Sunday, February 16, 2014

VI Epiphany, Septuagesima

Matthew 5: 21-27

Good morning to all, grace and peace, and a word once again of congratulations and appreciation.  I know it takes a good bit of will power to venture out on these winter mornings.  I would pray that the Spirit that brought you here will make of this day a special gift and blessing.  This Sixth Sunday in ordinary time after the Feast of the Epiphany coincides this year with the traditional date of Septuagesima—as those of us with longer memories of the calendars in earlier Prayer Books will remember the names of the three pre-Lent Sundays, Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima.  A kind of countdown, 70, 60, 50, anticipating then the 40 Days of the Wilderness of Lent—inviting us to a time of reflection and preparation.

We noted last week that the readings in Year A of our new revised three-year Sunday Eucharistic Lectionary have us reading along in the Sermon on the Mount.  Beginning first with the Beatitudes at the beginning, then shifting from general words about the character of a holy life to a rather strong and pointed moment with the disciples about the consequences of following him—what Dietrich Bonhoeffer back during the years of the war in Germany and in the context of faithful decisions that eventually led to his imprisonment and execution called “costly discipleship.”  Finally just where we left off last Sunday Jesus tells his friends that their obedience to the Law, their “righteousness,” must surpass even the obedience of the scribes and Pharisees, the great religious professionals of the day.  Because the character of their obedience will be judged not simply by their words, nor even by the care of their outward behavior, but by the consistency of word and action going all the way to the deepest secret corner of the heart.  In Matthew’s gospel when Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John, John objects.  “You’re the one who ought to baptize me.”  But Jesus says no, and using the same word as here.  “It is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  Complete obedience.  The journey that will take Jesus to the night of that prayer in the Garden, “not my will, but thine.”

The rest of the Sermon on the Mount, through Matthew, the territory we began to look at last Sunday,  chapters 5, 6, and 7, is how Jesus then begins to unpack for his disciples what all this means—“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  We’re going to hear just the first part of this before our lectionary turns us in another direction as we get up to Lent, but this week and next week I think at least enough to see the direction.  

This morning three related points of what in old fashioned homiletics they used to call “application.”  Anger, infidelity, deception.  Then next Sunday two more points, each gathering more and more momentum until we reach the fireworks at the end of Chapter 5, in verse 48, the last sentence of next week’s gospel, when Jesus takes a deep breath and looks at his friends and says, “You, therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  

Just keep that goal in mind.   For those of us who strive to be good-enough students and good-enough friends and good-enough citizens, good-enough husbands or wives, good-enough parents, workers, neighbors, good-enough Christians, wow.  We were still reeling some at the idea of  improving upon the performance of the scribes and Pharisees, and now this.  When good-enough isn’t good enough.  “You therefore must be perfect, perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Bar just seems to get higher and higher and higher: out of sight.

So we begin with Jesus and his sermon illustrations this morning.  “You have heard it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder.”  Which is of course in the 10 Commandments.   We’re all agreed on that?  Actually there isn’t that much agreement. Capital Punishment?  Euthanasia?  Abortion?  Combat?  Self-defense?  Things seemed simple for a minute, then not so much.  And then Jesus complicates the thing even more.   “But I say to you if you are angry, or if you insult a brother or sister, even if you just roll your eyes and murmur under your breath, “what an idiot,” you will be liable to the hell of fire.    So again, wow.   Diocesan clergy conference will never be the same . . . .  And what about when we kill someone’s aspirations?  Self-confidence?  Self-esteem?  Drilling down here.   Just a little comment to spoil your day.  To love God, to follow Jesus, is to hold in our hearts as precious whatever he holds as precious.  So precious that you would do anything to fix whatever has gone wrong between you and him.  

Standing with your gift at the altar.  Dressed up and  in church.  Drop the hymnal right where you’re standing, he says, and rush out the door, jump in the car, miss lunch, drive on through snow and rain, knock on the door hat in hand, not leave until what has gone wrong is set right.  Even if it’s all their fault, doesn’t matter--take the blame yourself.  I’ll pay the fine, whatever the cost, whatever it takes.  Otherwise, Jesus says, what exactly does it mean that you say you love me?   As they say, “talk is cheap.”

 Then on, as if that isn’t enough: “you have heard it was said, you shall not commit adultery.”  And it’s pretty clear Jesus here isn’t inviting us to a debate on what the meaning of “is” is . . . .  As if with husband and wife in a situation of marriage counseling it would be at all helpful to assure the other, “technically I’ve never been unfaithful to you.”   Probably not all that helpful.  And in an age of Victoria’s Secret t.v. ads and internet porn and the culture of the body. “If your right eye cases you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

And then this related point about divorce, Jesus repeating here what Mark reports him saying also in Mark 10 and what we hear later as well in the 19th Chapter of Matthew.  A lot to unpack, but to say that in the world of 1st century Palestine this rocked as many boats and challenged as many as it does today.  About marriage of course, but about a lot more than marriage.  About understanding marriage as more than a legal contract, like a car lease or a rental agreement, but as a place, we might say, a place where we have come to stand before him--a place that is marked and surrounded in the character of God’s holiness.  

We understand that this isn’t some kind of fierce Jesus telling us that there isn’t forgiveness and mercy and love and renewal when hard and bad things have happened in our lives.  Because that’s what he is all about.  Generosity.  Restoration.  But the whole point here is to draw us carefully into a new reality.  To follow me, Jesus says, is not like joining a college fraternity or registering in a political party or subscribing to public radio.  It’s not a club.  A hobby.  A special interest to pay attention to when convenient and then to toss aside when other concerns seem more pressing.  It’s about giving your life away to God, giving it away, in the confidence that the life he will certainly give back is one that has been transformed by his surpassing holiness.  Radiant and eternal.

You may need to follow the external requirements of this social order as it is passing away, of course.  But you no longer need to shake on it or sign at the bottom line or cross your heart.  You don’t have to swear at all.  Because you won’t just chose to tell the truth, when you decide that that’s what you want to do.  You will live in truth.  In the truth of your heavenly Father.   Of such an integrity that anything beyond your simple agreement would be entirely unnecessary.

If you thought it was going to be hard to be a Christian, but if you thought you’d roll up your sleeves and give it the old college try, the word for us this morning is, you might as well give up. Forget it.  Because it’s what you can’t do.  “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Again, not about trying harder in this life, but about trading this old life in for a new one.  Not about an act of will and force of discipline, but about a surrender to love.  That phrase in the General Thanksgiving that we say in Morning Prayer, “that we show forth thy praise not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service . . . .”  Paul in First Corinthians 13.  Love seeks not its own way.  Why not have this be all about love, on St. Valentine’s Day weekend?  Why not?

It’s not that we can work harder and harder and get all this right.  And don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we don’t need to get it right.  We do.   But that we can become new people and good people and holy people only as we are drawn to him.  As we see Christ in one another, in the world around us, looking for him with joy in ourselves.  Then what seemed impossible will be as natural as breathing.

Think of it as a Valentine’s Day card from Jesus this morning.  Will you be mine? How we would answer, is the point of this Sermon on the Mount and the heart of the gospel.   If there can be a hymn to have rolling around in the back of our minds through these weeks leading toward Lent. 

Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do.  Breathe on me, Breath of God, until my heart is pure, until with thee I will one will, to do, or to endure.  Breathe on me, Breath of God, till I am wholly thine, till all this earthly part of me glows with thy fire divine.  Breathe on me, Breath of God, so shall I never die; but live with thee the perfect life of thine eternity.

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