Last week Jenn introduced our six week series on the Sermon on the Mount. I thought it was an excellent sermon, and if you weren’t here I encourage you to go to the church website and give it a read. Jenn talked about the Beatitudes as nine values that define us as Christians, as people who claim Jesus Christ as both our savior and our Lord. The section of the Sermon on the Mount that I’m dealing with this morning talks about some of the practical application of those values in our everyday lives.
When I read Matthew 5:21-48 and started to think about an example of the kind of life it calls us to, I thought about ultramarathons. I know this is something that Jenn and Nate both do, although I haven’t asked them about it in a while. For those of you who are not familiar with it let me give you some quick background.
As you probably know, a marathon is a foot race of 26.2 miles. It follows, then, that an ultramarathon is a foot race that is substantially longer. There are two kinds of ultramarathons. One is based on distance. You set a distance, say 100 miles, and then see who can run it the fastest. The other is based on time. You set a time, like 24 hours, and see who can run the farthest in that time. In case you’re wondering, the record time for a 100 mile run is 11 hours and 28 minutes, and the record distance for a 24 hour run is 303.5 kilometers, or about 189 miles. Another way to think of it is that the world record holder ran the equivalent of 7 marathons in 24 hours.
The name “marathon” comes from the ancient Battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians. The story is that after the Greeks won the battle, the courier Philippedes ran from the battleground at Marathon to the Greek rulers in Athens. Philippedes arrived at the court, said “Joy to you! We’ve won!” and then collapsed and died.
When I first heard of ultramarathoning, I said to myself, “Wait. What?! You mean that someone will run 100 miles at a time if they don’t have to? Someone will run 100 miles at a time just for fun, just because? What kind of sense does that make? I mean, the guy who ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens died; isn’t that a sign that this is not a good idea? Isn’t that an indication that perhaps God doesn’t want us running 26 miles at a time?”
Here’s why I thought of ultramarathons when I started reading our scripture passage today. Let’s just start with verses 21 and 22. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
Let’s read through this a piece at a time and just pick out the sentences with specific actions. I’ll let you listen in to my internal monologue. “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” I’m okay with that. That makes sense to me, and I think I can live up to that. I have so far, and I hope that doesn’t change.
“…Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Wait, what? What? I’m not sure about that. I’ve been angry with my sister lots of times. She lives in Ohio now, but I still get angry with her once in awhile. She’s made a lot of mistakes; she would say that herself if she was here. Of course I was angry.
Wait, what? Jesus isn’t talking about just my sister like in my family, it’s more than that? So it’s like my brothers and sisters in Christ, my brothers or sisters in faith? Well, if that’s what Jesus says then I guess that’s what he says. I may not be able to do it, but I will try my hardest not to be angry with any other Christians, and I will confess my sin as soon as I am aware of it.
Wait, what? Look it up in another version of the Bible? Okay. Hmmm. The New Living Translation says, “But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment!” The Contemporary English version says “someone” too. What!?! What happened to “brother or sister?” If I’m angry with anyone? That’s impossible!
I guess that “someone” makes sense, but I don’t like it. I mean, I can’t look into someone’s heart. I can make guesses based on their words and their actions, but I can’t look into their hearts. I don’t know what their relationship is with Christ. And even if they say straight out that they are not Christian, that they are some other religion, does that mean that they’re not my brother or my sister in some way? I remember that hymn.
“Brothers and sisters of mine are the hungry,
who sigh in their sorrow
and weep in their pain.
Sisters and brothers of mine are the homeless,
who sit without shelter
from wind and from rain.
I guess maybe it’s more than just family or church.
Okay. Let’s move on. What’s next? “Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court.” That “brother and sister” part goes away again in some other translations doesn’t it. I thought so. And “raca” – what does that mean again? According to dictionary.com, it means “vain, empty, worthless” and the Jews used it as a term of contempt.
