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Sunday February 14, 1999
Matthew 5:21-37 [48]
[See notes below regarding lectionary readings for this Sunday]

Focus : "You have heard it said...    But I say to you...  
                        The Six Antitheses of Matthew Five

If God Were Truly In Charge

"Why does it have to be like this?"

The woman's grief was heavy -- thick.   You could feel it as she spoke through her tears. We were walking away from the graveside of her 25 year old son who had been killed in a hunting accident.  Her eldest daughter had been killed by a drunk driver two years earlier. The remaining daughter had moved back home with her two young children a month earlier when her husband disappeared with his new found "soul mate". With a large mortgage and no employment, she had no choice but to move back home with her mother.

Is it any wonder she asked, "Why does it have to be like this?"

Certainly you -- or someone very close to you has asked the same question in one form or another. Why is there anger -- and cheating -- and violence -- and hatred? And how about stupidity?  Drunk driving is just plain stupid! Why do people have to die because other people are so stupid as to attempt control of a 2000 pound missile while incapacitated?

The answer to why things are the way they are is rather amazing.  The reason things are the way they are is that God made the incredible decision to place something as precious as human life into the hands of humans!

As pastors, we hear the woman's question in this form, "Why couldn't an all powerful God have created a perfect world without all this pain and anguish?"

The answer to that, of course, is, "God did create a perfect world.  The problem is -- if you read the bible, the perfect world which was created lasted for about two and a half pages."


Because God made the unthinkable decision to place the world and human life into the hands of humans!

Stay with me now.  Here's the key to understanding why things are the way they are and how they can be the way God wants them to be. "God has placed the world and human life into the hands of humans so that they might place them back into the hands of God!"

If God were truly in charge, if we could embrace the love of God for us -- and love God back -- and extend that love to others -- the world would be a different place.  Idealistic?  Yes!  Radical? Absolutely!  Possible? It might not look like it, but God really does break through in surrendered, committed, individual lives here and there. And when that happens there is at least a temporary outbreak of the kingdom of God!

And you know something people -- perhaps we need God to fill our hearts with courage and expectation so that we can embrace the fact that Jesus Christ has indeed called us to a radical way of living!  If we will allow ourselves to be confronted by the Spirit of God in the words of Jesus in the reading from Matthew, we can discover that when broken hearted people ask, "Why does it have to be this way?" we can honestly answer, "It doesn't !" But...  there is a certain transformation that needs to take place if we are to "get there from here" as they say. Our scripture readings point to three factors that can help.  We might talk about these three factors in terms of: 1) Beyond the Law - Hitting the Wall,  2) Loving God Means Life, and 3) Grace for the Power to Change.

1. Beyond the Law - Hitting the Wall

In Jesus day, a good, religious, God fearing person, would do all they could to keep the law of Moses and even the interpretation of those laws by rabbis which were held in high regard. The Pharisees almost made a profession of strict law keeping. They felt that if everyone would strictly observe religious law, the world would be a better place. And as true as that sentiment might be -- it simply didn't work!  Jesus, on more than one occasion, pointed out that the law keepers of his day usually missed the point of God's law.  In fact, Mark tells us Jesus became angry at a group of Pharisees who were more concerned about the details of law keeping than they were about the hurt and anguish of a crippled man as he writes, "He {Jesus} looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart..." [Mark 3:5]

In the reading from Matthew, Jesus says in effect, "Look...  do you think the Pharisees and scribes take the law seriously... that they are religious?  Let me tell you something, you've got to do way better then the Pharisees and all the outwardly religious folks you know or you will never know what it is like to live in a world where God is truly in charge!"

Then he launched into six examples of how he wanted his followers to do better than the Pharisees.  Six examples that would leave them standing speechless!  And if we listen closely, they will leave us speechless. Listen:

1. "Call someone a fool and you'll go to hell!"
2. "If you look at a woman with lust in your heart, you've committed adultery... you would be better off to rip out your eye!"
3. "The ancients allowed men to divorce -- I say, NO DIVORCE!"
4. "Don't take any oaths -- you shouldn't have to -- if you love God, your word is good!"
5. "Forget about getting even with people, if someone hits you on the right cheek -- offer him the other cheek!"
6. "If this isn't sinking in, try this -- love your enemies and pray for those who use you!"

