6 Epiphany Proper A6
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 5:21-37 Sermon
February 12, 2017
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal & With One Voice):
TLH 4 "God Himself Is Present"
TLH 383 "Seek Where Ye May, To Find A Way"
TLH 29 "Through All The Changing Scenes Of Life"
WOV 801 "Thine The Amen"
TEXT (vs. 33-34a; 37): “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all....Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
James Alefantis. Does that name ring a bell to you? Don't feel bad if it doesn't. Even though the name sounded vaguely familiar to me, I just couldn't place who he is, or where I heard it.
James Alefantis is the owner of a Pizza restaurant called "Comet Ping Pong," located in Washington, D. C. Mr. Alefantis and his 40 employees at the pizza restaurant were the innocent victims in a scandal involving "fake news." This involved the rather complex and detailed account of human trafficking back in November of last year, none of which was true. It was all fake news.
Here's an excerpt from the original story with all the fake details: "It’s...a dive that according to reviews and photos has hidden bathroom doors and creepy murals....The music acts and the posters promoting same acts are bizarre in their presentation, content, and lyrical focus, but are still promoted as being “for all ages”. The overtly sexual content would suggest otherwise....While initially not the central focus of the investigation at the onset, CometPingPong is a much more overt and much more disturbing hub of coincidences. Everyone associated with the business is making semi-overt, semi-tongue-in-cheek, and semi-sarcastic inferences towards sex with minors. The artists that work for and with the business also generate nothing but cultish imagery of disembodiment, blood, beheadings, sex, and of course pizza." It gets a bit more graphic than this, but I think you get the idea.
Fake news can damage reputations and names. Fake news stirs up people. Fake news places blame upon people for something that they didn't do, and in many cases know nothing about. It presents a really bad situation, often with bad consequences.
In this case, a man by the name of Edgar Welch, a 28 year old man from North Carolina, left his home on December 4, 2016and drove to the pizzeria in Washington. He was armed with weapons, ready to avenge justice on his own terms. He wrote, "Raiding a pedo ring, possibly sacraficing [sic] the lives of a few for the lives of many. Standing up against a corrupt system that kidnaps, tortures and rapes babies and children in our own backyard… defending the next generation of kids, our kids, from ever having to experience this kind of evil themselves."
Fake news in this case almost led to a horrible tragedy. Fake news is nothing more than telling a bald-faced lie.
We might be getting tired of hearing that term "fake news." I know I am. But you know as well as I do that versions of this happen all the time. Something happens. Somebody jumps to a conclusion. Somebody makes up their mind without knowing all the facts. Somebody can't be bothered with knowing the truth when it conflicts with their preconceived notions. And so somebody winds up believing the lie, or the fake news they want to believe instead of the truth they are unwilling to face. And as it so often happens, a person's word is no good, regardless of how much they swear to the contrary.
This morning, the theme of my message "fake news" deals with the untruths we have to face every day. And to punctuate that, people will swear up and down that what they're speaking or writing is truth. They swear to it! Now, I'm not talking about the crude and often blasphemous utterances some people use on a regular basis. The swearing I'm talking about has to do with taking oaths, and giving sworn testimony.
We all know about swearing when it comes to civic functions and duties. Donald Trump was sworn into the office of the President of theUnited Stateswhen he was inaugurated. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the one who administers this oath, where the President is required to swear to faithfully perform his duties and uphold the Constitution of theUnited States.
From there on down, political figures are sworn into office all the time. The members of the president's cabinet have been sworn into office one-by-one as they have been approved. Locally, law enforcement people have to swear to uphold the law. And if you are required to give testimony in court, then you have to be sworn in as a witness, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Swearing oaths in the secular civic world is a necessary thing. We come to expect it. So when a person swears to tell the truth in a court of law, and then lies on the stand, the penalty for doing so is not good at all. The witness has committed the crime of perjury, and is duly punished for doing so. Lying under oath is not taken lightly.
In the last verses of our Gospel reading today, Jesus is talking about swearing and taking oaths. He says in verses 33-34: “...you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all...”
In theory, all this sounds great. However, our society is inundated with swearing and oaths. You'll hear kids say, “cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye” as a type of sworn oath. Or people will say, “I'll swear to that on a stack of Bibles.” Or sometimes, “I'll swear to that on my grandmother's grave.” Or perhaps, “I swear that this is God's honest Gospel truth.” We're so used to it that it has become a figure-of-speech for many people. We just don't think a whole lot about it.
