Sunday, February 16, 2020
Last week we heard Jesus encourage us to be salt and light. He emphasized he builds his ministry on the law and the prophets, the ancient beliefs of the faith. This Sunday, as Jesus continues his sermon on the mount, he gives us rules to live by that are even stricter than what is written in the Old Testament. And it seems that rather than expecting us to live up to these impossibly high standards, Jesus is intentionally exposing our inability to follow God’s law perfectly. Instead, as he points out the sins of our anger, our lust, our broken relationships, even our tendency to swear, he is pointing to our need for God and our need for forgiveness. Jesus is using extremes to drive home the fact that we are sinners in need of a savior. Already in chapter five, even though his crucifixion is not until chapter twenty-seven in Matthew, Jesus is foreshadowing the reason he is going to die on the cross – for us and for our sins.
I often hear from people that one reason they don’t go to church or see the need to be a part of a church family is that “I’m a pretty good person.” The main point Jesus is making is that if you think you’re a pretty good person, or a good enough person, because you haven’t committed adultery, or murdered anyone, think again. No one can measure up to God’s standards. Humans have a tendency to judge others more harshly than ourselves because they’re “worse” than I – “at least I’m not (___).” The truth is that all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All of us are in need of God’s forgiveness, because we can’t follow the law perfectly. We ought to be willing to take out our eyes or cut off our hands if we think we never sin with our eyes or our hands, Jesus says. That is why Jesus came, and that is why Jesus died…for us, to do what we can’t do for ourselves, to offer us forgiveness when we can’t forgive ourselves.
Forgiveness is hard. In hearing Jesus’ words to be reconciled to one another before coming to the altar, we probably all have someone in our minds that we are just not ready to forgive yet, even someone here in this room that we would rather not share the peace with. There may be people in our own families we have not spoken to in a long time, or try to avoid because of unresolved conflicts and hurt feelings.
When I worked for the Nebraska Synod, there was a congregation I worked with who, like many congregations, wanted fresh ideas for reaching out to their communities and engaging in evangelism. When I spoke with the council president before my visit, however, I learned how conflicted the congregation had been for a long time. It was clear that the church was in decline partly because the majority of their members in leadership were holding grudges against each other, and visitors could sense the tension in worship. They didn’t want to come back or be a part of such a dysfunctional church. So the council president and I agreed that the most helpful starting place for me as a pastor would not be talking about evangelism, but doing a service of healing. He and the rest of the council came up with the idea of taking time at the beginning of worship for each worshipper to write down things they wanted forgiveness for, hurts they were holding onto, etc. and then place it in a fire pit for those pieces of paper to be burned. This was rural Nebraska, remember, so we didn’t have to worry about fire marshal restrictions! After the congregation watched those hurts and sins go up in smoke, we had an extended time of individual laying on of hands, where I anointed everyone with oil and prayed for them individually. The whole process took almost 45 minutes. It was one of the holiest worship services I’ve ever been privileged to be a part of. You could feel the Holy Spirit in the room. People were overcome with emotion. I told the congregation that we’d abbreviate the rest of the service because we needed to take the time to be honest with each other and with God about the hurt in the church that was hurting their mission and their community. We heard the Word, I preached a short sermon, and we shared communion together, having committed ourselves to reconciliation work with God and with one another.
In following the congregation’s ministry a year after that healing service, I would not say that everything is amazingly wonderful, but they are moving forward in their ministry in ways they were not able to before – they were so focused on not offending so and so or dealing with another person’s concern that their council could not discuss mission. They put the pause button on to take Jesus’ words seriously to reconcile with their brothers and sisters before coming to the altar and offering their gifts. Now they have a community garden and offer free fresh produce to the community during the summer months. Worship attendance has increased slightly, with a few younger families becoming reengaged. Being intentional about forgiveness and reconciliation has allowed the congregation to take baby steps forward for the sake of Christ’s larger mission in the world, to focus not so much on themselves and more on their community.
These are difficult words from Jesus to hear today. Jesus is really challenging us to reconsider how “good” we are, and how healthy we are moving forward as individuals and as a congregation. We need to take forgiveness of one another seriously, just as we begin worship each Sunday with corporate Confession and Forgiveness and pass the peace before taking an offering. Christ’s body, the church, suffers, when we are not reconciled. And Christ is willing to go to the cross for us so that we might be reconciled back to God and to one another. If Christ is able to go to such great lengths to even die for us, how hard is it, really, to look into our own hearts and say those three difficult words: “I am sorry.” “I forgive you.” We may not be adulterers, murderers or even prolific swearers, but we are united by our tendency to sin and our tendency to minimize sin’s hold on our lives. Instead, Christ calls us to be honest with God and with others, to not hold onto anger or deny that sin is a problem in our lives, but to receive Christ’ s reconciliation. On this Valentine’s Day weekend where we celebrate romantic love, what a great reminder from Jesus that real love is hard. Love in a marriage, love between fellow Christians, includes working through relationships when it is difficult, striving to avoid lashing out in anger, lust, divorce, swearing as Jesus names today, but recognizing our need for God’s grace and forgiveness when we fail.
One of our Lutheran principles of understanding our relationship with God and others is that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. That is, while it may seem like total opposites for Jesus to call us salt and light and in the next breath say we should all gouge our eyes out because of our sin, this not a contradiction, but a reality of the human condition. As children of God, we are saints, capable of bearing Christ’s light to the world. As human beings, we are also sinners, in need of a God to save us from ourselves so that we can better love God and one another. While these words are harsh from Jesus, the grace in the midst of them is that we do not have to be perfect, because we have a God who is, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, who is ready to grant us forgiveness and work for the healing of relationships among us as well, who sends us Christ on the cross so that reconciliation IS possible. Amen.