A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Winnette
February 13, 2011
Deuteronomy 30:11-20, Matthew 5:21-37
Given a choice choose life. Choose a good life. Choose to value life. Make every choice a life-enabling one. We have heard Moses’ order. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you.” Many years of mornings had passed since epiphany-encumbered Moses was switch backing down, sliding down, and surely stumbling down, down Mount Sinai. His heart’s excitement urged him to abandon sure footing to scamper down to the people. Imagine Moses an avalanche of hope rolling down that mountain. He carried stones engraved with proverbs for making good, Godly choices. 10 commands – worship a God who loves all creation. Don’t misrepresent this God vainly declaring that God does not love others. Deeply cherish those closest to you: Mom’s, Dad’s, Spouses, children and neighbors. Don’t prostrate yourselves before idle, inert metal lumps. Don’t enslave yourselves to idols or industries that can never cherish you. Worship the God of life, who does cherish you. Live life balancing work and rest. Don’t extinguish loving God’s potential in others by slaying them.
Cherish others as you would have them cherish you. Respect other’s belongings. Be thankful for what you have and waste not a moment in jealousy. Through Moses God showed the people how to make life-affirming choices.
But so much can happen in a lifetime. Shortly before Moses, like Mubarak, passed on the leadership, shortly before he left the delivered children of Israel on a ridge of the Promised Land, he declared a connection between thought, behavior and a good life. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you… ”
Likely, even in Moses’ long lifetime, God’s once flexible and animated commandments had become rictus plagued, their human interpretations rigidly freezing them. Rather than played like proverbs for good living, the commands are made inelastic. The first, “worship one God” had the liberty and interpretive richness of a permissive proverb. Out of the simple sanction we can choose to worship God while walking on a windswept beach. We can center our lives in the simplicity of worshiping one unifying Creator, not torn between competing gods and ambitions. We can choose to worship God petting our dog, giving thanks for a fresh cinnamon roll, singing to our souls’ delight, by rubbing our lover’s forehead before sleeping and by feeding our friends. We can be whole, not divided in our connection to the Holy.
Yet, in human foolishness they began to tack down the free commandment. They tacked it down like giant Gulliver with one stricture after another. You worship God wearing certain clothes. You worship God only if you can clean your hands the right way. You worship God with particular words. You worship God only on this stamp of land. You worship God if you can say to others that you obey the human explanations of the commandments. The beauty of the freedom to love a single God became inelastic.
The command “don’t murder” also has the richness of a proverb, influencing us to desperately value the life of others. It resonates with a positive note. God values all human lives. We too can cherish them all. And we can expect others to cherish us too. All our Creator’s infants deserve our smile, our warmth, and our blessings. “Don’t murder” demands that we never tear down, belittle, diminish, demean, curse, amputate or slay any others’ life. Don’t butcher bodies, minds or spirits.
But again the fools began to interpret this command to assuage themselves and to permit some certain murders. The proverb came to be simplified to mean killing a person physically. We are let off the hook. No need to worry about this one. Most of us can simply say we have never personally killed another. So we wipe our hands of all the blood that pours off the children of the world who die protecting our society and security, and who die providing for our pleasures. Then they added in smaller print, words declaring some murders justifiable. Don’t murder – well, unless she was unfaithful, then you can stone her. Don’t murder – well, unless he murdered first.
But, but Moses had avalanched down the holy mountain with hope-filled proverbs of human freedom. God’s words commanding we cherish life. Later in life Moses reminded them, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you.”
As I strolled to my favorite coffee shop yesterday morning I was met with two violations of life, two murders of peace. A refined woman was coming toward me. We crossed paths and to her left, my right down on the sidewalk was a protruding mound making the sidewalk a single lane. It was a person covered in a mound of blankets, his evening’s bed. I stopped to let her by. Without a word, she gave an evil eye to the mound, shook her head, flipped off the mound and looked at me grimly smiling like we shared an outrage. The homeless man was soiling our sidewalk. She walked on. I was mad but did nothing externally. I prayed for the cold man, and that God warm the woman’s heart.
Jesus ascended, he ascended a mountain and he delivered Moses’ message again. In the Sermon on the Mount an avalanche of God’s wisdom cascaded down with God’s love. With boulders as parables and pebbles as proverbs Jesus cried “choose life.”
He sang, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, they who mourn, the meek, the hungry for justice, and the thirsty for right relationships. Blessed are the mercy-filled, the pure of heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted for choosing life.” After redeeming the weak, and commending the champions of life, he defied the inelasticity of the Law. “Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus reintroduces some of God’s proverbs with the fullness of their original freedom. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;…” We violate God’s commandments to affirm life not only when we bodily murder but even when we slay people in our minds. Now, I don’t believe Jesus is prohibiting us from all manner of anger. In scripture Jesus presents righteous anger. He tossed tables seeing the financial abuse of those on their way to worship. He was angry seeing the worship of God become an opportunity for extortion. Jesus is telling us to manage the angers that that would belittle, cut or depreciate others. He continued, “But I say to you…if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council…”
On my way to the coffee shop, an older man was crossing at an intersection. He was taking his time. He had the “walk” sign. And a driver wanting to turn left, honked, honked and shouted a word beginning with “F” and ending with “R.” It was Saturday. What’s the rush? Why ruin a man’s day, why ruin my day with impatient anger? The walker was not intentionally hindering the driver. It was not personal.
