That's Going To Be a Challenge
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
February 16, 2014 -- Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37

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A physician that I know, not a member of this church, was at one point in his career facing a significant low due to an outcome that wasn’t what he’d hoped for.  Despite the fact that he was honored as one of the top 100 physicians in the country, when this low hit, he was worried it would ultimately shake his confidence and so he called his uncle, who was also a physician, to talk about it.

He laid out the issues that he was facing, told his uncle that he was concerned that this could be a career ending low, and that he wasn’t sure how navigate the next steps.  His uncle replied with sage advice, “Don’t worry, your narcissistic ego won’t let you do that.”

He went on, “I don’t mean that unkindly.  I don’t think you are more or less narcissistic than anyone else.  What I mean is that a healthy psyche will prevent you from believing your own worst self-doubts.  It only becomes a problem when it prevents you from seeing the truth.”

But isn’t that the problem, sometimes?  Sometimes the truth is hard to hear, hard to bear, hard to live with, isn’t it?

But when Jesus is preaching this Sermon on the Mount, he is engaged in an exercise in truth telling. 

It looks like Jesus is opining on the law, and certainly he is, but what he is really doing is taking our lives and putting them under the microscope. 

The law, you see, is not so much God’s standard for us as it is God’s hopes and dreams for humankind. 

I realize that is a somewhat counterintuitive way to understand the law because so often our lives do seem to cry out for structure and standards. Certainly the law provides both, perhaps at times in a rigid and apparently judgmental way, but that is a superficial understanding of the law and that is precisely what Jesus is pushing past. 

So, let’s take minute to understand the law before we look at what Jesus is saying about it. 

Specifically, we are referring to the Torah

The Torah is found in the first five books of the Bible and it is the means by which God creates a sacred community. 

Yes, there are rules in the Law, but to get hung up on the rules is to miss the point.  The point is that God values community and connection so much that God creates a covenant around it. 

This sacred community is the way that God’s way for the world is going to be made known. 

And the way that God goes about creating this community is not just worth noting, it’s the very foundation of the covenant. 

The Ten Commandments occur twice in the Hebrew Scriptures.  They are in Exodus and Deuteronomy.  These are two of the books of the Torah

In Exodus, they are in the middle of a narrative story.  It is the story of God’s salvation of Israel.  In Deuteronomy, they are within a lengthy portion of scripture that expounds on the Law.  In each case, they begin with the words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of bondage.”

There’s a funny thing about the Ten Commandments, though.  They have the oddest form.  They’re not just a bunch of rules on a page, though they look that way, they actually form a treaty. 

It’s a lop-sided treaty, because God is one half of it, and the people are the other. 

The other thing about it is that as treaties go, it’s sort of a Don Corleone sort of treaty.  It’s an offer they can’t refuse.

Remember how they start off: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the house of bondage.”

The first words out of God’s mouth recount the saving activity of God.  So what follows is not a treaty that says, “If you do these things, Israel, I am going to save you,” but rather, “I have saved you already, so do these things.”

Hear the difference?  It’s a treaty, and they don’t have a choice per se about being God’s beloved, but God has already kept God’s half of it.

That is how God does things.

By the time we get around to the thirtieth chapter of Deuteronomy, from which we read this morning, Moses is an old man.  He has been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land, but he knows that he will not enter into it.

Joshua will be his successor and he will lead the people into the land that God has promised, but Moses himself will not go.

And so the old man Moses got up to preach one his last sermons to the people that he led for forty years.

Have you ever noticed that final sermons tend to be really simple?   They also tend to get really long too, but when the preacher knows that he or she has just one or two last shots to make the most important point of what they believe stick it gets really simple. 

That is what Moses does.  He lays before the people a simple choice. 

“There is a way to live that gives life,” he says.  “And, there is a way you can live that will rob you of life.” 

Isn’t that the truth?  It’s so simple. 

There is a way to go that gives life.

I’m not talking about salvation per se here; remember the treaty?  God has already done that.  I’m talking about those choices we face that are matters of consequence.  If we choose one way, the decision will be life-giving for us.  And if we choose the other, the decision will suck the life out of us.

My friend DC Horne, she’s Sally’s mother, by the way, has a simple metric for decision making when she is faced with big decisions.  She learned it from a Jesuit priest with whom she did campus ministry and it is as simple as the choice that Moses preached about.  “When you think of a choice, if one way looks like it is going to suck the life out you, it probably will.”

So Moses preaches to the people, “There is a choice before you… choose life.”

