Quite a Referee

a sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

Matthew 5:21-37

So for the Super Bowl LVII we have the Kansas City Chiefs versus the Philadelphia Eagles. Or, as one of my friends put it, barbecue versus cheese-steaks, which, as far as food match-ups go, is a win-win. No matter what is being served for your Super Bowl shindig, or whether you may be watching it alone, everyone who cares about it is hoping for a good game between two good teams. They are two teams that each clinched their conference championship and was at the top of the rankings as they went into the playoffs. They are also two teams led by two quarterbacks of color, the first time such a face-off has happened in a Super Bowl. Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts: two young stars who will steer these two teams today in a great American standoff.

Suffice it to say there is one team today that no one really wants to see or hear much of. In fact, many say that the sign of a great game in any sport, not just football, is when that third team is barely noticeable. That, as you well know, is the team of referees. Necessary for any game to be played and played fairly, referees call penalties, keep their eye on the boundaries and determine ball placement. But at the same time, it’s best if they’re basically unnoticeable. No one wants the whistle to blow too many fouls, and, if so, they want the fouls to be clear and obvious infractions, not ones called by suspected favoritism or ineptitude. “Just let them play ball,” comes the cry from the stands when it feels like the referees are too influential or too involved in the outcome.

In the gospel lesson this morning, Jesus sounds an awful lot like a referee, and I’d bet most of us would rather hear less of him. He keeps stopping the play, reminding us of the rules, practically reading off all the infractions we could ever possibly make, never just letting us play ball. He’s there, whistle in his mouth, pointing and assigning penalties. Pardon me for saying it, but this is not a fun side of Jesus. It reminds me of a curious comment that my 6-year-old son made two weekends ago when both of his older sisters were away at a youth group event. He was out playing on the porch when he suddenly turned to me and said, “You know, dad, there’s a lot of things we can do as a family with no girls.”

Although they bring life, God’s standards for us can seem restrictive, and this morning Jesus seems to take everything to a new level. We can’t help but thinking there’s a lot of things we could do as a people with no Jesus and his interpretation of the law. Murder is not just murder anymore. Now it’s anger too, and insulting someone can get you hauled before a judge. Adultery isn’t just adultery anymore. It’s lusting too—just looking at someone in the wrong way. And swearing isn’t just swearing anymore. No more bringing God’s name into anything we do. Just a simple “yes” and “no” will suffice. All the penalties and infractions we’d just rather not have to deal with—the ones that make us really uncomfortable—Jesus goes ahead and brings right into the room with the Kansas City barbecue and the Philadelphia Cheese steak.

As you may have already figured out, this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the portion where Jesus’ does a little teaching on the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments form both the backbone and the foundation for the whole of Israel’s Torah, or holy laws. Here, in his first public address, Jesus appears like Moses 2.0, giving a fresh interpretation of God’s law from up on mountain. He wants to lead God’s people into righteousness and freedom. And to do so he doesn’t just reiterate the commandments that Moses did, but unpacks them, one by one, to get behind what God’s will really is with each one.

When he talks about the fifth commandment, for example—you shall not commit murder—he shows how even words and anger amount to killing our neighbor. Anyone who has been a victim of cyberbullying or who has had a child who has been cyberbullied knows exactly what Jesus is talking about. God doesn’t just want to stop us from shedding one another’s blood. God wants to point out the ways in which we tear each other into a pulp from the inside. God cares about the things we post, especially about others, on social media. It is shocking how quickly even Christians will defend anything, even hateful, insulting comments or Tweets, simply because of a concept of “freedom of speech.” This morning Jesus reminds us that people who’ve been claimed by his love really don’t have freedom of speech. Jesus has not set us free so we can say whatever we want and in whatever manner we want unless, of course, we like the freedom of being burned by what we say. We have been freed to speak the truth in love, which is really a lot better than just freedom of speech.

From the fifth commandment Jesus moves onto the sixth: you shall not commit adultery, and from there to a brief teaching on divorce. His unpacking here is more subtle, and is very tied to the specific practices of marriage in his time. Jesus is not just criticizing marital unfaithfulness but reminding his followers that God’s intention for human marriage is based in mutual respect, love, and a fundamental understanding that men and women are equal partners, equal beings. God does not create women as property for men to trade and later toss to the side, and neither are women to be viewed as objects of sexual desire. This particular teaching was clearly very liberating for Christ’s first followers as we have loads of evidence that in the early church women were not seen and treated as temptresses or baby-producers, but as sisters, people who worked side by side with men.