"Is he serious?" No doubt they wondered.  I can relate -- can't you?  Can you imagine the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the United States (Canada, England etc.) declare that as a Christian, he was going to base his policies on Jesus' words in Matthew 5:44 "...I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..." ?   He would be sent to "sick bay" and then likely given an "Honorable Discharge - Special Circumstances."

What's your reaction to Jesus' words?  I have to confess that I share in some of the "jaw dropping" that must have taken place that day.  But, just in case people began to look for "wiggle room",  Jesus drove home the last nail.

"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

This should be sufficient to cause us to hit the wall in a spiritual sense!.  This is all God wants from you.  Perfection!   In other words Jesus takes the discussion way beyond law keeping. We have to do much more than simply keep a few religious laws and observe a few religious practices. We are confronted with the reality that a power beyond us will have to take charge! 

2. Loving God Means Life

The fact that God has placed the world and human life back into the hands of human beings sounds like a rather far fetched idea -- to say nothing of risky, but there is a central principle of relationships in this.  Without the ability to choose, there can be no real love. I can love you only if there is a choice. Even God's love comes as the result of a choice.  Moses explained to Israel,  "The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples..." [Deut. 7:7 NASB] The lectionary reading from Deuteronomy makes it clear that to love God is to choose God and to choose to live in the ways God sets out for us.  This choice is so powerful and so determinative of the outcome of our lives that Moses can say this is literally a "life and death" choice.  To choose to love God is to choose life!

The most amazing  "love choice" God ever made is the one almost every Christian person who has ever lived can recite, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." [John 3:16 NASB] Accordingly, the greatest choice a human being can make is to return that amazing love. Jesus says exactly that in Matthew 22:37 "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind."

In our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses said, "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you..." [Deut. 30:19-20] It is when we choose to trust the Son that we have life instead of death. However, this love relationship with God is something we can also choose to turn away from. Moses warms the people that if they turn their hearts away from God, they will perish."

We are faced with a problem.  Jesus' words are all but impossible to keep and the love for God Moses enjoins seems beyond the reach of most of us.  So -- where to from here?

3. Grace for the Power to Change

How can we ever come close to honoring -- much less practicing Jesus' words? What is the power that can help us change?

Perhaps the words of Paul in the epistle reading can help.  Here's a rephrasing of what he said to the Corinthian church. (And trust me...  the church at Corinth was a very earthy, messed up bunch! "I couldn't really talk to you in spiritual terms because you are so earthbound. You are so hooked into this world that you don't 'get it' when it comes to spiritual things. We can talk all we want, but only God can really bring about spiritual growth."

In order to make any spiritual gains, we will need to be open to the fullness of the love of God in our lives.

Wait now!  Don't let that slip by too quickly.  Think about this with me. [Take this slowly and give a few seconds for folk to reflect on what you are saying.]

Are you aware of the depth of God's love for you? Have you allowed the fullness of the love of Christ to penetrate your soul?

It is only the deep love and grace of God that can give us the power to see the world and the people in our lives with spiritual eyes.  It is the love of God that brings sufficient healing to the pain and anguish of our lives -- and allows us to let the "perfect" love of God come through our lives for others.

To be perfect -- as God is perfect, is not so much a matter of keeping the law of God as it is embracing the love of God.  Once you have embraced the love of God you can let it go -- to others.

This takes us back to the woman's original question.  "Why does it have to be like this?" The answer is, "It doesn't!"

If you will open your life up to the fullness of God's love for you, and if you will allow your life to be filled with love for God -- then you will gain the courage to live for God in the tiny corner of the planet that is yours. Perhaps others of us will do the same and this healing love will touch someone near by. Perhaps a few changed lives will touch other lives.  And God willing --  one less person will die at the hands of a drunk driver -- and perhaps one more family will stay together. One life at a time, we can make a difference.   One candle at a time, we can light the darkness.

Can you and I be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect?  Certainly not -- but we can allow a perfect God more room in our imperfect lives.  Then we will catch at least a glimpse of what it would be like if God were truly in charge!

