Thursday, August 04, 2005

Another Sermon

It's been a while since I've posted anything. I've had lots to do. But to show that I'm still interested in this thing, I'll post a sermon I wrote recently. I've barely even read it over, so forgive mistakes, typos, or anything else that's wrong. :-)

The biblical text is Matthew 5:33-37. I don't really have a title.

Sermon Text:
Perhaps different connotations come to each of your minds when you hear the word “honesty”. You might think back to your childhood, one in which you were admonished by a parent or grandparent or other respectable authority in your life to “tell the truth”. Perhaps you think of innocence. Innocence is often equated with honesty. Or maybe you think of the word “integrity”. For you, honesty is about being a person of integrity, one to whom others look as a model character, one who always does what is right.

We often hear phrases such as, “He is an honest man” or “Honesty is a virtue”. I remember growing up, when my mother was frustrated with us kids (and always deservedly so), she would simply exclaim, “Honestly!” The words honest, honesty, and honestly are quite common in our everyday language today.

Each of these is probably a good explanation, presumption, or assumption, whichever you’d like to call them. But Jesus tells us in a much simpler, yet perhaps much more challenging way what honesty is.

Read text.

Now we know that this passage is in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of teachings Jesus taught that Matthew or a follower compiled and wrote down. The Sermon on the Mount offers many teachings for life: admonishments to challenge the culture of the time to walk in love following God and his ways rather than human tradition, among other things. Jesus begins this particular section with the statement that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them. The law and prophets refer to much of the Old Testament and even more. So Jesus begins with what theologians and biblical scholars often call the “antitheses.” An antithesis is when Jesus says, “You have heard this…but I tell you this.” He sets out to challenge (or perhaps even affirm in a new kind of way) various cultural and religious teachings or norms of life. In addition to the one we just read, others include things such as, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You should not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Or, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Jesus says these things knowing the ways of those who were listening to offer them what he (God) would do in a situation and what we as humans seeking to do good in the eyes of God should do.

In all honesty, there is little for us to expound upon for this particular antithesis – “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven…or by earth.” Basically, Jesus says, “Do not swear an oath at all.” He explains further, “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’.”

The King James Version says, “Let your communication be ‘Yea, yea’ or ‘Nay, nay.’ The Message puts it this way, “Just say ‘yes’ and just say ‘no’.” Basically, Jesus is saying that when you say “yes”, mean exactly that – yes. And when you say “no”, mean exactly that – no. Tell what you mean to say and mean what you do say.

This all boils down – as with everything that God wants us to do – to sincerity of heart. In fact, letting “yes” mean “yes” and “no” mean “no” isn’t simply about what we say to others. It is about what we say to ourselves.

Do you ever lie to yourself? Have you ever believed something that you knew wasn’t true, but over a period of time you had convinced yourself that it was true? Or, have you ever lied to yourself about something and over a period of time could not even tell the difference between what was right and what wasn’t right?

When I was eight years old, I was outside playing with some friends. It was late October, perhaps early November – some time in the New England fall – and we were doing something fall-like (playing football, perhaps). And before I went outside to play, my mother had told me to wear my coat. So I put it on as I went out the door. But soon it was lying on the ground rather than around my torso. Soon enough, our game was over. I went inside, and somehow, my coat was once again back on my body. It wasn’t even a thought in my mind as to whether or not I had had it on the whole time or not. I left the house and entered the house with it on.

So when I came inside and my mother asked me if I wore my coat, I simply replied, “Yes, ma, can’t you see that I’m wearing it?”

Now, my mother, like many mothers, has spies all over the world that keep up on her children regardless of whether she is there or not. I’ve never met one of them. I’ve often looked for them, but I’ve never caught one. I just know that they exist. My mother has spies all over the place. I know this because my mother knows things that there is no possible way she could unless she has come kind of covert and incognito spy network watching her children and their every move.

So, naturally, she somehow knew that I wasn’t wearing my coat the whole time. This is one of those childhood times when you specifically remember every little detail of the situation. My mother was sitting in a wicker rocking chair downstairs in the family/TV room next to the window. She called me over and sat me on her lap. She looked into my eyes with that knowing, yet annoyingly loving look, and asked again, “Jeremy David, were you wearing your coat the whole time when you were outside playing?” Usually, at this point, I knew I was caught and I’d admit my fault. But this particular time that I remember, I looked her in the eye and said – even if with a quiver in my voice and chin, “Yes, ma, I was wearing it!” She laid me back on herself and we sat there so I could think about it for a while. I remember in my mind thinking, “You were wearing it, right? Weren’t you?” I had convinced myself through my own lie that I had been. But then as I thought about it, I remembered unzipping it and throwing it on the brown grass so I could run better. And then I remembered putting it back on with the split-second thought that left as quickly as it came, “I’d better be wearing this when I get back inside.” And so, after a few minutes, I sat up and looked at my mother and admitted that I had not been wearing my coat the whole time. As usual, the love and grace displayed by my parents again came through from my mother – she forgave me, we hugged, I probably cried, and all was good.

