6 Epiphany Proper A6
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 5:21-37 Sermon
February 13, 2011
Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
17 "O Worship The King, All Glorious Above"
279 "Today Thy Mercy Calls Us"
364 "How Sweet The Name Of Jesus Sounds"
281 "The Saviour Calls, Let Every Ear"
WE DON'T SWEAR IN CHURCH
TEXT (vs. 40-42): “33"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' 34But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil.”
One of the television sitcoms I've always enjoyed, is the Golden Girls. Originally it aired from 1985-1992, but it is still on in syndication on the Lifetime and Hallmark channels. The show starred Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, Betty White, and Rue McClanahan who portrayed four widowed women in their golden years, living together in a house in Miami.
In one episode, the four women were working on a campaign for a man running for city councilman. One evening, some papers had to be delivered to his house, so Blanche (the character played by Rue McClanahan) took them over to his house. As routine and innocent as this was, it was caught on film by a paparazzi cameraman. Then the story broke that Blanche was having an affair with this political candidate. And the scandal was underway.
Blanche had the reputation of being rather “man hungry,” and her room mates knew this. So when the scandal broke, the other three women upbraided her for fooling around with this candidate and ruining his chances at being elected city councilman.
Blanche of course denied that she had done anything wrong, and that nothing happened between her and this candidate. However, the other three women didn't believe her. They were certain she was lying to protect herself and save her own skin.
Blanche was horrified that her three best friends wouldn't believe her. She swore up and down and did everything in her power to get her friends to believe her, but they flatly refused to do so. Even though she had never lied to them, and had always been completely honest and above-board with them (well maybe except for her age, which was always a secret), they still snubbed her and accused her of lying about this incident.
What made it worse, is that the council candidate himself verified the story! He confessed to having an affair with Blanche. So as far as her friends were concerned, that was the final nail in the coffin. No matter how much she swore to the contrary, Blanche was labeled a liar.
Finally, the candidate came clean. He discovered that after the story about the affair broke, his popularity skyrocketed. So he figured that since Blanche was known as a man chaser anyway, she wouldn't mind if he let people think they were having an affair. He had no idea what Blanche was going through.
And of course when the truth finally did come out, the other women had to admit their mistake. They had to “eat crow” as the old saying goes. They offered their sincere apologies for jumping to conclusions, and asked Blanche to forgive them for calling her a liar.
Maybe a story line from a sitcom isn't the greatest way to illustrate something, however similar situations happen in real life all of the time. Something happens. Somebody jumps to a conclusion. Somebody makes up their mind without knowing all the facts. Somebody can't be bothered with knowing the truth when it conflicts with their preconceived notions. And so somebody winds up believing the lie they want to believe instead of the truth they are unwilling to face. In their estimation, a person's word is no good, regardless of how much they swear to the contrary.
This morning, the theme of my message to you is kind of strange at first glance. We don't swear in church. In response to that, you might be thinking, “Well, duh! Of course we don't swear in church!”
But I'm not talking about the crude and often blasphemous utterances some people use on a regular basis. The swearing I'm talking about has to do with taking oaths, and giving sworn testimony.
We all know about swearing when it comes to civic functions and duties. The President of the United States is sworn into office when he is inaugurated. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the one who administers this oath, where the President is required to swear to faithfully perform his duties and uphold the Constitution of the United States.
From there on down, political figures are sworn into office all the time. Law enforcement people have to swear to uphold the law. And if you are required to give testimony in court, then you have to be sworn in as a witness, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Swearing oaths in the secular civic world is a necessary thing. We come to expect it. So when a person swears to tell the truth in a court of law, and then lies on the stand, the penalty for doing so is not good at all. The witness has committed the crime of perjury, and is duly punished for doing so. Lying under oath is not taken lightly.
In the last verses of our Gospel reading today, Jesus is talking about swearing and taking oaths. He says in verses 33-34: “...you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all...”
In theory, all this sounds great. However, our society is inundated with swearing and oaths. You'll hear kids say, “cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye” as a type of sworn oath. Or people will say, “I'll swear to that on a stack of Bibles.” Or sometimes, “I'll swear to that on my grandmother's grave.” Or perhaps, “I swear that this is God's honest Gospel truth.” We're so used to it that it has become a figure-of-speech for many people. We just don't think a whole lot about it.
But when we bring this into the realm of the Church, and amongst Christians, then the words Jesus speaks have particular meaning. I said a few minutes ago that we don't swear in the Church. Now I'll explain this a bit.
I have a book that bears the title, “The Lutheran Agenda.” You've probably seen me with this book from time-to-time. This book contains most of the various occasional services and pastoral acts I need in the function of my ministry. There are also numerous services I will never need or use, but they're there anyway, just in case. You can have a look through it if you'd like.
With the orders in this book, I can baptize, confirm, marry and bury people. I can perform an ordination, an installation, or commission a missionary. I can dedicate a church, an organ, a school, a bell, a parsonage, or a cemetery. I can do a ground-breaking for a church or school, or lay a cornerstone. And today, I'll be using this book as I install the officers of our church that we elected to office a couple weeks ago.
