The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany: February 12, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Our gospel readings in these weeks have been working through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, his first great teaching in the Gospel of Matthew. Which puts the preacher in the awkward position of preaching a sermon on a sermon. And here’s the thing: in our Bible study we’ve been studying Matthew, as it’s the gospel we’re reading from most of this year. And part of our conversations have been around how hard it is to follow Jesus’ teachings. Does he really mean for us to do this stuff? Of course, maybe that’s what you think as you listen to any sermon, really. Do they really mean for us to do this?
I’ll let you in on a secret, or maybe it’s not such a secret. Most of us preachers preach sermons we ourselves need to hear. So when you find yourself wriggling uncomfortably with what you hear from the pulpit, chances are, the preacher is squirming even more.
Today’s passage seems particularly tough. This is sort of the ‘if you thought you were doing well, think again’ text. It’s not enough not to murder – don’t even get angry. It’s not enough to steer clear of adultery – don’t even think about it. And if you divorce, forget it. By these standards, every one of us has broken God’s law. With standards like these, how can we not?
This language about ‘the law’ has been problematic for Christians for centuries. So we’ve dealt with it in various ways. There’s one kind of Christian thinking that says, the law has nothing to do with us, it was just the old covenant: Jesus set us free from it altogether. You can see the apostle Paul arguing for and against this in some of his letters. There’s another kind of thinking that says, the fact that the standards of the law are so high and we can’t meet them is God’s way of steering us toward Jesus as our savior; grace alone saves. Martin Luther argued that way 500 years ago, getting the Protestant Reformation underway. But there’s yet another kind of thinking that says, Christians are still supposed to follow all the rules, and if we don’t, we won’t get to heaven. Your mother or grandmother might have argued successfully for this perspective. But really, all of these theologies can co-exist in anyone of us without us realizing it. We think we should follow the rules, but then again, maybe not. That’s why we can end up secretly judging others when we’re living righteously, while tossing it all out and saying, ‘well, God forgives me!’ when we’re not. And then we worry about whether we’ll get to heaven or not in the end.
Of course, these knots are not just the knots we Christians tie ourselves up in. Human nature in general struggles with the burden of laws and rules. Our world puts a lot of unreal expectations on us that few of us manage to meet. Perhaps you might recognize some of these in your life: Get married and live happily ever after. Have an important job. Be impressive when you speak. Have perfect skin. Go to an Ivy League college. Look like a supermodel. Post the perfect comment on Facebook. Have children who excel at everything. Run an 8-minute mile. Take the vacation your friends can only dream of. And then you come to church, and you add to it, meditate for an hour daily. Read the Bible in a year, and understand it. Look great in vestments. It’s no wonder we all feel so stressed out.
But that’s not what God’s law is all about. Commandments and rules in Hebrew scriptures are not just rules to be graded on. They’re meant to guide us to right relationship. Look at the 10 Commandments, the most basic set of rules in scripture: rabbinical writings point out that the first four of the commandments are about being in right relationship with God: you shall have no other Gods before me, do not make idols, do not swear falsely by God, honor the Sabbath day; while the next six are about being in right relationship with each other: honor your parents, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet what belongs to your neighbor. They’re rules, yes; but they’re rules meant to help us relate better to God and to one another.
So in what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel, he’s trying to get us past the legalism and into what it is like to truly live in right relationship. His point is, it isn’t enough to say, well, I didn’t murder anyone today, I’m doing well. There’s more to it than that: when we get angry and blow up at each other, when we say hurtful things to each other, it damages us and damages our community. When we objectify another as a means to an end instead of relating to them as a full child of God, it damages us and damages our community. When we break relationship instead of working to heal it, it damages us and it damages our community. It’s not about measuring up and scoring points. It’s about our relationship with other human beings.
There’s a lot in this for our nation and world right now. We have lived in a kind of convenient consumerism for a long, long time, increasingly intent only on our own well-being and measures of success. It was someone else’s job to take care of the poor and worry over immigration law and think about public education. We could just be decent citizens while looking to our own bottom line and taking care of our children. Suddenly now many of us are waking up to the idea that we are only as strong as the weakest in our country, realizing that we have something to do with how others live. It’s not just a matter of obeying the major commandments – it’s about loving our neighbor as ourselves. And every one of our choices of purchase and vote and daily interaction shows whether we do love that neighbor or not.
The same goes for our families, and for our community. It’s comfortable to live in a community that confirms us in what we already think is true, that joins us with people who think just like us. But this last election brought home that we have to cross those barriers, learn about people who are different from us, question our own assumptions, speak up about what is true, listen and try to understand the others’ hopes and fears. To love our neighbor means to love all of our neighbors, not just some.
The question Jesus confronts us with is, are we in right relationship with God and with each other? And if not, what do we need to do to change?
Here’s the hopeful thing: church can be a place where we work to get ourselves in right relationship with God and with each other. It can transform us, be a community that makes us into lovers of God and our neighbor. But it does mean some work. It means being a place of real accountability. Think if we really followed what Jesus said in that gospel passage – if as each of us approached the altar today, we considered whether anyone else here had something against us. And if there was something that wasn’t right between us and another here, we’d leave, go find that person, sit down, and make peace. And then and only then, we’d come back here together to worship. We just might have to put off communion for a while today until everyone had a chance to talk it all out.
It’s not all something we fix in a day, of course. Right relationship means living with integrity. And in the end, integrity isn’t a box that gets checked off when we follow all the rules. Integrity is something we work on constantly, in how we spend our time and our money and our lives, and how we live with one another. We try to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. We try to love our neighbor as ourselves. And when we fail to do so, we ask forgiveness, and we try again. This is how the church has helped change the world in times past, in struggles for the abolition of slavery and for civil rights in this country. This is how the church has helped change lives, guiding people to heal from addiction and repair damaged relationships. This is how the church, us here now, can still act today, to promote the dignity of every human being and to teach the world over and over again how to love.
Yes, Jesus really does mean for us to do this stuff. But he doesn’t throw down rules and sit back to see if we measure up or not. God comes among us in Jesus to show us the way; God comes among us in the Holy Spirit to give us the grace to live by; God creates with us the world as it should be. We have the chance to live in love, starting all over again now. We have the chance all over again to choose life, in all we do and say. And so together we pick up and start again – with God’s help.