In his last segment of this teaching Jesus focuses on the eighth commandment, which is “Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.” This is the commandment that reminds us that our neighbor’s name and our neighbor’s reputation is basically as important in the grand scheme of things as God’s name and reputation. Our neighbor, after all, as a fellow human being bears God’s image.

Marc Chagall

In Jesus’ time it was customary for people to sprinkle in references to God when making oaths or trying to complete a business transaction or just in trying to make a point in regular conversation with their neighbor. This would easily become manipulative, because if I can somehow through my religious words convince you that God is on my side to get you to believe me or do something, the actual truth of the matter quickly becomes less important. I just want to control you. With his teaching, Jesus reminds us that God’s intention with this commandment is to let integrity speak for itself. It would be wonderful if we could get our political parties to hear Jesus on this. State your promises to us in your platforms and leave God’s name out of it.

I remember having a great conversation with Lee Nye one time not too long before he died. Lee was a member of this congregation who worked in insurance and he helped our congregation negotiate insurance coverage for years. He also was instrumental on Council and in our service ministries. Once he told me about two different men he often had to do business with. One had an office where he had taken effort to place religious paintings on the wall and put religious books like the Bible prominently on his desk so that people would see them when they came in. It seemed to be a stage as if to say to people who came in, “Look, I’m a believer in God and therefore you should trust me.” The other fellow Lee knew had a very spartan office. He had no books other than a few accounting books and business magazines left out. He had no overtly religious art on the walls.

Interestingly enough, Lee said he learned after a while that the first man wasn’t always forthcoming about everything, and could be hard to nail down. The second man never let on whether or not he was a churchgoer or a believer in God. But Lee learned he was an honest man, good on his word all of the time, even when it meant a business loss for him.

I think Lee had really seen up close what Jesus was teaching—that we shouldn’t hide behind our faith or God’s name when forming relationships with people. Be wary of groups and political parties that claim God’s name in conveying a promise. Just be ourselves, and be honest, even when it’s hard, and God is glorified.

Jesus’ treatment of these commandments show us his Father’s true intent in them, but they also point out that our sin, our human brokenness, causes us to turn into objects things that God never meant to be objects. In some way, each of these rules drills down to remind us of the gifts God has given us in each other and how easily we resort to taking the easy way out when relationships get tricky, whether it’s through resorting to murder, or marital infidelity, or the manipulative words we use to coerce our fellow human. Referee Jesus comes not to blow the whistle and make us feel penalized, but to remind us of the value of the people around us and the beauty of our relationships with them. He comes to stop the game temporarily, and for as many times as he needs to, to let us try again, to let us rediscover joy in one another.

Like many others, I have been shocked and saddened by the amount of suffering and loss experienced in the earthquake this week in Turkey and Syria. As it stands, it is already the deadliest earthquake the world has seen in a decade. But also like many others, I am moved by news that some are still being rescued. One simple image that went viral this week seemed to capture the desperation of the moment. It is an image a photographer captured of a young girl, about seven years old, trapped beneath a big concrete slab. She’s on her stomach, maybe slightly twisted to one side, and her left arm is lifted up as if holding the concrete slab from falling any further. And under the crook of her little arm is her little brother’s head. Her name is Mariam and his is Ilaaf, an Islamic name that means, of all things, protection. For 36 hours they waited for rescue, Mariam consistently keeping her free arm in an upward position that would protect him. Instinctive care, instinctive sacrifice, instinctive love. Down in the dust and rubble. That’s what we all saw in that photo.

At some point, the law and all its expectations of us and its reminders of our shortcomings begin to feel like a concrete slab that is crushing us and suffocating us slowly. But Jesus isn’t only a referee, calling us out. He is also instinctive love, down in the dust and rubble with us, and he is this most of all. He is love most of all, and it is clear to him that we need some kind of rescue, and he’s willing to let the weight of God’s expectations crush him rather than let us die losers.

He won’t just unpack the commandments and let us be. Remember: he’s leading us into freedom and righteousness. Jesus comes to lift his arms on the cross and protect us, and in so doing, he lets that kind of love loose in the world. It’s a self-giving love that shows up in all kinds of people in all kinds of situations and often when we’d least expect it. In the rubble of earthquakes, the rubble of hurt friendships, the rubble of broken marriages, in the rubble of all the messes of the world.

As it turns out, there’s not a lot we can do, or would do, as a people with no Jesus. There’s not a whole lot we would want to do without God’s instinctive, protective love, a love that comes to make its home here. It’s a love that sees us hurting, that sees us failing over and over and still picks us up, dusts us off, pats our back and says, get back out there, strong one. Give it another go. I love you. Let’s play ball.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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