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Matthew 5: 38-48

A sixth grade boy walks into his classroom on a Wednesday morning. With chagrin he realizes that the week is just half over. “Jeremy,” his teacher asked, “Do you have your homework assignment to turn in? Well, Jeremy’s heart starts pumping faster so that it feels like a kettle drum is in his chest. His palms start to perspire and his hands stick to the surface of his desk. What would he say? The truth was he just plain forgot it, but the truth wasn’t easy to admit. “I didn’t bring it today,” was his feeble response. “Did you do your homework, Jeremy?” his teacher asked. “No,” he said, “I forgot.” “I see, Jeremy” said his teacher. Just then Jeremy remembered something he had heard others say. He blurted out, “Well nobody’s perfect, right?” Nobody’s perfect; such a disclaimer might work when someone does not do addition as well as another, or a person cannot ride a bike without falling. But could a father say it who missed his daughter’s birthday? Could a defendant say that to his defense attorney as a way to defend his actions of brutally beating his child? Can a nation say that when a military miscalculation creates what some call collateral damage? There are few times when the “nobody’s perfect” defense works. Yet people come back to it time and again. Some believe that since Jesus said it, we need to be perfect. Some children, unlike Jeremy, can actually torment themselves trying to be perfect. Such a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words can bring anguish to a young boy or girl. Young woman often fall prey to the supposedly glamorous images of weight, and creating the desire to be perfect in their minds can lead to unnecessary and dangerous eating disorders or plastic surgeries. So it is clear that few people would use, “Nobody’s perfect, right?” And yet how often do people plead their case before God using that kind of defense, or hope that God will grade on a curve? There is excellence for which we ought to strive in life, and there are standards of living that Christians are to follow. Some of them, addressed by Jesus in today’s text, include our actions against those who do things against us. What should we do in place of retaliation? How shall we love our neighbors and our enemies? Today we are reminded that plenty of people in our world believed, and still believe, that taking out the person’s eye who blinds you is doing justice. It was Mahatma Gandhi who once said “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Long before Gandhi, Jesus indicated the same thing. Can you imagine the courtroom of barbaric actions? “Your honor, this woman is guilty of scratching out the eyes of another woman. What is your judgment of a just punishment?” What if the judge replied “Scratch out both of this woman’s eyes.” Now two people would be blind; two would depend on others for navigation and two would have their ability to gain employment severely curtailed. But it is frightening to think how many times we think that way; that justice is done by having the same mutilation performed on the attacker. What if God had acted that way when Jesus was crucified? Would God have slain Pilate or the Chief Priest? Would God have chosen even a disciple, like Peter, to slay for not trying to stop the killing? But God—who never claimed fairness as the highest level of action, but instead chose justice, everlasting mercy, forgiveness, and love—God made a higher choice. That’s what being perfect begins to look like.

An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth; in a fleeting moment we call that justice. We say it isn’t fair that someone who has done a wrong thing to someone else does not have the same wrong thing done back to him or her. But there is a strange discovery when one turns to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. It’s a book that lists every single world in the Bible. And guess what? The word “fair” is not listed! “Fair” or “fairness” are not listed in the Bible! Instead there are examples of justice, mercy, and love. Those are the ways of God. Those are the ways of Christ. And those are, in Jesus’ sermon, the ways of people trying to keep God’s ways “perfectly.” You may recall how many of Jesus’ stories involve people believing a decision is not fair: there is the older brother in the field who believed his father’s gifts to his prodigal brother were not fair. There were the full day workers who complained that the landowner paid them the same amount as he paid the “Johnny come lately.” Examples of complained fairness turn into stories of great mercy and grace when preached by Christ. It is the transforming power of God; it is the point of Jesus’ sermon for today. Doing what is right is not the same thing as doing what is perceived as fair.

