Sunday sermon from February 16, 2014
Text: Matthew 5:21-37
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
Last Saturday night in Lubbock, Texas, in the closing seconds of an otherwise normal college basketball game between Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, things turned a little ugly. Oklahoma State star and future NBA draft selection Marcus Smart fell into the stands after trying to block a layup and then heard something from the lips of Texas Tech super fan Jeffrey Orr. Now, there’s no evidence as of yet to prove what the fan actually said; Orr, who is white, claims to have called Smart a “piece or crap” and Smart, who is black, claims to have heard something considerably worse and much more racially charged. The cameras didn’t get the audio, but they got the rest: Smart gave Orr a strong shove and was then promptly called for a technical foul and ejected from the game. The ESPN announcers called it “disgusting behavior … I don’t care what kind of player you are … ” Smart’s team promptly lost the game, and in the days since, both men have offered public apologies: Smart apologized quickly and with some apparent sincerity for letting his anger get the best of him; Orr apologized via a statement from the Texas Tech Athletics Department. Some intrepid researchers have picked over Marcus Smart to find each and every moment of his prior indiscretions. Meanwhile, alums of Big 12 basketball, players who have come to Lubbock on the visiting team, have come forward with memories of Jeffrey Orr and the taunts and abuse he used to hurl at them from his court side seats.
And so, much of the early part of last week, until we had all moved onto something else, the sports world argued this incident from every conceivable angle. Athletes get heckled all the time, both professionals and amateurs; was Orr guilty of a kind of heckling that crossed the line? Does it make a difference that we’re talking about an unpaid amateur basketball player, playing only for his college and for the hope of riches in the NBA; if you’re being paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to play basketball, are you expected to suffer the slings and arrows of the audience with some greater indifference? Of course it’s never legal to hit somebody without physical provocation, so of course what Smart did was wrong in some textbook sense, but if Orr had said whatever he said to him just standing in line at the grocery store, would our reaction change? What does it matter that they are separated by this arbitrary sideline, where one of them is part of the action and one of them only watching from the stands? Is Orr just the symptom of a disease of misbehaving fans who insult their fellow human beings without fear of reprisal? Or is it just that Smart couldn’t handle his emotions, that he needs to grow up and toughen up and suck it up, that frankly he should be honored just to have the opportunity to be there in the first place, that those announcers were right and it’s “disgusting” to see anger get the better of someone so privileged? Aren’t we supposed to be the kind of people who know how to keep our anger in its place?
Or aren’t we supposed to be the kind of people who don’t even feel that anger in the first place? In today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t just concerned about violence: he’s concerned about the anger at the very heart of it: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that [even] if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Now, the passage merits just a little bit of context. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assumes an audience well-steeped in Jewish law and tradition, and it’s clear that when he begins with “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times” that he’s making specific reference to the reading of Jewish law, of Torah, what we would recognize as sections of Leviticus or Numbers or Deuteronomy, that he’s making reference to the reading of this scripture during regular Jewish worship. Of course much of Jewish law is concerned on its face with crafting socially acceptable behavior, and so very often it doesn’t bother so much with human emotion as it does with the unacceptable outcome of those emotions – like, in this case, the Torah’s fairly obvious opposition to murder without having a great deal to say on the subject of anger.
Not so for Jesus. You have heard it said that whoever murders shall be liable to judgment, but I say to you that even if you are angry you, too, will be liable… And if you are anything like me at this point in the text you are feeling at turns both terrified and confounded. Terrified: could Jesus set the bar of judgment any higher? I mean, when it just said “Thou shalt not murder” I figured, okay, that’s a pretty self-explanatory prohibition, and any given morning I like my chances of checking off that box. But “don’t get angry?” Who among us could stand in that judgment? Which, of course, makes it all the more confounding: who among us could stand in that judgment? We are human beings and we are hard-wired for all kinds of emotional responses and as long as we keep that stuff in its place don’t we all get along alright? And if Jesus is going to start lecturing not just about how we act but how we feel and if those feelings are so hard-wired into us in the first place doesn’t it just make you want to channel your inner adolescent and turn back to God and say “Well, you’re the one who made me this way!” Sins of behavior I can work on. Sins of attitude, well, that feels a bit much. If I’m honest, being told not to feel angry just makes me angry. It’d be ironic if it weren’t so tragic.
Although, even as I say that, I’m not sure that we don’t prefer it this way; I’m not sure that we don’t prefer the Gospel of emotional repression. And by “we” I’m no longer talking about humanity in general but really I’m thinking about we those odd frozen chosen who call ourselves Presbyterians, sons and daughters of Calvin, sons and daughters of a long theological history where the whole point was to keep yourself in check at all times. At the risk of painting with too broad a brush, we’re not exactly known for our emotional availability. This past week I saw a few fake Puritan Valentine’s Day cards going around Facebook, with slogans like: “You almost make my heart dance, and dancing is forbidden;” “Being with you fills me with impure thoughts, and I am ashamed;” or my favorite, “Happy Valentine’s Day; let us never speak of this again.” Laugh at that all you want to, but you’re still all sitting very quietly in your seats and listening to a very rational sermon and it would take no great disruption for this whole thing to feel suddenly indecent and disorderly because if Presbyterians are good at anything it is first and foremost knowing the things that you just don’t do. You sit quietly. You wait your turn. You act your age. And if, God forbid, you have an emotion, you keep it to yourself, you keep it inside that bubble. All in the service of what? What purpose serves a checklist of things we’re not supposed to do other than to make sure we never end up doing anything?
