THE WALL OF RELIGION

Matthew 5:38-48

I encourage you to take out your Bibles and look up the passage. Every translation has its own nuance, and I’d be interested to know your perspectives (email: mattschaeffer0130@gmail.com)

Next, I encourage you to pull out a hymnal and sing “El Shaddai,” by Michael Card and John Thompson; it’s #123 in the latest UMC hymnal. I’ll read the lyrics, because I confess I’m not that familiar with it, but I can tell you there are people in our church who are.

El Shaddai is an ancient phrase, ‘El’ meaning ‘god’ and ‘Shaddai’ may have derived from the Akkadian word ‘Shalu’ meaning ‘wilderness’ or perhaps ‘mountain,’ those mysterious and frightening places where we don’t venture after dark. The phrase goes back at least 3500 years (if I’m off by much please let me know).

El Shaddai as you may have guessed is two words: ‘El’ has quite a history:

ʼĒl (also ʼIl or ʼÁl) …is a Northwest Semitic word meaning “god” or “deity”, or referring (as a proper name) to any one of multiple major ancient Near Eastern deities.” (Wikipedia).

It came to be understood as ‘eternal god’ (‘eternal’ being one of the qualities that differentiates a god from a human being). The Muslim title for God, ‘Allah,’ derives from the name ‘El.’

‘Shaddia’ is another ancient word possibly meaning ‘wilderness’ or ‘mountain.’ (or ‘destroyer’ – I’ll speak more on that during the next worship series). When you think about the terrain where beliefs are formed and expressed in writing and drawings and other art forms, you realize that we’re speaking of a very tough environment where survival is a challenge, as it would have been for Adam, Eve, Cain or Abraham or Sarah or the Israelites who escaped from slavery but in so doing confronted the uncertainty of the Wilderness, who left relative security in Egypt on a wing and a prayer, trusting their God that there was something better.

The Wilderness, where the Spirit of God led Jesus in prayer and fasting, and it was only after his Wilderness Experience that Jesus embarked on his mission of healing and proclamation: God’s kingdom is here; change what you need to change to be part of that kingdom.

Our lives are invariably journeys through the Wilderness, or through several wildernesses as we grow and learn. I’m currently reading a book that describes four stages of faith, and transitions from stage-to-stage always involve doubt, fear of the unknown, and (hopefully) some conflict resolution that enables us to settle into the next stage – and I realize as you do that stages are human constructs that help us identify and explain changes as defined by the scientist studying the phenomena; our lives are far more complicated than that. But I was able to identify with the stages described by the author, and in that regard I found the book helpful (McLaren, 2021).

Each wilderness experience leads us closer and closer to The Promised Land, to the Kingdom of God, to Life in Christ. Some imagine that as heaven, but I think it’s much more than that. Those wilderness experiences don’t simply lead us to a spiritual world that is perfect in every way; they lead us to a maturity in faith that enables us to experience the peace and joy of God’s eternal presence, and an ability to love beyond our fears.

Christians are a hopeful people, sometimes hoping for the wrong things, but always hopeful. We believe in Eternal Life, which means that death is not the end of all things. Easter is a big celebration for us Christians, and it ought to be because it points to hope for new life, in this world and perhaps beyond, and because we don’t know a whole lot about that next life, I like to focus on the one we have right here and right now, and what it means to live your life in Christ.

JESUS WAS A MAN WHO, I BELIEVE, SOUGHT GOD WITH THE ENTIRETY OF HIS HEAR, MIND, SOUL, AND STRENTH, and inasmuch as his life reflected that zealous pursuit of the Living God, JESUS WAS THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD.

And Jesus was a reformer.

Today’s text makes that perfectly clear.

“‘You have heard that it was said, …But I say to you…”

That expression appears repeatedly in The Sermon on the Mountain. As Moses brought the Law down from the Mountain many moons ago, now Jesus transmits a new law down from the mountain, a law that supersedes the old.

At the very least Jesus appears to be a religious reformer, and inasmuch as religious institutions meld with government, Jesus was also a social reformer. Jesus instructs his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Mt 5:44-45). Any government that wishes to stay in power would not advocate loving its enemies, and there were likely very few Jews who loved their Roman overlords.

And Jesus might have been tolerated for attempting to reform Judaism, but Jesus was also declaring an eschatological event in the coming of God’s kingdom, and he insisted that the change that needed to occur in human behavior (things like loving our enemies and turning the other cheek) needed to start right away. So when he came to Jerusalem for Passover, a celebration of God’s deliverance of the children of Israel from slavery and oppression, Jesus wasn’t just standing on the sidelines criticizing the corruption of the religious establishment that enjoyed a privileged relationship with its Roman rulers; Jesus was expecting change to happen immediately. He entered the city on a donkey to get people thinking about his identity:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

The implication is that Jesus is a king AND a religious reformer, because his first stop upon entering Jerusalem seems to have been the Temple, where he knocked over some tables, cracked a whip, and drove out folks who were changing money, saying how they were defiling his Father’s house.

I don’t think anyone here would be comfortable if a guy came into our church while offering was being taken took the plates and with the money, approached your pastor, and said, “Why have you turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves?” We might dismiss him as crazy and insist that he leave the church. I might get indignant and remind the guy that I’m a Reverend with an M DIV who has been ORDAINED by the NYAC of the UMC (I doubt Jesus would have been too impressed by all those letters and titles)…

And I believe that the Temple authorities were indignant when they learned what Jesus had done in their church.

