Third in series: The Sermon on the Mount
We're in the third week of our current series of talks on Jesus’ sermon on the mount from the Bible's book of Matthew, chapters 5 to 7.
To refresh your memory or bring you up to speed from the last two weeks
A couple weeks ago Vince took us through the Beatitudes a series of statements of whom Jesus calls blessed. And this helped us dream of what could be true of us as a community if we really were to become a place that made it safe for vulnerability, honesty, a softening ourselves, Humility. And then last week through Jesus’ image of salt and light, we imagined what it would be like if those around us here in this neighborhood and this city were to actually experienced us as good news.
I would just encourage you to keep mind these last two week as we continue on in this series, particularly this beat of humility
I think it is important to remember
That although we doing this series over several weeks and are exploring the implication of a wide variety of things that Jesus touches on.
This was one sermon.
Jesus did not just spout off a bunch of unrelated ideas. Each of the topics Jesus talks on are part of the whole. What Jesus says in the beginning should affect how we understand what he says at the end Just as any single point I make today is best understood by the role it plays in my sermon as a whole. In short, we are always best served when reading the bible, and really in most things in life, to take it in context.
Read with me from Matthew Chapter 5
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. This is a pretty Confusing passage for many reasons. For one, What is this “Law” that Jesus is referring to, that seems to have such high stakes. And why might people in that day think he is a threat to it?
For another, it sounds as though Jesus is setting up an impossible standard for people by saying they have to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who were the religious elite in Jewish society constantly showing off to everyone else just how strictly they followed the Law… What exactly is Jesus saying here? Is he conceding that the Pharisees are righteous? I thought he was usually against them.
(Pause) So what does Jesus mean that he is fulfilling the Law? And why does that matter to us? (Pause)
THE LAW is one of the most difficult phrases to interpret when it comes up in the New Testament, because sometimes it's used to refer to "the Law as it was intended by God" (a good thing) and other times it's used to refer to "the ugly thing the Law was turned into by Ancient Israel". Both are in view here for Jesus.
First THE LAW AS GOD INTENDED Which included GUIDANCE The law gave the Israelites a code of conduct (like the 10 Commandments)... which is awesome for a civilization, but did you know that this is NOT where most of the focus is put in the Old Testament Law? In fact, the vast majority of the Old Testament law is spent describing, in intense detail, something else...
And that something else was a Sacrificial system,
RELIEF FROM THE HUMAN EXISTENTIAL CRISIS The unique and amazing gift of the Old Testament Law was that it didn’t just give the Israelites a higher code to live by; it gave the Israelites a healthy way (the sacrificial system) to relieve the existential crises all humans feel when they inevitably don't live up to their higher code.
This fundamental Crisis - Is that we as humans are flawed, imperfect, we fail, we have shortcomings. No matter how advanced or civilized our systems and our governments, no matter how zealous our religions, there’s just no escaping the fact that inevitably we at times will not live up to our ideals, our expectations, our code of conduct. So what do we do, when that happens?
Do we become defensive? Well I actually DID live up to my ideals, and here I’ll tell you why!
Do we project our shame onto others? It’s not me that’s the problem, it’s her! Or them!
Do we run from our failures? Or try to hide them or cover them up?
No matter what age or culture of humanity we are talking -- pre-science, animal sacrifice Ancient world, Confucius-era Far East, Renaissance Europe, or 21st Century America -- do you see why having a way to experience this kind of relief is the difference between a healthy, flourishing people and an unhealthy, destructive people?
For a pre-science, animal-sacrifice civilization of people, who were terrified by the unpredictability of life and "the gods", a clear and ordered sacrificial system was just the thing to bring them relief.
It assured them there is ALWAYS a way to stay in good standing with God (who is not unpredictable but consistent and good).
The Old Testament Law is actually where our word “scapegoating” originated. On the Day of Atonement, a priest laid hands on a goat, placing all the sins of the Jewish people from the previous year onto the animal. The goat was then sacrificed. And the people went home rejoicing. The ritual gave people a physical, enacted way to process their disappointments, failures, and mistakes and find peace of mind and relief - psychologists today would call this super healthy!
We today are not an animal sacrifice people, so of course the ways we look to experience this kind of relief look different. Think of the things you do in life to try and find peace. A quieting of our mind I know many people who talk about yoga in this regard. A space to let go, to find release, and peace I think exercising works in a very similar way for many people Or, there were times in my life where Music played this role for me. There have been seasons of my life that when I was stressed, or when I was sad, or when I felt aware of shortcomings and failures I would listen to music as a release. Especially when I could find a musician or band to seemed to resonate with how I was feeling in life. I remember being 18 and in high school. I was feeling pretty sad and lonely. I was feeling sad and lonely in part because I had burned some bridges with some pretty close friends in my life and thus. So, I would listen to some Elliott Smith, if you are familiar with him, you will know he does sad and lonely well But, I found it to be a release, that I was able to somehow project my sadness onto the music, and let it go, at least for a little while Or, I have also, quite profoundly, found therapy to play this role in my life At different periods of my life that I have turned to therapy, professional counseling to deal with my failures, shortcomings, flaws, my brokenness.