Notes On The Text

** 2/14/99 has two sets of readings available in the New Revised Common Lectionary.  2/14 is the sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Proper I -- 6thSunday in Ordinary Time) This set of readings has Matthew 5:21-37 (with some variations in the Book of Common Prayer and Roman Lectionary)  as the Gospel.  2/14 is also Last Sunday after Epiphany and The Transfiguration of our Lord. The gospel reading for this emphasis is Matt: 17:1-9. We are using the Matt. 5 gospel for 2/14 in part because we will be dealing with the transfiguration as a part of our Lenten series and the Matt. 17:1-9 will be addressed then. 

The Lectionary reading from Sirach (Episcopal 15:11-20 or Roman Catholic 15:15-20) echoes this choice that God's people have to make. "It was he (God) who created humankind in the beginning, and he left them in the power of their own free choice." [15:14]   "Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given." [15:17]

Both Moses and Sirach place the responsibility for maintaining the relationship with God on the people of God.  It turns out that it will take more than the law and even our desire to stay in relationship with God -- in spite of the fact that, "...he (God) has not given anyone permission to sin..." [Sir.15:20]

See introductory notes on Corinth from alternate sermon ideas for 1/17/99.

v.22 Jesus own anger in Mark 3:1-5 is not the anger which seeks to diminish or demean a brother, nut anger at that which injures a child of God. He spoke to the "hardness of heart" of the Pharisees not to the person of the Pharisee.

v.27 The O.T. command against adultery in Ex. 20:14; Dt 5:18.  To look at a woman "lustfully - ejpiqumh'sai from epiqumew"  Literally .. with a burning desire. (Used in Rom.1:24 as sinful desires.

v.32 "Except on the ground of unchastity..." ("Except for marital unfaithfulness" - NIV)   Is from except for "porneiva" - from porneuo - to indulge unlawful lust"  The KJV translates this "except for fornication"  Deuteronomy 24:1-4 deals with divorce.   Jesus treats the topic more fully in Mt. 19:1-12 (Mark 10:1-12)  Mark does not have the exception clause -- in Matt. 19 Jesus states that the exception allowed by Jewish law was only because of their "hardness of heart".  (Interesting Greek term - sklhrokardia - sklero-kardia - "drying or hardening of the heart.  Used figuratively it is dullness of spiritual perception.

If you do more with the theme of divorce, remarriage and relationships, be sure to use Dr. Jon Carlson's material below in alternative sermon ideas.

vv.43-48  Nowhere is the call to radical discipleship more forceful than in the injunction to love and pray for enemies -- concluding finally with Jesus call to be "perfect as your father in heaven is perfect."  In other words, this is no simple self-improvement program or moral rearmament -- it is commitment to a new life in a new world order. (the real new world order!)

v.48 Perfect = tevleio -  (teleios) From the root telos or end. [where we get telescope - telos and scopeo or, "to see the end"]    The sense is that of arriving at the end of what we were designed to be -- or to achieve the absolute completion -- that is:  "Be Perfect".


Alternate Sermon Ideas

The Attachment Crisis in America

Another homiletical possibility for today is to focus on the issue of marriage.  In the Matthew reading, Jesus says that even though divorce was allowed for to men whose wives were unchaste.  While Jesus words against divorce are not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of the issue of marriage relationships, the issue of marriage is both appropriate and necessary.

The following resource is from a dialogue sermon with Dr. Jon Carlson, Director of the Wellness Clinic in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and author of numerous books on marriage and family life. You can read more on Dr. Carlson in the preaching notebook archives.  You may use or quote from the following presentation in a message or in groups in your local church.  It is, however, copyrighted and can not be otherwise published or printed.  Reference is: Living Love, Carlson, J. and Dinkmeyer, D; Phoenix, AZ, Zeig-Tucker publishers.


Dr. Jewell:  "Jon, there was a time when couples who came for premarital counseling would blush when one or another of them told me they had been married before.  Now the blush doesn't come until the third or even fourth marriage comes up!  What's going on with marriage relationships these days?"

Dr. Carlson:

Few people are like Liz and Tom Cox who have had the opportunity to live a long and connected relationship. (Tom and Liz Cox are a couple in our church who are celebrating their 50th Wedding Anniversary.) We actually have an attachment crisis in America.

My research shows that most people live in disconnected and lonely relationships. How many people make work, children, friends, family, housework, and even television a more important priority than their partner? How many people are waiting for winning lotto,
their children to leave, or retirement before making their relationship better?