But we know that not everyone was on board. THE CLERGY, UNFORTUNATELY, was NOT on board (and I have to wonder how many clergy in our churches would stand for a bit of a rebuke from the Son of God What about Bishops and Cardinals and Popes? Would they humble themselves to the Son of God?) Well, we know that the high priests who ran the Temple did not humble THEMselves. They figured out a safe time and place to arrest this fireband preacher who was disrupting their religion. There may have been some dispatches from the Romans asking if some intervention was needed; there may have been some talk in social circles about some peasant uprising, and concern that actions would need to be taken unless the Jews got a handle on this little insurrectionist movement. There was a whole cohort of Roman soldiers dressed as tanks who were ready to put things in order if their own leadership were unable to do so. And that leadership included the Temple hierarchy.

And so the church council met and determined that this Jesus fellow from Nazareth of all places was raising Roman eyebrows, which was not a good thing, and something had to be done.

And so they arranged for him to be arrested on a Thursday night; things didn’t go totally smoothly; there was a slave who lost an ear, though Jesus appartenly healed the injured slave.

But when Jesus was confronted by the priests, he didn’t recant; he stood his ground, to the point that he was accused of blasphemy, and if he declared himself to be above the authority of the Jewish religion, and he wasn’t exactly endorsing the ROMAN religion, well, then he was a terrorist, and he was a danger to the stability of the province of Palestine, and therefore he would have to die in the grizzliest of ways, to set an example to anyone who would challenge Rome’s authority.

Jesus was a reformer.

Reform is staring us in the face when we come up to church, right? In case you were wondering who that very daunting character is coming up the stairs is Martin Luther, and depending who you are, you may be wondering who Martin Luther is. He was a REFORMER. He was the kind of guy who asked more questions than the authorities were comfortable with, who could have wound up in the bottom of a lake or worse, who nonetheless stood his ground, and were it not for his supporters “kidnapping” Martin in the middle of the night, and making him disappear for awhile (a story that Lutherans hold in reverence), that would have been his demise.

PEOPLE WHO CHALLENGE THEIR RELIGIOUS AUTHORITIES USED TO END UP AS KINDLING.

Now, thanks to the fact that in this nation at least religions can’t murder those who challenge their practices and dogma, the reformers survive, though they are often excommunicated or slandered or discredited.

Yes, the title of this sermon is “the wall of religion,” and the wall of religion can be tall and confining. It can block out light as it can block out God.

Luther sought the true God just as Jesus sought the true God,

And both of them discovered that God was loving, and God was not that complicated. And God was not not threatening. In fact, God was infinite love.

John Wesley faced the same opposition that Martin Luther did, that Jesus did, when he began to REFORM the religion that was turning sour in so many ways. There’s a story of a mob accosting Wesley late at night with intent to harm him; he writes in his journal about his narrow escape. And it wasn’t only the clergy who were trying to stop Wesley

That has often puzzled me, how the priests and scribes yelling “Crucify him!” actually got the crowd worked up to kill Jesus. Why would the crowd turn on him so aggressively? Well let me share a little story with you.

Back in 1996 a physicist named Alan Sokal, who worked at NYU, submitted a paper to a popular, left-leaning intellectual journal, and the title of his article was “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Three weeks later, Alan Sokal published another article in another magazine explaining how the first article was a hoax.

The opening sentence of Sokal’s first article states, “”it is becoming increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality'” is fundamentally “a social and linguistic construct.”

“Not our theories of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself,” Sokal writes, and he continues: “Fair enough. Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. I live on the twenty-first floor.”

To quote the Wikipedia article on the Sokal Hoax:

“The hoax caused controversy about the scholarly merit of commentary on the physical sciences by those in the humanities; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor.”

The same issue is at play in organized religion: People trust authorities, even when they spout nonsense. And this is true of all religions. There are people who implicitly trust their pastors and priests because they think their pastors and priests know something about eternal life and can help them attain it. And there are pastors and priests and imams and rabbis who will take all the faith and the trust that people place in them and use it to gain as much as they can from the people.

Because we all want certainty, and too often religion offers such certainty. So when Jesus goes about telling his followers that what they’ve been taught to believe no longer applies, that creates a crisis in the organized religion of his day. People would be thinking, “That’s not how I’ve been taught, and if I’m supposed to believe what Jesus is telling me, what am I to do with all the things that the OTHER religious authorities have been telling me?”

And what are the consequences for changing my beliefs? Will I be expelled from the community? Will others scorn me, judge me, refuse fellowship with me? Will I end up going to hell, and some have told me?”

You’re asking good questions that need to be asked, but are you ready to cross the Red Sea, to leave the relative security of the religion that you’ve been taught and enter the Wilderness of a new belief system?

And so you need to muster your faith, faith that God will lead us through every wilderness and into a promised land, faith that in every death – the death of old beliefs and doctrines – there is resurrection.

So I would just encourage you on YOUR faith journey. And it IS a journey; religion might be like being stuck behind a wall, but faith can bring you into the light. Religion can be a static state where you simply hold your ground, but faith is a journey that doesn’t end. Religion should not guide our faith, but rather faith should guide our religion.

Because our faith is in God, not in the doctrines and dogmas of a religion.

One day Jesus was in the Temple, and the Chief Priests and Elders approached him and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus responds by asking them a question: “By what authority did John baptize?” It was not by earthly authority; it was by GOD’S authority, by the Spirit of God herself, that John, and Jesus, acted (Matthew 21:23-27). May that same Spirit guide us all in our faith.