Text: Matthew 5:21-37
A couple notes about today’s sermon: I decided to change my sermon…..while I was giving it. I had a conversation about the Michael Dunn case in Florida with a few folks before Sunday morning worship. And while delivering my sermon, talking about our actions and our motivations behind him, something compelled me to speak about that story. I’m sure that what came out of my mouth at both services wasn’t as polished as what’s written here.
But the cool thing is that somehow, people got it. And it sparked some good conversations….conversations about the benefits and shortcomings of gun control, about striving to understand each other better, to be more empathetic towards each other, and our motivation for being church, just to name a few.
I’m grateful for a congregation that’s a lot smarter than their pastor, and deals with all his strangeness…..like changing his sermon mid-delivery.
When I was in the 3rd grade, there was this kid named Ryan in our class. Ryan was pretty well-known, got a lot of attention in our grade and in our school. Everyone seemed to like him, and went out of their way to talk to him and play with him and include him…when he was in school. I remember him not being in school all the time, missing school for stretches – days, weeks – at a time. And like most of my classmates, I went along with this, including Ryan and treating him like everyone else did.
But, Ryan bothered me. He kinda let all that attention go to his head – he seemed to enjoy it a little too much. Honestly, probably just like any 3rd grader, he could be pretty mean at times. But anyway, I hated him & I hated being nice to him….I thought it was stupid that one kid go so much more attention than any other kid, just because he showed up. Besides, the kid wasn’t the smartest kid in class….he had little to no hair; he was this skinny, pale, weak kid who would wheeze and cough & couldn’t keep up during playground games.
Anyway, I remember one day on the playground…during the winter…..we had these huge snow piles that the groundskeepers would make and we’d play “king of the hill,” – you know, the game where you climb to the top and try to stay there by shoving everyone else off – and as I was reaching the top, there he was: Ryan. Ryan, struggling to get to the top, wheezing, not really having any challengers on his climb there. And, in that moment, for so unknown and I’m sure ridiculous reason, I shoved Ryan – I mean, really shoved him, hard – off that snow pile.
And as I stood at the top of the snow pile in triumph and satisfaction – and as he lay there, in visible pain, unable to move – the rest of my classmates rushed to his side to help, and I remember very clearly one of them looking up at me and saying, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know he’s sick?”
In case you were wondering, Ryan had leukemia….and he passed away that spring. Now I suppose we could simply write off my behavior to the ignorance and stupidity of childhood, things that kids are simply prone to do as they grow up in this world….because they don’t know any better.
But when I think of that story today, as an adult, I wonder: what’s changed? While we might be better at acting more civil towards each other and doing and saying the right things, there’s the piece of us that secretly resents it at times. There’s still a part of us that would rather push that other person off the top of the snow pile than allow them to enjoy it too. Our actions and words might be honorable, but our motivations for doing so fall well short of honorable.
And I have to ask you, as I’ve asked myself time and time again: when I think of those motivations, who do they serve: my neighbor? God? Christ? Or myself?
Today we hear more of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – he just called the crowds live a “higher righteousness,” one greater than even the Pharisees and scribes, those who believed that such laws – laws from God – were a good thing for life.
And Jesus doesn’t disagree….he says as much. If you can recall last week’s part of the text, Jesus says he’s come to fulfill the Law, not abolish it. It’s a good thing not to kill, to not judge others, to make nice with your enemies….it’s generally not a good thing to cheat on your spouse or dispose of them like objects when they no longer meet your interests….which is what divorce amounted to in Jesus’ time.
But Jesus raises a different set of questions. Because in defining this call to a “higher righteousness” he’s asking the people and us today about our motivations for living and acting the way we do and who they serve. It’s one thing to follow and keep all the laws and commandments. It’s another thing when your actions are self-serving rather than serving others. It’s another thing when you view people as objects to meet your interests or anything less than as human beings with value and worth….created and loved by God.
I think it’s important for us to think about our motivations….because they indeed guide how and why we act and live. And here’s the thing: while we might be able to fool folks outwardly for awhile, those motivations start showing through….and while sometimes the consequences are relatively mild, like shoving a kid off a snowpile, they can have disastrous results.
