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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Ala Carte Christianity

Epiphany 6A    Matthew 5:21-37

To more fully understand and appreciate the Bible text for today about the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ new commandments about murder, lust, and adultery, we need to read the verses immediately prior to the commandments for today. We need to hear verses 17-20 before we begin to focus on verses 21-37.  Matthew 5:17-20, reads as follows:

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass away from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever relaxes one of the least of my commandments and teaches other people to relax them, shall be called least in the Kingdom of God. But he who does my commandments and teaches others to do my commandments shall be great in the Kingdom of God. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of God.”

Then, Jesus starts to articulate his personal code of morality. Jesus first talks about making peace with those with whom you are having conflicts. Second, Jesus talks about lust. Third, with divorce.

But it all begins with an attitude towards the law. He says, “Whoever relaxes one of the least of my commandments and teaches other people to relax them, shall be called least in the Kingdom of God.

We are living in a time when people feel you can believe in Jesus Christ and do what you think is right. Believe in Jesus Christ and you determine your own set of morality. Believe in Jesus Christ and you figure out what you think is right for you to do. A person on my right says that Christians can do this; and a person on my left say that Christians can do that. The two interpretations of what is right and wrong disagree.

So we live in an age when everybody is their own priest and pope. By that I mean to say, people believe that they are their own priest, that they have their own closeness to God, that they do not need an intermediary. And everybody is their own pope. That is, people think that “I am the final authority as to what is right and wrong. Don’t tell me what is right and wrong. Don’t impose your values on me. I am the final authority. I am the pope. I am the person who determines those things which are right or wrong.”

And so we live in an age where many Christians say that I believe in Jesus Christ and I will do what I think is right and I do not really listen to the counsel of others.

We also live in a time when people believe that the Ten Commandments are the “ten suggestions.” The Ten Commandments are merely guidelines. They are like by-laws that can be changed. Guidelines can be changed. The Ten Commandments are really ten guidelines that need to be undated in every generation and adapted to every culture, so that they fit into today’s morality.

We live in a time what could be called “ala carte” Christianity. That is, sometimes you go to a fancier restaurant and the menu will say “ala carte.” You pick and chose those parts of the menu that seem the best for you, those parts that you think you can afford. And so you chose this and this. Well, that is the way that some people feel about the Ten Commandments. They pick and chose those parts of the Ten Commandments that they want to obey. For example, I may like commandments two, three and four but commandments five, six and seven are not so attractive to me. So Christians chose which commandments are important to them.

For example, a few years ago, I was talking with a man, and he was telling me about how he was having an affair with this woman. He would go over to her house on Saturday night and the two of them would prepare her Sunday School lesson for the next day. And that man and the woman with whom he was having an affair saw nothing wrong with that. They could get together on Saturday night and prepare for the Sunday School lesson for the next day, and see no moral contradiction.

Ala carte Christianity. I pick and chose those parts of Christian morality which are important to me.

It says in the text for today, “Whomever relaxes one of my commandments.” I have been thinking about the word, “relax,” and so I looked up the word, “relax,” in the dictionary. It comes from a Latin word, relaxay, which comes from laxari. We get our word, “laxative,” from the Latin word, laxari. To give a laxative is to loosen something up. So people want to give the Ten Commandments a laxative. They want to loosen up the Ten Commandments. People want to give the moral law of God a laxative so it will loosen up the moral code of human society. For such people, the Ten Commandments are too rigid.

In this day and age, when we have all kinds of people wanting to be their own pope. In this day and age, when many people believe that the Ten Commandments are merely ten suggestions and are not really the eternal law of God but ten guidelines. In this day and age when people practice ala carte Christianity, picking and choosing those part of the Christian morality that I want to obey. In this day and age when there is great pressure to relax the moral law of God. It is with these perspectives that we approach the gospel lesson for today.

Jesus was gathering with his disciples near the Sea of Galilee. While near the Sea of Galilee, the disciples and Jesus climbed up the high brown hills above the lake to a flat plateau up there. From that mid point on the hillsides above the Sea of Galilee, Jesus began to teach them.

