The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire


Sermon - February 19, 2017
Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:38-48
Sermon Title: Perfection? 

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     No pressure from the reading this week, right.  Pretty straight forward, be perfect.  “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Easy, right?  Not for me.

     It takes a fair amount for me to get angry.  Oh, I may get upset a little bit here and there, or frustrated, but to really get angry takes a lot.  There was a car dealership in Michigan that was unable, after months of work, and thousands of dollars, to fix a truck I owned.  There was the mover, who claimed to be a “Certified Moving Consultant,” and gave me a “not to exceed” price on a move, and then held my possessions hostage until I paid more to his truck driver.  There was the bank mortgage person, who left our mortgage half done on her desk and went away on a weeks’ vacation the week we were supposed to close on our first house. 

     I certainly wish that it didn’t happen.  Now I am not one to blow up and yell, but I will take action.  The dealership in Michigan had my credit card bill disputed, I ended up not paying the thousands of dollars in repairs, but they never were able to fix my truck either.  The certified moving consultant, got a cease and desist letter from the lawyers of those who certify those consultants, since apparently, he was not really a certified moving consultant, you have to belong to an organization and pay dues to use that title.  I also got a nice apology letter from the president of North American Van Lines, who after reviewing my not to exceed quote, and the copy of the money order I gave the truck driver to release my possessions, did determine what they did was not right.  The company that we got our mortgage from got a one star out of five star rating on their website, with an explanation that, while I do recommend every other part of this bank, the mortgage department is horrible. 

     I also brood over these things.  I wake up in the middle of the night, with a recent scene playing over and over in my head.  What could I have done differently, followed by what can I do now to get back at them.  Don’t cross me, I have lost a lot of sleep over the years trying to figure out how to retaliate.  Luckily it does take a lot to get me upset. 

     And then we are hit with this passage?  At the height of the sermon on the mount.  We heard the beatitudes a few weeks ago, Jesus is still preaching this week. 

     Amy Butler is the senior pastor at Riverside Church in New York.  A week or two ago, she decided not to preach the sermon that she wrote and instead read from the book of Matthew chapters 5-7.  This is the sermon on the mount.  There was no commentary, she just set aside her sermon and read those chapters from the Bible.  After church she went down to their coffee hour, and several people came up to tell her that they didn’t like a part or parts of it.  If you go home and read Matthew 5-7, you will also feel very uncomfortable.  There are parts we all like: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don't toil, neither do they spin.”  But when Jesus starts talking about anger, adultery and divorce, those are the verses we don’t like very much.  There were people telling her that they did not like what Jesus preached. 

     We have, in many ways, watered down Christianity in America.  Last week I preached on Corinthians.  In part because I liked that passage, and also because I really didn’t want to talk about some of the issues Jesus addresses in the passage from Matthew last week.  “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Or “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Those are not easy passages to preach on.  So yes, Jesus said it, but aren’t the lilies of the field better?

     On Wednesday of this last week I attended a conversation at the New Hampshire Conference office with the Conference minister, and about 20 other pastors.  This is not an easy time to be a minister.  This is not a new thing.  Amy Butler writes: “We have watched incident after incident of outrageous rhetoric, terrifying action, and discriminatory policy rolling out of this White House, all endorsed with the self-righteous piety of recognized Christian leaders. And this current, cheapened Christianity has now become both the face of, and the justification for, behavior that, by any objective judgment, is non-Christian. We don’t even know what it means to be a Christian in America anymore.”

     Walter Bruggemann says it this way: “The crisis in the U.S. Church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p.3).

     This is not the fault of the current president. This is not the fault of the last president.  This is not the fault of our elected leaders over the past many, many years.  I place the blame on us, we have not done well at speaking up.  Take for example, the passage we read this morning.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” Do you realize that the United States of America, our Christian country was the only country in the Americas to carry out executions in 2015. It performs the most executions of any First World country and performs the fifth most worldwide, after China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and North Korea?  Maybe I am being prejudiced here, but I don’t find much comfort at all in saying that China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and North Korea are performing more executions than the United States does.  We are not leading the world in turning the other cheek, we are almost leading the world in an eye for an eye.   6th in the world.

     Amy Butler continues: when we engage in that kind of conversation” talking about blaming particular leaders or asking how Christian they are, “we’re deflecting the real work of this moment, the work of asking ourselves some very hard questions about our identities as Americans and our claims to Christian faith. Some of those questions are as serious as these: Are we so far gone that the test of Christian faith is whether you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”? Is the way we treat each other incidental compared to party loyalty? Have American Christians started a totally new religion?”