And here's where our interpersonal relationships come into play. In verse 37 of our Gospel for today, Jesus says: “Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil (referring to Satan).”
Have you ever doubted the word of a fellow Christian? When somebody has told you something, have you ever felt that they weren't telling you the truth? Have you ever gotten it in your head that a brother or sister in Christ has been working or plotting against you? Have you ever believed fake news, or have you ever been guilty of creating it?
There's a lot of this that can be classified as plain and simple paranoia. People get it in their head that everybody is out to get them or that others mean them harm. Paranoia can be deadly poison in people's lives, and such feelings are hard to deal with amongst Christians.
I've had it happen. I've had church members in the past who are so paranoid that they take every word or phrase or glance in the worst possible way. And when others become aware of this, they avoid those paranoid people like the plague; and when they do have to encounter them, they have to “walk on eggshells” as the saying goes. This makes for a miserable existence for everybody.
The lesson Jesus is teaching today is simple, and it goes two directions. First, be a person of your word. Be accurate. Have all of your facts straight. Try to avoid mistakes if you can. And when you speak, use unmistakable terms and mean what you say. As a Christian, your word must be trusted. Fake news can have no place in the life of a Christian.
Second, put the best construction on everything, and take a person's words and actions in the kindest possible way. If something doesn't seem right, then ask somebody about it privately. Don't automatically assume the worst. And most importantly, trust your fellow Christians. Don't go around thinking that God's people mean you harm, or that they are basically dishonest and are trying to “put one over” on you. And if there's ever any question about someone's actions or intentions, then we must do as Jesus says in verse 25 of our Gospel lesson: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him...” In other words, handle matters privately, one-on-one.
Jesus is no stranger to fake news, or people swearing oaths and giving false testimony. When he was being illegally tried, sworn witnesses gave conflicting testimony. Simon Peter, when he was asked by a servant girl if he knew Jesus, swore oaths and even called down curses from heaven to back up his claim that he never even knew him.
Amongst Christians, we can easily see how swearing is of no value, and in fact how it can be detrimental to our relationship with each other, and ultimately with Jesus himself.
Jesus doesn't ask us to swear an oath when it comes to our relationship with him. All he asks is that we come to him through nothing more than faith alone. We're human, and we make mistakes. We haven't always spoken as truthfully as we should, and we haven't always taken people's words and actions in the kindest possible way. Time and again we've shown our sinfulness, even through a misapplied simple “yes” or “no.”
The Gospel of John describes Jesus as being “full of grace and truth.” We can certainly trust what Jesus tells us, and see the wisdom in the instructions he gives to his children on earth. There's no "fake news" where God is concerned. When Jesus says “yes” or “no,” there is no doubt in what he is saying.
Jesus says “yes” to us, and that is the biggest “yes” we could ever hear. That's the sound of the Gospel, which promises us that our sins are not only forgiven, but are forever removed from us through faith in our Saviour.
That “yes” is also the sound of heaven's gates being opened to us. Jesus paid for all of our sins and doubts, so that his “yes” could be heard above everything, loud and clear.
Jesus also says a clear “no.” He said “no” to Satan when he thought he had defeated Jesus. He said “no” to the threat of death and hell. He said “no” to us when we despair or think he doesn't love us or have our best interest at heart.
This morning, I began by talking about the "Pizzagate" incident in Washington, D. C., fake news that almost became a very real tragedy. Sad to say, this is not the only example of fake news that's has happened. If you go online, you'll find many instances of it, way more than I can cite. It's certainly out there, and we can't pretend it isn't.
CNN reporter Chris Cuomo has taken exception to the "fake news" accusation, comparing it to a racial epithet. His comment has gotten him into trouble. But my advice to him would be my advice to anybody: If you don't want to be accused of spreading fake news, be sure you have all of your facts straight first. That's the best way to be above board and stay out of trouble.
Have you ever been the victim of fake news? I'm sure you have; it's happened to me. You can identify with the betrayal and hurt of being accused of lying when you are telling the truth, and you can identify with the shame and remorse when you are the one doing the accusing.
The answer is found in Christ Jesus, because he is the epitome of God's love for us. The forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ alone is the clear demonstration of this. Therefore, we need to put God's love for us in action toward others. In doing so, we must always remember God's Word recorded for us in 1st John, chapter 4, verses 19-21: “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”