Friday, February 17, 2017

Indiscriminate Mercy

Epiphany 7/February 19, 2017
Faith, Badger; Bethel, Greenbush; First, Middle River
Matthew 5:38-48

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If you ever visit the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, you may see a very old book published in 1820 that’s entitled:   The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English.

This book is also called the Jefferson Bible, because its author was Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as this country’s third president.

Jefferson, who was a brilliant man, was curious about everything in the world, including  religion and the Bible.

The Jefferson Bible was a project Jefferson worked on for many of his retirement years, his main tools being a sharp razor and a bottle of glue….because what Thomas Jefferson did was to edit out all the portions of the New Testament that he found unhelpful and not worthy of believing.  

In short, what Jefferson did was to cut out all references to Jesus’ miracles, his divinity and his resurrection.  What Jefferson left in his Bible were simply the sublime teachings and ethics of Jesus—nothing more.

Now, when we hear about this we’re probably shocked.  Most of us would never even dream of putting together our own cut-and-paste Bibles.

And yet, with much more subtlety, we and most other Bible-readers find ways to pay attention to some portions of the Bible while passing over other portions.

And this gospel lesson at the conclusion of Matthew chapter five is a striking case in point.

There are some deeply disturbing things in this passage.  Jesus utters words we simply cannot swallow….and have no intention of actually putting into practice.

We hear what Jesus commands here, and our first inclination is to say, “Nope.  That’ll never do!”
·      If an evildoer messes with us or with those we love, we will resist that evildoer, quickly claiming our right to self-defense.
·      If someone sues us we will not knuckle under, but we’ll “lawyer up” so that we can meet our opponent in court.
·      We do not drop a dollar in every outstretched hand of every beggar we happen to meet.
·      If enemies bedevil us, we will not love them and our first inclination will not be to pray for them—except perhaps to pray that they’ll stop harassing us.
·      And no, most definitely not, we will not be perfect…because, as everyone knows no one but God is perfect!

We may not go after this passage with a razor in one hand and a bottle of glue in the other, but by what we actually do or fail to do, we will treat most of these verses as “dead letters”—pie in the sky stuff that Jesus couldn’t possible expect anyone on earth to take seriously.

And once we’ve cleared away the parts of this text that Jesus can’t possibly expect us to take seriously, there’s not much else left here except…..except what Jesus says about our Father in heaven, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

There, right there—did you feel it?--a little breath of fresh air from heaven comes wafting our way.   Smack dab in the middle of all these impossible commands from our Lord, we catch a fleeting vision not of ourselves down here grubbing away in this dog-eat-dog world—but rather a vision of God and God’s own wild, profligate, unmeasured grace and mercy.

Finally something we can say “Yes” to!   Mired in this tired old deeply flawed world, we look up and remember that there is a God who is indiscriminately merciful, beaming down sunshine on both friends and foes, showering down rain on the deserving and the undeserving alike.

We want such a One to be our Father in heaven.  
We want to be children of someone who displays such wide mercy.
We’d love to be “chips off the old block”—daughters and sons of such a lavishly loving God.  

There’s just one problem, though.   This vision of God’s overflowing, prodigal grace--evidenced in both the sunshine and the rain—this refreshing vision is completely enmeshed with all the other words of Jesus here that seem so out of kilter.  

With even the sharpest razor, we cannot separate these two parts of this passage.

“Love your enemies,” says Jesus, “and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

How can we possibly wrap our arms around this whole passage—embracing both the ridiculous commands and the vision of our Father’s indiscriminate mercy?

·      First, we might remember how much Jesus—throughout the Sermon on the Mount—loves hyperbolic speech (phrases like:  “If your right eye offends you, pluck it out!”)    Jesus is always pushing the envelope to wake us up, shake us up and re-set how we look at everything.   Maybe that’s what’s going on with all these impossible demands.  Jesus’s aim may not be simply to lay on us an impossible “to do” list.   Rather, Jesus may be getting us off the dime, and opening us up to imagine what life in God’s world was always meant to be. 
·      Second, we can entertain the possibility that by sharpening God’s will for us here, Jesus is making us realize how far this fallen, rebellious, sin-laden world still is from God’s kingdom as we long for it to be.   We human beings go to great length to resist evildoers, litigate our grudges, bypass beggars, oppose enemies—but how’s that working out for us?  How’s this world doing?  
·      Third, and really most critically, this text opens our eyes to all the ways that Jesus doesn’t just deliver this sermon—but in the end, how he finally lives this sermon to the max:   refusing to resist his false accusers, willingly walking that extra mile to the Place of the Skull,  expending his dying breath in prayer for his enemies, and finally dying at the hands of evildoers—the very evildoers—including you and me!—for whom he gave his life.

As all this begins to dawn on us once again, God moves us closer to God’s great vision of a new creation utterly at peace, a new creation in which God will woo and wheedle us to grow up fully into the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified for us and vindicated by God when he raised him from the dead.

That’s what the final verse here—the “be ye perfect” part of this text—is all about.  

Jesus doesn’t hold up a sterile, flawless version of perfection here, as much as he points us toward God who is always leading us into the fullness of his final future in Jesus Christ.

A better translation of verse 48 comes from Bible commentator Frederick Dale Bruner:   “So then, you folks are going to be a perfectly mature people, just as your heavenly Father is perfectly mature.”  (Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary:  The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, Eerdmans, copyright 2004, p. 266)

This, you see, is God’s most astonishing work in us.  

Jesus our Crucified and Risen Lord, rolls up his sleeves, and takes us on:   giving us, and fashioning in us, all that he commands!

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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