Sermon: Jesus, Wait – You Set the Bar Higher?

February 12, 2017: Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5:21-37

Many years ago, in junior high school gym class, the teachers introduced us youngsters to some of the basic elements of track and field. We ran short distances, we made long jumps, and we made cautious attempts at going over hurdles.

I was not an athlete during my junior high years. Or during my high school years. Or, come to think of it, at any time before or since. But as it happened, when they set up the apparatus for the high jump, I managed to clear it. There was just something about the movements of a high jump that suited me. My scrawny pre-adolescent body could get itself together and cast itself over the bar. Run up, jump up, and over.

And cheer.

Then they moved the bar higher.

And so ended my track and field career.

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus plays the same role that my physical education teachers did in junior high school. He’s taken the bar of the Law, and moved it higher. “You have heard it said,” he declares, and quotes the ancient wisdom of Israel: Don’t kill people. Don’t betray your marriage. If you must divorce, make sure your ex-spouse is free to marry again. Don’t break your word when you have taken an oath to keep it (that’s what Jesus meant by swearing; he meant something comparable to our oath to tell the truth in a courtroom).

“You have heard it said… But I say to you,” Jesus continues, and that’s when the bar goes up, doesn’t it? Do not murder becomes do not insult in anger. Do not commit adultery becomes do not betray your relationship in your thoughts. Do not leave your spouse bound to you becomes do not cast her away in the first place (only men could initiate a divorce in the first century). Do not break your sworn word becomes tell the truth always.

Oh, my.

Six chapters later, Matthew will quote Jesus saying, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” and those of us who’ve read chapter 5 have to wonder what Matthew and Jesus were talking about.

Oh, my.

It’s not just that Jesus set the bar higher. He also set the bar right in front of us. Despite the figure of speech we toss around so often, “He made me so angry I’d like to kill him,” people rarely find themselves seriously tempted to murder. In 2015, the most recent year for which the statistics are available, the national murder rate in the US was 4.9 per 100,000 people. That number didn’t give me much to compare it with, so I did the math to make it a percentage, and it turns out to be .0049%. That’s really low. In Hawaii, by the way, the rate was 1.3 per 100,000 people, or .0013%. The only state with a lower rate than ours was New Hampshire.

Even at that low number, the truth is that it’s too high. One murder among the entire population of the world is too many. But it does mean that murder is a rare occurrence. We see it in the headlines, because they report what is new, different, or unusual in the world. Most of us, thank God, will have very little direct experience of homicide in our lives.

But we will have nearly daily experiences of anger. How often do you get angry? Once a week? Two or three times a week? Daily, perhaps?

People annoy us every day, sometimes deliberately (and not all of those are our children), and sometimes accidentally, and sometimes because circumstances conspire against us all. We can handle many of those annoyances without them “getting to us” – but every once in a while, the dig hits a tender spot, and up flares the anger.

I’m pretty sure that Jesus knew humanity well enough not to tell us how to feel about things. Feelings, after all, happen. What Jesus told us was to watch what we do when we’re angry. Don’t let your feelings get expressed in insults. Don’t call your brother or sister an idiot, even when you’re sure they’ve met the dictionary definition for “idiot.”

The temptation to express anger – the temptation to linger over attraction – the temptation to end a relationship because you can – the temptation to walk around the edges of the truth because it “doesn’t matter that much” – those all come up each day. Don’t they?

Jesus set the bar high. And he set it right where we live.

He also set it where it makes a big difference. The big violations of the commandments damage our society for certain. Our communities are the worse for every life that is cut short, every promise that is broken.

Melissa Bane Sevier writes, “Anger isn’t always a bad thing. Anger at injustice provides an impetus and a trajectory toward justice. Moses got angry when the people made an idol. Prophets got angry when widows and orphans were neglected, and when the stranger wasn’t provided with hospitality. Jesus got angry and overturned the tables of those who were profiting from poor worshipers.

“The problem comes, even with righteous anger, when we are so angry that we do harm.”

The problem comes when we are so angry that we do harm.

So our communities are also the worse for every hurtful expression of anger, for the lingering, uncomfortable looks cast on people you’re not in a loving relationship with, for the casual, mild deceptions offered when it doesn’t seem to matter. More to the point, these small huts add up, and they happen often enough that they add up big. Anger, in particular, piles up upon itself, making the whole society angrier and angrier, and less able to choose rightly.

As Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “Angry people are not always wise.” And Maya Angelou observed, “Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in this world, but has not solved one yet.”

This tragic accumulation of anger is mirrored, I think, in fear. And for certain it’s true of lies. Stack up the lies, one upon another, and sooner or later those around you will believe nothing you say. The ancient Greek storyteller Aesop was right to warn about the boy who cried “Wolf” when there wasn’t one there. Some in our society seem determined to demonstrate this ancient truth every week.

The accumulated insults, infidelities, separations, and falsehoods of each day, week, month, and year, tear at the fabric of our society. And we are called not to add to them.

As Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but not one thinks of changing himself.”

Well, except Jesus.

This is hard. Jesus described it as the challenge to be more righteous than those known for their righteousness. And we will not always succeed. I wrestle with the temptation of anger more than I’d like to admit. And despite my best intentions, if probably not my best efforts, my marriage ended in divorce. In my life, I’ve seen plenty of circumstances where a relationship needed to change, up to and including separation. Sometimes divorce is the best bad option.

The difference between a formal vow and daily speech isn’t one that makes the difference between telling the truth or not for me, but what does make a difference is convenience. If something matches my preconceptions, or my prejudices, or my ideas of the way things should be, I’m at risk of repeating it without making sure that it’s true.

Thank God that the same Jesus who sets the bar so high also forgives so well.

And the effort is self-rewarding. When we make our run up to the high bar, we build community. When we set the bar high for ourselves, we encourage others to also set themselves to a high standard. And they return that encouragement to us. Just as anger, infidelity, and falsehoods build up, so do compassion, commitment, and truth. Instead of building walls between us, they build bridges we can cross to each other, they build kitchens in which we can feed each other, they build tables at which we can share in meals of love.

So we never run up to the high bar alone. We do it in company with others, who have it within them to give us that boost I never got on the physical high bar, and carry us over.

We also run up to that bar in company with Jesus, with the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen the muscles of our moral legs and our compassionate hearts. If we miss, Jesus becomes the mat to cushion our fall, and the coach who’ll pick us up again, give us direction, and send us out onto the runway again.

And we say, “Jesus, wait: You set the bar higher?”

And we hear Jesus reply, “Why, yes, I did. Come on. Take a run at it.

“You can do it. I’ll help.”


The image, a pictogram of the high jump, is by KylieTastic, and used here by permission under a Creative Commons license.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on February 12, 2017

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