Who are good models for a good relationship? If this connection is so wonderful, why are so many people disconnected? Just what is attachment and how do I get it?

As Shakespeare says "What tis to love?"

Most people do not understand what attachment is. It clearly is not the same thing as attraction, lust, or infatuation. Many people are in search of the perfect mate or the "soul mate". They are busy trying to find the ideal partner rather than trying to become the right partner. It is important that we grow up and change the patterns in our lives in order to reach attachment and its tranquility, peace, calm, comfort, stability and emotional union.

There are really 3 distinct chemical systems in the brain: lust, attraction and attachment. Each has its own neural circuitry, behaviors, and chemical systems

Let's begin with attraction. Research states that a great deal of one's attraction to another person is determined by ancestors and their ancestors. First this is done through DNA matches. An impressive body of evidence indicates that two people who mate with dis-similar DNA will have healthier offspring. Therefore, the chemical attraction phenomenon is greatly influenced by one's biology. God's master plan.

In one interesting study, researchers took a group of men and had them wear the same T-shirt for three days. They then had a group of women smell the T-shirts and rate them in terms of the smells they liked and those that repelled them. Results from the study indicated that the women were most attracted to the T-shirts from men whose DNA was least like theirs. In fact, the T-shirts from men who were even distantly related to their DNA were found to be repulsive. Nature is well aware that mating with close relatives does not produce the heartiest children. This attraction message is the result of pheromones or airborne molecules unique to each individual. These molecules travel through the air, enter through the nose and then stimulate the brain with a DNA imprint signaling attraction or disinterest.

We are also attracted by family patterns, the attraction process is not just limited to a DNA match, there is also a familiar love phenomenon which occurs when we meet someone who reminds us of our earliest experience of love. Perhaps you have wondered why you have met people that you really should be attracted to, they "have it all going for them" but there is nothing there--no connection. It is because these people are not familiar to you. When we meet someone who is a good match, our PEA's or phenylethylamines are increased. This creates a state of ecstasy, altered consciousness, increased energy and increased libido, however, this state is time limited, lasting from three to nine months. Many people confuse this last stage and the infatuation stage with real love and real attachment. And since this is time limited, when it ends, they believe that this is not the "real deal", that this is not their "soul mate". Actually, this is the time when real love begins. Many people, though, drop this partner and move on to another and go on with what some people have called "serial monogamy", staying in a relationship until this PEA & pheromone drug-induced high wears off and then moving on to a new partner. This is not the real deal.

The "real deal" is long term attached relationships ... even though we (with the help of the media) tend to worship romantic love.

According to W.H. Auden "any marriage (happy or unhappy) is infinitely more interesting than any relationship no matter how passionate."

Long marriages are like an oriental rug. They are rich, they are an intimate tapestry of kaleidoscopic design of joys, happiness, sorrows, and memories built on common goals, shared interest, respect, determination, compromise, patience, cooperation, and dogged determination.

Researchers like Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher in their forthcoming book from Harvard Press entitled The Case for Marriage indicates that marriage like diet, exercise and sleep is good for your health. When you feel better you make better decisions. Marriage is good for men and women which is different from what people originally thought and frequently stated in the media. It increases your physical health. It is probably the best treatment for drug and alcohol use. Emotional health goes with marriage. So does wealth, sex, including the quality and quantity of it, career, and even less domestic violence. In a marriage you are able to receive support, your health is monitored, someone else cares, you have a confidant, and you fulfill an important goal, that of being married. So how does one create this long term marriage or what I am calling attachment? I believe it is done through the learning of six simple things:

1. Awareness - most of us really want our partners to be with us. Our lives have just become too busy and we do not have time for one another these days. To demonstrate true love, we have to make ourselves available. According to Thicht Nacht Hahn, the Buddhist Nobel Peace nominee, we need to learn to breathe in and out consciously and be present for our partner. The greatest gift that we can make to our partner is to be truly present. Most of us do not take the time to be with our partners and when we do we are not actually present ---we are busy thinking ahead to other tasks and other things that we need to accomplish. It is very important to slow down our life, live with more deliberation and to be truly present with our partner. "I am here for you" might be a mantra that you can repeat when you are with your partner to let them know that you are 100% tuned into them.

