6 Epiphany Year A 2-16-14
Lections: Deut. 30:15-20; Ps. 119:1-8; 1 Cor. 3:1-9; Matt. 5:21-37
Almighty God, you give us commandments not so that we will use them to judge each other, but rather to call us ever deeper into your great and unending vision of love. Give us your grace, the grace we need to choose again and again the abundant life you dream for us. Amen.
Wow, those readings, amirite?!
Murder, anger, sex, broken marriages, lies—and those are just topics from the Gospel reading alone! In our epistle for the week, Paul basically calls the Corinthians “spiritual babies” for being jealous of each other and arguing with each other. Imagine what he would call us if he could see the state of our Anglican Communion today! And in the reading from Deuteronomy appointed for today, we find Moses declaring to the people of Israel, as they wait to enter their promised land: See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God…by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you.
Ordinances, now there’s a word you don’t hear in our worship very much. Love, grace, and mercy? Yes, give us more of that stuff. But commandments? Decrees? It’s hard to wrap our heads around the idea that God would make his blessing conditional on us adhering to such impossible standards. That doesn’t sound very loving of him. In fact, that sounds rather Old Testament of him! And, in today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus sounding kind of Old Testament-y himself, with his talk of judgment, hellfire, and cutting off body parts. Wasn’t he just talking about being salt of the earth and light of the world a week ago? What the heck happened to that Jesus?!
I’ll get to that in a second, but first, I think it’s important to explain that with any religion, whether it’s the Second Temple Judaism of Jesus’ time or the Christianity of this morning, there is a tendency to conflate spiritual truth with keeping commandments, to neatly map every interaction with the Holy onto outward observance of cultural norms and expectations. And from that mindset, with human nature being what it is, it’s inevitably easier to write up the “Shall Nots” rather than the “Shalls”. So whether it’s the Old Testament version or the 21st century version, it’s easy to focus our time, energy, and resources on staying within the letter of the law, “avoiding the big sins,” as theologian Amy Oden puts it. Look, we say, I have not murdered anyone. Am I not worthy to offer my gift at the altar? I have not committed adultery, aren’t I safe from hell? Or we say, see, I am not racist or homophobic. Look at how much I show I care about the poor and the environment. That must mean the evil one is not in me! Look, look at my righteousness! “Aha!” you might think, “a sentiment like that is a ripe target for some of the radical ethic we expect from Sermon-on-the-Mount Jesus.” And you’re right.
It may seem that Jesus is channeling some old fashion Leviticus, but we actually are seeing him reframe what it really takes to be righteous, saying that to focus only on avoiding “bad” behaviors, rather than to examine the cognitive or emotional processes that lead to those behaviors, runs its own risk of keeping us trapped in small, puny lives, not the abundant life God deeply wants for us.
Still, radical or not, this new kingdom Jesus is preaching about seems a lot more demanding than the old one. If now even things like anger and lust are sins, the chances for failure are exponentially higher and the accompanying guilt is exponentially greater. And at this point of the Gospel narrative, Jesus isn’t quite gotten around to spelling out how we make up for it. I mean, at least in the Old Testament, you knew what your punishment was and how you could atone for some sins.
But the thing is, I don’t think we need to wait for the Holy Week story to start choosing life and prosperity over death and adversity. Because we know, and Jesus knew, that life is messy and in need of salvation long before we ever get to Good Friday. And transformation doesn’t need a big, flashy resurrection moment to start happening in our lives.
You see, the good news is that Jesus is simply saying to us “pay attention to your relationships,” because it is through our daily relationships with individuals that our days become long and rich. And by paying attention to the thoughts and feelings that underlie those everyday relationships, we can figure out, as Mary Beth told me, how God wants us to preserve them by valuing what’s good or by fixing them when they’re broken.
So, when we pay attention to our anger, we are called to reconcile with whom we are angry. When we pay attention to our desire, we are called to see the person as a subject and not an object for our possession. When we pay attention to our chafing at commitments, we are called to remember that relationships don’t suddenly end with a mere certificate. And when we pay attention to our urge to make grand promises to prove our intentions, we are called to speak only from our simple truth, whether it is yes or no.
And it’s not only shortcomings in individual relationships that benefit from some Gospel light. Our communal relationships could also use some of that transformative power of paying attention. Last weekend, at our Vestry retreat, we recognized two rather big unmet needs of our parish. The first is a real desire for spiritual formation, both as a way to radically welcome the many newcomers to our parish year after year, and also as a way to begin building cross-generational and other difference-spanning relationships. Secondly, we recognized that as much as our mission and outreach activities are a major component of our identity as a congregation, those ministries and programs are no longer at the center of our community.
As those of you who have read the Sunday News know (and check your spam folder if you haven’t been getting it!) two of our Vestry goals for 2014 are to address these needs: by creating new infrastructure for adult formation and by discerning how to promote greater understanding of our mission and outreach activities. I think we have learned that simply saying, “let’s start another program,” has not been very sustainable for any of our Holy Currencies of gracious leadership, of time, and especially, of relationship.
So in 2014, we will be paying attention to how we create, deepen, and expand our relationships with each of you and with each other, knowing that we are called to spiritually nourish each other with dinner and conversations as much as by Eucharist and sermons. And we know that true mission, God acting in his world through his relationship with us, springs out of a spiritually nourished life.
And so just as the disciples did on that Galilean mountain, so we here at St. James’s today see Jesus giving us a new law of Love, “a new way of life, one that demands more, but also promises more,” if we pay attention. Let us keep these commandments, as the Psalmist says, knowing that a happy and abundant life comes when we seek God with all our hearts. Amen.