First Things First by Rev. April G. Johnson (January 14, 2013 at Springfield Christian Church, Springfield, VA)
I love bumper stickers. They give you a bump and boost in the midst of heavy traffic. They can also make you think what kind of person owns that car, too. These days they aren’t as much fun since they represent mostly political musings. Many years ago, I used to drive 70 miles each way back and forth to work and let me tell you, sometimes a bumper sticker made the difference between road rage and pleasant attitude upon my arrival. Back then my favorite one read: "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go." Maybe it was just me but my spirit really resonated with that message.
Recently, a friend called me to tell me about a bumper sticker that caught her attention and that gave her pause. It read, "God wants spiritual fruits, not nuts!" I know what you’re thinking. What a mighty picky God we serve?!
No, more of you are really thinking, um hum, I certainly know a few of those spiritual nuts. In my former church I could have been convinced that Deacon Johnson fit the description of spiritual nut. She was the greeter extraordinaire. You know the one you say good morning how are you, and she says, "I am blessed and highly favored!" She had the loudest amen in the church. However, if you wanted to get a prayer through – you wanted Deacon Johnson on your prayer team.
But then I had the privilege to give Deacon Johnson a ride home each week for a while. At first I just felt obligated. The more I got to know her, the more I understood her and the less nutty she became.
I think that far too often, we dismiss and diminish people to not being worthy of our largess, our kindness or quite simply we don’t give certain people the time of day. In the movie Crash, one of the only scenes that indicate any hope of reconciliation shows the character played by Thandy Newton, in a burning car, screaming for help. The police are on the scene and determine that she needs to be cut out of the vehicle. One officer, played by Matt Dillon takes the risk to pull her out before the car goes up in total flames - who is that officer? He is the same officer who humiliated her husband and violated her physically just two nights before after pulling them over for "fitting the description". Yet in a pregnant moment hanging between life and death she has to decide whether or not to extend her hand to him in trust that he sincerely would pull her out, or risk death by the flames of the car. It seems like a no brainer, a one-sided coin, there was only one way to go and that was to put her hand, her trust and her life in the hands of her enemy.
But how many of us know someone who has gone to their grave with a grudge? The sad news of such resolve to never give in, not to flinch, to be right and make others wrong - is that the impact of sleeping with anger can live on for generations. In my own life, my mother and my paternal grandmother fell out of touch after my father’s death because my grandmother refused to come to my father’s funeral even after my mother offered to pay for her to come. Years of unresolved hurt and unprocessed anger resulted in my own inability of say my final goodbyes to my paternal grandmother because my family was not contacted upon her passing. Family systems therapists call the impact that kind of extended separation "cut offs". In some ways, I attribute my desire to dismiss people who are not of my same mind, who are not of my ilk and pedigree and more importantly, who get on my last nerve – I attribute that to my inherited behavior of cut-offs. So you see, I can’t help myself, I could say I got it honestly!
As hard as it is to believe, God created us to live harmonious lives. With all the examples in our current environment that indicate war and disagreement, strife in our homes and our families, it is hard to believe that if God meant for us to live in harmony with each other, that God did not give us better people to work with. Instead it seems that we are called to be in relationship with the most difficult, cantankerous, self-centered and hard-headed people on the planet. Why is that?
In our scripture this morning from Matthew 5, we find these words:
23 "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; 24Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." (KJV)
How do we expect to perfect this vertical relationship with God when we can’t get right with the horizontal thing (relationships) with people? The scripture says if you have realize you brother or sister has something against you, go first and work it out with them and ‘then and only then, come back and work things out with God. Let’s here the scripture in a modern translation by Eugene Peterson called the Message:
23-24 "This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God." (The Message)
I believe that we cannot effectively have horizontal relationships without God. You know how we worship leaders or pastors will tell you to turn to your neighbor and tell them Jesus loves you and so do I and there aint a thing you can do about it. Some of us would quite rightly say in response, ‘try me.’ Why is it that the most difficult people to communicate with, work with, live with are our teacher, boss, co-worker, neighbor, sister, brother, mom, dad, husband, wife or Pastor? Seriously God – I can’t give you fruit because I’m spinning my wheels down here with all these nuts!
And yet, why does God keep calling us to bear fruit among all these hard shelled nuts in our families, our workplaces and even our churches? That is the conundrum that our text addresses. We find our text in the beginning of the infamous Sermon on the Mount. You know where you hear "blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted, blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." These are known as the beatitudes and they immediately precede Jesus’ sayings where we find our scripture. Jesus is speaking to the multitudes teaching about kingdom living. In this introduction or beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we hear him say many contradictions to our reality. You want to ask, ‘Are you sure Jesus that the meek and not the powerful will inherit the earth?’ What then will it look like for the meek to inherit such a thing? In our scripture, he begins a series of challenges to the Law, the instructions for living also found in the Old Testament and for our particular verse found in the 10 commandments.
Our text begins with ‘therefore’ meaning it is connected to a previous assertion or statement.
21 "You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause[b] shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire."
