First Congregational Church
February 12, 2017
6th Sunday after the Epiphany
“The Reason Against Murder”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I know there are some here today who read it, but not all of you have come across one of the most recognized obituaries in the world these days. Veteran Pillsbury spokesman Pop N. Fresh died yesterday of a severe yeast infection. He was 71. Fresh was buried in one of the largest funeral ceremonies in recent years. Dozens of celebrities turned out including Mrs. Butterworth, the California Raisins, Hungry Jack, Betty Crocker and the Hostess Twinkies. The graveside was piled high with flours, as long time friend Aunt Jemima delivered the eulogy, describing Fresh as the man who "never knew how much he was kneaded". Fresh rose quickly in show business, but his later life was filled with many turnovers. He was not considered a very smart cookie, wasting most of his dough on half-baked schemes. Still, even as a crusty old man, he was a roll model for millions. Fresh is survived by his second wife - they have two children and one in the oven. The funeral was held at 4:25 for about 20 minutes.
Just in case there were any who not might not have been here in weeks previous, we’ve been taking the lectionary path lately, that list of prescribed scripture passages that would theoretically allow for a relatively complete reading aloud of the Bible in church every three years. This morning’s section is the third successive section from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ sermon that begins with all the “Blessed are they” designations, called the Beatitudes.
I, along with perhaps others, tend to think that Jesus’ Beatitudes were - and are - the new Good News that we all need to hear. Granted, they are Good News, but they aren’t so new. Roughly five hundred to a thousand years before Jesus, either King David, the priest Ezra or the prophet Daniel wrote Psalm 119, which begins, “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord. 2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart— 3 they do no wrong but follow his ways.” Besides this reference in Psalm 119 and the instances in the Beatitudes, there are 30 other times that the Bible contains the phrase, “Blessed are” - one going all the way back to the book of Deuteronomy.
Anyway, after the Beatitudes, is the encouragement to be good salt and good light - in and to the world, which come right before this morning’s passage. I will admit that the sermon title for this morning may not be the most creative or instantly thought-provoking. But perhaps it will make a little more sense later on. Before we get to the scripture passage for this morning, I need to let you all know that there is a word we don’t hear much these days; the word “Raca.” It’s an Aramaic term of contempt, probably something along the lines of jerk, liar, dimwit and the like.
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Thank you, Kathy. Isn’t it interesting that only the first sentence in this passage uses the actual word “murder?” The rest of the passage seems to describe the results of verbal murder or the “murder” of relationships.
In full disclosure, the complete lectionary passage for this morning, is actually verses 21-37, which includes sections entitled adultery, divorce and oaths. Rather than keeping you all here till the cows come home, the reason for using a smaller passage is that those three sections, aside from their surface meanings, have a similar underlying meaning that seemed to emerge together as demonstrated from various sources in the preparation for this morning’s message.
The first came from Lutheran Seminary President, David Lose: “What if God cares that we keep the law for our sake -- not for the law's sake?” We all get that the sixth commandment is “you shall not commit murder.” It’s fairly black and white, but when you add other layers of “murder,” like adultery, theft, bearing false witness and covetousness, this topic of murder covers a lot more territory, including peace of mind, safety, honor, and therefore affects a lot more of us.
The second source that underpinned the direction for this morning’s message came from the great Fred Craddock, preaching professor at Emory University. One of the sermons Rev. Craddock used in regard to this sermon passage was called “If at the Altar You Remember,” in which he suggests that we look at this passage as an example of Jesus’ use of hyperbole and exaggerated speech. Jesus seemed to love phrases like “If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out, throw it away” and “Take the log out of your own eye and then you’ll be better able to see the splinter in your neighbor’s eye.” “You strain at gnats and swallow camels.” Fred said Jesus “talked that way a lot,” and we should keep his love of exaggeration in mind when it comes to the part of our scripture passage when Jesus paints the picture of any one of us, worshiping at the altar, in a holy place and that sacred moment and we remember ‘someone has something against’ us and we leave to go rectify the relationship.
Craddock goes on to say that if you take the passage seriously, “it seems to me you could change the church into a circus. We’d all be running around, “Do you have anything against me? Have I offended you in any way?” He ends his point by saying “You come to me eight or ten times with that, “Do you have anything against me?” and I would say, “I’m beginning to. You’re getting on my nerves really.”
