Guardrails and Grace

Read the Sermon

Matthew 5:38-48

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.

We are continuing our study of the Sermon on the Mount. In the season of Lent, as followers of Christ, we take intentional steps to follow the teachings of Jesus, to be transformed by God’s love so that we may be that love for one another. This year at Grace, we are learning from the Sermon on the Mount because it is Jesus’ most direct teaching about what it looks like to live with this love and joy of God in our lives.

The Sermon on the Mount starts with Jesus giving the beatitudes, these blessings, that remind us how God is on our side. Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This sermon begins with Jesus saying God is not absent or indifferent, God is with us, God is for us, exactly at the moment we think there is no way that God could be with us there is a grace that is already there.

Following these beatitudes, Jesus goes on to say that we are salt and light. Jesus doesn’t merely tell us that we are blessed and love, Jesus goes on to tell us that we have to live out and share this hope we have in God. And it’s not that Jesus tells us we could be salt and light, Jesus doesn’t say if we change how we live we might be salt and light, Jesus tells us to embrace the unique gift of our lives and share it, cherish it, empowering others to do the same. Jesus puts it like this, “In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your [God] who is in heaven.”

Because God is on our side, because grace and peace is with us before we could do anything to earn or deserve it, because God trusts and believes in us, we are invited to live in a certain way, we are called to be a certain kind of people, Jesus tells us to walk in his footsteps.

My garage isn’t attached to the house, and this winter when there was snow on the ground, a few times, I didn’t want to take the long walk around to the front of the garage to open it up, I just wanted to walk through the backyard and open the door. The only problem was the snow that stood in my way. The first time I walked that path, I tried to take the same steps every time. I knew if I could just keep my feet on that same path, I wouldn’t get soggy socks. I could choose to go other ways, I could have taken other steps, but I knew that if I kept walking in the steps that were laid out before me, I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

This is one way that we can think about the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus is laying out for us today. Jesus is showing us the footsteps, the path that we should walk in.

But before we get to that, I want to tell you about the music that I listen to while I write sermons, because I’m sure you are curious about that. The band that I almost always listen to when I write sermons is, as you would expect, called, “Murder by Death”. They are an indie rock band and their last album is, as you would expect, a western that takes place in space.

They had a show in Des Moines this week and I was there, front row.

For some reason the only pastor in the crowd.

The opening act was another artist that I occasionally listen to while writing sermons, “Amigo the Devil”.

I’m not sure why there weren’t more church folks in that crowd.

It was an amazing show and my ear is only, slightly, still ringing.

Now, I don’t only listen to sad folk music while I write my sermons. Now and then I need to listen to something, but I don’t want to be distracted by the lyrics. On those days I listen to the German rapper, “Alligatoah”.

Because Alligatoah raps in German, I have no idea what he is saying, but it’s fun to listen to.

All that I have told you about my musical tastes might not have surprised you, but there is a chance that you’re looking at me like a confused dog.

Occasionally, something catches us off guard. We thought a conversation was going one way, and then it veers off into a completely different direction. When you’re studying the Sermon on the Mount, it can feel like the tone and the direction of Jesus’ teaching changes drastically. On first reading, it can seem like Jesus is talking us up only to take us down.

Has anyone ever been in a performance review and your boss told you that they were going to give you a compliment sandwich? Or even if they didn’t tell you that’s what they did? Because we all love to have one good thing said about us, only so we can be insulted, but then have one more nice thing said to soften the blow.

Let’s look closely at what Jesus says just after our reading for last week, but before what we read earlier this morning, because when we understand the move that Jesus makes, we can understand that he isn’t changing tone, he’s reinforcing what we’ve already learned.

Jesus says, “Don’t even think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality.”

With the rhetorical genius that Jesus has, he says, essentially, “I bet with everything that I’ve said so far you think I’m going to say anything goes.” And let’s remember what Jesus has said so far. Jesus has told us that no matter who we are, no matter what we do, no matter what has been done to us, no matter what we get right, no matter what we get wrong, no matter what we believe, God is on our side. Jesus has said blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the spiritual zeros, blessed are the losers and the lost, blessed are you, no matter what, because God loves you.

