I saw a picture on Facebook this week of Andrew Gagiu playing in a string quartet in a coffee house called Muddy Waters. The caption he wrote for the picture was “Sibelius in a coffee shop. Because why not?” When you’re a musician, you make music. And a coffee shop is a venue begging for music.
Wednesday night I was at a meeting of the Green Lake Foundation. Frequently, in these meetings someone will point out the huge amount of volunteer service performed by someone else on the committee. And usually, the rebuttal to this affirmation comes when others on the committee point out that the person giving the commendations also makes heroic contributions of time and expertise to the work of the Foundation and more generally to the life of the congregation. Service, volunteering time and money and expertise, is a normal characteristic of being a member of this church. It’s at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.
The Gospel of Matthew has five teaching sections. The first, and most famous, is in chapters 5 through 7, and is called the Sermon on the Mount. I like to think of it as the constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven.
After presenting some foundational principles, Jesus lays out some rules for Christian living. His first rule is something everyone agrees on, Don’t murder.
‘You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder.’ If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’
As far as I know murder is prohibited in every human society. Even in a place like Saudi Arabia whose practice of the death penalty seems barbaric to us, even there, murder is prohibited. In Communist China, in liberal Sweden, even in places like Somalia, murder is regarded with repugnance. Murder is evil.
When Jesus stated, ‘You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder.”’ the crowd listening nodded their heads. Yes, we’ve heard that. We believe that.
I imagine Jesus asking the crowd, “Are you with me? Are you sure murder is wicked?”
“Yes.” The crowd called back.
He cups his ear with his hand, listening. “I can’t hear you.”
“Yes!” they call back good-naturedly.
“Good.” Jesus says. “So we’re all agreed. Murder is evil. We shouldn’t do it. So don’t do it. Do not take the life of another.”
“But let’s think for a minute. You didn’t need me to tell you not to murder. You knew that already. For most of you, murder would be impossible. It would never even cross your mind. If it did, you would be appalled, horrified. I could sleep in your house and not worry about getting my throat slit in the night. You’re good people. You would never murder me. You wouldn’t even murder your brother who ripped you off when your father died. You wouldn’t even murder your husband if he cheated on you. Most of you would not even consider murdering your husband if he beat you black and blue. Murder is awful, ugly, reprehensible, repugnant, disgusting, repulsive, abhorrent, unthinkable. Right? Right. I know it is. And you are decent people, so I’m safe.”
Then Jesus takes it a step further.
What is murder? Diminishing someone else’s life. Draining the life out of them. And while murder in the literal sense is the monstrous final act of taking life, there are other ways we diminish life. And the most common is words.
If someone calls you an idiot, especially if it’s someone you respect or someone you depend on “a teacher, a boss, your husband or wife, your parents, your kids” wow. It sucks the life out of you. It leaves you feeling worthless, damaged.
If that’s how you feel when someone calls you an idiot, then don’t use the word yourself. Or any other word that shrinks the life of another.
Don’t call people slackers or losers, or fool or idiot. Don’t say words that diminish other people.
And don’t share posts on Facebook that use words like this.
Given the way social media permeates our lives, it is more important now than ever in human history that we embrace the Christian discipline of avoiding words that cut and slice, words that wound and ridicule.
In response to my post on Facebook announcing this week’s sermon someone responded,
I love your choice of the word “obliterate”. I have lost count of the times I have seen violent and hyperbolic synonyms of “destroy” applied to persons in the political (and religious) arena as indications of intent or expressions of gloat. The short list includes: annihilate, axe, butcher, cripple, crush, decimate, demolish, devastate, eradicate, extirpate, mangle, mutilate, nuke, pulverize, ravage, ruin, shatter, smash, snuff out, thrash, trash, vaporize, and waste. I am sure there are a few others that I should have recalled, but didn’t.
..I forgot a few: injure, massacre, murder, and terminate. One would think we were talking about a contact sport.
