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The year was 1967. Vietnam was exploding. The Nuclear Arms Race was escalating. The Women's Movement and the Civil Rights Movement were agitating the soul of our nation. And the Presbyterian church was trying to figure out how to witness to Jesus Christ in the midst of all this cultural chaos.
These tough words from Jesus come as part of the Sermon on the Mount - the three chapters of ethical teaching that form the core of Matthew's Gospel. Just before these words today, Jesus has told the crowd that he has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Now this does not mean that he is replacing or belittling or watering down the law. Instead Jesus is embodying the law, putting flesh on the law, and digging underneath the law in order to find God's deeper values and vision which the law points to. And then Jesus takes this abstract idea and makes it concrete, giving six examples of how the word becomes flesh in the realities of our everyday lives. And as usual Jesus is neither polite nor politic. He takes on murder, adultery, divorce, lust, legal game playing, and political revenge. And he tells us that if we cannot embody love and reconciliation in our personal lives, well, then, reconciliation in the world is doomed.
Today's particular words focus on anger and they are addressed to the bickering, resentful, bitter parts inside us, as well as inside those early crowds. As a good Jew, Jesus starts with the Ten Commandments - Thou shalt not kill - but then he digs even deeper. He suggests that each one of us is a murderer. Each one of us is a killer of life and love when we harbor anger and contempt toward anyone. And he makes it clear that the hard part of reconciliation must start with us - with our decision to be reconciled to God and to neighbor. And we are to do this no matter who is at fault.
Plato once imagined the spiritual journey as a chariot moving through the wilderness of life, with the soul as the charioteer trying to rein in two powerful horses: the horse of anger or passion, and the horse of reason or order. Plato understood that both passion and reason can be life-giving, but only when they are held in dynamic tension, only when each power neutralizes the potential destruction of the other. This morning Jesus tells us that we must balance the passion of anger with the discipline and reason of love. And he tells us that the law of love can best be fulfilled, not through rules, but through relationships.
The word that Jesus uses means a particular kind of anger. He is not talking about short bursts of annoyance or frustration. Rather he is talking about the brooding, pervasive kind of animosity that can eat away at us - a kind of leprosy of the soul. This toxic poison destroys relationships and leads to malicious gossip, to character assassination, and to the destruction of lives and reputations. Now lest we are tempted to excuse ourselves from such ugly behavior, I ask you to reflect on your own lives for a minute. Who was the last person you gossiped about or maligned? How frequently do you label or stereotype others who may disagree with you? How willing are you to savor animosity and bitterness toward a friend or family member in order to hold onto your own hurt, your own self-righteousness, your own brokenness and pain? I love to tell the story of the conservative Presbyterian who just a few weeks ago called me a heretic, a harlot, and a wicked teacher of apostasy. And yet how easy it is for me to retaliate -- to label him and to put him in a box. How easy it is to turn other people into a category, rather than seeing them each as a beloved child of God who just happens to see things differently than I do.
What Jesus is suggesting this morning is that all our political convictions and theological pontifications about reconciliation mean absolutely nothing if we are not committed to healing and forgiveness in our own political lives. I was awe-struck with an article in the Washington Post about Aaron Miller, who has been one of the chief United States negotiators for peace in the Middle East. Mr. Miller recently changed the venue of his work. Rather than operating at the global, political level, he decided to work at the local, personal level. He has become President of Seeds of Peace, a non-profit organization that tries to enable reconciliation between Arab and Israeli teenagers through one-on-one encounters. Mr. Miller is convinced that the only hope left is at the grassroots level.
Miller quoted a young participant in the Seeds for Peace program, who said, "In order to make peace with your enemy, you have to make war with yourself."2 In other words, we must battle our own hateful instincts. Or, to paraphrase Jesus, before you offer your peace plans on the altar of world opinion, first go and be reconciled to your brother or your sister. For love, according to scripture, is not irritable or arrogant or boastful or rude. Love does not insist on its own way, but bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
There is a true story abut two farmers in Canada. One day the dog of one farmer got loose and mauled to death the two-year-old child of his neighbor. The devastated father cut off all relationship with his neighbor, and the two men lived in cold, defiant enmity for years. Then one day a fire devastated the property of the dog-owning farmer, destroying his barn and all his equipment. He was unable to plow and plant, and so his future appeared doomed. Except that the next morning he woke up and found all his fields plowed and ready for seed. Upon investigation, he discovered that his grieving neighbor had done this good deed. Humbly the rescued farmer approached his neighbor and asked him if he had plowed his fields -- and, if so, why. The answer was clear: "Aye," the former enemy said. "I plowed your fields so that God can live."3 My friends, hard-core Christian love is not about affection and friendship. It is about forgiveness and reconciliation. It is about a law deeper than litigation. It is about the law of grace and the power of resurrection.
This day, if any of us feel estranged from God, it is not because God has moved away from us. It is because we have moved away from God. We have become distanced by all the anger and brokenness and disappointment in the relationships of this world. In a wonderful speech celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of C67, pastor John Wilkinson says this:
In the "Little Gidding" T. S. Eliot writes:
"And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When ... the fire and the rose are one."
Yes, when ...
all manner of creatures are one. And all manner of Christians are one. And the broken and fearful world and its creator are one. And the church and its Lord are one. Thank God for that ever present and not-quite-yet gift of reconciliation, in the name of the one in whom such reconciliation is found, and no other, even Jesus Christ.4
This is the good news of the gospel. May it be so -- for you and for me. Amen.
1. The address of Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church is 6601 Bradley Boulevard.
2. From the Washington Post, 1/31/02, p. A20.
3. As told by William P. Barker.
4. John Wilkinson, in an address given at the Covenant Network of Presbyterians Conference, Minneapolis, Minnesota, November 2002.
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