Before You Get to the Altar

Matthew 5:21-26
Rising Star Baptist Church
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 16, 2020
Brent Beasley

When your heart is clenched in anger, it is shut tight against love. And you only have one heart.
[Barbara Blaisdell, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Volume 1, p. 94]

Now, Jesus does not simply say, Do not ever get angry. I heard about someone who was a participant in a group discussion about anger. He said to the group in all seriousness, I’m a Christian; I never get angry. The group broke out in laughter, and he got furiously angry at them. He now laughs at himself when he tells the story.

There are some things that are good about anger. Sometimes, even, anger is the right response. Anger is the correct response to injustice.

Jesus got angry. The Bible speaks often of the anger of God.

Jamie and I were in a group discussion Monday night, and the group leader was saying that anger is a good thing in that it gives us strength and fuel

Gregory Pope says that anger is a useful diagnostic tool. It signals to us that something is wrong. Sometimes our anger reveals that we afraid of losing something dear to us. Anger is a signal that change is called for, that transformation is required, either in us or regarding the injustice we see around us. Our anger can motivate us to work for change.

But here today Jesus warns us against the corrosive effects of anger. He warns us about nursing anger, which is deadly. He warns us about the murderous way anger destroys people and relationships.

The writer Frederick Buechner has a powerful description of anger:
Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor the last toothsome morsel of both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back— in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is what you are wolfing down is your self. The skeleton at the feast is you.

This warning of Jesus regarding anger is not so much a command as it is a diagnosis. It is like a doctor’s diagnosis of a tumor that will lead to death if it is not removed.

Instead of commanding us not to be angry, Jesus focuses on what we do with our anger: to deal with it in a healing way that removes it. And to deal with it immediately.
[Gregory Pope, “Anger, Retaliation, Enemies, Forgiveness,” Crescent Hill Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky, February 20, 2011]

So, Jesus says, 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.

When you are at the altar, Jesus says, and you remember. Remembering is one of the primary things we do at the altar, really, one of the primary things we do when we come in here to this sanctuary to worship. We remember.

We remember what God has done.
We remember the stories of the Bible.
We remember Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.
We remember his teaching.
We remember God’s commandments.
We remember God’s faithfulness.
We remember God’s blessings.

Anger is about dismembering. Worship is about remembering.

When we come into this place, when we come to the altar of God, we remember. That’s what we do.

And then, you remember that a brother or sister has something against you. Why does that happen so often at the altar?

Fred Craddock says that maybe it’s the lighting at the altar, it’s different. In the dim light of this world we compare ourselves with each other and come off looking pretty good. You know, maybe God grades on the curve.

But then we come to the altar, and there is that moment of truth when the light of God shines on us, exposes us to the light, and the thought comes back, it isn’t right between us.
The brother,
the sister,
the parent,
the child,
the friend
has something against me.

So, what Jesus says is if you come to worship and remember that someone has something against you, it should become a matter of immediate concern to do whatever is in your power to heal it. Worship depends upon a congregation of worshipers who seek to be reconciled with each other and with their neighbors. Don‘t wait until it’s too late—
till tomorrow,
till next year,
till kingdom come—
to make peace with your brothers and sisters.
[Thomas Long, Matthew, p. 57]

When at the altar you remember, before you worship, before you give your offering, go make it right. Go make it right.

Notice who is responsible for taking the initiative. Regardless of who caused the problem in the relationship, it is
the one who becomes aware of the difficulty,
the one who remembers
who is responsible for taking the first step toward reconciliation.

No sitting here smugly in the sanctuary waiting for the one who did you wrong to apologize. It is
the one who remembers,
the one who thinks about it
who is responsible for
getting up out of these pews
going to the other and
setting things right.

Just think of what could happen in our country if all the energy that is spent
denouncing and
accusing and
decrying and
was redirected into an honest and humble
healing and
reconciling and
of the breaches.

I always enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s books. Perhaps you’ve heard of or read The Tipping Point or Outliers. Both of those have been very popular. He has one book called David and Goliath. The subtitle describes what the book is about: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

He writes about how apparent weaknesses can many times be very powerful. I would recommend the book to you. There’s a chapter, for example, about people with dyslexia, and how so many of our most successful people are actually people who have struggled with reading, with dyslexia.

In one chapter he writes about the power of forgiveness and reconciliation vs. retribution. He gives several examples from the Mennonite and Amish Christian traditions.

There is a story of a young Amish mother whose five-year-old son was struck and critically injured by a speeding car driven by a teenager. As the investigating officer placed the driver of the car in the police cruiser to take him for an alcohol test, the mother of the injured child approached the squad car to speak with the officer.

With her young daughter tugging at her dress, the mother said, Please take care of the boy.

