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Expanding Boundaries

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City M., on February 20, 2011.
The Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany

Matthew 5:28-38

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

A few years back, James Dunn, feisty defender of the historic Baptist principle of the separation of church and state, bemoaned the adjective that came to be used to describe Baptists who had stepped away from the Southern Baptist Convention and its movement to the hard right. You know the term … after the theological dust had settled we came to call ourselves “moderate Baptists,” a term more descriptive of politics than heart-felt belief. Will Campbell smirked at it all and said it was more of a “shouting match (between) the conservatives (and) the slightly more conservative.”[1]

But Dunn rightly complained about the word because he isn’t moderate about anything. He said, “A moderate is a person who sings (old hymns such as), My Jesus I Like Thee, or Some to Jesus I Surrender, or Appealing Grace, or Take My Life and Let Me Be, or in this age of self-actualization, It is Okay with My Psyche.”

To drive home his point he told the story of the man who died and stood before the pearly gates, where Saint Peter met him and asked, “Man, where are your scars?” The man looked puzzled and asked, “What scars?” and Peter shot back angrily, “Well, wasn’t there anything worth fighting for down there?”[2]

Welcome to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount! To be a follower of Jesus might in the end cost you something; but “moderately” following Jesus has no place if you listen closely to what he says. Bend your ear to hear what he said and you’ll realize he couldn’t be more earnest about this Kingdom of God he described.

I

Interested? When Jesus saw the crowds, he sat them down. But in Matthew’s gospel, it’s obvious he’s really speaking to his new recruits, the disciples that had answered his call to come follow him. The rest of the crowds were there to overhear his teachings intrigued by this teacher who could heal them of their diseases.

Picture it this way as Dietrich Bonhoeffer imagines it: “Jesus sees his disciples: his disciples are over there (close at hand). They have visibly left the people to join him. He has called each individual one. They have given up everything in response to his call. Now they are living in renunciation and want; they are the poorest of the poor, the most tempted of the tempted, the hungriest of the hungry. They have only him. Yes, and with him they have nothing in the world, nothing at all, … but (rather they have) everything, everything with God.”[3]

But that’s not all he sees, Bonhoeffer notes: “So far, he has found only a small community, but it is a great community he is looking for, when he looks at the people. Disciples and people belong together,” Bonhoeffer says. “The disciples will be his messengers; they will find listeners and believers here and there.”[4]

When we hear these great words from Jesus seated at the top of a hill and the crowds cascading down the hill below him, it’s easy to take the stance of trying to listen to the lofty ideals of the Beatitudes and be lulled into thinking they are gentle philosophical sayings meant to lift the heart leaving us free to think of their sweet notions but not hear Jesus when he makes it all concrete as he does in these words.

“You have heard it said,” he says, “but I say to you.” He answers his own question as though he was carrying on a conversation in his head. It’s a way of teaching we might better understand as Point/Counterpoint. They’re connected in that he’s pointing us to an old wisdom that’s never been challenged from a new perspective. He’s talking about old Hebrew truths that are surely found in sacred Scripture, for there are many sayings in the Bible we look beyond to sensing a deeper meaning than what is written and saved in our Holy Bibles. He’s talking about a common sense way of living that we learn as children and seldom take the time to re-think as adults. But we make a mistake believing we disregard them because they don’t make sense anymore because what Jesus does with them is harder, not easier, to obey.

II

Jesus talks about retaliation and generosity and ultimately about loving our enemies. They are issues all of us struggle with when we peel away our piety and sweet smiles.

It’s what happens when the little girl complains to her parents about her older brother pestering her and picking on her unmercifully because he’s bigger and older. The parents chide for it, but little changes. So when the little girl runs for protection to her parent after the umpteenth time she’s been picked on, the dad tells her, “The next time he touches you, put your hand in a fist and hit him!” So she does, catching the boy totally off-guard, and the he drops like a rock because he never expected her to retaliate with physical force like that.

But all of us know that such retaliation may only be a short gained pleasure because it quickly backfires on us and only makes things worse. Retaliation and the anger that inspires it are dangerous and we suffer immeasurably when it overtakes us.

Here’s what Fred Buechner has to say on this: “Of the 7 Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” [5]

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is where we get lex talionis, the law of talion (from Latin from which we use, “retaliation”); it’s the legal principle that “the punishment fits the crime.” But there still a limitation in God’s kingdom as to where this will take us, and so Jesus elevates the idea to a larger dimension as it relates to the kingdom he came preaching. To be honest, lex talionis is found in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, so Jesus had to tell them, “But I tell you …” to drive home his point.

Gandhi understood the limits of revenge: “If we practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless.”

An old Chinese proverb says it this way: “He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself.”

Likewise, Jesus sets up the tension between the demands of others place upon us and how we deal in return with a generosity that exceeds the demand. Ultimately, he draws a line in the sand about how we relate to those who oppose us, persons in our lives we consider our enemies.

One of my pastor friends claims there are ten people in everyone’s life at one time or another we view as our enemies. Maybe that’s the ultimate price of sin in our world and sin in us. We rub against the grain with others who in turn wage war with us. It may be the outcome of some thoughtless action we’ve incurred that’s hurt someone or it may be something we failed to do. Nevertheless, they make it their mission in life to hold it as a sign of our war with one another. Maybe it’s helpful to know that on occasion, someone will unconsciously wage war with us because they’re waging war with some broken off, unresolved part of themselves.

III

Jesus gives us no wiggle room on this issue as he commands us to offer love in return – something that goes against the grain of everything we instinctively know about life. “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”

Jesus describes the faith of the new kingdom in terms as a tension between our instincts and new, better self willing to love God and receive the demands as a sign of our love of God, committed to a love greater than our instincts. We’re to be willing citizens of a new kingdom that places hard demands on our native selves and invites us to evolve.

On top of it all, Jesus commands we become perfect – a word we recognize is not absolute perfection but maturity. We are to grow! We are to accept that God is at work in our lives pulling us toward a life more in tune with the kingdom.

I love what Winston Churchill observed:  “They say nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.”

In the end, Jesus is pushing the law from the head to the heart. It cuts against the grain, but that’s how God about doing things. Our job as the followers of Jesus is to go with him.

[1] Campbell, Will, “Personal Perspective: On Silencing Our Finest” Christianity and Crisis, 9/16/85, 341

[2] From Larry Bethune’s sermon, “It Isn’t ‘Nice’ to Be Christian,” University Baptist Church, Austin TX, 2/18/90

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, translated by Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, 101

[4] Bonhoeffer, 101

[5] Frederick Buechner, “Anger,” Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, New York: Harper & Row, 1973, 2