Rev. Danielle K Bartz September 25, 2022
Matthew 5:21-26 On Worship and Reconciliation
The first thing I thought when I read this scripture was, after an internal deep sigh, “You know Jesus, you said we had to hate our families in order to truly follow you and now you are saying we have to make sure we are in right relationship with our families in order to truly worship? Which is it?” Today’s scripture and the other well known, though difficult to comprehend, scripture of hating family seemingly contradict one another. They don’t at all, which I will get to – but this starts us off with a reality of Jesus’ teachings as described in the scriptures, and our call as Christians in general, that make things difficult. Over and over again we are confronted with a teaching that is seemingly impossible to truly follow. It is no wonder that so many people feel like they are never good enough, or that to be truly Christian is simply an impossibility.
So, before I dive into this scripture lesson, which incidentally I really love, I want to leave space for those who find it all a bit too much. Because it is a lot, the standards of Christianity are impossibly high. Which is the point – a life of faith is one that is meant to be active, one of constant striving, of challenging ourselves to always do better than we did yesterday. But a life of faith is also one steeped in the grace of God. A God who rejoices at each effort, no matter how feeble. A God who has no standards about love; there are no criteria to earn God’s love, it is simply and freely given. And that tension between all that striving to live a life of faith and also knowing that God’s grace and love are freely given – that tension creates a space where miracles happen. That space is what makes all of this worth it, and possible. So, as we dive into today’s scripture of high standards, I want to be clear that we do so in a space of possibility, not barriers.
Today’s lesson comes in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the well-known and oft-quoted Beatitudes: blessed are the poor, for they will inherit the earth, etc, etc. But that is not the totality of Jesus’ sermon, that is basically just the prelude – the way to get people’s attention, to let them know something is coming, and in this case something quite extraordinary. We love those verses, but that is not the heart of Jesus’ message. The Sermon on the Mount, as it is laid out in the Gospel of Matthew (it is called the Sermon on the Plain in Luke and a bit different, but the gist is the same) is actually all of chapters 5, 6, and 7. So, it is extensive. There is guidance in there that covers everything from true worship, to familial relationships, to guidance about economics, to prayer – the Lord’s Prayer is taught in the middle of this sermon. And what Jesus says, towards the beginning as he is ramping up his teachings is this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Talk about high standards. But more importantly, Jesus isn’t creating something new, he isn’t establishing a new religion with this sermon, he is instead stripping away all of the fluff, the hypocrisy, and the idolatry of the people’s faith and reminding them of the basics. And as it turns out, the basics are what’s complicated, not the extraneous details that were added on.
And that is what makes this sermon, and the small piece of it we are considering today, so revolutionary, for the original hearers of it, and for us today. Because the hope of God, the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim, the hope of God for God’s blessed and diverse creation, is revolutionary. It takes everything we understand and turns it upside down. Because if we pay attention, really pay attention to what God is calling us to; if we listen, really listen to the ancient and modern prophets – we can see that the Kingdom of God is counter to the false kingdoms of humanity.
Today’s scripture is a case in point. Hear this crucial verse again: “So, when you are offering your gift at the altar,” [which means worship] “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Reworded for today, this might read like, “if you are preparing to go to Sunday worship and you remember that you have wronged your neighbor, leave and make things right with them first. Then come and worship God.” Did you catch what is so revolutionary here? There are two things: first, worship of God requires that you are in right relationship with your neighbor; and second, the responsibility of seeking justice is on the oppressor, not the one who has been oppressed.
Let’s think about that second revolutionary lesson first. How often in our world today is it on the shoulders of those who have been wronged to call out the wrong and to seek justice for it? Those who have been oppressed by gender discrimination, sexual discrimination, racial discrimination, and economic discrimination have been shouting into the whirlwind of oppressive systems in our country, screaming for justice. Or, in too many cases, simply for the oppression to be noticed and taken seriously. It is the victim who is expected to set the wheels of justice in motion. But, what Jesus is commanding is the opposite – it is those who have done the wrong that are to begin the work of justice. It is a commandment for all of us, including those in this space, to carefully and prayerfully look at the ways we have hurt our neighbors – whether by participating in unjust systems the actively prevent our neighbors from achieving all they are capable of, or by ignoring the hurt and pain our neighbors are in and doing nothing to ease it. Jesus is saying it is on us, the powerful, those with influence and means, to right the wrongs we have participated in and not wait until we are asked. Not wait until we are accused. Not wait until our victims demand it.
Meshed with that in Jesus’ lesson today we are told that, as people of faith, we cannot truly worship God until reconciliation is achieved, and reparations are made. Worship is not the cure for the wrongs, worship is the reward for the wrongs being made right. If you remember, Jesus prefaced this lesson by telling his followers that they had to be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees – the leaders of the faith. Throughout the Gospels we hear Jesus accusing the leaders of the hypocrisy of serving the institution as opposed to serving their neighbor. Of worshipping the rituals instead of worshipping God. Today’s lesson is Jesus’ commandment to strip away all of that extraneous fluff to instead remember the two greatest commandments, to love God and neighbor. But love in this case is not kind feelings or conciliatory gestures. Love is active, fierce, unapologetic, and an equalizing act of reconciliation and reparations. Love of God and neighbor cannot be achieved separately. They are one.
It is fitting that Amanda is here today as this lesson comes up in our Womanist Lectionary. Habitat for Humanity provides opportunities for the privileged of this world to step outside of the unjust systems that give us power and actively work to right the wrongs that have left far too many people without safe, affordable, and sustainable housing. That is one way to reconcile with our siblings in God’s creation. And there are millions more. The work can be systemic or it can be tiny – but all of it is vital. Because Jesus teaches us that to love God is to love our neighbor.
We will never be able to achieve perfect reconciliation in our world. But, as I said in the beginning, we are living in that space of possibility of never being complete with our work and being assured of God’s grace and love. It is in that space that miracles happen, and it is in that space where worship of God, love of neighbor, is made real. Amen.
Good and loving God, we are so grateful for the teachings of Jesus and all the prophets of ancient and modern times. And we are grateful for the bottomless well of your grace and love we can draw from as we work to make those teachings real. It is in this spirit of gratitude now that we come to you in prayer.
God, we seek your wisdom as we consider all of the ways we have wronged our neighbors, both big and small. For our participation in unjust systems and our apathy to the suffering around us, we seek your forgiveness. And we seek your guidance in how we can begin to right those wrongs and make this world a true reflection of the hope you have for all of your beloved creation.
We are thankful today for the work of your people throughout the world who are setting things right and holding people to account. Today in particular we are thankful for the extraordinary work of Habitat for Humanity, for the leaders and the volunteers, for their work in the past and the work they will do tomorrow.
We turn over to you now the prayers we are carrying in our hearts, prayers for ourselves, our friends, and families, and those around the world. We offer them to you in these moments of silence…
God, we know that prayer is one powerful act of working towards your Kingdom on earth, help us to do others. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our guide, teacher, preacher, and friend, who taught us to pray together by raising our voices…Our Father…