Assuming she meant her critically ill son, the officer replied, The ambulance people and doctor will do the best they can. The rest is up to God.

The mother pointed to the suspect in the back of the police car. I mean the driver. We forgive him.
[p. 255]

Our Amish brothers and sisters seem to take Jesus’ words about reconciliation more seriously than the rest of us. They emphasize forgiveness and reconciliation as a religious imperative. It is also a very practical and effective and powerful strategy for being salt and light in the world.

There are countless stories like this. The most well-known stems from a place called Nickel Mines when Charles Carl Roberts IV walked into that one-room Amish schoolhouse in 2006 with an arsenal of weapons, with plans to molest and rape the schoolgirls before executing them. Do you remember this?

His plans were partially foiled when someone called 911, so he simply opened fire instead. In less than an hour it was all over. Before turning the gun on himself, Roberts murdered five girls that day and seriously wounded five others.

While the massacre made headlines around the world, an even bigger story emerged. The biggest surprise at Nickel Mines was not the intrusion of evil into that schoolhouse but the Amish response. The biggest surprise was grace.

As followers of Jesus who take his teachings from the Sermon on the Mount very seriously, the Amish had what seemed to most people to be an incredible response.

They attended the funeral of the gunman, the man who slaughtered their children just days earlier.
They offered forgiveness to him along with Roberts’ widow and family.
In fact, they even gave money to them to help with funeral expenses and living expenses beyond the funeral now that their primary breadwinner was dead.

When the Amish parents were interviewed by the media, asking how they could offer grace, love, and forgiveness so easily, they simply pointed to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount
where he commands his followers, Love your enemies and
pray for those who persecute you, and
where he says, First be reconciled to your brother
or sister, and then come offer your gift at the altar.

As I’m thinking about it now, it may be a mistake for me to tell these stories about the Amish. They’re kind of strange with their
mustache-less beards and
black clothes and
long dresses and
horses and buggies.
Easily dismissed. We can dismiss them as unusual. Extraordinary. Not like us.

And then these examples—
a child getting hit by a car,
a murder of five little girls in a schoolhouse—
these are extraordinary situations, highly unusual. They likely won’t apply to any of us. Maybe this isn’t something you and I need to spend a whole lot of time thinking about.

So let me just remind you. Jesus’ teaching here is addressing a very ordinary situation. Mundane. Something we all are very familiar with.

If you nurse anger, nurse a grudge against another person, it is deadly. And if you are coming into the sanctuary for worship, and you remember that you are in conflict with another person, make it a matter of immediate concern to do whatever is in your power to heal that relationship. Don’t wait. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Fred Craddock tells a story of a plane trip he once took. Next to him sat a woman who was crying profusely. He knew it was going to be a long trip.
What should he say? He had to say something, after all, he’s a minister; ministers say things in those kinds of situations.

Finally, he said, This is obviously a sad trip for you.

She said, Yes. She didn‘t stop crying. He had not healed her wound.

He said, I’m very sorry, because it is a beautiful day.

She said, I‘m going to my father‘s funeral.

Oh, he said. It‘s obvious from your crying that you and he were very close.

And she said, No, on the contrary. I have not written, I have not called, I have not spoken to my father in 17 years. In fact, the last time I was in his home, I slammed out of that house, and as I left his house the last thing I said to my father was, “Go to hell.” 17 years ago, that was the last thing I said, and now he is dead.
[as told in a sermon by Ken Sunoo, “If at the Altar…,” Wallingford Presbyterian Church, Seattle, Washington, February 13, 2011]

Don’t wait.

When I went through a divorce in 2016 and left the pastorate, most people I know were loving and gracious to me and to the people I love. But I have this short list… this little list of people who weren’t. And the truth is I’m still holding onto that list. There are about 3 or 4 names on it. I’ve been carrying it around with me for almost four years now. Going over it every now and then in my mind. Reminding myself who is on it.

It’s a small list. But it’s heavy.

Jesus teaches something like this: If you hold onto your bitterness and ungenerous judgment, then that bitter, ungenerous judgment will come back to you and make its home in you.

In contrast, however, if you work at giving your whole heart to God, there will be
room for generosity,
room for offering forgiveness
when someone has wronged you. When our hearts are opened up in a gift to God, there is room for love.

And when our whole hearts are given to God, we are honest enough to know that we are the ones in need of forgiveness ourselves. I mean, the truth is, I’m sure I’m on somebody else’s short list.

The gospel is that God has given us, in Christ, God’s whole heart first. In Christ we discover that God’s heart is not clenched against us. The forgiveness God asks of me has already been given to me.
[Barbara Blaisdell]

If you find yourself at the altar of Rising Star Baptist Church, and suddenly you remember… please, do what you need to do
for God’s sake,
for that other person’s sake,
for your own sake.

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