The first thing that Jesus taught his disciples was about true joy verses temporary happiness. In the sermon on that text two weeks ago, I told the story of Rueben G and how he suddenly died at the age of fifty-nine. His wife came home after work and there was Rueben on the floor. He had died instantly of a heart attack. It was sad for everyone as we had a funeral and then graveside service and then all the family and friends returned to Rueben’s home. There in that very unhappy situation was joy. Joy because Rueben knew Jesus. Joy became the family believed in the resurrection. Joy because they had great family love. In the midst of very unhappy situations and circumstances, we know that there can be great joy at the very same moment. So in his sermon to his disciples, the first topic that Jesus talked about was joy.

Then, after teaching his disciples about joy, he said, “You my disciples live in a very corrupt world. It is a sick world out there. It is a messed up world all around you. And you my disciples are to be the salt of the earth; you are to be the moral preservative just as salt preserves fish and just as salt preserves meat. So you my disciples are to be the moral preservative of society. You are to help society from decaying morally.

But not only are you to help society from decaying, you are to be the light of the world. You are to be the light of God and show people how to walk in the ways of God. You are to be a light to people’s paths and show people the difference between right and wrong. You are to show people how to live in this world of ours. You are to be the salt of the earth; you are to be the light of the world.

When Jesus finished those topics, first about true joy and then about salt and light, Jesus then began his teachings about personal morality. This is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Just as Moses came onto Mount Sinai and gave a mountaintop sermon of the moral law of the Old Testament, so Jesus went up to this new mountain and Jesus gave the new moral code for personal holiness.

Jesus talks about many different aspects of this new personal holiness, but he begins with three new commandments, three commandments of a new morality, of a new personal holiness.

First, he says, “You have heard it said in the Old Testament that you shall not kill, but I say to you, if any of you has a conflict with your brother or sister or mother or father, or friend or relative. If any of you have a conflict with someone when you come to church, leave the church and leave the altar and go back home and make peace with person and then return to church and worship. Jesus wants you and me to go and resolve those conflicts that we have with other people. For Jesus, the first illustration of personal holiness is that Jesus wants us to live lives of peace. He wants us to find ways to resolve our conflicts. Do you have a conflict with anyone today? Is there a father, a mother, a brother or sister, a friend or neighbor with whom you have an unresolved conflict? Jesus says for us to leave our place of worship and go to that person with whom we are having a conflict and attempt to resolve that conflict.

Now, I am also keenly aware that some of you and some us have some very deep conflicts such as with ex-spouses. I know that to go back and make peace with such people is very difficult if not seemingly impossible. To make peace with them does not mean that you have to become friends with them because sometimes that is just not possible. But Jesus wants us to resolve those conflicts that we have with people.

Secondly, Jesus said, “You have heard it said in the Old Testament that you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you, whoever looks lustfully on another woman has already committed adultery in their heart with that person.”

This past week, I happened to go to the 7-11 store, and there in the 7-11 store was the most recent issue of Sport’s Illustrated magazine. It is the issue with the now famous swimming suit contest. Whoof. The pages just jumped right off of the counter. My goodness, I had never seen swimsuits like that. Last Sunday morning, as I was talking with one of the acolytes, trying to recall the name of the magazine, the young boy acolyte knew the name of that magazine right away. This past week, my wife and I went to a movie, called, OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE, and we came into the movie some fifteen minutes late and saw one of the hottest sex scenes that I had ever seen in my life. Whoof. My contact lenses fogged over. They steamed up. I had never seen anything like that. My, my, my, my.

And Jesus said, “Do not put yourself into a situation which cause you to lust after another person. If there is anything that causes you to lust and have unhealthy sexual desires towards another, cut that out of your life. Do not fan the flames of lust. Do not fan the flames of unhealthy sexual attraction.” That only make your own spouse not to look so attractive. By doing so, it creates much unhealthy energy towards a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Cut out from your life those things that contribute to you lusting after another. For you my disciples are to live a life of personal holiness.

The third commandment of Jesus’ new morality for his disciples concerned divorce. In the Old Testament, it was said, “A man can simply say to his wife, I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you, but now I say to you, Whoever divorces a person except for grounds of unchastity, that person commits adultery. Whoever marries a divorce person marries an adulterous person.”

Those are very strong words. What do these words mean for us today? What do these words mean when we look across our congregation and there are so many divorced and remarried people in our congregation, some divorced and remarried thirty years ago? How do we interpret these words of Jesus?

