren’t willing to let go of anger or ill-will towards others?  Do we take the great invitation seriously if we do not care for our sacred relationships with friends or family members when we hold onto grudges and resentment (and yes, I’m asking myself this too)?  Do we take the great invitation seriously by being honest and honoring our commitments?[viii]  We do have some good news here, as we will fall short and that’s where God’s grace comes in when we end up failing to “do ‘this’ perfectly.”[ix] We have the time to work on practicing the ‘this’ that Jesus encourages us to do, not ‘that’ which is the old way of things.  We have this awesome opportunity to be renewed when we practice this, not that as we approach the end of our series and next week, we learn of what our reward is when we practice this, not that and all that Jesus talks about in “The Sermon on the Mount.” 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the Church say, Amen.   

[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 189.
[ii] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘This, Not That — Preaching Notes’. 2017. Accessed February 9, 2017. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/this-not-that-preaching-notes.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Lose, David. ‘Commentary on Matthew 5: 21-37 by Carla Works’. February 16, 2014. Accessed February 9, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033.
[viii] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘This, Not That — Preaching Notes’. 2017. Accessed February 9, 2017. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/this-not-that-preaching-notes.

[ix] Ibid. 

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