     I have said many times since I arrived here that the Kingdom of God is upside down.  The weak are strong and the strong our weak.  I am going to change that this week to say that the Kingdom of God is counter cultural, or at least counter American culture.  In many ways what we preach, what we believe, what we read that Jesus said goes against everything that our world teaches as the right way.  There will always be those who try to spin our culture into some form of Christianity, at least in name, but just read Jesus’ words in these three chapters and you will see that we are not doing what our baptism calls us to do. 

     Let me just pause here to say again, this is not an anti-Trump sermon.  The problems that we face, the problems that our country faces did not start a few weeks ago, or a few months ago.  But these problems have come up to the surface and are being openly talked about.  The problems that Jesus brings up in this sermon are problems that were faced by the people of Jesus’ time, and are still problems that we face today.  Those in Jesus’ time didn’t understand how this whole Kingdom of God was supposed to work, and I think that in many ways we still don’t. 

     Rev. Brett Younger of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. wrote a kind of humorous letter to our president in the Baptist New Global, complaining that many preachers are re-writing their sermons on Saturday night because of things he tweets on Friday or Saturday.  He asks for decisions to be made and tweeting to be done early in the week so we, as preachers, have time to write our sermons.  But I think he also speaks the truth when he says in his letter to Trump “Preachers do not have a choice. We have to preach that God loves all people and does not believe in America first. If we preach the Gospel, some are going to think we are taking shots at you. You are forcing preachers to mention you or look hopelessly out of touch. If we do not respond to the things you say, then some will assume we are asleep in the pulpit. Do we risk offending church members or feel like cowards?”

     So how do we, in Marlborough, address the things around us.  I don’t want to offend church members.  We are the body of Christ.  If you go and look at Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he talks about all parts of the body having a purpose, and needing all parts.  I believe that.  I also believe that there are things that we can disagree about.  I don’t know about you, but I am still learning, still listening for God’s voice, still praying.  There are some things that are not clear cut in the Bible, but this is Jesus’ sermon, it is very hard to twist some of the things he said into an American Christianity. 

     Let’s be honest, when I get upset I get even.  But in that resolution, there is not a whole lot of satisfaction.  Maybe I got even, maybe something that I did prevented someone else from getting hurt by the same people, but I am missing the forgiveness. 

     Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.  God forgives us, I could learn a bit of that forgiveness.  It is not American to forgive, it is Christian to forgive.  And there is this whole thing called Love.  And Love is much harder than even forgiveness. 

     When I was in college and seminary I did this little thing before every test I took.  I took a deep breath and said to myself “I know what I know.”  I have crammed everything I could into my brain.  For some tests I got a good night of sleep and ate a good breakfast.  Other tests I didn’t sleep at all, was up all night and my coffee was the only thing giving me energy to get through the test.  But whatever I did up to that point, I did.  There was no more studying, I can’t go back and change anything right or wrong. 

     When I look back on places where I have gotten upset, I cannot go back and change anything, right or wrong.  It is done.  I can forgive or not forgive, but it is in the past.  Love on the other hand is today and tomorrow and the next day.  And Jesus doesn’t hold back on telling us who to love.

     I could go on, but I am going to stop here.  For those who were hoping for a “lilies of the valley” sermon this week, I am sorry.  I have really been struggling with this whole idea of unity of the body vs. sharing what Jesus said.  How do we, as a church, look at the things that are happening around us and realize that Jesus gives us clear instructions to love.  Some of Jesus’ teachings makes us very uncomfortable, and it should.  Jesus’ view of the Kingdom of God is not living the American dream.  It is not many of the things that we have been taught by society are good things.  Making money, spending money to make us happy, waving the American flag, using violence to get our way.  Jesus’ words are counter cultural, or at least counter American culture. 

     I encourage you to go home and read the sermon on the mount, it is not that long.  Matthew 5-7, and then when you hear about anything the government is telling us, ask if it points us toward the Kingdom of God or away from the Kingdom of God.  Again, this is not anti-Trump, this all started before I was born, before any of us were born.  But I think, as Christians, we have the right, no not the right, we have the duty to look at every executive action, every law passed or repealed, everyone appointed to do a job, every law passed or not passed on the state government level, even every town decision and ask which way it points us.  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.  Or at least we can try. 


Before singing the The Servant Song (“Brother, sister, let me serve you…”), give worshipers a moment to make a silent list of the people it is really hard to get along with.  Then challenge them to sing the song for those people.  Even read the first verse and point out that it is also the last verse – and not easy to sing/pray for the people on our lists.