The original Greek in which the New Testament was written uses a word for perfect that is different from the first definition that may come to our minds. “Perfect” meant something or someone that fully grows into the purpose which was planned. One person put it this way: “’Be perfect’ is not an indictment; it is a promise that carries the possibility that we may love the world as God has loved us—fully, richly, abundantly, and completely.” [Barbara J. Essex] From the lips of Jesus part of our purpose is to love God and to love our neighbor. From the Westminster Larger Catechism we learn that our chief and highest end (or purpose) is to glorify God, and to enjoy God forever. These are coming close to lives that are perfectly lived. And God has a divine purpose: to love us in spite of our failings. Only once did God try barbaric justice with the worldly do-over recorded in Genesis 6. But God set his bow of war—the rainbow—in the clouds in Genesis 9 as a reminder to God, and a teachable moment to others, that retaliation is not redemptive, it is destructive. God wants us to also do redemptive work. As it has been said, “The sun rises on the good and the evil; the rain falls on the just and unjust. So why do we, God’s children, differentiate?” Does rain only fall on the fields of the righteous and not on the unrighteous? Of course not, and that bothers us most of all.

The first of the 10 Commandments give us these words from the mouth of God: “You shall have no other gods before me.” To love God is to not go looking for godly love in all the wrong places. And to merely intend to be faithful misses the mark.

Jesus said “Go ye into all the world and make disciples of all nations.” To hit the bulls-eye, which is love, we have to live the gospel and tell it. We cannot just intent to do it.

Our text tells us today “You must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” But now you know what that means. Our Heavenly Father shows perfect love, perfect, grace, perfect forgiveness, and perfect justice. It is to those ends that human beings are to continue to strive.

To only intend to do those things makes us fall short of the Great Commandment as the Lord Jesus delivered it: “To love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Christians are only real Christians when they get off of their “good intentions” and do what Jesus would do.” Let’s “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving ourselves.” Our world needs the transformational message that Jesus preached and that we are commissioned to carry out.

Jeffrey A. Sumner February 20, 2011

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These tough words
from Jesus come as part of the Sermon on the Mount. Just before these
words today, Jesus has told the crowd that he has come not to abolish
the law, but to fulfill it. Now this does not mean that he is
replacing or belittling or watering down the law. Instead Jesus is
embodying the law, putting flesh on the law, and digging underneath
the law in order to find God’s deeper values and vision which the law
points to.

And then Jesus
takes this abstract idea and makes it concrete, giving six examples
of how the word becomes flesh in the realities of our everyday lives.
And as usual Jesus is neither polite nor politic. He takes on murder,
adultery, divorce, lust, legal game playing, and political revenge.
And he tells us that if we cannot embody love and reconciliation in
our personal lives well, then, reconciliation in the world is

Today’s particular words focus on anger and they are
addressed to the bickering, resentful, bitter parts inside us, as
well as inside those early crowds. As a good Jew, Jesus starts with
the Ten Commandments – Thou shalt not kill – but then he digs even
deeper. He suggests that each one of us is a murderer. Each one of us
is a killer of life and love when we harbor anger and contempt toward
anyone. And he makes it clear that the hard part of reconciliation
must start with us – with our decision to be reconciled to God and to
neighbor. And we are to do this no matter who is at fault.

matter who is at fault. Jesus doesn’t ask for much, does he?

type of anger that Jesus uses when he talks of reconciling with a
friend, means a particular kind of anger. He is not talking about
short bursts of annoyance or frustration. Rather he is talking about
the brooding, pervasive kind of animosity that can eat away at us – a
kind of leprosy of the soul. This anger destroys relationships and
leads to malicious gossip and to the destruction of lives and
reputations. Now just in case we are tempted to excuse ourselves from
such ugly behavior, I’d like to take a moment for us to reflect on
our own lives. Who was the last person you gossiped about or
maligned? How frequently do we label or stereotype others who may
disagree with us? How willing are we to savor animosity and
bitterness toward a friend or family member in order to hold onto our
own hurts?

How do we, as people of God, manage to do harm to
one another? I once tried to trace the origin of a few unkind remarks
that jumped out of my mouth before I thought. Where did they come
from? When I sat down to think about it, I was forced to realize they
were hatched in a secret place where I harbored unvoiced anger about
the person to whom they were spoken. If only I had worked it out with
that person before then, perhaps I could have spared our friendship
and the need for an apology. That day I was motivated by that
resentment to do harm to her. I know that I am not alone in this. The
way of righteousness described in this week’s gospel points to
matters of the heart. Jesus knew that most of his audience would
agree that murder and adultery were harmful, but what about angry
thoughts against another person, or lustful thoughts?

