Wednesday, July 27, 2011

July 24, 2011 The Sermon On the Mount - Bringing Grace to Relationships

July 24, 2011

Matthew 5:27-32

The Sermon On the Mount

Bringing Grace to Relationships

Years ago, at a wedding rehearsal, we came to the vows. When I finished the vows the young man asked, Dave, why didn’t you put “obey” in her vows. Because I don’t do that I told him. His fiancé took it from there, as you can imagine. She said, very adamantly, I told you that if that word is in my vows I’m turning around and walking out of the church. I encouraged him to let it go. The next day, as I was reaching to open the door to lead the men into the sanctuary, he put his hand on the door and said, Dave, I really want you to add “obey” to her vows today. I asked him, did you all talk about this last night after the rehearsal. Yes, he said. And what did she say, I asked. She said she would walk out of the sanctuary. When the processional music is playing is not the time for a session of premarital counseling, so I told him that word will not be in the vows because that is not how you treat your wife! You will respect her and honor her and remember she is not your servant!

Their marriage, unsurprisingly, did not last.

Sermons come in different types – some are prophetic, bringing truth and challenges that need to be heard; some are more theological in nature, teaching and bringing illumination to a passage; and some are pastoral in nature, bringing a word of encouragement to people who need an encouraging word. Today’s message is one of a pastoral nature.

If you looked through the program this morning to the Scripture reading you will notice the interesting timing of this message. Last week Jim Collins brought us a message about marriage, and I’m grateful that he did. We have been going through the Sermon On the Mount and it turns out the week after a message about marriage we come to this passage where Jesus speaks about divorce. If you talk about marriage you are also faced with the reality of divorce. I haven’t performed as many weddings as Jim, but I’ve done quite a few. I don’t know how many of them are still together but I know a number of them have ended. One of the most heartbreaking things I do is to sit with couples as a marriage unravels, and that’s why I take a pastoral approach to this topic.

Some years ago, when I preached on one of the parallel passages about divorce, the Scripture reading was earlier in the service than the message. After reading it I sat down and realized it just dropped on people like a ton of bricks, as they wondered if I was going to use that passage to beat up on people who had been divorced. One person told me later their ex-spouse was constantly berating them with that same passage, using it as a weapon to wound and to hurt. Today’s passage is one that has been used to dump a truckload of guilt and hurt on people. People who have experienced the hurt and pain of divorce often find that instead of a word of grace and encouragement from churches, judgment and guilt is what is offered. After experiencing enough pain, bad theology adds more pain to them, which is very sad.

So, by way of introduction before reading the Scripture passage, let me affirm this is a pastoral message that is not out to condemn people who have been through the hurt of divorce. In fact, the focus of Jesus in this passage extends beyond divorce – it is about bringing grace to relationships in general.

So let’s read today’s Scripture passage –

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

This passage is about bringing grace to relationships. Throughout our study of the Sermon On the Mount we have discovered that relationships are a constant thread in what Jesus teaches. As he speaks about relationships, Jesus weaves throughout his words the necessity of bringing grace to relationships. The offer of grace was mind-blowing to his audience, because it wasn’t what they were used to. The religious leadership in the time of Jesus specialized in bringing judgment and condemnation to people, which is all that some people hear from churches today, unfortunately.

In one community where I lived, I officiated at a number of weddings for people who had been through a divorce. Most of the ministers in that community refused to officiate at the wedding of someone who was divorced, and most did so without even asking about the circumstance; their reaction was just a knee-jerk condemnation. It was painful to sit with those couples and listen not only to the hurt they had experienced because of the dissolution of a marriage, but the added hurt that came from churches.

Jesus begins this section by broaching the topic of lust, never a comfortable topic to discuss in public. So this morning we’re talking about lust and divorce – aren’t you glad you came to church today! Jesus is certainly dramatic in what he has to say. He says that if our right eye or right hand causes us to sin we ought to gauge out our eye or cut off our hand. Right here is where I like to challenge the Biblical literalists. Regardless of what anyone says, this verse proves no one is a Biblical literalist; they are at best, very selective in their literalism.

