This sermon was shared at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple at the Saturday evening service of Feb. 15, 2014. It used the scripture of Matthew 5:21-37.
Let’s talk about rules. We’re in a Methodist church, right? So tell me, who here is good at following rules? Please raise your hand. Okay, who here is bad at following rules? Please raise your hand. Who here just doesn’t like to raise their hand?
I’m a guy who actually likes rules. Really, I do! Give me a checklist and I will go down and systematically check those things off the list. You would be amazed at the impressive list of checks on my checklist, were you to check out my impressive list of checks.
Or even better, instructions. Give me a collection of instructions, and I would probably be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. My parents were fairly well convinced that I would be engineer when I grew up. Seems pretty unlikely now, but when I was playing with Legos as a kid—dude, I looked like an engineer. I always had trouble completing a project when I just had one my big bins of jumbled up blocks, gizmos, and dismembered Lego people bodies, but give me step-by-step instructions and I could build anything. I still remember one of my favorite Christmas gifts—a Lego battle droid from Star Wars Episode I. You know, the one with Jar Jar Binks? I spent the afternoon of Christmas Day in my grandparents’ basement following those step-by-step instructions until that 2-foot-tall masterpiece would not only walk but also unholster its ray-gun in one fluid motion. Behold! The power of plastic pieces, some detailed instructions, and one little anti-social 8-year-old.
As I got older, I learned other kinds of rules and instructions, namely social norms. Those don’t necessarily come easy to a kid who would prefer a dim basement and Lego instructions to actually spending time with my Iowan grandma. But over time, I learned how the world worked. Namely, identify the authority figures, find out what pleases those authority figures, and then subtly fulfill the desires of the authority figures, especially the desires that they don’t explicitly make known. And I was good at that. I suppose I still am.
But here’s the thing about rules: they’re meant to be broken. At least in America, that’s the common ethic. Break the rules and get away with it. That’s what the smart ones, the cool ones, the fast ones, the successful ones all do. Break, or at least bend, the rules and get away with it. Guy Forsyth, a blues and folk musician from Austin, Texas gets the American ethos: “Everyone wants to pull off the crime of the century—steal two hundred gazillion dollars, enough to buy myself an island and build an honest-to-God train on it for no one but me. And get away with it. Get away with it. We Americans are freedom-loving people and nothing says freedom like getting away with it.”
Or even more colorfully, there’s the allegory that my dad likes to use. The speed limit allegory of the American spirit: So we have a speed limit of 55 miles an hour. I know that 9 out of 10 cops will let me drive 60 miles an hour and not pull me over. And when there aren’t any cops around, I can go 70. And get away with it.
Just look at some of most beloved heroes. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer float on a raft, defying their frazzled families and all that comes of it is one of the more memorable funeral services in American literature. Indiana Jones rescues the Ark of the Covenant and the damsel in distress without ever worrying that his lack of office hours at his tenure university post will adversely affect his evaluations. Harry Potter slinks around in a cloak of invisibility and not only defeats the Dark Lord but embarrasses all the bullies along the way.
Break the rules. Get away with it. Behold, the great American ethos.
So what’s up with this gospel lesson? I don’t know about you, but I came to reclaim my Christian faith with a strongly Methodist flavor because Jesus is constantly bending the rules until they break. Jesus hung out with drunks, prostitutes, and racketeers; disrupted orderly worship services by healing outcast lepers; and then embarrassed his snobby hosts by talking religion and politics at the dinner table. That’s counter-cultural Jesus, Jesus de la resistance, Jesus de la revolución! He probably had stylish facial hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and skinny jeans, too.
But the Jesus of Matthew 5 is giving even more rules. Not that it’s big deal since we’re so good at bending rules, but Jesus is making it really hard to get around these rules. Holding onto anger is akin to murder, ogling equals adultery, and no matter how important your grandmother was to you, don’t swear on her grave. Then there’s the very troubling afterlife of the commandment about divorce. Couple that passage with Paul’s instructions for women at church and at home and we’ve got serious issues. It’s no wonder America, that ever-so Christian nation, is so good at breaking the rules and then getting away with it. What else are we gonna do with ridiculous rules that we can never actually follow?
That is, if we look at Jesus’ sermon superficially. See, these commandments don’t stand alone in the Gospel of Matthew. They’re part of a much larger Sermon on the Mount. Just before Jesus starts telling his disciples or the multitudes or whoever it is who is sitting on the mountain with him, Jesus tells his congregation that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. These are encouraging words, but now Jesus is saying what flavor the salt is enhancing and what exactly the light is illuminating. Then Jesus references the law and the prophets, primarily that he has come to fulfill them and not abolish them. What we get next in these commandments are the parts of the law and prophets that Jesus is flavoring and illuminating.
And then there’s the cultural context. I could quite easily give four separate sermons for these four commandments if I wanted to delve into the historical criticism of each commandment, six sermons if you include the two next commandments that tonight’s reading did not include but directly follow in the Bible. I know you must be terribly excited now, but I must disappoint you by admitting that I only prepared this one sermon. Suffice to say Jesus was addressing real issues that his listeners were really dealing with back in 1st century Palestine, much like preachers tend to do these days.
So what is Jesus saying with these commandments if not instructing us in the whiles of litigation, sexuality, marriage, and public speaking? Scholars often call the style that Jesus uses here at antitheses, the plural of antithesis, which is that pattern of “you have heard…but I say”. It was a common rhetorical technique of rabbis of Jesus’ time, who were constantly interpreting and reinterpreting the Torah, the Law of Moses, the rules of Jesus’society. So let’s call Jesus “rabbi” here and recognize how truly counter-cultural Rabbi Jesus ben-Joseph is being when he gives this sermon.