Wait. What?! Vain? Oh, no. Oh, no. Is there anyone in US politics these days that I might have said is vain or narcissistic or an “empty suit”? There are lots of people who I might say that about all over the political spectrum. But the guy I’m thinking of, he’s not homeless. He’s not hungry. He doesn’t count as a brother or sister of mine.
Well, yes, I did write on Facebook once that he seems like a guy who always wants approval, who seems insecure. I guess that’s a form of emptiness, isn’t it. And even if it’s not, I do think he’s vain. I think that about a lot of people, though. I know, I know, that doesn’t make it better. I don’t like to think about him as my brother, but I guess maybe he is.
I’m going to stop with this verse by verse internal monologue thing, first because if I keep it up through the whole passage we’ll be here until supper time and second because you can see where it’s going, can’t you. These commands are impossible. I’ve been condemned and thrown into the pit several times, and we’re not even through the first few verses.
There are dozens and dozens and dozens of sermons in this passage. We could literally spend an entire year working through this part of the Bible and there would still be stuff left to talk about. Murder. Adultery. Divorce. Oaths. An eye for an eye. Loving your enemies. And it concludes in verse 48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
“Be perfect.” That’s good advice. There’s a sermon for you. “Everybody, go and be perfect.” My very first thought when I read this passage was, “How in the world can I cover all of this stuff in one sermon?” My second thought was, “How can anyone actually do what this passage says?” And it was then that I thought about ultramarathons.
How does one run an ultramarathon? I’m sure that Nate and Jenn will tell you that they didn’t just do it one day. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes work, it takes practice. You start out at a much shorter level, maybe a 5k race, and you work your way up slowly from there. You keep putting one foot in front of the other for longer and longer distances, but you have to start wherever you are.
You may have noticed that I wear a Fitbit. It tracks a lot of different things, among them how much I walk in a day. The first day I wore it, it said that I walked about 400 steps. That’s not much. I kept building until it said I was doing 1,000 steps a day, then 2,000, then 3,000. My high has been 10,000 steps but I average somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000 a day depending on whether I’m at work or not.
My Fitbit told me on Friday that since I’ve been wearing it, about five months, I’ve walked 250 miles. Wait. What?! I’ve walked 250 miles? I liked that. It’s about 400 kilometers. I know, it took me five months to do it, and the world record ultramarthoner has done it in less than 48 hours. Still, I felt good about it. One step at a time.
Our job as Christians is to seek to live the way this passage describes. Wait, what?! How do we do that? How can we possibly live up to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, particularly this passage where even our thoughts – things over which we sometimes have no control – can get us in trouble?
First, we wait. We don’t let ourselves be overwhelmed by the task. We stop, and we take a deep breath, and we remember that we aren’t alone. We have brothers and sisters here and elsewhere supporting us, praying for us, loving us. We have people here and in other places in our lives that have the same doubts, the same fears, the same uncertainties, who feel just as overwhelmed by the challenges Jesus puts before us as we do.
We wait. And as we wait, we reflect on what defines us. I like the way that Jenn put it last week. “As a church, the Sermon on the Mount is our Constitution. It shapes our life, empowers us, and guides us as we discern together how to seek justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.” The Sermon on the Mount is our Constitution, as a church, and as individual Christians. It helps to define us, to make us the people that we are.
And then what do we do? We walk. We walk one step at a time toward the goal of living as Jesus calls us to live. There are areas of what Jesus calls us to where may not be able to walk, where we are still spiritual babies. We may need to toddle, or to crawl, or even to roll to get someplace. We may take a couple of steps back from time to time. We may need to rest. It took me five months to walk 250 miles, and the guy who did it in less than 48 hours didn’t do it the first time he tried. He worked up to it by starting small, remembering his goal, and putting one foot in front of the other.
I know that I’m going to say “Raca,” whatever it means, to someone, either out loud or on Facebook or in my heart. I know I’m not always going to turn the other cheek. I know that I don’t always pray for my enemies. I’ve got a long way to go. I need you to help me to do it.
Wherever we are in our journey, let’s wait and figure out our resources and our possibilities. Then let’s decide what we can do, and start doing it – one step at a time. Amen.