February 16, 2014
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
At some point in the Sermon on Mount, Jesus starts meddling. That’s an old church door expression. I still hear it occasionally; mostly from my colleagues in ministry now honorably retired. They say it to me because folks said it to them back in the day at the church door. In a sermon, when the pastor starts hitting close to home, or making the listener uncomfortable, she is meddling. When the preacher makes the move from safe and sanitized biblical interpretation, theological tradition, and heart-warming inspiration, when he turns to matters of Christian discipleship and ethics and everyday life, well, then the preacher is meddling. Over the years, my colleagues probably heard the phrase most after talking about money, or civil rights, or gender, or affordable housing, or war. But the meddling, the meddling of the gospel, comes just as easily as when the preacher brings up something like forgiveness or reconciliation or relating to the other. At some point in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus starts meddling.
In the sections of Matthew’s gospel that surround the reading for this morning, the longer stretch of text that is the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus the preacher makes the turn to meddling right after telling his listeners to “let you light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” What follows, then, is Jesus telling how he has come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill. What follows is that familiar rhetorical move from Jesus, “you have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” What follows is one of Jesus’ hyperbolic riffs on sin; “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell”. Jesus moves in the sermon from “blessed are the poor and spirit” and “blessed are the meek” and “blessed are the merciful: and “you are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world” to bringing up anger and judgment and insult and objectification and sin and adultery and false witness and empty promises and revenge. Jesus moves on to forgiveness and reconciliation and turning the other cheek and loving your enemies.
Right there buried in the terminology that grabs the ear (murder, adultery, hell), surrounded by the language that gets the attention and dominates the room (thrown into prison, lust in the heart, cut it off and throw it away), amid the themes of ordinary life that could indict any one of us at any moment (anger, resentment, grudge, broken relationship, inappropriate sexual behavior, sin), amid all that sermon stuff, Jesus says this “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” First go make it right with your brother and then come back and offer your gift. Go and make peace with your sister and then come back to worship. One paraphrase puts it this way, “If you enter your place of worship, and you are about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.” So when offering your gift at the altar, if you remember a friend who has something against you, leave your gift and go. So when offering your gifts. So. Usually it is the “you have heard it said, but I say unto to you” that catches the ear. But what about “so”? So when you find yourself at worship….
Offering a gift at the altar. It’s more than a bit foreign to our Reformed tradition. Someone coming into the temple with a gift to present before the Lord, a sacrifice to God to fulfill the law. In Luke when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus to the Lord, they offered a sacrifice according to what was stated in the law; a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. That is a bit far removed; a gift at the altar. Of course we Presbyterians don’t have altars; we have a table and a chancel. We celebrate communion here at the table. The language of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, in the communion prayer, the language carefully renames the gift we offer to the Lord as our sacrifice of thanks and praise. At the table, we give to God our worship and thanksgiving. It’s a different form of a gift but a gift nonetheless, a gift at the altar. So, when you are offering to God the thanks and praise of your life here in worship. So, when you find yourself at worship.
Here in the Sermon on the Mount, this transaction mentioned by Jesus, the described human/divine exchange is easily missed; overwhelmed by the talk of murder and anger and adultery and lust. When you bring your gift to the altar. There is something about the altar prescription from Jesus that seems out of whack, out of order. The expected flow of such religious activity would be to make an offering to God and then experience a blessing in life; make a sacrifice pleasing to God, then turn to face the world afresh; present oneself in worship, be transformed by the Holy Spirit, and go out a changed person, seek inspiration here before the Lord, and thus, be strengthened within for another week. There is an assumed direction that comes when you find yourself before the Lord. To put it less reverently and more practically, say a prayer to St. Anthony, and then go find what is lost. There is one direction to the alter interaction and everybody knows it.
Matthew’s Jesus turns the order upside down; redirects the transactional flow. No, no, when you remember that grudge, leave your gift at the altar and go and make right and then when you come back, then you come before the Lord. Inspired by fresh forgiveness, moved by recent reconciliation, come and offer your thanksgiving to God. Leaving gifts. There is a drop and go element here; like when you realize you left your credit card in the bill fold at the restaurant last night and you tear over just when it opens to see if its still there, or when you lost track of time and your daughter’s lesson was over 15 minutes ago and you rush to make sure she’s not alone at the curb, or when your boss or your teacher or your parent or your conscience says, “now.” That fractured friendship, that broken relationship, that anger, resentment, hurt….leave your gift at the altar now and go.