Jesus is using some hyperbole here, because what are you going to do, after removing your right eye, if your left eye causes you to sin? What are you going to do, if you cut off your right hand and your left hand causes you to sin? Do you take out the left eye and cut off the left hand? What if your ears become a problem? After removing your eyes, and hands, do you remove your ears? Where do you stop with that?

Which is, I think, exactly the point Jesus is making. You can pass a law against adultery but you can’t pass a law about what is in a person’s heart and mind. What you can do is seek to transform relationships, and the first relationship he seeks to transform is the relationship between men and women. Before Jesus speaks on the topic of marriage he speaks to the relationship of men and women in general, and the first word Jesus is bringing to that relationship is to speak against the objectification and mistreatment of women. He begins by asserting the dignity and equality of women. In the day of Jesus, as we have seen before, women were not equal. To call them second-class citizens would have been an improvement, because they were much lower on the scale than second-class.

The church, unfortunately, doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to women. But it’s not just the church. We live in a world that, despite improvement, doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to women. Our own society, which is more progressive than some when it comes to the treatment women, still has problems in this area. Women are still treated as objects, as advertising proves, where women are used as objects to sell products.

Jesus was saying something very radical for his time – treat women with respect and dignity. They are not objects to serve men. They do not exist for the pleasure of men. A wife is not the property of her husband.

Jesus affirms the dignity and equality of women and then moves on to the topic of divorce. Notice that as Jesus gives a single condition for divorce he is speaking to men. Jesus is not ruling out other reasons for divorce as much as he is correcting the pattern for divorce in his day. I don’t believe this is the final word of Jesus on what justifies divorce. I believe he spoke these words in a very specific context and it is a context that cannot be applied to every situation. We certainly cannot apply it to a situation where someone is suffering abuse and we cannot tell that person they must continue to endure that abuse.

To understand this point, first of all, when we think of adultery we think of something very different from how it was defined in the Biblical era. Adultery, as defined in the law, was not a married person having a relationship with a person other than their spouse. Adultery was an act committed by a man, with the wife of another Jewish man. It was not considered adultery if a married man had a relationship with another woman who was either unmarried, divorced, or the wife of a non-Jewish man. It was only considered adultery when a married man had a relationship with the wife of another Jewish man. Adultery was, in essence, a violation of another man’s property rights. His wife was his property and the violation was to trespass on the property of another, so to speak. It’s not a very high view of women, is it?

So Jesus is addressing men and raising their view of women and marriage. Divorce in the time of Jesus was a very simple act – if you were a man. To gain a divorce all a man had to do was to write out a writ of divorce and hand it to his wife. There didn’t have to be a good reason for the divorce. If his wife displeased him in any way a man could simply write out the writ of divorce and it was over. A woman, however, could not divorce her husband.

This is Jesus turning the tables on men, as they had all the power in a marriage. What was a divorced woman to do in that historical context? She had no legal recourse to sue for some type of settlement. She was sent out on her own with no means of support. What this did was force some women to turn to prostitution as a means of financial support. This is what had come of God’s design for two people coming together as one flesh – an institution that had been denigrated to the point that one person was treated as nothing more than a piece of property and then discarded on a whim and all with religious backing.

One of the things Jesus was saying was stop abusing people in the name of religion. Stop using religion as a mask for the mistreatment of the person you are supposed to love and to cherish.

Allow me to speak another word while on this topic, and that is to people who are unmarried. My home church had a Sunday School class that was named Pairs and Spares. Now there’s about the worse name in the history of names of Sunday School classes. Imagine being a spare. Come on and join us all you leftovers, all you 5th wheels, all you spares. That’s a terrible way to communicate to people who are unmarried.

We live in a very married culture, and it can be difficult if you are not married. You do not have to be married to be a whole person. In fact, in Paul’s opinion it was singleness that was the preference.

Your identity is not defined by whether or not you have a relationship with another person. To be single is not to be any less of a person.

Marriage is a beautiful gift, but not all marriages last, and people who have experienced the pain of divorce have endured more pain because bad theology has placed guilt and condemnation upon them. Allow God to lift that guilt and pain from your life.

