The Rev. Daniel Linnenberg

Matthew 5:21-37

The story I want to tell you is about a preacher somewhat like myself in that this particular preacher did supply work which is filling in for other ministers when they go on vacation or there’s illness, etc.

This particular preacher had been offered a time in a parish that was some distance from him. Living in the foothills of the Appalachians, he already knew that when you look at a map and see the distance between where you are and where you want to go, going the shortest way is not always the best. It’s better to go around the mountain than over the mountain. A lot of things can happen when you go over the mountain, especially if you don’t like heights. Those edges are extremely scary. Well he was running a little bit late, so he decided that he was going to go over the mountain.

So he was going the way he thought he should be going, and he was on this beautiful two-lane blacktop highway as he was heading up the foothills up the mountain. Soon it started curving, and soon the road turned into a gravel road as they usually do up in the mountains. As he was traveling along, and he still thought that he was making good time. But then he sort of noticed that his gravel road turned into a two-track, which is just sort of a small trail that you can still drive down. But then it started getting smaller and smaller and smaller until eventually he found himself in what used to be referred to as “running up a tree” which basically means he hit the end of a trail and the only thing in front of him was this great big oak tree, so he had to turn around.

It took him a while to turn around, but he did. And as he was coming back down the two-trail all of a sudden out of the bushes out steps this huge mountain man. This man had long hair, a beard, with probably at least 6 foot 3 inches…just huge. He had a sheep-skinned coat. The preacher had to stop. The mountain man walked around, opened up the passenger side door and got in and just looked at the preacher and said, “drive.”

So the preacher just started driving. He went a hundred yards or so. Then the mountain man reaches into his coat and pulls out a mason jar that has a clear unknown liquid in it. The mountain man had it in his hand and he leans over and puts it in front of the preacher’s face and said, “Take a drink.” Well, being a good preacher who wasn’t necessarily an Episcopalian, he wasn’t going to take a drink. The preacher being very polite said, “No thank you. I’m not very thirsty.” And the mountain man sort of shoved the jar in front of him and said, “Take a drink.” And the preacher said, “No sir, I’m not going to drink any of your moonshine.”

Well the mountain man thought about it for a second. He put the jar down in between them and he reaches into his coat again and he pulls out a pistol. Now this was a big, old fashioned pistol that had a barrel about the size of a hoe handle. I mean it was big. He points it at the preacher, he picks up the jar again and says, “When I say take a drink I mean take a drink.” Well the preacher had a choice to make and he decided, in a sense, to save his own life so he took a drink.

Well he’s driving at this moment and after he takes a drink of this moonshine it affects him immediately. He literally goes blind and deaf and he realizes he’s still driving so he puts on the breaks and stops, and he just sits there. And then slowly his vision and hearing come back and he just turns to the mountain man and says, “How in the world can you drink that God-awful stuff?” And the mountain man just looks at him, turns the pistol around and says “I can’t. You turn the pistol around on me and make me take a drink.”

In life we are forced to make choices. Not all the choices we make have such a significant consequence of having the choice of drinking some moonshine or being shot. But sometimes we do find ourselves in situations where we have to make unpleasant choices.

This week’s gospel is trying to tell us that it is no longer just the literal word of the law that we have to choose from (whether we commit murder or not commit murder). The law has expanded to the point where we have to take a concentrated effort when we make choices. To choose to believe or choose not to believe. When it comes to our relationship with God and each other, the choices aren’t simple anymore; they’re complex. They’re difficult choices and we are called upon to reflect what our choices will be, to take responsibility for those choices, and when we make a bad choice to seek forgiveness from those we have harmed and from God.

But now for us as Christians it’s so much more difficult than it was ever before. We are called upon to have a very open mind to be able to reflect upon the choices we make and what the consequences of those choices are before we make the choice. That’s the difficult part. We have to take responsibility because it’s a choice.

Now what does it mean to have an open mind? Well it means not to be rigid in your thinking. To be able to question everything. To seek out answers on everything. I like to tell people that I have only two absolutes. I will die before I deny these two absolutes. The first one is that I absolutely believe that there is a God. My second absolute is my belief that I am not Him. You might be thus I need to treat you, every one of you, every human being on the face of the earth, as if I am dealing with and in the presence of God. Our theology teaches us this: that we are in the presence of God because the Holy Spirit indwells in each and every one of us.

And if you like, you can even say my absolute is I know that I am not Her, because the Spirit of God comes to us in the feminine form theologically and historically. We don’t always recognize that, but we should be open to it. The presence of God is both in the masculine and the feminine form. Now that may throw some of you, but it shouldn’t.

Because if we question, explore, and explain, it opens up the possibility of interaction with everyone. We must not keep our minds closed to see people as either “us” or “them.” In every sense of the word we get from today’s lesson, when there is a them, we have killed them. We have separated them. We have denied them. We have done what the pharisees and the scribes did to Jesus.

There is no them. There is only us. Now granted, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be on guard because a lot of others amongst us may want to do us harm. But that means that we are always open to talking, to discussion, to providing love.

The other important thing that we need to remember when we’re looking at others is that when we reach out in God’s name and are doing it out of love we may be causing harm. How? There are times when we are called to seek justice. We hear it all the time. To respect the dignity of every human being. But one of the main things that Jesus teaches us is the fact that we are supposed to care for each other. Believe me there are times when we are caring for one and not being just to the many, and times when we are just for the many we are not caring for the few. The two moral goods of justice and care can conflict.

The interesting thing in how I choose to understand Jesus Christ is historically and in our relationship with God we focus on the justice. When Jesus Christ came into the world and dwelt among us he emphasized not only justice, but he emphasized care. Care is something we are all called to do. Seek justice and care.

Now they may conflict. We are called upon to seek forgiveness and do what we can. We go back to that idea that we are always reflecting upon what we have done, what we have thought, what we have said, and look at what those consequences are. That way we can actively pursue correction and seek forgiveness.

When Jesus was talking about not changing an iota of the law last week he was serious. But he also has expanded it so humongously that it makes it difficult to be a Christian. We really have to be on the straight and narrow. It’s not narrow thinking, it’s focused thinking. Looking at everything: evaluating everything we think, do and say.

We will always be confronted with choices. Hopefully none of us will have a pistol with a barrel as big as a hoe handle pointed at us and making us chose between that and drinking moonshine. But we are faced with difficult questions and choices in our lives. Nothing is easy. The overriding theme in all of scripture is do not be afraid, seek justice, give care. May we not be faced with horrible decisions but when we are let us do it with an open mind and an open heart and always put Jesus in the equation of how we make our choices. With that we will follow the intent of the law and the letter of the law. And we will do it with God’s pleasure. Amen.