But do you see the issue here? Certainly there are other values and morals – as we like to call them – that are important to this story like honoring and obeying our parents. But what I want us to see is the way in which I convinced myself of a falsehood. I lied and didn’t care about it to the point that I believed the lie as a truth. The matter was so trivial – it was just about wearing a coat. I didn’t lie about stealing or about cheating on a test or something else that in and of itself was bad. I was fine. I hadn’t caught a cold from the weather outside. And when it comes down to it, whether I wore a coat or didn’t wear a coat didn’t matter. What mattered was the fact that I was dishonest and dishonorable.

We do this all the time today. We begin believing things to make our story “straighter”. We rationalize. We give in to our minds. We submit to things that make us more comfortable or make a situation make more sense.

But Jesus tells us that his disciples – that is, people who truly follow the God – give the whole truth all the time. He himself was and is the truth. And we’re not just talking about the words that we use and say. We’re talking about a life of honesty. We’re talking about the truthfulness of all that we are, all that we say, all that we do.

I’m sure you all know the story of the boy who cried “wolf”. He was out watching the sheep, and bored out of his mind, decided to cry “Wolf!” to see what excitement it might bring from those who could hear him. And once several came running at the sound of his exclamation, he pointed, laughed, and rolled on the ground at their looks of panic and alarm. And then when everything settled down, he quickly grew bored again and did the same thing, cried “Wolf!” and everybody came running to help, but yet again, he was “just kidding”. Then, when a wolf actually did appear and he cried out its name, no one came to help. The story often ends differently depending on who’s telling it to whom, but perhaps a sheep is lost, or all the sheep are lost, or even the boy himself is eaten alive. And then when we hear this story, there’s always the ever-important postscript that says, “The moral of the story is ‘even when liars tell the truth, they are not believed’.” So, basically, don’t be a liar or no one will believe you when you tell the truth.

But the moral of this fable doesn’t give the whole truth either. We don’t not lie simply so that we will be believed in future situations. We don’t not do something in order to create a good future. This is the problem with much of our belief today. This is a problem with how we live. We live planning for the future for fear of what might happen. Jesus came to tell us that now is the time to live rightly. Now is the time for which we live. We don’t live a certain way out of fear of consequences, we live a certain way because it’s who we are supposed to be and better yet, who we want to be.

Jesus, and thus God himself, wants us to live righteously right now. God wants truthfulness in all of our words, all of our actions, and all of our being not so that we can be believed in the future, but because we are supposed to live the truth. Truth is what we are supposed to be. Truth is what we are supposed to be because truth is who God is.

God seeks and desires sincerity of heart. A few verses before this passage when Jesus is explaining the fulfillment of the law, he talks about righteousness. Verse 20 says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were the experts on the law. When it came to knowing what the law said for any given situation, they knew the answer. They could quote chapter and verse at a moment’s notice. They knew the words of the law perhaps just as well as Jesus. But they missed on the intent of the law. They memorized and imitated as they thought best, but they didn’t know why they did what they did. This is Jesus’ point – You can do your best, following the law and being a moral person, a person of good morals, but unless you exceed that kind of righteousness, unless you exceed actions and correctness to the point of sincerity of heart, you will not know heaven.

May we be honest in all that we do…
…not only in thought of the future,
…not only to be true as a witness,
…not only because it is what Jesus would do,
…not only because the Bible says to…
…or because our parents tell us to,
…or because the American Law tells us to,
…or even solely based on the fact that Jesus tells us to,

…but because we want to be sincere people before our fellow humans and before God.


May our hearts be sincere in all that we are.

2 comments:

  1. Traci or I would have gotten a spanking!

    And since when did you call mom "ma"?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nice personal story! It's such a good example of how we can manage to convince ourselves of something that isn't the truth. If we can so easily deceive ourselves, imagine how simple it is for the master of deception to obscure the truth from us.

    Grace and Peace,

    PastorJon

    ReplyDelete