Let’s be crystal clear: Abrasive, crude language is evil. It is not Christian, not if by Christian we are referring to our highest ideals and values. Crude speech is evidence of a crudeness of heart. This principle is indisputable.
Jesus explicitly labels demeaning language as a damnable evil. So let’s avoid it.
Jesus does not stop there.
So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. Matthew 5:21-24
Jesus calls us far beyond merely avoiding sharp, demeaning language. Every week as we prepare for worship, we should examine our lives for unresolved conflict. If we think of someone who is angry with us, someone who thinks we did them wrong. If there is someone like that in our memories, Jesus urges his followers to go seek reconciliation before continuing with their worship traditions. First be reconciled with that person, that real, live human being, someone you can touch be reconciled with that person then come and worship.
As I meditated on this passage this week it struck me that if someone considers murdering another person, they imagine getting rid of a bad person. When someone murders another human being, it’s usually because the murderer imagines the other person has done them some great evil and they are merely getting even. The murdered person got what they deserved. That’s what the murderer thinks.
It’s the same when we call other people names. We holler at them because they have done us wrong. They have annoyed us or harmed us or cheated us or failed us. We have suffered some loss, some wound because of them, so we imagine they deserve to receive some of their own medicine. We get even.
But we need to be careful about this getting even. When we have gotten even with someone, we have sunk to their level. Getting even never means elevating ourselves or the people with whom we are getting even. Getting even means everyone ends up in a lower place. Retribution is like gravity. It always takes people down.
Jesus called us to something better. When we pursue the kind of reconciliation Jesus describes here in these verses, we rise. And if the person with whom we are seeking reconciliation responds, they also rise. Getting even takes everyone down. Pursuing reconciliation raises everyone. This is our calling as Christians.
Later in the chapter Jesus comes back to this theme. Love your enemies. Jesus says. Do good to those who harm you. Then this: Act like God. Be as generous as God.
It’s an impossibly high standard, still it is our goal.
Because we are Christians. That’s what we do.
Musicians make music.
Christians seek reconciliation.
We can’t always accomplish it, but our goal is reconciliation. That’s who we are.
Wednesday evening I had an hour before the quarterly meeting of the Green Lake Foundation, so I went for a run around Green Lake. I had just started running when I saw a couple of familiar faces coming my direction. It took me a second to place them. It was Matt and Betsy. We hadn’t seen each other in awhile so we stopped and chitchatted a bit. Matt runs hundred mile races. Last October he ran the 120 mile Big Foot Race between Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens. They asked about my running and made happy noises about the race I completed in April. I asked about their running. Betsy was slightly apologetic. She had planned to run the Big Foot 100K this weekend, but then decided she had not trained adequately. So instead of running she and Matt volunteered to operate an aid station that is a seven mile hike from the nearest road.
They told me about a thirty mile loop in the mountains east of Enumclaw.
This is what runners do. They imagine trails. They talk about trails. When they can’t run, they help other runners run. Every achievement becomes the foundation of a greater, faster, farther dream.
It’s the same for us as Christians. We have a holy ambition. We aim to use words as agents of reconciliation and healing. If our words were helpful yesterday, we hope they will be even more helpful tomorrow. If we managed to accomplish some work of reconciliation, that success fuels our ambition for even greater accomplishments in the cause of justice and peace.
Our ambition is nothing short of becoming like God.
When a runner stumbles in a race, he or she gets back up and starts running again.
If we stumble so badly we cannot continue in the race, we dream of another race.
And if we cannot run in another race, we volunteer to help someone else run.
We take great delight in the community of running. We experience the triumphs of the greats as our triumphs. Their victories are the victories we would win if we had their genes and their opportunities. They run. We run. It’s what we do.
So in Christianity.
We use healing, life-giving words. We offer encouragement, consolation, hope. It’s who we are. It’s who we want to be. Just like God.