As if that wasn’t enough, Jesus goes on to say that we are, not that we could be, not that we might be, not if we follow these five easy steps we will be, Jesus says you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. Jesus tells us that we are blessed and beloved children of the divine that are empowered and entrusted to make a difference in the world.

Can you see why Jesus now says, “Just to be clear, ethics still matter.”

Jesus has given us the gift of this buoyant good news, this love from God that is with us and will never let us go, and now Jesus says, because this love from God is with you, and with everyone else, in and through and with all of creation, how we live our lives together is really important. Are we going to live lives that tangibly express this grace and peace, are we going to be a people that care for others as God cares for us, or are we going to take this love for granted?

If, in our weakness, in our brokenness, in the moments when we deserve no mercy God is still there with mercy, how then should we be with one another?

When Jesus brings up the law and the prophets, Jesus is talking about morals, but he’s making a point about moralism and there is a subtle but important difference between morals and moralism. Our morals are how we define and differentiate between right and wrong, moralism is saying we are right and they are wrong because we have an inflated view of the observance of our morals. Our morals help us to know the difference between good and evil, but our moralism tells us about the orientation of our hearts.

When Jesus tells us that he is not going to get rid of anything in the law or prophets, Jesus is telling us that our behavior matters, that how we act and how we treat one another is important, but Jesus goes on to say that we have to also look at the orientation of our hearts.

Robert Stroud is best known by another name, the Birdman of Alcatraz. Stroud was a convicted murderer, the first time he went to prison for manslaughter he was known as inmate 1853, and he was also known for being now of the most violent prisoners, often starting fights with inmates and guards. While in jail for manslaughter, Stroud stabbed another prisoner who reported him for stealing food from the kitchen, he assaulted a hospital orderly that caught him trying to steal morphine, and stabbed another inmate that was involved in another attempt to smuggle narcotics.

With all of these attacks to his name, Stroud was transferred to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. His behaviors were transferred with him and at that facility, Stroud murdered a guard, which he ultimately received a life sentence for.

It was while at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth that Stroud found a nest with three injured sparrows in it. They were abandoned and alone in the prison yard, and he raised them to health and adulthood. From there, Stroud went on to raise nearly 300 canaries from his cell and wrote two academic books on avian pathology.

The movie, “The Birdman of Alcatraz” takes some liberties with Stroud’s life, but it’s still worth your watch, and I assume most of us have a lot of free time at the moment so I figured this was a good sermon for movie recommendations.

In the movie, Stroud and the warden, Shoemaker, are debating back and forth about the nature of prison life and if things are getting better for inmates. Shoemaker thinks things have never been better, the ball and chain are gone, there are educational programs, but Stroud counters back saying, a little bit like Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride”, you keep on using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

Again, you’re probably going to have some downtime this week, so check in on your neighbors, donate blood if you’re healthy, call your friends that are at long term care facilities or the hospital, send a thank you card to doctors and nurses, go for a walk to your favorite local business and buy a gift card, but give yourself some time to enjoy a couple movies too.

In the Birdman of Alcatraz, Shoemaker says to Stroud, not once have you shown any sign of rehabilitation, and Stroud says back, “I wonder if you know what the word means, do you? The unabridged Webster’s International Dictionary says it comes from the Latin habilis. The definition is, to invest again with dignity. Do you consider that part of your job? To give a man back the dignity he once had? Your only interest is in how he behaves…You want your prisoners to dance out the gates like puppets on a string, with rubber-stamped values impressed by you, with your sense of conformity, your sense of behavior, even your sense of morality. That’s why you’re a failure…Because you rob prisoners of the most important thing in their lives, their individuality.”

Rehabilitation is to invest again with dignity, rehabilitation is about giving back to one another the worth and the value that we have as not only individuals but beloved and blessed children of God.

At this point in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has made a few things very clear – we are beloved and blessed, God is on our side, not only that, God entrusts and empowers us to be on each others side, and because of that we have to rehabilitate one another, we have to invest again with dignity.

Following the rules is one thing, having a transformed heart is another.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their [sibling] will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.”

“You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.”

“It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

“Again you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago: Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord. But I say to you that you must not pledge at all. You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne. You must not pledge by the earth, because it’s God’s footstool. You must not pledge by Jerusalem, because it’s the city of the great king. And you must not pledge by your head, because you can’t turn one hair white or black. Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.”