May we pray.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

July 10, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - Life's Most Difficult Repair

July 10, 2011

Matthew 5:21-26

The Sermon On the Mount

Life’s Most Difficult Repair

One of the many talents I lack is that of being a mechanic. That hasn’t stopped me from trying, however. Years ago I did my own car repairs, and there were many repairs needed on the cars I drove. It was easier, of course, to fix a car years ago; you opened the hood and there was the engine and almost no extra attachments. Now, when you open the hood, you can’t see the engine for all the added parts. It’s hard for me to find the oil dipstick these days.

If you remember those days you may also remember that cars had points and rotor caps that had to be changed on a regular basis. I put new spark plugs, rotor cap, and points in my car on a regular basis. You used something called a feeler gauge to ensure the points were properly gapped (if that makes me sound mechanical, I assure you I am not). When Tanya and I were dating I did one of those tune ups on my car, but I forgot to properly gap the points so the car didn’t start when I was finished. It was one time – one time – when I worked on my car and it didn’t start. Tanya remembers it differently. Whenever I mention working on a car she reminds me that every time you worked on a car it didn’t start.

Cars, if you know what you are doing, are fairly simple to fix. You, or a mechanic, diagnose the problem and fix it. You put in a new part or do whatever is needed and the car is once again running smoothly. Don’t you wish it were that easy when it came to relationships? Don’t you wish you could just diagnose what’s wrong and fix the problem and then move on? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was as simple as connecting to a computerized analyzer like they have in auto shops? Relationships, though, are much more complicated. This morning we return to our series of messages from the Sermon On the Mount and as we do we are talking about Life’s Most Difficult Repair – the repair of relationships.

Much of our sense of life is shaped by the health of our relationships. If our relationships are healthy, we generally have a positive view of life and are better prepared to deal with the hardships of life. If our relationships are unhealthy, we are more inclined to have a negative view of life and are probably less prepared to navigate the difficulties of life, as healthy relationships give us much of the strength we need to face the difficulties of life. Relationships are a continual thread through Scripture and Jesus speaks a great deal about relationships in the Sermon On the Mount. In fact, you’ll remember that in May we talked about relationships in relation to three of the Beatitudes. In today’s passage Jesus raises the discussion of relationships to an even more intense level, and by the end of the chapter it goes to what seems an almost unattainable level as Jesus challenges us to love our enemies, perhaps the most difficult relational advice ever given.

Throughout the course of my ministry a lot of my time has been given to people and their relationship difficulties. It’s marriage relationships, parent/child relationships, sibling relationship, friendships, work relationships – there are so many circles of relationships in our lives and at any given time everyone has some relationship that is struggling.

Out of my experience I want to discuss two simple points this morning, and the first is this –

Relationships don’t repair themselves.

How many of you have been driving along and the check engine light comes on in your car? How many of you just kind of ignored it in the hope it would go away? In my limited mechanical knowledge I know that cars do not fix themselves. If there is a problem, it will not go away. If your water pump is leaking, left unattended it will only get worse. If you have an oil leak, left unattended it will only get worse. There is some very insightful mechanical advice, and it’s free to you today.

When it comes to our relationships, sometimes we try to tell ourselves if I leave it alone, it will get better. If you have found that approach to work, you are either very fortunate or very naive, because relationships don’t repair themselves.

This is, I believe, one of the truths Jesus is trying to communicate to us in this passage. The way he does this is by moving to the internal aspects of relationships; that is, what are we thinking and feeling about a relationship. Jesus tells the crowd listening to him you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Jesus is drawing attention to what happens in relationships in this way – a relationship is struggling but sometimes we like create a veneer of a healthy relationship. The relationship may be struggling, but we erect an external image that all is fine even though inside we may be hurting, and or angry, and perhaps even bitter.

Jesus is saying that we can’t create an image of health and wholeness in a relationship if it doesn’t exist within our hearts. Here’s an example of how the dynamic works in a family – a family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner. One person is missing but no one says anything. Little Johnny, who doesn’t know any better, blurts out where is uncle John? Everyone becomes very quiet because they know uncle John won’t come into the same room with one of the family members, but they continue to act as if nothing is wrong.

Jesus is saying we may keep an external façade intact, treating people with dignity and perhaps even kindness – certainly not doing them any harm – while inside our hearts may be breaking or perhaps anger and bitterness are eating away at our heart and soul.