If you’ve been following the news, the name Michael Dunn might ring a bell. If not, here’s a recap: Down in Florida, a man named Michael Dunn, who is white, got into an altercation with a group of teenage boys – who were black – about their music being played too loud. Things escalated on both sides, to the point where Michael Dunn thought it was necessary to pull a handgun out of his pocket and unload 10 rounds into the kids’ SUV, killing 17-year old Jordan Davis, who was in the car.
And I’m not here to debate gun control laws, to debate whether Dunn’s actions were justified or not, but I’m just wondering….how does an argument about music being too loud get to the point where a man pulls a gun from his pocket and fires 10 rounds into an SUV? What motivates someone to the point where emptying a whole clip of bullets becomes a solution to a disagreement?
Jesus’ message to the crowds, to us, is that when our motivations are based in fear, hurt, anger; when issues of diversity like race motivate us to dehumanize people, when our motivations cause us to fail to see people through the lens of love and grace…..then things get complicated. Life gets exhausting….and it takes tragic turns where relationships and lives are forever hurt and broken.
But when our motivation stems from God’s love and grace, from the motivation to love God and love another, things are simplified, and Jesus says as much. When motivated by grace and love, our answer ought to be simply “yes, yes” or “no, no.” Can I forgive this person? Can I love them even though they’re a pain in the ass, and knowing I can’t and won’t be able to change that in them? Can I see them fully as a human being – both tragically broken and sinful and wonderfully made and loved by God?
That doesn’t mean that loving and forgiving are easy. Sometimes, no is appropriate because the hurt and pain is such that to forgive quickly denies the need for time when it comes to healing….when we don’t take that time, we don’t actually heal, we don’t actually forgive, and we don’t actually end up loving….and that falls short of God’s vision of life for us. But, the commitment to love and forgive in the midst of conflict and hurt is a simple “yes” or “no”: it tends to be an all or nothing thing: you’re all in, or walk away from the table completely.
And I think that simplifies being church for us too. Because if we’re motivated by God’s love and grace, then the answer is simply “yes, yes:” the church is a community that embraces all people in their diversity – race, lifestyle, age, and belief – just as God in Jesus Christ has embraced all of us. The answer is simply “no, no:” the church can never be a culture we preserve so that it satisfies our own want and desire for comfort, and closes itself off from anything different that threatens it. Again, it’s not always easy, but the motivation is simple – you’re all in, or you’re not.
Now I’ve thrown a lot at you this morning…..and for sure, taking a hard look at your motivations is difficult and challenging work. Yet, as we consider all this, let us be reminded that God, motivated by love, Answers “yes” to us: God simply loves enough to share the top of the snow pile with us….and the top of the snow pile is not just for us, but for all people to share together with God……and in Jesus Christ God shows us that it isn’t so much that all are invited to climb ourselves up to the top of the pile, but that if we might just believe and trust, if we might just have faith….God shows us all, in our diversity…..we’re already there.
And that’s good news…..the kind that motivates us to love perhaps, not to serve our own interests, but to pursue a life of “higher righteousness,” a life of loving others and loving God deeply. Because when we strive to love each other, especially when it’s hard and difficult to, when we seek for God together in those moments….that is where God comes in and blesses us with the gift of life – joy and peace found in relationship with each other and with God.
And that life begins here anew in our worship together. It begins in our singing and our praying together, and it begins in gathering around this Table to share in Christ’s body and blood……on our knees, together. Amen.
I also weaved in the service somewhere (passing of the peace? children’s message?) the origins of handshakes…that they used to be a sign that one didn’t have a weapon on them, and that they intended to do no harm to them. Handshakes as a sign of peace in our worship today symbolizes the same: our intention, our motivation to offer peace, safety, and hospitality. A handshake today in our worship is a sign of motive – the motive of love and reconciliation.
Again, I’m sure I didn’t say it so well…..but again, the illustration worked for people! God works in the best of ways through the weirdest (ie. me) of people.