How much time is enough to have the kind of relationship that you truly want to have? Can you block out the time that you want to make your relationship a priority? Can you live the type of relationship that you intend to live? Relationships vary in terms of the amount of closeness that each couple wants. There is no correct or perfect amount of involvement. The amount of time together and intimacy is left up to the couple and will vary at different points of time in your relationship. I am sure Tom and Liz Cox can attest to that. By learning to be present for your partner, the amount of defensiveness can be reduced. Defensiveness is one of the major deterrents to effective relationships. When we are present, our partners can be open. Being present also involves learning to agree with your partner. "I love you" are not the three most important words in marriage. "You are right" are more important words for those involved in long term relationships.

2. Responsibility. To be a good partner, we need to take responsibility. Responsibility involves accepting your choice of a partner as someone who can help you to heal your childhood wounds. You chose your partner for reasons that were well below your level of awareness. Why do you believe that you fell in love with your partner? Were there not other potential partners that you could have gotten along with but didn't? Why is that? Couples need to realize that it is unresolved childhood issues that are the real issues and not the surface needs and desires that we get caught up in. By taking responsibility for the deeper issues in your life, puzzling problems tend to disappear.

Responsibility is also related to accepting responsibility for your role in problems within the partnership. This involves letting go of criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness and contempt. It is important to learn to embrace the dark side of your personality so that you stop projecting your negative self-characteristics onto your partner. This involves developing new thoughts, feelings and actions that support the positive sides of your being. Once you accomplish this, you can create a more accurate image of your partner. You can take responsibility for communicating your needs and desires to your partner and become more intentional in your interactions. It is important that you learn to value your partners needs and wishes as highly as your value your own and to develop new techniques that satisfy your needs as well as the needs of your partner.

3. Acceptance. With acceptance, we learn to harmonize the differences in our relationship. We learn to agree with our partner, we learn to accept our partners words and their deeds. All couples have irreconcilable differences. So if you marry someone else, you won't have the same set of problems, you will actually have a different set of problems. Difference is what makes life interesting.

4. Encouragement. Encouragement is similar to hope. It is creating and focusing on the positive aspect of our relationship. You find that people who have attached and satisfying relationships have more positive than they do negative exchanges at the rate of 5 to 1. They let a lot of problems go. When they are out together or when they do have time together, they enjoy one another's company rather than finding this as a time to raise irreconcilable differences.

5. Commitment. Commitment is realizing that you are in this relationship forever, for the long haul. Not the "planned obsolescence" that Vance Packard talked about, where you buy a car, drive it for a few years and then trade it in on a new model. This commitment takes courage.

6. Attachment. The state of attachment happens when we respect, honor, and create plans and goals with one another. This involves doing things like having a mission statement or a goal. How many people do you know that actually have clear marital mission statements? My guess is not many.

An example of a mission statement is the one that Laura and I have evolved over our 31 years of marriage:

"We believe in growth, physical, mental, spiritual, and personal. we love new experiences and challenges. We value our children and invest in their future. We believe in cultural diversity and strive to respect differences. Our relationship is happy and we have fun together. We both feel safe and have important roles. We support one another fully and we encourage growth. Our love in unconditional and our feedback honest. We have a commitment to support one another, spend time on dates and trips, allow space, provide feedback and spend time together in sharing each other's interests."

You can create your own marriage mission statement by really answering three questions:
1. We believe...
2. We want...
3. We value...

Know that this takes time that mission statements are not done overnight but result over weeks and months of dialogue with your partner.

In conclusion, to resolve the attachment crisis in America, it is imperative to develop the six skills of
1. Be present
2. Be responsible
3. Harmonize differences
4. Provide hope and encouragement
5. Stay committed
6. Attachment will develop

Know that marriage and attachment is the place where the greatest fail and the humblest survive!

Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Psalm 119:1-5 adapted)

Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.

Happy are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their whole heart,

O Lord, you have commanded your precepts
to be kept diligently.

O that our ways may be steadfast
and that we may praise you with honest hearts!

Prayer of Dedication

You are the greatest Giver of all, O Lord.  You are the Provider of all things
and the One who has called us to work for the growth of your kingdom.
Bless the gifts we bring so that our efforts will bring about praise to
your Holy Name.  Amen.