There is
a story abut two farmers in Canada. One day the dog of one farmer got
loose and mauled to death the two-year-old child of his neighbor. The
devastated father cut off all relationship with his neighbor, and the
two men lived in cold, defiant enmity for years. Then one day a fire
devastated the property of the dog-owning farmer, destroying his barn
and all his equipment. He was unable to plow and plant, and so his
future appeared doomed. Except that the next morning he woke up and
found all his fields plowed and ready for seed. Upon investigation,
he discovered that his grieving neighbor had done this good deed.
Humbly the rescued farmer approached his neighbor and asked him if he
had plowed his fields – and, if so, why. The answer was clear: “Aye,”
the former enemy said. “I plowed your fields so that God can
live.” Hard-core Christian love is not about affection and
friendship. It is about forgiveness and reconciliation. It is about a
law deeper than litigation. It is about the law of grace and the
power of resurrection.

Our Old Testament passage for this
morning spells it out quite clearly. “I have set before you life
and death. Blessings and Curses.” These words seem simplistic in
many ways. Follow God: Be blessed. Follow other gods: Be cursed.
Prosperity is linked with faithfulness, while the failure to thrive
is a clear sign that one has strayed from the right path.

Now that
theological promise may ring hollow to those who have witnessed or
experienced suffering firsthand, and let’s be honest. Who hasn’t
had suffering in their own lives? Indeed the book of Job is a
challenge to this simplistic take on achievement. Do we throw out the
perspective of Deuteronomy then? I think not. Rather, it is important
to understand this text in particular as establishing a basis for
living the “good life” but not answering, or even
attempting to answer, all the questions that arise over the course of
our lives.

That is, this speaks to how we should live, how we
should approach the world, not how we should expect the world to
treat us.

In the first place, Deuteronomy upholds the value of
human life, in particular, the value of success and flourishing
community. These joys of human life are honored as gifts from God and
to be treasured as such. Prosperity can be a good thing, a sign of
hard work and divine blessing. Faithful stewardship of God’s gifts
can reap remarkable rewards that should be celebrated, and yet
Deuteronomy provides a much-needed perspective on what it truly means
to live the “good life.”

A truly rich and
full life is one that is lived in right relationship with God and
with others. Walking in God’s ways and being obedient to God’s will
is a solid basis for a life that won’t be unmoored by economic

Choosing life looks a lot like what Jesus mentions.
It doesn’t mean you will become instantly rich. It doesn’t mean that
nothing bad will ever happen to you again. What it does mean is that
your life will be a better one. By living in right relationship with
God and others, you are better for it. But it is your choice. It is
always your choice.

The power of choice is one of our greatest
gifts. During the American Revolution Tom Paine showed just how
powerful this gift is when he said, “We have it within our power
to make the world over again.” In other words, we have choices
that are so consequential that the world in which we live is
literally determined by the choices we make. And it is true of free
people that we have it within our power to structure the environment,
to establish the context or quality or climate in which we live. And
indeed when we make those choices, we determine something very
important not only for us but for those around us.

I believe
this freedom, this integrity, this characteristic of choice is
God-endowed, that we have it because God gave it to us. We are
unique. We are choice-makers. We have responsibility to make choices.
And it’s the ability to make a choice that really gives us a sense of
being different in the world. It gives us the sense of being

But sometimes we get tied up in some pretty small
choices – whether we want chocolate or vanilla, or a red one or a
blue one. And in spite of the fact that while our lives seem plenty
full of these small choices; I believe that we also have major
choices that we must make. And those choices really have an impact
not only on the way we live, but on the way those live who follow us
and live around us. “I call heaven and earth to record this day
against you that I have set before you life and death, blessing and
cursing. Therefore choose life that both you and your descendants may

What you do matters. How you choose to live has an

Gregory L. Tolle tells a story about someone who
chooses life. “Michael was the kind of guy who had such a positive
outlook that you either loved him or hated him. When someone would
ask him how he was doing, he would reply, “If I were any better,
I would be twins!” He was a natural motivator. If a co-worker
was having a bad day, Michael would encourage them and help them to
see the positive side of the situation.