(Pause) When Jesus says he came to fulfill not abolish the law he is communicating: I am about bringing health and relief and peace and rest to humanity…
Perhaps if he was speaking to us today he might say, “Your exercise, your yoga, your music, your therapy -- those are awesome strategies! keep it up!... I'm not here to abolish those things. rather I want to bring a them to completion and fullness I want to breath life into those efforts, to transform them into more than they offer as a practices in themselves. To make them alive with the company and very presence of God.
I think Jesus is telling us That in relationship with me, personally you will find guidance and relief from the human existential crisis.
You do not have to run from your flaws and failures. I will walk through life with you, dynamically guiding you and helping you confront them. I will take care of any sacrifice, I will take care of any justifying. You will get unwavering acceptance and love from me.
But, there’s another thing in view when Jesus refers to “fulfilling the Law” is ANCIENT ISRAEL'S UGLY DISTORTION OF THE GOOD LAW The story of the Old Testament is essentially the story of God’s good Law being turned into something it wasn’t. By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the picture of this distortion of God’s Law
The Pharisees convinced themselves that by strictly adhering to the Law's code of conduct, they could prove they were holy and had earned their standing with God.
rather than healthily confront the human Crises inside themselves, the pharisees avoided it.
And in turn they
PROJECT THE HUMAN EXISTENTIAL CRISIS ON TO OTHERS The problem is not us (we’re the ones keeping the law!) the problem is out there! them!
If we avoid the failures and shortcomings inside ourselves, we end up projecting them outward, blaming others for the problems of our world.
The Pharisees kept up with the careful requirements of the Law's sacrificial system, but no longer honored its purpose. They no longer used it as a way to acknowledge their own sin. Thus, the true scapegoats in their distorted system weren’t the animals in their rituals. The scapegoats were now people -- the people they blamed and othered so they could avoid their own problems. (And this is how we get our modern use of the phrase "scapegoat".)
I think through history we can see the true ugliness of scapegoating pop up again and again
Far too often minority groups have found themselves as the scapegoats.
The Jewish people in Nazi Germany
The Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide
African Americans throughout US history.
Or a sad fact is that immigrants throughout world history,
And today. Have been made scapegoats
They are the problem, they are why things aren’t as good as they used to be.
It has to be them, because it surely can’t be our fault.
but this isn't just on a societal level, we do this in small ways in our own lives
I have almost always struggled with this need to seen as a Good man.
There is a sense that I believe that if I am seen as a good man, then I will be worthy to be loved and accepted.
There was a period in my life in my late teens and early twenties where this need to be seen as a good man got particularly ugly. One thing that came out of this was that I just wouldn’t acknowledge when I did something wrong. I always had a reason, a justification for why I did what I did. Why, even though I totally did something mean or hurtful, that I was still a good guy.
I just couldn’t confront the times I failed to live up to that. And the way this justification most often reared it’s ugly head was through comparison. I would convince myself and try to convince other people that I was a good guy, by pointing out all the people who weren’t. Uhh, that guy ditched school to smoke pot, I didn’t ditch school to smoke pot, I am good guy and he is a not good guy. And you know earlier how I talked about how I was sad at one point because I burned some bridges with some pretty close friends. Well, this is how I burned them. By making it clear that I thought I was good guy and they were not being good guys.
The thing is Whenever we can exclude some one else as the problem, whenever we can say, I am ok, because that person is out. It sort of works, but only for a while. —because of course, we never dealt with the actual issue at hand, the human Existential Crisis that we, I, can be at fault. That I mess up, that I fall short. I “sin”.
So when JESUS says he has come to fulfill the Law, he is also saying that I have come to put to end the distorted notion that our okayness, our worthiness to be accepted is in our certainty that we are “IN”, which usually means we are making it clear who is on the “outs” - who is our scapegoat… And Jesus does just that in the most powerful way: choosing not to scapegoat others, but become a scapegoat himself. replacing the sacrificial system altogether. Through his sacrifice
Pause As Jesus goes on he makes a bunch of statements using the using the phrasing “you have heard it said,.. but I say...” (we will get to these in detail in the weeks to come) But this is notable because Jesus takes some of the most well-known codes of conduct in the Law and re-interprets them so nobody passes. By his re-interpretation no one would ever be able to say that I hit those benchmarks, am worthy and without blame by merrit.
Just to pause for a second here, Jesus is masterful in what he does here.
Jesus doesn’t make the law impossible to pass to be overly-strict and puritanical. He does this is to expose how the Pharisees have distorted the Law to be something they can attain but no one else can.
The whole point of the Law was: none of us can ever always pass. That's why it wasn't just a code of conduct; it was a code of conduct and a sacrificial system.