Therefore if you so much as call your friend a fool you are planting the seeds of murder. Now Jesus is not saying that the old law goes away and now since I’m the new sheriff in town. No, Jesus is saying to the multitudes and to us now, that living for the kingdom of God is serious business. It’s tough stuff and you can't simply say, I follow these rules so therefore I’m good and everybody else should fend for themselves. Jesus takes the sixth commandment, and strengthens it! He says don’t you know that anger is the ancestor to murder. You don’t only have to kill the body to commit murder, you have the power through unresolved anger to kill the spirit. When we are separated by anger from one another, we lack understanding of each other’s "lived experience" and contribute to our own complicity (our responsibility) for diminishing our sister or brother’s quality of life. Allowing anger to fester separates us and impacts our brother and sister’s personhood, even their self-esteem.
And it is for that reason that Jesus goes on to say, if that is the case, before you bring your offering, first get right with the one who is angry with you. You see, being a Christian really isn’t easy as it looks! It is enough to ask me to apologize for being angry at someone, now I have to be proactive and seek the one who is angry at me? It’s hard and that’s why I say we can’t get our horizontal relationships in order without having a strong vertical relationship with God. But Jesus says it’s different. You have to get right with each other first before you can get right with God. Jesus says that relationship is worship. You can’t worship God and not be in right relationship with your neighbor. Here is an interesting tidbit or side point if you will stay with me. We tend to read this text very literally, when in fact when it was written, there was not a church on every corner. It was not practical to leave your offering at the altar and come back after you found and reconciled with your friend. Temple was at least a day’s journey for many. But the point here is larger.
Implicit in worship is stewardship. It is assumed that every time you come to worship that you will be bringing an offering, and that offering/giving is implied in worship. For that reason, Jesus is saying in this sermon, when you come to church to worship, knowing that you have relationship(s) that are out of line – fix it first. You cannot worship God and not be in right relationship with your brother or sister, neighbor or friend, co-worker or boss, wife or husband, mother, father or Pastor. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God", not seek ye first a relationship with God and only with God. The kingdom of God – WE ARE THE KINGDOM OF GOD.
How many of us were born Christian? I contend, not one of us. Somebody introduced us to Christ. When I was a student intern at Faith Missionary Baptist Church, when a new member was presented to the church, they were instructed to tell who brought them to faith. They were announce their relationship with a member first, who brought them to Christ or any person who introduced them to the Christian lifestyle. They would say, ‘My name is April Johnson and I got my start with Michael Jones." What if every congregation asked that of their new and existing membership? We are members of this congregation because of invitation by someone we are or were in relationship with.
I believe that God brings people into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Sometimes for all three purposes so that our own self- understanding will be challenged and we will be sharpened, and shaped into the people God’s desires to be God’s witnesses in his kingdom. In reality, we are not in true community, true relationship with God if we are not accountable to each other. It is the same with the Law as Jesus refers to in the text. It would appear that Jesus is challenging those who live by the letter of the Law and proposing that his interpretation is the new law. But, in fact, Jesus is affirming and tightening the law by saying, add to the letter of the law, the Spirit of the law. Don’t murder with your eyes ladies. Men, don’t murder the ladies with by overprotecting your emotions. We are safe with each other. We have to be, we are all we have.
So before we all start hanging on to our tithes because we know someone who has something against us, keep tithing and offer yourselves as a gift to the Spirit of God.
You know, I have found it is not enough to not respond in kind when somebody has something against me. I once had a job where I worked for a young man who had something against me and made my work life miserable. In my quiet time and everyday before I went to work I prayed for him and his family. It didn’t seem to produce any results but I kept it up for months. I even started using my lunch hour to read scripture. I needed desperately to cultivate the fruit of the spirit. The writer of Galatians says the fruit of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I needed each and every last one of them as much as I needed my job. One day, Mike, my boss started treating me differently. He started sharing with me while we were working about his children’s health issues. I added them to my prayer list. We began to talk on a more regular basis. Soon I was promoted to another office, but we would have to talk every now and then about work. He asked me one day if I would be a reference for him for a job similar to mine. Had I let anger fester and not have moved into action through prayer, confession and quiet time with the Holy Spirit, who knows where I’d be right now!
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. To sleep with anger is die a slow death. It is said by thanologists, people who study the psychology of death and dying that people die how they live. We bring to our everyday life, all that we are, all that we have experienced; all those spiritual nuts who drive us crazy, who make us mad and who make us glad. We bring to our interactions and to our workplace and our place of worship all that we are and all that we have experienced. I don’t know about you but I don’t’ wanna bring hatred and anger to my job. I don’t wanna bring jealously and stinginess to my church. I don’t wanna come home depleted because I haven’t figured out how to show them just how right I always am (and how wrong they are.)
Reconciliation is one of the highest forms of worship. Let us not assume that we have gotten anywhere on our own. But it was the love of Jesus Christ, "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death even death on a cross." Because God desired relationship with us so deeply I pray that we will not let human conviction prevent us from the spiritual conviction we need to love, be patient, be kind and gentle with ourselves and each other. Ah, Jesus loves us this we know. But we can’t just come to church to show each other how much Jesus just loves you! We come to worship to solidify and to strengthen God’s love in us and through us. Oh, people of God, this day, this Lord’s day, may we know that relationship is the highest form of worship. Spiritual nuts and all. "It is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that produces Christian virtues in the believer’s life." (Note in NIV Study Bible) p. 1787