Deuteronomy   30:15-20                        Psalm 119:1-8                         I Corinthians   3 :1-9               Matthew 5:21-37

Did anybody else find the Gospel reading to be, well, kind of brutal today?


Threatening people with jail on the one hand or with hell on the other.  Instructing followers to cut off hands or pluck out eyes.    Murder and prison, judges and guards, adultery, lies.  Whew! 


And as terrible as it was, we all obediently said ‘Praise to you, Lord Christ’ after we read it.   It’s what we do in our liturgy, but after we hear something that almost blisters the paint on the walls then mumble our obligatory ‘Thanks be to God’, I find myself wondering how many of us actually heard the reading.  It’s hard to say thank you after we’ve just been called out for sins and misdeeds.


But this is hard, scary stuff.


SCARY because the stakes are so high.  There are more than a few stories of ancient saints who mutilated themselves trying to carry out these commands literally, because they eventually decided that mutilation was perhaps easier than perfect obedience.   It’s difficult to live your life so flawlessly that you never sin or fail, and no one has reason for hard feelings against you – I don’t know about you, but I can irritate people I don’t even know I’ve irritated.   It’s tough to be accountable for perfect sinless behavior.  In fact, it’s impossible. 


Perfection is what we’re talking about here.  Or at least, the struggle for perfection. That’s the hard part.


Matthew, chapters 5 through 7, are Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon on the Mount is by far His longest explanation of what it looks like to live as a disciple and to serve as a member of God's Kingdom. In many ways, Jesus' teachings from the Sermon on the Mount represent the major ideals of the Christian life – justice, compassion, works of mercy, refraining from judging other people, obedience to religious laws and noticing when the law wasn’t enough.  In the end, Jesus made it clear that His followers should live in a noticeably different way than other people because His followers should hold themselves to a much higher standard of conduct -- the standard of love and selflessness that Jesus Himself would embody when He died on the cross for our sins. Many of Jesus' teachings are commands for His followers to do better than what society allows or expects.

Do the best you can, in other words.   Not in the offhand way that we tend to use that phrase, letting ourselves off the hook immediately.  But REALLY do the best you can.  Work on yourself.  All day every day, including when it’s miserable, or painful, or so difficult you can’t think how you are going to manage.  Put on the armor of all your courage and gumption and do the next right thing.  Your best efforts, 24/7/365.

Now, it may be that you’re honest enough to have noticed that you don’t do your best every waking moment.  Sometimes you’re coasting.  Me too.   And that is one of the things Jesus is warning us against when He tells us to leave our gift at the altar and go make things right when someone is angry with us.  It would be so much easier to simply drop off a gift, say a prayer, and go on with our day – but that wouldn’t reconcile us to the other person, and reconciliation is important.   Being brave enough to seek reconciliation is important, even if it doesn’t work.  Remember, we’re talking about maximum effort.  Constantly doing our best work at being disciples, even if it costs a hand or an eyeball. 


But come on now, Christianity promises that if we just give our hearts to God, everything will be easy, right?  Isn’t that what Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’?

Well, yes and no.  I’m sorry to tell you, it’s not easy or light every day.  Sometimes doing the right thing takes every ounce of muscle and determination we’ve got.

The essayist Regina Brett tells this story in her book God Never Blinks:

Cincinnati high school football coach Kerry Coombs had taken his football team to 13 wins in 13 games.  His boys won their last match by a score of 49-7.  The kids had poured their hearts into every game and were days away from the Super Bowl of high school football – the state championship.  Everywhere he went, people congratulated him.

Everyone was wild about the big game coming up on Saturday until a graduate of the school was watching TV sports highlights and told his mother, ‘Hey, I went to eighth grade with that  kid.  I wonder why he’s still in school.’  The mother, who worked at the school, asked a counselor the same question.  He looked up the boy’s record and found out the player failed 9th grade so was in his fifth year of high school.  That made him ineligible to play sports.  The information was passed on to the coach, the principal, and the superintendent.

No one in the world knew the player was ineligible except for four people.  It didn’t matter that the boy played football for only two years in high school. It didn’t matter that the boy had had family problems and barely showed up for 9th grade the first time.  It didn’t matter that his grades were terrible but that he had finally pulled them up, made new friends, and was trying to make something of his life.   A rule is a rule.   And if the coach reported the infraction to the state, the team would be out of the playoffs.

“It wasn’t easy”, Coach Coombs said.  “I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a part of me that said only four people know about this.  But in the end, I could never have lived with that.    It would have been a far worse lesson for our kids, that we knew we did something wrong and didn’t tell.”

The school reported itself to the state.   Then the coach called all the football players to the auditorium.  All except one.  Another coach drove the ineligible player home to tell him in private.   The team knew it was serious when the coach asked them to pray.  When he broke the news, they cried.  Then he took them out onto the football field to end the season.  They stood in their school clothes surrounded by empty seats and threw the football.  The coach did what any great coach would do – he turned it into a lesson.  ‘Nobody has died, nobody was hurt. Life is going to go on,’ he told them.  ‘You’ll encounter disappointment like this again in life.  The true measure of a man is how he picks himself up when he’s been knocked down.’

Still, shock waves went through the community.  The ineligible player’s name was blasted over TV and radio and in the paper.  A warrant was issued for his arrest, for an earlier theft that he had failed to make restitution for – he didn’t pay it because he didn’t have any money.  His coach drove him to the police station to turn himself in.  The boy was devastated.  So was the coach.  It was one thing to see a football season end prematurely.  It was another to see the boy’s life unravel.  

He was just a kid.  The coaches had been so busy giving him rides to school, checking on his grades and helping him with homework, making him feel like he was worth something, that nobody remembered to ask if he was eligible. ‘He had come such a long way,’ the coach said.  ‘People lose sight that this is a kid.  He may be eighteen, but he’s just a kid.’

What happened next?  Food, messages, and flowers for the team started pouring in.  Even  officials from other schools called to offer support.  People donated money to help the ineligible player make restitution.

The coach told them no.  A coach to the end, he asked for this: ‘Offer him a job instead.’

The coach turned it into a winning season, one that team will remember long after graduation.  Five, ten, or forty years from now, those boys will remember that they forfeited a chance at a championship because it was the right thing to do.  It probably felt to all of them, adults and boys, like sacrificing a hand instead of sacrificing their dream, but it was the right thing to do. 

It was terribly, horribly hard.  Brutally scary.  Miserably painful.   And RIGHT.  

We are called to be that honorable and tough too.  Christian discipleship is composed of courage, integrity, compassion, and toughness.  Our best efforts, every single day.   

The LORD expects us to work on ourselves.  How are you doing with that?


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