Which is a way of saying that I think we secretly like the strict Gospel of emotional repression because we can turn it into a safe Gospel of non-participation. Something like this: along with basically every American kid of the last four decades, I spent a few years playing youth soccer. And even grading on the curve of those millions of young aspiring athletes, I was terrible. I had no instinct for the game, and I had very little physical ability to back it up. I wasn’t coordinated enough to maneuver the ball with any grace; my hope in most circumstances was that I would get the chance on defense to kick the ball out of bounds and so let the rest of my team catch up with the play. But of course we were young enough that at the end of the season everybody had to get some kind of award, so I remember vividly when our coach handed out awards one year and I got the award for “Best Position Player,” which as far as I can tell is a polite way of acknowledging that I just didn’t want to run around. Like there was this one little patch of grass at left midfield and that was my patch of grass and if the ball came through my patch of grass going the wrong direction I would dutifully kick it out of bounds.
And I could have told you that what I was doing was trying to follow directions; I mean, part of our coaching was the importance of being responsible to the positions we were assigned to play, presumably because one of the problems of coaching little kids in soccer is that so many of them will just follow the ball wherever it goes and lose sight of the whole field. And so I could have told you that what I was doing was playing my assigned part in a larger strategy except that what it felt like to me was that I was just trying to keep my head down until the whole thing passed over. Like I would be perfectly content for left midfield to be this bubble where nothing ever happened and from which I could watch the rest of the game with relative comfort. You know, there are people on the field whose primary goal is helping the team to score, and they act accordingly, and it means running, and it means getting into the thick of play, and it means taking risks and taking mud and taking one or two kicks to the shin; and then there was me, and my primary goal was not embarrassing myself, and so I acted accordingly, and it meant standing there at left midfield and hoping that the ball stayed well to the right. And I wonder if we don’t secretly love this text, I wonder if we don’t secretly love trying to keep all those emotions inside, because our primary goal is not embarrassing ourselves, regardless of the outcome of the play.
And then the following verses give us even less room to hide. When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Now, it has been occasionally argued that what Jesus is doing in these verses is to put in somewhat more relatable terms the absolute demands of the ones that proceed: that is to say, that what sounds like an absolute prohibition on feeling anger here gets placed within a more concrete, real-world kind of context: if you’re about to make a temple offering, and you remember that somebody in your community is upset with you for some reason, go and make peace, go and make reconciliation, and then come back to the altar. It sounds considerably more practical than trying to keep all your emotions in check. Except observe now the completely radical inversion that Jesus has proclaimed: that his disciples are now exhorted not simply to say “no” to anger and “no” to rage and “no” to their most primal emotions – instead, they are compelled to say “yes” to lives of reconciliation and forgiveness and community.
Frankly, I think it was easier before this verse, when we could just imagine “sin” to be a list of things we agreed not to do, and as long as we successfully avoided doing them, we could stay in that bubble and play our position and let the world go its merry course. It’s relatively easy not to do a list of things that we’re prohibited from doing. But Jesus has the gall to challenge us to a particular and risky and dangerous thing called discipleship, and on this playing field sin is no longer simply a checklist mutually avoided; now, of course, “sin” is what happens when we agree not to do the whole host of things we are in fact called to do: it means not living lives of reconciliation; it means not living lives of peacemaking; it means not living lives of forgiveness; it means coming into this sanctuary, as we all do every Sunday, remembering the great unreconciled brokenness of the world and not running from his bubble out into the scrum. Sin means staring at the great causes of justice and mercy and declaring from the safety of left midfield that as long as we’ve followed the rules we haven’t done anything wrong.
Every Sunday before we heard the words of scripture we say together the words of the prayer of confession. The goal in crafting those words of confession is always to find language that can dovetail with the particular interest of the week’s scripture lessons; some weeks those prayers are written from scratch; some weeks they’re adapted from prayers found in any number of different worship resources; some weeks they’re lifted entirely from centerpieces of our Presbyterian tradition, like our Presbyterian Book of Worship. In fact the Book of Worship has a variety of pre-fabricated prayers of confession, some for various specific occasions or various specific themes, but today in worship we have prayed the first and most foundation prayer in our own Book of Worship. These words are the words that our theological heritage claims to be the most foundational way of expressing our brokenness before God: “we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” For as difficult as it may be to count up all the wrong things we do, how much more staggering a task to imagine all the work we leave undone? And yet, if, when you come to the altar, if, when you gather at this place, if you remember all the work you leave undone, leave. Go. Be reconciled. Confession doesn’t start in here, right after the first hymn and right before the Gloria Patri. It starts out there, on the field of play, on the field of all the work we leave undone.
So a white fan said something stupid and a black basketball player did something stupid and for the better part of the week we all argued about which one of them had been more stupid and did it ever occur to any of us opining from the sideline that we, too, even in our own homes and communities, have left undone so much of the work of reconciliation? Just last night a judge declared a mistrial on the count of first-degree murder for Michael Dunn, a white Florida man accused of shooting a black teenager Jordan Davis in a parking lot in a dispute over loud music. In the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the critical voice screams that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws make it all but impossible to convict what are clearly crimes of racial violence. And of course the whole sad story is a story of anger gone unchecked, mine as much as anybody’s. But it’s not enough for anger to shout from the sidelines, from the bubble, from left midfield where it firmly plays only its own position; if we would be disciples; if we would follow this Messiah in thought, word, and deed, if we would open our hearts and our minds and our lives before him, then we would seek the reconciliation of the world not just in the headlines but in our own fragile, vulnerable, and risk-averse lives.
Got anger? Maybe you should. But don’t just bring it to the altar. Bring it to your brother and sister, in love, and together we will follow this Messiah beyond these walls and towards the great ends of reconciliation. Amen.