A friend asked how he
could be so positive all the time. After all, it seemed so unnatural
compared to the rest of the world. Michael replied, “Each
morning I wake up and say to myself, ‘You have two choices today. You
can choose to be in a good mood or … you can choose to be in a bad
mood.’ I choose to be in a good mood. Each time something bad
happens, I can choose to be a victim or … I can choose to learn
from it. I choose to learn from it. Every time someone comes to me
complaining, I can choose to accept their complaining or … I can
point out the positive side of life. I choose the positive side of

The friend protested that even though it sounded
great in theory it would be hard to live out.

responded, “Life is all about choices. When you cut away all the
junk, every situation is a choice. You choose how you react to
situations. You choose how people affect your mood. You choose to be
in a good mood or bad mood. The bottom line: It’s your choice how you
live your life.”

Several years later, Michael was
involved in a serious accident as he fell sixty feet from a
communications tower. As he lay on the ground, the first thing he
thought of was the well-being of his soon-to-be-born daughter. Then,
he remembered that he had two choices: He could choose to live or …
he could choose to die. He chose to live.

The paramedics
arrived and went to work. They kept telling Michael that he was going
to be fine. But when they wheeled him into the ER, he saw the
expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses. He began to feel
fear overcoming his body because he could read their eyes: “He’s
a dead man.” He knew he needed to take action.

A big
burly nurse was shouting questions. She asked Michael if he was
allergic to anything. He replied, “Yes.” The doctors and
nurses stopped working as they waited for Michael to fill in the
missing blank of his allergy. He took a deep breath and yelled,
“Gravity.” Over their laughter, he said, “I am
choosing to live. Operate on me with that understanding.”

eighteen hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, Michael was
released from the hospital with rods placed in his back. Michael
lived, thanks to the skill of his doctors, and also because of his
amazing attitude. When asked about his health, Michael would respond,
“If I were any better, I’d be twins. Want to see my

What you do matters. How you choose to live
has an effect. Michael’s choices and actions affected the people
around him. Your choices and actions affect the people around you.

What choices do you make in your life? Do you choose the way
of life and relationships? Do you follow the deeper side of of the
Law that Jesus teaches? We all have bad days. Days when we don’t
want to choose to be nice to people, when we want to hold on to our
anger. It is far easier to give in to those inclinations. To nurture
our resentments. To lash out at those who hurt us.

But Jesus
calls us to choose something better. To choose the way of
Forgiveness. The way of Love. Jesus calls us to choose a better way.

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Matthew 5:

beachside communities from New Jersey to Florida often had candy
shops near the shore or the boardwalk with the great taffy machines
working the salt water taffy! It would come in many different colors
but the most interesting thing about it to a child is how pliable it
is! The taffy never breaks in the machine, it just keeps stretching!
In my research I found it that it has just a pinch of salt in the
taffy, leading me to believe that it got its name from the close
proximity to the ocean. Today we want to examine what Jesus meant by
calling his followers “the salt of the earth” and why, I fear,
too many Christians are not like salt that can preserve, flavor, or
protect that to which it is applied; too many Christians are like
salt water taffy: pliable and colorful, taking the shape of whatever
molds us in the world.