So Jesus offers the second piece of advice –

Do what you can to repair a relationship.

I can think of few things as difficult as approaching another person to seek reconciliation. How do you repair a broken relationship? You do what you can.

Jesus goes so far as to say that if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Imagine seeing someone jump up during the offering time and you wonder where they are going, so you ask them later – because we have to satisfy our curiosity – and they say I went to seek reconciliation with someone. What would we think? Jesus makes the repair and reconciliation of a relationship a matter of great urgency. Don’t wait! he is saying.

But I say the advice is to do what you can to repair a relationship. It takes more than one person to make the effort to heal a relationship, and the reality is that some people will not respond to that reconciliation effort. You cannot force another person to reconcile.

Some people may not be able to let go of the hurt. Some people hold onto the wrongs they have suffered as a chip to cash in at a later date as a way to get some kind of revenge.

I knew two siblings once, and years before I knew them they had a terrible falling out. When I learned of what fractured the relationship I was surprised, because it didn’t seem to me to be a very important matter, but it was to them. They went years without speaking to one another, and in the course of those years they expe

rienced matters in life when they could have used the love and support of the other.

What a terrible tragedy it was, and they never really reconciled, even to the end of their lives. I’m sure each of them felt the other was at fault, and my guess is they were both somewhat at fault. But neither would reach out to the other, and their lives were much poorer because they would not seek reconciliation.

Relationships are a difficult fix, but Jesus reminds us of the importance of working to maintain healthy relationships, as so much of the richness of life and the blessings of life are found in our relationships. Is there a relationship in your life that needs tending? Is there are relationship that needs repair? Don’t delay.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

July 3, 2011 - Citizens of Two Kingdoms

July 3, 2011

Romans 13:1-7

Citizens of Two Kingdoms

Some years ago I was asked to speak at a high school baccalaureate service. Baccalaureate services were complicated for the school system because some of the other religious traditions in the community complained every year. Because of the school administration’s worries about controversy they kept asking me about the content of my message. I had a number of conversations with the school about the content of my message and when the evening of baccalaureate arrived I was standing in the hall before walking in thinking I had chopped so much out of my remarks that I wondered if I was saying anything worthwhile. The irony of the situation was that the service was heard in one of the local churches, but no one seemed to complain about the location.

In another community, for a number of years, I spent time each spring with the senior class at the local high school helping them to plan their baccalaureate service. I heard from a lot of people, representing some very different perspectives, about what should and shouldn’t be included each year in the service.

Those experiences perfectly represent, I think, the tension we face as followers of Jesus in our country – we are citizens of two kingdoms – we are citizens of the kingdom of God and citizens of the United States of America. And as much as the Judeo-Christian heritage is ingrained into our society there is still a great deal of tension between those two kingdoms. Do you ever feel the tension?

So I debated all week about whether or not I wanted to wade into all that today. One of the reasons for my hesitancy is that some topics are better in an environment where there are opportunities for discussion and asking questions that allow for clarification. I ended up writing and rewriting this message several times, because there is a lot to say about the intersection of our earthly and eternal citizenship, and I wanted to be sure I wrote as clearly as possible, and I want you to know that I take very seriously the fact that I stand up here almost every week of the year and with that responsibility comes the need for me to sort out what is my opinion and what is the timeless word of God. The difficulty, however, is separating out personal opinion from that prophetic word, because some of what he believed to be prophetic preaching was to me, just personal opinion, and he would probably say the same of me. I attended a revival service over the 4th of July weekend years ago, and the minister was preaching about returning America to God. He wandered into some political topics and eventually arrived at capital punishment. He said, someone asked me if I believe in the electric chair. I said, “no sir, I do not. I believe in the electric couch – line them up 3 and 4 at a time!” I think it’s safe to say that was his opinion and not God’s eternal truth.

So, I have considered my words very carefully, and I hope you will consider them carefully as well.

It is not only complicated for us to be citizens of two kingdoms; it was complicated for Paul as well. This famous passage that Paul wrote in Romans chapter 13, interestingly, is one that he didn’t always follow himself. While Paul tells us we ought to submit ourselves to the governing authorities, he didn’t always do so himself. In fact, Paul was often in conflict with the governing authorities. The governing authorities attempted to restrict Paul’s preaching, they arrested him on a number of occasions, and Paul was eventually executed by those governing authorities.