Obviously, we don’t take them literally and legalistically. We know that it is important that people get divorces. For example, I have said on more than one occasion to a woman whose husband had become physically abusive to his wife, I said to her, “You had better get rid of that man. He is cruel to you and to your children. He is sick. He won’t get help. I think that you need to be thinking about divorce.” So we all know that there are situations in life where we need to divorce.

Even knowing that there are situations where divorce is necessary, we know that the deep energy of God is to have us be reconciled with our spouse. If you are caught in that situation, God wants you, if humanly and divinely possible, to make up those differences between the two of you. God wants you to pray for the inner forgiveness needed between the two of you. That is what God wants you to do: to be reconciled.

And so in these verses, Jesus talks about personal holiness. Jesus wants us his disciples to have a personal holiness with those we have conflicts with, personal holiness in our sexual fantasies, and personal holiness in our marriages.

But…can any one of us obey the law of God? Can any one of us obey the law of God perfectly? Can any of us do that?

I would like to tell you a story about a group of ten men who were soldiers. These soldiers had been locked in vicious battles for three years, and in one battle, all ten were killed. All ten went up to the pearly gates of heaven to see Simon Peter who was the guardian of the gates into heaven. Simon Peter came out and said, “Good to see you men here today. I have been expecting you although you had not been expecting to see me. Would you please sit in those ten desks there, right outside the pearly gates? I will give you each a piece of paper, a pencil, and please write the numbers one to ten on the paper.” All the big burly soldiers, still in their military fatigues and splattered with mud and blood, did what they were told to do and sat down at the desks. Peter then instructed them, “You answer ‘yes or no’ to these ten questions. Question number one: Did you love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself? Yes or no.” The soldiers looked at each other, puzzled, not sure if they should be truthful or not. Didn’t seem wise to lie to Peter. Peter said, “The second commandment: you shall not take the name of the Lord God in vain. Did you ever swear when in your life ore recently when you were a soldier?” The soldiers, knowing their everyday vocabulary, looked at each other quizzically. “The third commandment: you shall remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Did you go church on a regular basis and worship God with other Christians?” The soldiers became agitated and nervous. The fourth commandment, “Did you honor your parents and all in authority at all times?” Silence. The fifth commandment: “You shall not kill. Did you soldiers kill?” The soldiers knew their jobs for the past three years. How many people had they killed? Who knew? Who kept track? It was a bloody war. Peter continued with the questions about the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth commandments, and the soldiers seemed to be slipping deeper into their fox holes. Finally, after the questions were finished, the leader of the platoon raised his hand and asked, “Simon Peter, how many do you have to get correct to get into the pearly gates?” The men nodded in appreciation. The platoon leader continued asking the questions on behalf of the men, “What if you get two right? Maybe three? Maybe four? Is that good enough to get in?” Simon Peter, with his steely gray eyes, looked right at the leader and spoke without a hint of hesitation: “You have to get them all right. You have to get l00%.” The soldiers reacted as you would have guessed. They turned over their papers in disgust; they collectively grunted their disapproval. They put down their pencils and threw up their hands in disbelief. About that time, Jesus walked through the pearly gates and into the classroom of desks where the men were seated. Jesus said, “I have taken the test for you and I have scored l00% for you. Come into my kingdom.”

And all the soldiers went, “wheeew.” And all the people of the earth crossed themselves and when “wheeew.”

Yes, forgiveness is the means by which we enter the kingdom of God. None of us will enter the pearly gates and heaven because of our obedience but by his gracious gift that he has given for us by his death on the cross.

Knowing that, knowing that we are forgiven, knowing that we cannot keep the Old Law of the Old Testament perfectly, knowing that we cannot keep the New Law of the New Testament perfectly, knowing all of that does not mean that we practice ala carte Christianity. It does not mean that the Ten Commandments become the ten suggestions. It does not mean that we relax the Ten Commandments. Rather, being inspired by Jesus’ forgiveness and love, his Spirit lives inside of us so that we live a righteous and holy life. The generous forgiveness of God lives inside of us; the love of Jesus lives inside of us; therefore we want to live a life of righteousness, of right relationships with all people around us. And in those right relationships, we find the personal holiness of God.

Jesus said, “Do not relax what you think are the least of the commandments. Do not relax the commandments nor shall you teach others to relax them. But do my commandments and teach others to do my commandments and thereby live a life of righteousness, of right relationships with all those around you. For my commandments are not so difficult that you can not do them.” Amen.

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