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your [God] who is in heaven. [God] makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly [Creator] is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

This is not an easy lesson, but it is necessary. If we, like Jesus, are going to embrace the best of who we are, if we, like Jesus, are going to live as beloved children of God that trust in goodness and grace, then we have to admit and own up to the worst of us.

As Jesus teaches about murder and anger, adultery and lust, he is teaching us something about rehabilitation, because in our anger, in our lust, we don’t invest in one another dignity, instead, our desires become a demand and individuals become objects.

We spent two weeks talking about how Jesus is investing into us a dignity from God that can never be taken away from us, Jesus went out of their way to say in every situation we are blessed and beloved, no matter what we have done and no matter what has been done to us, Jesus goes on to say we are trusted, that God believes in us, and now Jesus has to remind us about how quickly this blessing and grace can be taken for granted.

Do we, like Jesus, see ourselves and one another as whole, beloved, and blessed? And if so, are we willing to treat one another like that?

I want to turn specifically to the section of the Sermon on the Mount that we had for our reading today because while we can get into the nuance and the distinction with all that Jesus says, the point of this passage does not seem to be an ethic defined by a list of rules, but an ethic transformed by grace.

Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.”

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your [God] who is in heaven. [God] makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly [Creator] is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

The idea of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is found multiple times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:17-21, Deuteronomy 19:21). Because we are on this side of history, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary this step was, and how our legal system is still shaped by this idea. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is about proportional justice. The whole idea is to diminish retaliation when it comes to the justice that we seek with one another. Lawyers call it, lex talionis.

My younger sister and I would occasionally play a game called who can hit softer. She would always go first and she would always win.

There is something within us that wants to seek the worst for one another, but Jesus demands that we seek the best of one another, that as our hearts and lives are transformed by love, we turn the other cheek, we forgive, we give to those who ask, we, as Jesus says, “love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your [God] who is in heaven. [God] makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.”

It’s Iowa, so we are all connected to agriculture one way or another, but even we can take for granted that God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.

In the United Methodist Church, we call this prevenient grace.

One of the biggest reasons why, as a follower of Jesus, that I am a part of this Methodist movement, is our focus and instance on grace. We believe and trust and live out this great love that is with and for all persons. And, like Jesus, we know that this doesn’t mean everything goes.

We are all for grace, our church is named for it after all, but for us to be a people of grace, for us to live and express grace in all that we say and do, we need to have guardrails too.

In this teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to guard our hearts and to guard one another against anything that would diminish or deny the love of God that is already with us. Jesus, in this teaching, tells us again and again and again that we must never reduce one another to an object, that our desires cannot become a demand that robs anyone of their dignity.

As we continue to live into the blessings that God has already given us through the beatitudes, while we embrace our calling to be salt and light, we are transformed by the love of God, this movement of the Spirit in our midst, that focuses on grace and yet gives us the guardrails to uphold the promise and hope of this great love that is with and for all people.

Jesus says, “just as your heavenly [Creator] is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

If your dignity is being diminished in a relationship, it is important and necessary to define your guardrails so that you and they can live with grace.

When the dignity of our siblings is being diminished, it is important and necessary for us to rise up for the sake of one another by defining the guardrails that help us all to live with grace and peace.

In Venice, there is a statue called, “The Man Who Measures the Clouds (Monument to the Measure of the Immeasurable)” and it was inspired by the movie The Birman of Alcatraz. At the end of the movie, Stroud finally receives parole, this didn’t happen in real life with Robert Stroud, but that’s not a very satisfying movie ending so we’ll allow the artistic license.

Stroud is finally released, he’s free, he has been rehabilitated because he’s finally been reinvested with dignity, and he’s asked, “What are you going to do” and Stroud responds that he’s “going to measure clouds”.

How is anyone going to hold up a ruler and measure a cloud? It is as absurd as it is beautiful, right?

Living with this love that God has given us and entrusted us to share may seem just as absurd, but it is even more beautiful than measuring clouds.

The word apocalypse doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it means. These days it’s associated with the end of the world, but the root of the word apocalypse doesn’t mean the end of the world, it means to unveil, to uncover.

In this apocalypse, a lot is being revealed. How we treat one another, what we take for granted, how our lives and society can come together or fall apart.