The early Christians, as we all know, were very heavily persecuted by the Roman Empire. One of the things the Romans did to pressure the early Christians was to start a campaign of disinformation and lies against them. The Romans were so unsettled by the rapid growth of the church, in spite of heavy persecution, that they sought to apply public pressure against the early Christians. One of the ways they did this was to claim the Christians were unpatriotic. What’s interesting is this – to a certain extent it was true. The Romans claimed the emperor was divine, and every person was legally obligated to offer an annual sacrifice to the emperor acknowledging his divinity. Do you know some of the titles used by the emperor – Son of Man, Prince of Peace, Son of God, the Incarnate One. Do those sound familiar? They are titles Jesus applied to himself, titles used by the Roman emperor as he claimed divinity for himself. Jesus committed a capital offense by using those titles in reference to himself. Once you made your sacrifice to the emperor you received a certificate showing you were in good standing. Christians would not offer that sacrifice, and many paid with their lives.

I imagine the Romans scratched their heads at the early Christians. What’s the big deal, they probably thought. We don’t care if you believe the emperor is divine (most of the Romans probably didn’t believe it), but just do it and go along with the structure of society that keeps everything in good order. But to the early Christians there was one Lord, and it wasn’t Caesar.

So here are some things to remember, as we celebrate our wonderful gift of freedom –

1. The conviction of faith carries a power greater than any earthly power.

We often hear that the Roman Empire didn’t fall by the sword, but that it fell from within. Although there was plenty of immorality and decay and problems within the empire, I think the Roman Empire withered in the face of a far greater power – the power of conviction. The early Christians said we will not bow at the altar of the Caesar even if it means the loss of our lives. What army can defeat that kind of conviction? The mighty Roman Empire, with an army that controlled the known world and did not hesitate to use an absolutely brutal force to protect that control, could not defeat the conviction of faith.

2. The tension of the two kingdoms is about more than just the obvious debates.

One of the most recent examples of obvious debates took place during the final round of the U.S. Open Gold Championship. Someone at NBC edited out the audio of the words under God during the Pledge of Allegiance, setting of a firestorm of protest. But it’s not just these types of debates; it’s not just the debates about school prayer and hanging the Ten Commandments in public buildings that symbolize the struggle and the tension between the two kingdoms; it’s also the consumerism and materialism that place so many people in financial and spiritual bondage; it’s the cavalier attitude toward God’s creation that is destroying this beautiful world God has created; it’s the self-righteousness and legalism that so many see in people of faith, which turns off so many to faith; and so much more. We are influenced in such subtle ways by our culture that we can slip away from the central tenets of faith without even realizing we have done so.

3. We are to pray and work for the blessing of all people.

When Jesus cleansed the Temple, just days before his crucifixion, he said something of incredible importance – My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17). Jesus was quoting Isaiah 56:7, which was a reminder that in spite of national boundaries God is the father and creator of all and desires to bless all people and because he does our pray and work is to be a blessing for all people.

By the time of Jesus the religious establishment had long-forgotten the desire of God to bless all nations and all peoples. Our calling is to pray for all people, beyond the boundaries of nations or ethnicity.

4. We each have a voice, and are free to use it.

Freedom is a beautiful, complicated, messy gift. Because of the tensions inherent in freedom, there are those who want to limit the freedom of others.

I don’t understand the desire to stifle opposing opinions, which is done by people of all political persuasions. Why are we so afraid of the opinions and ideas of others just because they differ from ours? We are afraid of them because we are afraid those opinions may become the rule of the land. So we try to stifle others because we fear not only their opinions and the potential power of their opinions.

Imagine for a moment if the Biblical characters had been stifled in what they had to say. Imagine if Nathan’s voice had been stifled. Who would have confronted King David of his sin with Bathsheba with the immortal words You are the man! Imagine if the great prophets of old, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others had failed to use their voices. Imagine if Peter and Paul and other early church leaders had allowed their voices to be stifled. Imagine how different our country would be today if our forefathers had not used their voices to protest against tyranny and oppression. Imagine how things will be in the future if we fail to use our voices.

