Sermon for 6th Sunday after Epiphany - Feb 12, 2017

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
February 12, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

Today’s readings raise the question: is faith about doing, or about being?

The book of Deuteronomy is widely seen as Moses’ Last Will and Testament.  It’s quite lengthy, as wills go.  It finishes with some important advice: Choose Life.

In form, at least in this part of the book, there are parallels with agreements that were imposed on conquered or subject peoples after a new king or emperor has taken control.  The king requires that the subjects obey particular codes of behavior; if they obey, all shall be well, but if they fail to do so, the king will make sure they regret it.  These documents are called suzerainty treaties, and in addition to “blessings and curses,” they generally were posted in public spaces – which is why we know about them at all; archeologists have found them carved in stone among the ruins of ancient cities.  The key issue I want to point out here is the idea: the kingrequires.  The subjugated people have no say; and they can’t say no.

But in Deuteronomy, God does not require a particular response.  God offers. God invites.  Moses counsels.  So this isn’t a requirement, to do what Moses or God tells them they should do.  They can choose to follow other ways.  But if they do that, they will likely find that things may not work out in the ways they might like. 

It may seem a subtle difference – or no difference at all, until we remember that the word “obedience” means “Listen carefully to what I say,” not “Do what I say.”

So when Moses says, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him…” – it’s really a plea that they will have regard for God and God’s desire to be in a loving and caring relationship with them; which means – or should mean – blessings in abundance.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, we don’t hear what the people decided in response to this plea, but it has been witnessed by all that God has created that God has made this offer to them.

Moses leaves the offer open-ended.  It is something we can choose, or choose again, or continue to choose – the offer God is making stands open for all time, for all people.

That’s one of the things we see in the Bible – God making this offer of relationship and blessing over and over again, whenever he calls the people or their rulers to change and make the choice once more: – come home, come back, turn back, repent.

God offers this because God knows – and when we accept, we also know – that being in that relationship is the root of happiness, of joy, of “unfeigned hearts” – hearts that are open and honest – says the Psalmist.

However, as the Gospel should warn us – it’s not necessarily going to be easy.  Because it’s not just a matter of behavior, of action, it’s also a matter of the heart, of the spirit.

We don’t earn our salvation by righteousness – at least, not our own.  We are given it through the righteousness of God. 

M. Eugene Boring, of Texas Christian University, has written that the Gospel of Matthew “is not intended as halakha, a rule for life, but to stimulate imagination and personal responsibility.”  Prof Boring, referring to the teaching of Jesus we heard last week – you are salt, you are light – says we are not being tasked with becoming more salty or more bright – we are instead to accept that this is what we are already as Christians in community.

Again, then, this isn’t about obedience in the sense of following rules, but in the sense of listening to God, paying close attention, and considering what God’s word means for our lives and our life together. 

Today, Jesus talks about the ancient rules and laws about murder and adultery and divorce – but he takes them much farther than simply behaving in a particular way.  He places them in our hearts, at the root of intention.

We cannot always help ourselves with respect to emotion: anger, attraction, desire.  If we try and fail, we might feel guilty or unworthy or despairing – and if we try and succeed, we might feel superior or proud.  This isn’t what Jesus is about; he isn’t trying to torture us by demanding the impossible. 

He’s inviting us to choose the life that God offers – a life where in our hearts there is peace that God gives, not that we create through our own effort, peace that we accept, when we accept that God gives enough, all that we need.

“You have heard it said, “you shall not murder,” but I say to you, that if you are angry…you will be liable to judgment.”

Sounds harsh, doesn’t it.  We do get angry, sometimes with a brother or sister, sometimes with someone we hardly know, sometimes with someone we don’t know at all but perceive as a threat to ourselves or to someone or something we hold dear.  Even more, Jesus sayd, do not approach the altar with your offering without first making peace.  That sounds almost impossible, especially if the other doesn’t desire peace.

Here again, Boring makes an interesting suggestion:  Jesus is exaggerating to the point of absurdity to make a point.  That point is, that everything – our actions and our thoughts are all before God.  That’s in our opening prayer – “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name….”

So whether it’s our behavior or our thoughts, God knows, and God still loves us when we fail, and still invites us into communion with God and one another.  But God does not want us to forget that we are God’s people and God expects us to live that truth in our daily rounds.

These are not laws and rules to be applied; they are the truths in which we live, in the rough and tumble of life, as Boring puts it, as Moses puts it, as the Psalmist puts it, and as Paul puts it. 

We are the salt of the earth; we are the light of the world; we are more than we fear, more than we know, more than we dare hope, because God has said it. 

We are community. We are joined, one, with Christ and one another, and there is no escape, because this is the way of God of which we are a part.  Thanks be to God.

So, in answer to the question I posed earlier: “Is our faith about doing or is it about being?” – all I can say is “Yes.  Yes it is.” 

  January 2018  
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