See, Jesus’ community was full, overflowing really, with inequality, much like today in our communities. There were levels of interlocking oppression ranging from the Roman occupying military to Hellenistic household hierarchies to the laws of the Torah that folks had been abusing for years. Women and poor people were perpetually at the bottom, though there were always inspirational stories of folks who escaped the doom of poverty and made it big. The general rule, however, was that these interlocking rules of state, culture, and religion systematically kept the folks on the bottom from moving up and threatening the status quo. While Jesus couldn’t have been happy about Roman and Hellenistic oppression, he really got mad about the oppression from the Jewish law. Because Jesus was Jewish. Because Jesus was a scholar of the Jewish law. Because Jesus knew that the Law was supposed to free people, not enslave them.
Any good American might kinda snort, roll her eyes, and say, “So what? Just be creative and break the rules. Get around them and get away with it.” But when we bend the rules until they break, we are admitting that the rules aren’t doing what they were meant to do. It seems a little self-evident. We break the rules we don’t like. We get around the rules because they do not lead us to fuller, more abundant life, so we break the rules and hope to get away with it. However, getting away with it abandons our responsibility to the multitudes who are trapped in the mire. Getting away with it assumes an ethic similar to the ancient ethic of Cain, that when someone asks us where our sister or brother is, we respond, “How should I know? Am I my sister or brother’s keeper?”
Let’s think about that for just a bit. What happens when we abandon our responsibility to care for our fellow children of God? What happens when we focus on getting away with it instead of getting it right? Maybe we’ve seen a lesson in the country of Sweden where a judge recently ruled that a rapist can only commit rape if the rapist believed that the rapist was raping. According to court testimony the survivor of the sexual assault told her rapist to stop time and time and time again, but that he didn’t believe her. The rapist testified that he knew she really wanted to be raped. So he should get away with it.
Maybe we see lessons in news coming from the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan when American missile strikes kill children. Unmanned drones deliver smart bombs with surgical precision, so innocent people who die in these strikes just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Besides, everyone knows that you shouldn’t be hanging around the wrong kinds of people. So our military should get away with it.
Maybe we see lessons in our own state capital when legions of lobbyist, working in concert with armies of accountants, make sure that 2/3 of publically tradedcorporations pay nothing in state tax. Never mind that we have to close schools, cut pensions, and forcibly tighten the belts of the already hungry. We have to make sure that businesses keep jobs here in Illinois, whatever the cost. So multi-billion-dollar corporations get away with it.
What have we done? Listen! The blood of our sisters and brothers is crying out from the ground! Even if we did not give that cruelest cut, we have not cared for our neighbor the way we ought to. This is confession time, and it’s good for the soul.
This is why Jesus broadens the rules so that it’s so hard to get around them and get away with it. While some of the rules in the Torah don’t seem to apply to 21st century America, there are others that can preach volumes in not only this pulpit but from the middle of Daley Plaza as well. Yes, I know there are weird rules about avoiding hoopoes for dinner and things of that sort, and my youth group had a great time laughing about it. However, the books of especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy also command that farms and eating establishment not throw away all their left-over food so that poor people can eat good food. The Torah commands that we treat immigrants with respect and dignity because we were all once immigrants, too. The Torah commands that every seven years debts must be canceled so that people remain equal and in right relationship with one another. The Torah is a blessing to God’s people so that God’s people may be a blessing to the world.
Jesus doesn’t want us to just get away with breaking the rules, even bad rules, because these are kingdom rules, where the Lord our God reigns with wisdom and justice. Or even better, Jesus is highlighting kin-dom rules, where God is gathering her children back to her as a hen gathers her brood. Instead of seeking to use rules like a cop might use a nightstick, these kin-dom rules remind us that we have a common divine parent and we must care for our family.
These kin-dom rules have echoed throughout the history of the church, and different leaders have emerged to preach them from the public square when we started to care more about getting away with than getting it right. St. Francis said preach the gospel always and when necessary, use words. Martin Luther preached the priesthood of all believers. The Methodist movement’s own John Wesley declared that there is no religion but social religion, and John Wesley knew some things about rules.
I know that there are times when we need to break rules because some rules are simply unjust. However, when we know the kin-dom rules by heart (not necessarily memorized, but know them by heart), we realize that we can no longer hope to break the rules and get away with it. We have to care for our sisters and brothers along the way. That’s what Harriet Tubman did. She broke the rules time and time again by guiding African-descended slaves from the South to free land that is just across the Ohio River. She was not following a self-serving, ego-aggrandizing ethic of simply “getting away with it” but knew the kin-dom rules so well that she could see that the other slaves were indeed her own kin, her own sisters and brothers.
And that was why folks called Harriet Tubman “Moses”. Harriet Tubman followed a higher rule and sent her people across the Ohio River like Moses sent his people across the Jordan River. Harriet Tubman knew the kin-dom rules and would follow them wherever they took her. And so the words of Moses continue to echo through to us today through the redeeming power of Jesus Christ who took the care to sit down talk about the rules with us. The words call from not only the mountain and the pulpit but also the streets which shall be restored so that children can live and play in them again. The words will echo in springs and river valleys flowing with clean water, purified of the taint of greed. The words will echo even in the dark places as sisters and brother reclaim their kin from the shadows of addiction and exploitation.
And those words will echo throughout all the neighborhoods, all the cities, all the suburbs and small towns, throughout all the nations where disciples grow knowing these kin-dom rules by heart. And those words will be: See, I have put before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…Choose life that you and your descendents may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God.”
So dear friends, let’s put away our petty desire to get around the rules and get away with it. Let’s get to know God’s kin-dom rules by heart, get to know who our kin, our sisters and brothers, really are, and then, and only then, can we get to know what it is to truly choose life.