Some of the various orders of service involve me asking questions particular to the function I'm doing. I ask questions of brides and grooms at weddings. I ask questions of parents and sponsors at baptisms. I ask questions of confirmands when I confirm them. And I will be asking questions of our officers today when I install them.
The purpose of the questions is to remind people of various responsibilities and duties. This is something that people need to know. And when I ask if it is their intent to faithfully attend to whatever I'm asking, the response is most always, “Yes, with the help of God,” or “Yes, as God gives me strength,” or something along that order.
In no place, or at no time are the words “Do you solemnly swear” EVER used. When I was ordained, I was never “sworn in” as a Pastor. I don't “swear in” teachers. I don't make couples getting married “swear oaths” to each other. And when I install our officers, I will not have them place their left hand on a Bible, and raise their right hand and take an oath of office. That's because Jesus says that this is not proper for Christians to act in this manner.
As important as this distinction is in the formal function of the church, we need to bring this down to a personal level. And here's where our interpersonal relationships come into play. In verse 37 of our Gospel for today, Jesus says: “Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil (referring to Satan).”
Have you ever doubted the word of a fellow Christian? When somebody has told you something, have you ever felt that they weren't telling you the truth? Have you ever gotten it in your head that a brother or sister in Christ has been working or plotting against you?
There's a lot of this that can be classified as plain and simple paranoia. People get it in their head that everybody is out to get them or that others mean them harm. Paranoia can be deadly poison in people's lives, and such feelings are hard to deal with amongst Christians.
I've had it happen. I've had church members in the past who are so paranoid that they take every word or phrase or glance in the worst possible way. And when others become aware of this, they avoid those paranoid people like the plague; and when they do have to encounter them, they have to “walk on eggshells” as the saying goes. This makes for a miserable existence for everybody.
The lesson Jesus is teaching today is simple, and it goes two directions. First, be a person of your word. Be accurate. Have all of your facts straight. Try to avoid mistakes if you can. And when you speak, use unmistakeable terms and mean what you say. As a Christian, your word must be trusted.
Second, put the best construction on everything, and take a person's words and actions in the kindest possible way. If something doesn't seem right, then ask somebody about it privately. Don't automatically assume the worst. And most importantly, trust your fellow Christians. Don't go around thinking that God's people mean you harm, or that they are basically dishonest and are trying to “put one over” on you. And if there's ever any question about someone's actions or intentions, then we must do as Jesus says in verse 25 of our Gospel lesson: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him...” In other words, handle matters privately, one-on-one.
Jesus is no stranger to people swearing oaths and giving false testimony. When he was being illegally tried, sworn witnesses gave conflicting testimony. Simon Peter, when he was asked by a servant girl if he knew Jesus, swore oaths and even called down curses from heaven to back up his claim that he never even knew him.
Amongst Christians, we can easily see how swearing is of no value, and in fact how it can be detrimental to our relationship with each other, and ultimately with Jesus himself.
Jesus doesn't ask us to swear an oath when it comes to our relationship with him. All he asks is that we come to him through nothing more than faith alone. We're human, and we make mistakes. We haven't always spoken as truthfully as we should, and we haven't always taken people's words and actions in the kindest possible way. Time and again we've shown our sinfulness, even through a misapplied simple “yes” or “no.”
The Gospel of John describes Jesus as being “full of grace and truth.” We can certainly trust what Jesus tells us, and see the wisdom in the instructions he gives to his children on earth. When Jesus says “yes” or “no,” there is no doubt in what he is saying.
Jesus says “yes” to us, and that is the biggest “yes” we could ever hear. That's the sound of the Gospel, which promises us that our sins are not only forgiven, but are forever removed from us through faith in our Saviour.
That “yes” is also the sound of heaven's gates being opened to us. Jesus paid for all of our sins and doubts, so that his “yes” could be heard above everything, loud and clear.
Jesus also says a clear “no.” He said “no” to Satan when he thought he had defeated Jesus. He said “no” to the threat of death and hell. He said “no” to us when we despair or think he doesn't love us or have our best interest at heart.
This morning, I began by using an event from the Golden Girls, which was a sitcom. There are times when television shows like this do more than entertain; they teach a valuable lesson. Here there were four very good friends. A situation happened where one friend was telling the truth, and the other three didn't believe her. They thought she was lying.
Even though this was a purely fictional situation, the story is a very real one. It has happened far too often, and something similar has probably happened to you. It has happened to me. You can identify with the betrayal and hurt of being accused of lying when you are telling the truth, and you can identify with the shame and remorse when you are the one doing the accusing.
The answer is found in Christ Jesus, because he is the epitome of God's love for us. The forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ alone is the clear demonstration of this. Therefore, we need to put God's love for us in action toward others. In doing so, we must always remember God's Word recorded for us in 1st John, chapter 4, verses 19-21: “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”