From Stone to Living Word – A sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

February 12, 2017

God is still speaking, and Jesus is still preaching.

We heard the beginning of his beautiful sermon a few weeks ago – the familiar and beloved beatitudes or blessings:

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit

Blessed are the poor for they shall be fed

Blessed are you when others revile you and hate you and utter all sorts of falsehood against you…

The beatitudes are contradictions of what in Jesus’ society, as in ours, seem to be contradictions of natural law. It’s a curse not a blessing in Jesus time as it in our to have lies told about you, and those lies passed off as truth. The poor, in Jesus time as in ours, continue to push against all that is arrayed against them, and yet remain poor. The meek will win a kingdom? Nah, we know that only the powerful and corrupt do that!

And yet Jesus in his wild, loving, turn the world upside way – gave us these promises, not as things to come in some far distant future, but as the reality here and now. Reminding us that what seems like just natural law, is actually unnatural, is actually created by us as human beings and that God’s dream for us is so very different.

Today Jesus takes on the law of the land, the actual written-in-stone law (can you picture Charlton Heston hefting those big stone, Styrofoam tablets above the people?), just as he did the so-called natural law a few weeks back. Jesus reminded his listeners then, reminds us now that the law is always being interpreted, transformed. The law is not as we imagine set in stone, but is in fact a living word.

(Steve Kimes is pastor to a community of homeless and mentally ill in Gresham Oregon. The following analysis owes much to him.

1. You have heard that it was said to the ancients, “You shall not murder and whoever murders will be guilty of judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry against is guilty to judgment. Whoever says, “Idiot” will be guilty to the hell of fire.
Moses’ law said—“Do not murder.”
Some taught it meant—“As long as you don’t murder, you can express other kinds of hatred.”
Jesus said—“Anyone who expresses any hatred is not following God’s law of love

2. You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with covetousness for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Moses’ law—“Do not have sex with someone not your spouse.”
Some taught it meant—“As long as you don’t have sexual intercourse, you can express your desire in other ways.”
Jesus said – Pay attention even to your thoughts if you want to follow the way of God.

3. And it was said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a divorce notice.” But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on grounds of sexual unfaithfulness, makes her commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Jennifer says – Every person in this room, including me, have had lives touched by divorce.

Moses’ law—“If you divorce, give your spouse a divorce notice.”
Some taught it meant—“You can get divorced for any reason.”
Jesus said—“Women rely on the legal, societal and economic protections of marriage, and are much more endangered then men by divorce since it meant they were cast free of any safety net. Divorce law is for the protection of the vulnerable – do not break those commitments lightly.

4. Again, you have heard that it was said to the ancients, “Do not break an oath, but you shall pay back to the Lord your oaths.” But I command you, do not swear at all—either by heaven (for it is God’s throne), or by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King, Nor swear by your head for you are not able to make one hair while or black. But let your word be, “yes, yes; no, no.” But whatever more than this is of the evil one.
Moses’ law—“Make all oaths in Yahweh’s name.”
Some taught it meant—“Any oath made in someone else’s name, apart from God’s, need not be kept.”
Jesus said—“Every promise made is before God. Keep your word no matter what or lose your integrity and be a liar like Satan.”

The law, those words, were written LITERALLY in stone and Jesus reminds us one after another that these laws had already been interpreted, had already been changed by whoever was doing the reading. As soon as we know a law, we become interpreters of it. But are we interpreting the law to see how much we can get away with? Or are we transforming it with hearts and minds of love, using the law as a means not to skirt around God’s mercy and justice, but to sink more deeply into it?

Jesus loved the law. He didn’t come to shatter to stone tablets of the ten commandments, but transform them into the living word.

In Jesus time, there was nothing like the separation of church and state we hold dear. God’s law was also social and political law. The place of worship was also the courthouse. And yet, we continue to interpret the law through a lens, right? And we continue to have a choice about what that lens will be, right?

Interpretation of law is playing out dramatically on our own national stage right now. Several weeks ago, an executive order banning travel into the US from seven majority Muslim nations. This was followed by a ruling by a federal judge that blocked key parts of the ban. Then, in appeals court, the block was upheld.

No law, now as in Jesus time, is written in stone. The Law is living word.

We don’t have to be federal judges, though, or Jesus for that matter to be interpreters of law. Because the laws that are written down as statutes are not the only laws we follow. Because each of us carries a tablet within, on it is written the laws by which we govern our lives. And we need to attend to those inner laws, the ones not written down, but that we follow anyway – in order to have the strength and the courage to speak of change, of love. “you have heard it said…” What have you heard said? What is written in stone in there? What has become The Law – so firm, solid, permanent-seeming that you forgot that he law is always changing, always transforming, always being interpreted, that you have a choice of the lens through which you see that law, and that Jesus’ hope for you is that you view it through the lens of love.

Here’s how this plays out for me: Somewhere I picked up the stone tablet that has written on it “everything is broken.” Sometimes I believe this is the law, unchangeable, immutable – that I am broken, and you are, and the world is broken and that none of it will ever be fixed. Sometimes it seems like nothing can be fixed – not my nation’s frenzied division, not the church building up on the hill which has surely always been and will always be wrapped in white in plastic, not my own tired cracked heart – everything is broken. It seems to be written in stone, but I know it is not, because during a break from the rain clouds this week, I went to walk on the labyrinth, to pray. I walked carefully on the path down to the labyrinth, because the ice and wind of the past few weeks has scattered a lot of debris – branches and leaves and even an empty cigarette packet. Everything is broken, the heavy rock on my heart said, and I looked down at my feet, finding my way. And there by the side of the path, a little green shoot piking up among the branches and leaves and garbage – a crocus, a piece of spring, a reminder of life. The heavy stone tablet shifted, I could feel it, just like that, morphing into living word. Some things are broken, this is true. But not everything is. There are green shoots poking up where you least expect them. There is new life, placed before you, waiting for you to choose it.

You have heard it said…what have you heard said? What is the law? Have you heard ist said that you are too small? Too big? Too stupid? Too ugly? Have you heard it said you are not important? That you are unlovable? Have you heard it said that you cannot make a difference anyway, so why even try?

BUT I SAY, says Jesus

I say you are precious, beloved, gorgeous, powerful, ready, says Jesus. I say you are just the right person for what is before you. I say those laws you live by, those words you think are written in stone, are ready to be transformed into living word by the love of God. Amen.

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