By the time we get to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is the new Moses.  Just like Moses climbed up to Mount Sinai to get the law, Jesus is standing on a mountaintop preaching this sermon.

It’s not subtle, this cue in Matthew – it’s writ large.  I know it might not jump off the page to us, but I promise you, Matthew’s Jewish audience would get this.  They know would that this is Jesus preaching Moses’s sermon. 

But he doesn’t just re-preach Moses’s words, Jesus pushes past them to get to the heart of the law.  And in his sermon, he is engaged in some serious truth-telling. 

When you look at what Jesus says, though, it is awfully easy to counter, “Well, that’s going to be a challenge.”

When we look at what he says about anger – or lust – or honest dealings – it can be hard to want to tell the whole truth sometimes. 

I suppose it is possible to tell just a little too much truth.  I can’t think of this part of the Sermon on the Mount without thinking of Jimmy Carter. 

God bless Jimmy Carter for telling the truth.

I probably wouldn’t have chosen that particular magazine to engage in that sort of truth-telling, but bless him for being honest. 

How are you doing?

How’s your life going? 

Are you on the path of life?

Or, are there some things that need to change?

We all need to be honest with ourselves sometimes.  If not with God, then where?

There is something deadly about the belief that what we do doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. 

God has done it all, remember the treaty, but God then says, do these things.

The late William Muehl, preaching at Yale, noted that it is a terrible thing to take away from a man or woman the belief that what they do can make a change. 

So Jesus is saying that what we do matters.

The mystic poet Bianco de Siena captures it well in a poem from the 15th century which we sing in the hymn, Come Down, O Love Divine, but our hymnal leaves out a verse:

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,?And lowliness become mine inner clothing;?True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,?And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

I am frankly more than a little relieved that our theology as a denomination doesn’t sit around wringing our hands and weeping with loathing – it’s a useful exercise, but after a while it can become a bit neurotic – narcissistic, even.  But we do well to take stock.

And we do well to take stock of ultimate things. 

That is what Jesus is pointing to when he points back to the heart of the law. 

If we’ve gotten hung up on the trappings, he points us back to where it begins, back to God’s activity – God’s saving activity – in which all our activities are grounded. 

That is the ultimate truth that allows us to tell the truth to ourselves and others. 

We can’t be hung up on the trappings and tell the truth.

It’s too easy to say, “Well, I haven’t killed anyone so I’ve done what God has asked of me…” and then breathe anger and resentfulness into our relationships. 

It’s too easy to say, “Well, I haven’t actually slept with anyone other than my spouse, so I’ve done what God expects of me…” and allow lust and a wandering eye to erode at the intimacy of a marriage.

It’s too easy to say, “I’ve kept the letter of the contract, so I’ve done what God requires…” and then to decimate the very trust on which the contract stands.

No, the way that Jesus is calling us to runs deeper. 

It may be very easy just to reply, “That’s going to be a challenge.”

And of course, we know how telling the truth worked out for Jesus. 

But, nonetheless, Jesus persists in calling us to righteousness.

Jesus needs a few righteous people to tell the truth.

And I suspect that the biggest obstacle that most of us face in that regard is the fear of hypocrisy.  My hunch is we’re afraid we’ll be seen as self-righteous rather than righteous. 

William Sloane Coffin aptly captured that fear this way, “You can’t be proud and Christian both.  How God must despise the sounds of those who pray this day, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ and tomorrow bar its way.  How God must despise the spectacle of Christians who climb upon the cross to be seen from afar, thereby trampling on the one who has hung there so long.”[1]

How terrifying.  But that is not what Jesus calls us to in calling us to righteousness.  He calls us to step in faith, not fear, and look into the heart of God.

Righteousness is looking into the law and seeing the heart of God.

And seeing the heart of God, we are invited to live in the heart of God.

And the heart of God is love. 

And living in the heart of God, living in God’s love, we are invited to tell the truth – to ourselves and one another, about ourselves and each other and the world we live in.

That’s going to be a challenge.

But perhaps the most important thing that we have to remember when we talk about the truth is that the truth is not a creed or a doctrine.

The truth is a person. 

The truth is a savior.

And the truth is a shepherd.

The truth will hold you in tender care.

And the truth will indeed, in every way that matters, set you free and bring you out of the house of bondage.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen. 

[1] Coffin, William Sloane.  Credo  (W/JKP, Louisville, 2004) p151


Last Published: November 21, 2014 11:47 PM