Wednesday, February 12, 2014

SERMON: "YOU'VE HEARD IT SAID,,,," Matthew 5: 21-32 January 16, 2014

This sermon is about a giant step in spiritual development and challenges me as much as it may any of you. The creative believer who wrote the gospel of Matthew's purpose was to convince Jewish people that Jesus was superior to Moses and other Old Testament Heroes. He was also establishing the idea that the final authority in an ethical human life lies in Jesus and what he taught. Chapters 5-7 is called Jesus' Sermon On The Mount and is considered the central teaching of Jesus and a guideline for living the most ethical life in harmony with God's will. Coming from a strong Conservative tradition, which usually takes the Bible quite literally, I once saw these things as straight forward and meaning 'what they say.' But I came to believe that is not the most informed way to view them. I wish to share with you basically where my process of reflection has led me.

"You have heard it said from the ancient past...."
We see immediately that Matthew is urgent to establish a high and ultimate authority to use in making the most important ethical and moral decisions in life. Here he has Jesus speak about what are still three of the most emotional, disturbing and controversial issues in private and public life. Murder, Adultery and Divorce. Matthew approaches each topic with ' You have heard it was said in the ancient past' ….such and such . But I tell you now... such and such.' So he has Jesus getting people to acknowledge that what they have till now viewed as final authority in the human life simply isn't, not in the way they had always thought.

Now, do you and I fully escape having to surrender what we have taken as absolute truth and authority as not being that way nearly as much as we thought? If the gospel is a timeless connection to life that is applicable afresh to each age of human development the answer must surely be 'No.' We too have likely taken on conventional handed down statements as fully true and final that we would be wise to reexamine. The human condition requires us to also hear Jesus saying, “You have heard it was said in the past... But not anymore. There is a richer, more grounded  source of ethical truth.'' It is so easy for us to think ,  "Well sure those people had to accept a new standard. But we have had that new standard now for 2000 years so all we need to do is do and believe as we have been told by the church and how we've interpreted Bible.” This, I fear, is the overly simplistic trap that every age and every church tends to fall into. It continues to be the human condition of an insufficient moral standard. I don't think it is just my ultra conservative heritage that has decided with too much certainty what Jesus is saying here about Killing, Adultery and Divorce but also much of the teaching of our so-called mainline churches as well.

We tend to hear Jesus saying, “The laws given by Moses, including the ten commandments, say to not kill, commit adultery or to divorce but I am putting these laws into a new framework and creating a new and better and higher written law.” I'm believing we need to challenge that. The more open minded, usually get it that Jesus is pointing the emphasis away from the the outward acts of these dangers of life and advising that we look to the heart and its intentions. This is surely a good and sound direction. Not only is murder wrong but to want to murder or harm another is wrong, not only is adultery, or breaking intimate covenant, wrong but even the desiring thought of that is wrong. And canceling the intimate relationship of marriage was never God's intention but a make-shift plan  because humans were just not up to making a monogamous love relationship be permanently alive. (Please keep in mind that people Matthew is writing to believed that it was nearly always a woman who committed adultery. Men were permitted to have multiple wives and the only way he committed adultery was to 'take another mans wife which was legally the other man's property. So Our American view of marriage is higher and far more monogamous for men than the Hebrew law was. Yet our divorce rate of over 50 % is far higher than many cultures.)

My main point is that to think Jesus is discontinuing one written, literal, for all -people for all times law about murder, adultery and divorce and replacing with another  is to widely miss the much greater and radical change in authority to which he is actually pointing. If we see Jesus as giving a new external law then Jesus' approach for a higher ethical standard will be fully missed. We, in our childlike need to always be told what to do by a rule or law, will miss 'where' Jesus says the final authority for life's most personal decisions is to be found. And I think this is what most orthodox Christianity has often done. If these words of Jesus are taken as 'new law' then he only makes the law more impossible to comply with. How much guilt has been heaped onto people by their thinking that their divorce, even their sadly confessed adultery, has so blackened their lives that they see themselves as spiritual failures. In some churches divorced persons are seen as not fit to serve in positions of leadership, sometimes being told they can never be married again or that a new marriage is not as holy as if it were their first? How many have grieved that they find themselves admiring the attractiveness and appeal, of someone other than their spouse and feel a load of guilt and distance from God for a very natural and innocent, possibly appreciative and respectful, inner awareness ? This all demonstrates the need of hearing Jesus' words not as any 'new law' but as pointing the way to the place where the ultimate personal authority can be found. That unlikely place is our own human heart, our very own inner being and its multifold processes. Jesus' teaching has said all along the human heart is the place where the image of God , the final authority, lives; not in any written or spoken law.
"But I tell you now...."

I believe Jesus taught that in the questions and decisions of life we are not to go primarily first to the outer act or event and with 'will power' say, “I am or am not going to do that.” This has been tried and found wanting. Will power is not spiritual power. We are a nation of well intended marriages with some 50 percent ending in divorce in spite of well intentioned will power. Jesus saying to go first to our hearts to find a judgment, a direction, an attitude seems to be a dangerous thing, but is it not the spiritually mature approach to the issues of life? Is it not where Jesus was always pointing people? 
I'm not suggesting this as a quick or easy way to 'know' what the highest ethical answers are to our complicated issues but I think Jesus points to a process that may be different and surprisingly helpful. I will give one general example of how going first to our heart might feel and look like.

Jesus said to not murder or even have the wish to murder. From an outer law perspective I know I(and I question the one who says they can) can't promise that, especially the second part. Might as well ask a rabbit to not hop. So you ask me, "Jim, are you a total pacifist?" From Christian teaching would you for sure refuse to kill another person, even if that person were about to kill another innocent, maybe your own child? I think I would be following Jesus' teaching by taking that to my most inner place and pondering it; putting aside any 'law' I 'must obey. If I fail to take an inner focus the more creative spiritual solutions are likely blocked from consciousness. We become 'stuck in law', not 'freed by Spirit.' What do I honestly find? I  presently find that I do not ever want to take another life. I am aware of my truth that such would be a most deep, sad heartbreak for me. That is for this moment the 'final authority' on the subject for me. What Jesus says about the heart being a place where killing can be seen for the horror it is I find to resonate with my heart and head reality. Beyond that I can make no oath or promise that in all circumstances I would choose to not kill a person who was threatening to kill another or myself. My heart's strongest desire-prayer would be that life would not require that of me. If I did kill, out of a sad heart, I  trust I would not see myself as turning away from God or Jesus. For I was doing the spiritual inner work of preventing this horror as much as I humanly could. This is a simple example but how I see Jesus pointing to an authority that is above all law , an authority that may even require a person at special times to move against all other conventional law whether it be civil , criminal or church law.

Determining to focus inwardly rather than on outer law  is  how we can see Jesus  directing us to the final authority  in our day to day , moment to moment living, in our decisions great and small. This then must also be the basic process which Jesus is saying is the path of humans finding  the way to  more fully love and be loved in this world.

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