A great deal of the rest of Rev. Craddock’s sermon is about how we tend to react to people and situations in ways that are probably are not as helpful as they could be. We meet someone in the hall and they don’t say hello, and we get miffed, even silently saying “Raca,” but we don’t realize that their sister or brother, mother or father just received a cancer diagnosis, and their mind is rather full of things not about us. In that moment, without thinking and with knee-jerk reacting, we’ve just committed murder of grace. Or perhaps someone has dared to open up to us about something that is causing them concern, and we trample all over that risk, ultimately trivializing not only their experience, but we’ve murdered their trust in us.
True, murder is an issue that has an impact on the way we live, whether it be in physical, mental, emotional or even spiritual terms. But it also causes a noise that masks the tranquility and holiness that happens when we are able to be with God in our most holy places. Craddock said that he would warn students about going to chapel, saying, “It’s a very serious thing and it can affect you in ways that will touch every moment of your life after this.”
Coming to church, sitting in the midst of God’s holy people, we come to the altar each week, and unless we’ve worked to rise above the morass of that which goes around us, when we get here, we can be defensive and self-protecting and when that happens, we close off parts of our hearts to God.
Maybe that sounds scary, or threatening, coming to sit with God, unprotected and vulnerable. Certainly it’s not necessarily what we - as humans and a society - are good at. But it’s where moments of truth will likely happen. And it’s where memories can rise up - things that you thought you had finally buried deep enough that they had no possibility of life arising from them.
I’ve recently been thinking a lot about how so much floods our brains and our minds with messages that are not helpful, destructive and even fatal. Rather than dealing with those things that need dealing, we turn up the volume on the radio, go back to check Facebook - just for a minute - and the plethora of other adversarial things that distract us from dealing with the issues that are murdering and imprisoning our hearts, bit by bit.
So the reason against murder is not just about guns and knives or even the mob. Keeping the law is not so much about rules as about ways of making peace and resolving the pains and burdens that don’t receive the attention they need to be let go.
I know I’ve mentioned his name a lot this morning, but that’s because he made sense of a passage that seemed so one dimensional. Anyway, Craddock encouraged his audience then - and us now: “Memory is a powerful stab of awakening to face our duty. If you’re at the altar and you’re offering your gift and then you remember, then leave it and go. And it’s urgent; it’s urgent, do it immediately. Don’t wait, delay is deadly. It will fester. Trifles light as air will become proofs as strong as Holy Writ and you’ll find yourself in a daily ritual of going into the backyard and lifting the stone to make sure the snake is still there.” God cares that we keep the law with grace - and seasoning grace with the law - that the clearing of our dis-eases is not for the law’s sake, but for our sake.
There was a woman who was older than sixty who remembered her life as a little girl, when there were six children in the family. She said that the happiest time in their home was at supper. “We laughed and talked about school and what we’d done and this and that. Mom and Dad would talk and it was just such a wonderful time.”
But she said, “I remember, I was about six or seven years old, just before supper, Mom and Dad got into some sort of quarrel. We’d never heard them quarrel. It reddened their faces, increased their voices. They were actually screaming and when we children came in, they fell silent. My mother turned her back, stirred in a few pots, put it on the table and said, “Let’s eat.” That’s all that was said that night. That’s all that was said the next night. That’s all that was said the next night.” She said, “It seemed weeks that we did not say anything at the table. By and by Mom and Dad started speaking. They became civil to each other. We talked a little bit, but our family was never the same. They never dealt with it.”
So if you’re at the altar of a holy place, deep in worship and it comes to the surface, take care of it. You can come back later and worship. I wonder, too, if sometimes we don’t know the name for that which needs our attention, because we don’t take the time to think about it. Not wanting to fix what ain’t broke, if someone else is heavy on your heart today, take these next few moments and silently lift up that name while we’re at the holy altar in God’s Holy Spirit. ….
Holy and Healing God, we are a blessed people, in having a God that not only created us and our lives, but cares about us, about our hearts and our peace of mind. Regardless of what is going on in the world, sometimes, God, we need the reminders to protect that which is sacred, most especially our hearts and the hearts of those around us. You know as well as we, God, that some things take time to heal and be restored in the ways that are possible. But in this time, while we are together, cognizant that we are not alone in our worship of you, we lift up those people, issues, situations that weigh on us, and we ask that you let us leave them here, that we can go and do the work necessary to take care of that which needs to be taken care of, that we can come back again and worship you. ….
For all healing and restoration of wholeness, all the offers of hope and reconciliation, all your people thank you, praise you, and say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.