A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 16, 2020. The scripture readings are Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
In our first scripture reading from Deuteronomy, Moses is giving Israel an enormous pep-talk. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, of wondering if God is still directing them and leading them, of worrying about what might come next, Israel is on the edge of moving into the Promised Land. I don’t know the geographic setting for the speech, but from its imagery and majesty, I wonder if it wasn’t on a hill somewhere, overlooking a great expanse of land down below, and far away. Moses speaks to the occasion in grand terms, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous…[You will be blessed.] But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, [then] I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in [that] land….” Life and death, blessings and curses. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord you God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” Choose life.
Choosing life can be every bit as dramatic as Moses makes it sound. We choose life when we move into a new relationship. We choose life when we plan for a child. We choose life when we make a new and better decision about the direction in which we’re headed.
But choosing life also involves smaller decisions. Choosing which conversation to be a part of, choosing what to eat or drink, and even choosing how we move or exercise—all can mean choosing for life over death (in the long run).
In the Gospel today, Jesus gets down to the nitty gritty, as he points to some of the guidelines for our choosing.
Jesus is talking about our living with what is sometimes simply called “the Law,” meaning the Law of Moses—the Ten Commandments, but also, with the wisdom associated with the law and its interpretation. This Gospel can sound like a real “laying down of the law.” It can sound like a faith that leaves out people. In fact, if we were to miss the fine points of the Gospel, most of us would probably find ourselves left out.
Jesus is re-interpreting the old law, saying, “it’s not enough just to keep the law. That probably won’t work very well, anyway. The key to living faithfully is to try to understand the things that move under the surface, the motivations and moods, the fears and fantasies that lead us off-track.”
Jesus repeats the commandment, “You shall not murder.” But then he goes further by uncovering some of the things that lead to murder. We might hear the talk of murder as extreme, until we begin to think of the anger, the frustration, the road-rage, the minor annoyances that can all too easily escalate. We might begin by harboring a grudge or nursing a resentment, and if we’re not careful, we can end up in court.
Instead, Jesus says we should work at reconciliation. He speaks of going to the temple in Jerusalem for worship, but if you remember your neighbor has something against you—stop your worship and go work things out with your neighbor beforehand. Notice how Jesus puts this—he doesn’t even say, if “YOU” have something against your neighbor, but rather, if your brother or sister has something against YOU. That changes the responsibility for reconciliation, doesn’t it?
Our tendency is to ignore the problems. Especially at church, or in any organization, we think that if we just avoid “such and such” or act a certain way or say a certain thing, then future conflicts can be avoided. But when we come to the altar, we feel the break in community and it haunts us. Here, Jesus is exaggerating his point.
If one left the temple in Jerusalem to go and be reconciled to a neighbor, it might take hours or days. You wouldn’t just leave the goat or turtledove or whatever you sacrifice might be sitting there on the temple steps. And yet, his point is made, isn’t it? Until we at least begin to pray for the person who has a problem with us, or with whom we have a problem, whatever we offer at the altar will be less than what it might be. And we won’t be free.
Prayers of confession are a beginning. A note, or phone call, or email, or conversation with another person is a beginning. A prayer for one’s enemy or one’s hard-to-get-along-with brother or sister, is a beginning, and that opens the heart to God’s grace. If we took Jesus’ words literally, we would have a whole lot of unused communion wafers every Sunday. But instead, what we do is we confess that we are broken people on the mend, and we ask for God’s grace to restore us and help us restore broken relationships.
As we move further into today’s Gospel, Jesus leads us into messy territory. “You shall not commit adultery,” he reminds us. But then goes on to warn about lust and about all the urges and senses that, if given energy and encouragement, lead to adultery. His answer is to watch the emotions, watch the heart.
And then, Jesus talks about divorce. This is one of those topics (like abortion, like homosexuality, like many issues) that really warrants an entire series of looking closely at what scripture says, at how the culture of the time influenced the scriptures, at how faithful people through the ages have understood the movement of the Holy Spirit. As people of faith, we continue to believe that “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3: 16-17) but just as much (if not sometimes, more) we believe that the Holy Spirit helps us interpret scripture for our own day and our own lives.
There are times when a divorce is an unfaithful decision, made out of selfishness or spiritual immaturity. But there are also times when divorce is the ONLY faithful decision, and then one really needs all one’s faith to continue choosing life even in the midst of dark days. Choosing life in that case means reconciling as much as possible. Choosing life means praying for the other people involved, it means working on one’s issues, and choosing life after divorce or the ending of any relationship means being open to a new relationship or re-marriage when God opens that possibility.
We choose life with the attitude we adopt when we wake up in the morning. We choose life in our thoughts, in our conversations, in our willingness to apologize, in our ability to forgive, in our faith to move on in the Spirit of God, and in our thinking about what will follow us in the future.
Choosing life is not as easy as simply memorizing and repeating commandments and trying to harness every bit of energy we have in order to live by them. There’s no joy of Christ in that sort of life. There’s a moral slavery—exactly the kind of bondage from which Christ has come to liberate us.
Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, sometimes sounds a lot like Jesus as she points to the limits of phrases and platitudes. Some of her words from an interview a few years ago resurfacing on social media. She cautions against using phrases and words to without following them out to their conclusion. In the interview, she specifically talks about so many of her brothers and sisters who would define themselves as “pro-life.”
She says, “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.” Notice she’s not disagreeing with the people she mentions, necessarily, but she’s pushing all of us to get beyond the sound bite, the talking point, or the rallying cry.
Whether you agree with Sister Chittister, or not, notice that she is raising the same point Jesus raises. “Choosing life” can’t be about picking and choosing which life to choose, or which aspect of life to choose. Instead, we are either moving towards life, or we are moving towards death.
Before us is set “life and prosperity, death and adversity.” If we obey the commandments of the Lord our God, walking in his ways… then we shall live, and we shall live in such a way that our life is outlived by the one who is Love Himself.
Redeemed by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us choose life this day and for ever. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.