I practice a certain amount of self-censorship. There are some things I choose not to say; I think we all do that. But it is a very different matter when others try to silence us because they don’t like what they have to say. I don’t like some of the political or religious opinions I hear; I don’t like the antireligious opinions I hear; but I believe the people who speak those opinions have the right to their opinions.

5. We are not to make an idol of our country, as our worship is reserved for God alone.

I love our country. I’m grateful for the gifts we have that come with the good fortune of being an American. My family are relative newcomers to America. My mom and dad are the first generation on both sides of my family to be born in this country. I’m glad my family made it to these shores. My grandfather and his family made their way from Liverpool, England and my grandmother from Ireland. I’m grateful they made it here. I will love my country, but as a citizen of a heavenly kingdom I am reminded that my worship is to be reserved for God alone.

And so a citizen of a heavenly kingdom I will give thanks to God for the promise that when life on this earth is complete, there is another kingdom that awaits. It is a kingdom where want will be no more. It is a kingdom where there will be no more tears, no more mourning, and no more death. It is a kingdom where there will be no need for weapons of warfare because love will be the rule. It is a kingdom where hatred will be unknown. It is a kingdom where no one will be hungry and no one will be thirsty. It is a kingdom where there

We are citizens of two kingdoms, and there is a tension between those kingdoms

June 26, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - A Revival of the Heart

June 26, 2011

Matthew 5:17-20

The Sermon On the Mount

A Revival of the Heart

There are many things about churches that fascinate me, one of them being the things congregations choose to argue about. I think you learn a lot about a church by studying their congregational battles. The conflict I remember most vividly in my home church came during the latter part of my high school years. The church received a fairly good-size sum of money and the congregation began to debate how to use the money. Someone suggested that we air condition the sanctuary and fellowship hall, while others thought the money should be spent on something that was less about personal comfort and more about spiritual needs. It turned into quite a battle. The conflict really heated up when our local church camp made an appeal for money. The camp was making some badly needed upgrades to their facilities and building a chapel and some felt the work at the camp was a more worthy cause than air conditioning. One Sunday, after the worship service concluded, we had a congregational meeting to take a vote on the matter. There is something sad about a group of people who worship in a sanctuary and then turn that sanctuary into a battleground as they argue with one another.

For a long time my memory of that event was simply that it was an unpleasant conflict. Most of us find conflict to be unpleasant so we spend a lot of time seeking to avoid any and all conflict. But the reality is that conflict is sometimes necessary. Not only is it necessary, sometimes conflict is a really good thing.

I remember attending a 50th anniversary celebration, and during the remarks the wife said 50 years of marriage and we’ve never had an argument! Somebody standing near me muttered I bet they could have used a few. That’s a pretty good insight, isn’t it? Conflict is at times both necessary and positive, because it brings issues into the open that need to be discussed that may otherwise go unspoken, which then would allow tension and resentment to fester and turn into bitterness. For my home church, the discussion about how to spend that money led to a much-needed conversation about the nature and function of the church and the call to look beyond the needs of the congregation.

It is striking to me the amount of conflict we find in the Bible. Conflict leaps out from so many of the Bible’s pages and it is woven throughout the gospels and most of Paul’s letters.

As we continue in the Sermon On the Mount we come to a passage that lays the foundation for the conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment. The gospels continually allude to the tension and conflict between Jesus and the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and other members of the religious establishment. They were constantly nipping at the heels of Jesus with one criticism after another, and in this passage and the verses that follow, we discover why. Here we see Jesus directly confronting the religious leaders as a group who perpetuate a false version of faith. That’s a pretty devastating accusation.

Here is the core of the accusation that Jesus makes: these leaders – those who represented the pinnacle of religious leadership – had ripped the heart out of faith. Ripped it right out. They did so by creating a counterfeit version of faith that emphasized a type of religion that cared about nothing but the keeping of a list of external rules. These leaders had pulled faith so far away from its true expression that Jesus had to spend most of the Sermon On the Mount directly refuting their teachings. Following our passage for this morning Jesus uses six specific instances where he says you have heard that it was said...but I tell you. The teaching of the religious leaders was so far from the intent of God that Jesus found it necessary to say the exact opposite of what people were used to hearing from their religious leaders.