Back in
Jesus’ day salt was more than a seasoning; it was a preservative in
the days before refrigeration. “In New Testament times the main
industry at Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee, was the salting of fish.”
[Encyclopedia of the Bible]. So Jesus knew what he was saying, and
knew what he was meaning, when he used his famous metaphorical
language: “You are the salt of the earth.” Although that phrase
today is in the dictionary as meaning “a very kind, honest, and
reliable person”, in Jesus’ usage he meant even more than that.
Salt changes things: for one thing it flavors; for another it
preserves what is good and protects it from going bad. How did Jesus
mean his followers were,
first of all,
to flavor the world? Can you tell how much advertising wants to
change and bend us? From the beginning of the world, enticers and
tempters have tried to get us to take a bite of forbidden fruit. The
voice in our head, or on the lips of friends, or even on the lips of
strangers, can coax us into going over to, as George Lucas put it in
“Star Wars,” “the dark side.” The dark side has negative
characteristics, like being domineering, predatory, cruel, and
Nowhere in
Jesus’ life was he any of those things. And although the world has
plenty of good people, and had good people even in Jesus’ day, bad
people continue to have full reign in many corners of our world. To
use Reinhold Neibuhr’s phrase, they are the “children of
darkness.” Jesus was about creating “children of light,” ones
who, by seasoning the world with the fruits of the Spirit and living
faithfully, could change the world. In identifying his followers then
as salt, he was not saying, you “could be” change agents, nor was
he saying “if you want to I will give you the power to change
others.” No; he said “you are the salt of the earth.” That
power is in us right now! Of course, if you have salt on your dinner
table but never sprinkle it over your green vegetables or your
potatoes or your steak or chicken,
then it has
no effect! Having salt in the vicinity of food does not change it one
(And for now we are not addressing low
salt diets because that was not in issue for Jesus!) But only if salt
applied to food
does it change it. Only if Christians
themselves to the problems of the world can we begin to change them.
It does not happen if you are a Christian and just live next to a bad
person, or just sit on a plane next to a bad person or just sit in
class next to a bad person. If all you do is sit there and do not try
to make changes, the world, like a cancer of dark and aggressive
cells, will grow in its rottenness.
So it
takes us-salt- to flavor or change the world; and it takes us- salt-
to preserve what is good in the world.
world was created good according to Genesis. When it started to rot
with the whisper of a tempter, God still gave people the full
resources to resist the darkness. Some resisted; some succumbed; and
it is happening even today. Jesus is interested in naming the world’s
change agents; he did not say “I am the salt of the earth” he
said to that congregation standing and sitting on the banks of the
Sea of Galilee “YOU; you are the salt of the earth!” And I
believe with everything in me that Jesus preaches that message from
the pages of Scripture so that it reaches your ears today too. The
Lord Jesus says to his congregation even in 2011: “You are the salt
of the earth.” Being in the proximity of what you want to change
won’t change it; being good salt next to decaying meat won’t stop
the decay;
you have to apply yourself-salt-to
preserve values, protect the weak, and flavor the blandness of the
status quo.

second point in that section of his sermon said this: “but if the
salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no
longer good for anything except to be thrown out.” Jesus had
perfect illustration of polluted salt at the end of the Jordan River.
Because high concentrations of salt in the ground allowed nothing to
grow in the Dead Sea, it contained no sea life or plant life.
Polluted salt, like the salt mixed with sand and dirt that I showed
the children today, would be thrown on roads in ancient days to keep
grass from growing there. So how does salt loose its saltness? Mostly
by either being
so diluted
that other flavors over power the salt, or
that the compromised mixture cannot
be applied to anything to bring health or life.
wants us to be salt for the earth- a mineral of change, protection,
and preservation of the public good- but instead we are more like
salt water taffy
. Salt water taffy contains
salt, but it is in such a small quantity that almost no one notices
the salt, they notice the sugar, and the flavors. Salt makes
virtually no change to the taste or the consistency of salt water
taffy; it is a trace ingredient. And one more thing: notice how
pliable and how moldable salt water taffy is. To Jesus’ chagrin,
Christians who have not taken the message of his Sermon on the Mount
to heart are more tempted to fit in to the world instead of change
and the world has very little problem with
just a touch of Christianity in its public assemblies
Like salt water taffy, a touch of saltness
goes unnoticed in our world; it does not change, it does not
preserve, it does not protect. And when other ingredients dilute it,
as in taffy, it loses its power to flavor, preserve, and protect. And
when other ingredients polute it,
becomes good for nothing, and actually can take life instead of
preserve it. In Jesus’ day, polluted salt was poured out on the on
the lanes and byways, to kill the vegetation in the city run by
children of darkness. I fear that the salt-like power Jesus placed in
each one of us is getting either too diluted or too polluted by the
world. We have let that happen. But we can stop it; the children of
light can draw on their Christ-named power to effect change even now!

We have the power! Jesus has given us a name and purpose. But Jesus
cannot lift the salt shaker and salt the world; that is for us to do.
In Egypt today Christians are in such a small minority that even
banded together they have little effect in their troubled land. The
brotherhood and sisterhood of Christians need our hands, and hearts,
and actions and prayers not just in your neighbor, but in our nation,
and across the globe. How will you show your Savior that you “get
How will you acknowledge the power he
has placed in you, not alone, but with others so that, with a larger
percentage of potency, the world cannot dilute us enough or pollute
us enough to make us tepid, bland, or useless?

When the Titanic was sinking, there was no need for officers to
straighten the deck chairs. They were needed to man lifeboats and to
save souls! The time to rescue the perishing in our world is upon us
again, here; now, in Feb. 2011.

A. Sumner February 6,