The Reverend Lowell D. Streiker preaching on this same passage defined anger this way, “No matter what we think we are angry about, we are really angry because we have not been loved as we perceive we ought to have been loved. Is this perception true? It is, and it isn't. We are all the victims of the victims of the victims. At birth, we were placed in the hands of imperfect human beings. No matter how conscientious they may have been, they could never give us the sense of self-acceptance for which we yearned because no one ever gave it to them. Moreover, our demands for acceptance and approval are boundless. For the first few years of life, each of us believes that he or she is the center of the universe, that his or her will is all-powerful, and that just wishing for comfort, affection, and pleasure can bring immediate gratification. When we are thwarted by reality, we pout, wail, and throw tantrums. Not getting our way is the first cause of anger. Not being loved enough is our first excuse.”
So the driver was not feeling loved, maybe the better word is “respected” by the older man. I guess in the driver’s world the older man should have noticed he was waiting, and then skipped quickly out of his way. When the older man, did not; the driver wailed with a mental and spiritual blow.
Do not murder. Do not lash out amputating another’s peace in anger. There is a Chinese proverb, it goes, “Not the fastest horse can catch a word spoken in anger.” Will Rogers said, “People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing.”
Of course in life we are often going to feel as if we are not being cherished by others as we want to be cherished, or should I say “respected.” Of course we will respond in anger. But the anger starts in our interior, it’s a thought. Maybe it’s accompanied by heightened blood pressure, and a rush of adrenaline. But it is completely our property. We can decide to count to 10. We can recite the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” No one forces us to take the interior frustration and to blast it into another’s experience of life.
Dr. Redford B. Williams of Duke University Medical Center said, “Individuals who harbor hostility and anger towards others are five times more likely to die from heart disease than those who are more calm and trusting.”
Jesus continued, “But I say to you…if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire.” The Greek word being translated into fool is “moros.” From it we get the word, moron. “Moros” meant dull, silly, stupid. In the New Testament context calling someone “moros” was a mortal blow. It was declaring another a spiritual failure. It insulted their heart, their character, declared them morally worthless. It was like saying a person no longer had God’s image within them; they no longer were worthy of love. It was spiritual murder. It happens all the time. Born of prejudice, born of religious difference, born of jealousy, born of fear – people declare other’s out of God’s goodness. Choose life.
Anger escalates from thought, to blow, to fire and destruction. A story goes that on May 16, 1984, the Baltimore Orioles were playing a game in Boston. An Orioles player started a fight with Boston’s third baseman. It probably started with an angry word that escalated into an angry retort and then blows. Within minutes all the players from both teams had joined in a brawl. Looks like the battle spread to the grandstand. And then someone set fire to the stands. The entire ballpark burned to the ground. But not only that, the fire spread to 107 other Boston buildings as well. In Egypt in the last week estimates of up to 300 people were killed. Angry words escalate to murderous actions.
Jesus continued…”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.” It is more important to reconcile with others than to worship.
Phyllis Diller wrote, “Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.” It’s good advice. Rather than stew in resentment, fight to reconcile. Jesus taught that when we are angry with another, we should do something about it. Go and talk about it. Don’t hold it inside. Don’t lash out but enter a hope-filled dialogue. Of course, it will not always work. Nonetheless, we always have the freedom to choose life.
Dr. Redford Williams and his wife in their book, Anger Kills and Life Skills, give four helpful questions to assist us in managing anger. Whenever we are angry they recommend asking ourselves four questions: 1) Is this something that’s important to me?; 2) Is my response appropriate to the situation?; 3) Is there anything I can do about it?; 4) Is taking action worth it in this situation? The process of reflecting on these questions may calm us, may give us perspective. They advise that if this does not help we should soothe ourselves through deep breathing, counting, and distraction. I add that we should overlay these questions with God’s love. Remember we are loved. Remember that no matter what the other has done, they are still loved by God.
It is only the deep love and grace of God that can give us the power to see the people in our lives with spiritual eyes, to see that they are cherished, that they are worthy. It is only the deep love and grace of God that can give us the power to see that we also are cherished and worthy of love.
The Ten Commandments fall under the divine proverb, love God and love others as you need to be loved. The commands are elastic and free. We need God’s Spirit to help interpret them. They live in God’s mission. With them we will make choices that affirm life, our lives and others and God’s peace will sway our world.
As I walked home from the coffee shop yesterday, I went into my favorite toy store to get some stickers and Valentine cards for the Quizbowl tonight. A woman was showing a child how to use a ring toss game. She chose life. As I left the toy store, I saw families and friends out walking enjoying each other. They chose life. The sun was out. The wind was fierce. We were alive. A woman was walking towards me with a large, beautifully-rambunctious, black poodle. I admired her dog. We caught each other’s eyes and she laughed. Maybe she was laughing at me & my crazy wind-blown hair? Who cares? We chose life.
Valentine’s Day tomorrow offers us an opportunity to avalanche with God’s love into the world. Choose life. Choose a good life. Choose to value life. Make every choice a life-enabling one.
May it be so for you and for me.
Streiker, Lowell D. “Why Are We So Angry?” goodpreacher.com/backissuesread.php?file=698.
Dieleman, Adrian. “Be First to Seek Reconciliation.” trinitycrc.org/sermons/mt05v21-26.html.