What would it look like, as people transformed by and for grace, for situations like this to reveal what God already believes about us – we are loved, we can make a difference, we are trusted and empowered to be a positive force for love in the world?

In the days and weeks to come, may we be a people, may we be a community, that can truly call itself Grace. There are guardrails that we have to live with to uphold each person’s dignity, and there is grace with and for all persons that we must witness to and strive for. So may we all, as Jesus calls us to, “be complete in showing love to everyone”. Amen.

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Posted by GraceDesMoines on Sunday, March 15, 2020

March 16 – 21, 2020

Click on the day to expand the guide.

Monday

Read – Hebrews 10:22-25, 12:10-15

NoticeHebrews 12, in just a few verses, linked holiness with healing, peace, discipline and God’s grace. What people or events most shaped your view of what it means to be “holy”? Do you tend to see holiness as positive and appealing, or does the word trigger less positive images for you? Does it make you more eager to “pursue holiness” when you realize that holiness describes what God, and life in God’s kingdom, are like?

Pray God, thank you for connecting me to your family. Help me to “spark” love and good deeds in others, and to be receptive to your sparks as they arrive in my life. Amen.

Tuesday

ReadPsalm 147:7-12

NoticePsalm 147 encouraged readers to worship and praise God. It said God rejoices in those who love, honor and worship him with their lives. God doesn’t require great feats of strength, hard work or even faith. To worship is to honor God, and put our hope in God’s faithful love (verse 11). Do you find it hard to believe or trust that your worship can bring God joy? How does knowing that God rejoices in your worship affect your relationship with God?

Pray – Jesus, you knew what I sometimes forget: ultimately, worship is not about dressing up or going somewhere. Worshipping God means making God and God’s kingdom my highest priority. Help me to do that every day. Amen.

Wednesday

ReadJames 1:22-27

Notice – One key reality that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, grasped early from his worship and Bible study was that true holiness wasn’t just personal, but social. He and his friends got actively involved in helping prisoners and widows in Oxford. Holding together personal and social holiness has remained important to Wesley’s spiritual descendants ever since. James used a phrase that may startle us at first, writing of “the perfect law, the law of freedom.” In what ways have you found that living in accordance with God’s call increases your freedom rather than limiting or frustrating it?

Pray – Jesus, I want the true freedom you offer me. Help me use my freedom to serve and bless others, as you did. Amen.

Thursday

Read Ephesians 4:14-16, 21-25

NoticeTo fail to tell someone else the truth is not loving. To tell them the truth in angry or belittling ways is also not loving. Ephesians said one key to helping each other grow is “speaking the truth in love.” Which do you find harder most of the time: speaking the truth at all, or doing so in love? What can help you grow toward maturity in both of those dimensions?

PrayJesus, you honestly challenge me to grow more like you. You give me a climate of love and grace in which to do so. Help me become more like you in the ways I speak the truth in love. Amen.

Friday

Read – James 3:8-18

Notice – James 3:13-15 said “bitter jealousy” and “selfish ambition” are bad fruit; humility good and wise fruit. Have you ever seen jealousy or selfish ambition damage relationships between people? How does humility protect against these hurtful ways of thinking? Do you believe you can act with confidence (in any setting) out of humility rather than pride? What attitudes or actions does it take to make that a reality?

PrayGod of wisdom, I want to increasingly live out your wisdom in my earthly life. Guide me as I prune and shape my character to more closely match your ideal for me. Amen.

Saturday

Read 1 Peter 1:13-16

NoticeScholar William Barclay wrote about Peter’s words, “The word for ‘holy’ is hagios whose root meaning is ‘different.’ The Temple is hagios because it is different from other buildings; the Sabbath is hagios because it is different from other days; the Christian is hagios because he is different from other men. The Christian is … chosen for a task in the world and for a destiny in eternity. He is chosen to live for God in time and with God in eternity. In the world he must obey God’s law and reproduce his life. There is laid on the Christian the task of being different.” How does your heart respond to Peter’s stirring call to be holy, to be different by living as God’s blazing light in a darkened world? Are you willing to step up and say, “Yes—count me in”?

PrayGod, you call me to give up comfort for greatness, set apart to live for you. By your grace and your power, I commit myself to answer your call to be different by being holy. Amen.

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