To excel at being human is not to avoid or escape or navigate around the Existential crises of one’s limits, imperfections, or failures… It’s to courageously face that! The real task of life is not to live perfectly, it's to healthily deal with the reality that we can't.
Let me say that again - The real task of life is not to live perfectly, it's to healthily deal with the reality that we can't.
In summary, Jesus is: RECLAIMING THE GOOD PURPOSE of the Law And PUTTING AN END TO THE MADNESS OF THE UGLY DISTORTION of the Law
Here is the thing I don’t think we today, are able to just process the emotions we have around our failures, flaws and mistakes on our own. At least I have experienced that I eventually come up to something... a flaw, a failure of mine, a place of hurt or brokenness that leaves me feeling like I’m am drowning, or stuck
And if we don’t have help to deal with that well, help to confront it healthily - we are just as prone as ever to avoid, justify, or scapegoat.
So, I want to ask you to consider somethings for your own life and
to help BLV as community be known in this neighborhood as place that doesn’t avoid, justify, or scapegoat.
That we would be known for being a place in the world, that I think we at this point and time is needed.
A place that invites people to look inward, a place that owns their our failures and doesn’t project them.
A place that doesn’t blame the other side for the problems of the world.
A place that safely and lovingly helps people find a healthier way forward.
So encourage you to.
1) Try the Daily Examen A great way to not avoid or project your flaws and brokenness is to build in a rhythm of looking inward A rhythm of noticing when you're experiencing the age old human existential crises (not living up to some standard, feeling less than in comparison to someone else, shame about something you did, etc), and then turning to Jesus (trusting best you can he is a healthy outlet for that stuff), And the best way I have discovered to do build in a rhythm like this is Ignatius of Loyola's daily Examen.
- Become aware of God’s presence.
- Review the day What is one thing you are grateful for What is one area you felt need This would be your where you can reflect on your shortcomings, failure, hurt, brokenness As you reflect
- Pay attention to your emotions.
- And then give thanks for what you are grateful for and ask for God’s help in the area of need Ignatius said the the single greatest thing we could do to feel closer to God.
2) Don’t compare There is good cause to recommend this for any number of reasons. Very few things can I honestly say, this will absolutely make you happier. But, this is one of them. I can somewhat unreservedly say, this will make you a happier person. But, for the sake of today in particular I recommend it because it seems to be the way that we are most prone to fall into the traps of avoiding, justifying, or scapegoating. I think comparision actively discourages us from the kind of honest inward reflection that most serves us. I also think it can prevent us from getting our actual needs met, the actual needs Jesus is offering to meet. So, ask God for help in not comparing yourself to others. On both sides of the equation. As better or worse. The things you do, who you are, is not actually affected by other people. You are no less fortunate or unfortunate You are no less flawed or perfect You are no less worthy or not Because of where you stand compared to others. In the end you will be best served by confronting and working through what is true for you And comparison just muddies the water.
3) Stand up for societal scapegoats
I think it can be hard to just say - don’t scapegoat, just don’t do it. Because most of the time it is not a conscious thing we do
But, there is probably not a quicker way to train yourself to stop projecting than building up compassion for others
As we develop an eye to see scapegoats, and stand up for them. As we develop empathy for those who sacrificed for the benefit of other people's egos, or to assuage other people's fears.
I think we can both stand with Jesus in pointing out the distorted madness of scapegoating.
But, also help fine tune our ability to see when we are scapegoating. And I think we have plenty of scapegoats in our current culture to stand up for. Perhaps it's what is happening with black men in our criminal justice system Or the inequity in our education system Or, I think we can find plenty examples of how immigrants or refugees face scapegoating. So, whether it is just trying to educate yourself about these things. Or Standing up for it in conversations you find yourself in Or actively protesting and supporting policy changes. I would suggest finding a way to stand up for societal scapegoats
I think the thing about this whole passage that strikes me most is the Goodness of God. That he not only wants to offer us the help in life we need, guidance, peace, grace. But that in Jesus we see his desire to do that in relationship with us. I think perhaps the biggest shift we see from the Old Testament Law to Jesus is that it is not just a select few who get to personally experience God, while the rest of us have to live by what they report back to us. No, in Jesus and the holy spirit we find a living God who wants to help us each personally. In intimate and loving relationship with him.
Well, in moment I will pray, and we will enter into a time of singing and prayer. Something that spiritual communities have done for centuries. And I invite you to engage in that time in whatever way feels best to you. Maybe it is singing along and dancing. Maybe it is just sitting back and letting the music hit you. And, as we are doing that we will have a team of people in the back who would love to pray with you, It can be a really meaningful thing to have somebody else pray along with you. And I have found that God tends to show up in surprising and powerful ways when I have asked someone else to pray for me. It’s a safe and good group of people, no one is going to make you feel uncomfortable or give you unasked for advice.
Please Stand with me