Over at Princeton Theological Seminary, Miller Chapel sits at the center of campus and the worship life it contains forms the center of the community. One of the repeated seminary scenes that strikes me is the front porch of Miller Chapel when the seminary community is gathered on a weekday morning for worship. Students leave their book bags, knapsacks, and other daily baggage there piled up on the porch as they go into the crowded chapel to sing and offer praise, to hear the gospel proclaimed. That pile of belongings, it is like a sign hanging out front of the chapel that the seminary community is at worship. Bringing all the trappings of seminary life and leaving them right there on the threshold between worship and life. The twist to that image, the twist Jesus offers, is a sign that says “we will return shortly.” That whole pile of life, the offerings of everyone’s life, heaped there on the doorstep of worship. “We will be right back.” The pile of gifts waiting for the community to return to worship. Leave your gifts and go make peace and then come and offer yourselves to the Lord.
“If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away….Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery…Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court….If you are angry with a brother your will be liable to judgment; if you insult a sister you will be liable to the council, and if you say ‘you fool’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…So….when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that a friend has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go, first be reconciled to them and then come and offer your gift to God.”
So leave your gifts. So go make peace then come back. So. What’s profound about the “so” is that the God revealed to us in the ministry of Jesus cares about relationships. It’s not that Jesus offers a revises what to do with your altar gift. It’s not even the twist he puts on the direction or the order or the timing of when you make the offering and when you are to go and make peace. So….Christ cares about how you handle yourself in relationships….and how you live the faith God gives you, how you respond to the grace God gives you, how you live into and carry out the call of Christ Jesus, how you do all of that in the everyday, most common, ordinary part of life; how you play with others, how you work with others, how you live with others. Your life on Saturday night matters as much to God as what you do on Sunday morning. Who you are in your office chair is as important to God as who you are in the pew. The spirit around your Table at home is as important to God as the spirit around this Table here. Leave your gifts. Go. Come back. Leave. Go. Come. Leave. Go. Come. It’s not a snapchat, instagram, one shot deal of a friendship that needs fixing out there in your world. No, it’s a worship and life dance where the gift you bring to the altar is ever deeper and your relationships ever more sacred. The gift ever deeper because you bring more and more of your life. Relationships more and more sacred because you realize how precious they are in the eyes of God.
The current issue of the New Yorker includes and essay by Adam Gopnik entitled “Bigger than Phil: When did faith start to Fade?” The piece traces the intellectual history of atheism. Interestingly, in a piece that tries desperately to pass intellectual muster (there were sentences I had to read three and four times), the title comes from a line from a Mel Brooks movie. With a bit of a snarky flare, the author describes conceptions of God at various moments in the essay as: the God of the Gaps who fills the bill for whatever humanity can’t explain, Jehovah as little Tinker Bell who lives only if you say the name enough, God as a dinner guest legendary for his wit who spends the meal mumbling with his mouth full, God as an omnipotent little man in the sky making moral rules and watching human actions with paranoiac intensity. In the end, Gopnik cops to an atheism akin to Karl Marx arguing that “relatively peaceful and prosperous societies…tend to have a declining believe in a diety.” That as “incomes go up, steeples come down.”
Upon further review, what strikes me about the essay, is that the author reserves his strongest disdain not for believers who are looking to argue that mystery still exists in science, or those who want to hold out for an existential higher purpose or ground of being for humanity, or even for those who suggest there must still be someone, something, out there at the end of the rainbow of the ultimate answerless question. What clearly irks this particular atheist the most is any suggestion that there is a God who cares about how you and I treat people; the ones we love, the ones we don’t know, the stranger, our enemies…or as he describes it, “an omnipotent little man in the sky making moral rules and watching human actions with paranoic intensity!”
So……Jesus said, “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Paranoic intensity, sounds a bit dramatic to me. But a God who cares about human interaction? Yeah, I’ll take that every time.
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