One thing that tells us is this – religious leaders aren’t always right. In fact, sometimes they are absolutely wrong. My temptation was to name a few names this morning but then I thought that might not be fair. But I will say this – when a religious leader tells you who to love and who not to love, they are distorting faith. When a religious leader tells you to follow without questioning, they are distorting faith. When a religious leader demonizes a particular group of people, they are distorting faith. When a religious leader equates faith with a particular political party, they are distorting faith. When a religious leader says you must hold to their particular interpretation of Scripture, they are distorting faith. You can fill in the blanks with the names of people who fit that description.

Jesus stood up to the distortion of faith that was so prevalent in his day, and sadly, is alive and well in our day. Jesus was angered by the distortions of faith he saw, he was saddened by the way these religious leaders twisted faith into an unrecognizable form and he was willing to stand up and confront those distortions and did not hesitate to bring the conflict between true and counterfeit faith into the open.

What Jesus did was absolutely revolutionary. Jesus cut the bonds of legalism and smashed the man-made rules that were being passed off as legitimate faith.

When you start requiring certain beliefs and enshrining personal opinion, which is what the religious leaders had done, you squelch the spirit and stifle ministry and drain the life out of faith.

This idea goes right to the heart of who we are as Disciples. One of the premises of the Stone/Campbell movement is that in too many instances personal opinion had been enshrined as Holy Writ, as though personal opinion carried the weight of Scripture. The early Disciple leaders – Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone – recoiled at the thought of imposing a personal opinion upon another as an article of faith. One of the mottos of our movement is in essentials unity, opinions liberty, and in all things love.

To the religious leaders in the day of Jesus, it wasn’t enough that the Ten Commandments say to Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. They took it upon themselves to define what it meant to keep the Sabbath day holy, and if you didn’t follow their specific guidelines you were in violation of God’s eternal law, when in reality you were just disagreeing with their opinion.

When Jesus spoke these words the religious leaders were probably confused; they probably thought Jesus was contradicting himself. Jesus said do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven (verses17, 19). The religious leaders thought that’s exactly what Jesus was doing – breaking all the rules and trying to abolish the Law. In their minds, the problem with Jesus was that he wouldn’t follow the rules. They saw Jesus as someone who was constantly breaking the religious laws. He broke the rules about ritual hand washing, he broke the rules about healing on the Sabbath, he didn’t follow the rules on fasting; time after time these guys were on Jesus because he was a rule breaker. And he was – he was breaking their rules, the rules they had invented.

The day that I begin to tell you how you that you must think the way I think, or believe the way I believe, or accept my personal opinion as absolute truth is the day you need to form a line at the door of my study to ask Dave, what in the world are you thinking? Will you promise me you will do that? (I’m probably going to regret saying that.)

The distortions that twist and turn faith into nothing more than someone’s enshrined personal opinions is far too serious to fail to engage those errors. Some conflicts are worth provoking. Jesus certainly didn’t hesitate to engage the religious establishment of his day in conflict to bring out the truth.

There are plenty of people today who are peddling their personal opinions as truth. The truth is not found in a bunch of rules that we construct, the truth is found in A Revival of the Heart, which means that love becomes the ultimate truth, as Jesus sought to teach and as Paul confirms in I Corinthians 13. Jesus said it was time to forsake manmade rules that allowed one to put up a veneer of religiosity while at the same time tearing the heart out of faith.

In spite of what some people might say, there is a tremendous hunger for God in our society. There was a great hunger for God in the time of Jesus, but that hunger was not met by much of the institutional religion of the day, just as we see today.

Back to the story about my home church, after people had been arguing for a while my dad stood up and said how many lives will air conditioning change? How many lives have been changed at the camp? Interestingly, the church found they could fund both endeavors. The sanctuary and fellowship hall were air-conditioned and the church made a large contribution to the camp.

Though my memory of that conflict was for a long time a very unpleasant memory, I have come to realize how important it was for my home church to have a conversation about who we were called to be, and I don’t think it would have happened if not for conflict.