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Epiphany 6A Sermon
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20,
Matthew 5: 21-37

February 12, 2017

 

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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

Sometimes it helps to understand difficult Bible passages more if we understand the original context and culture from which they come. Our first reading from Deuteronomy 30 comes at the end of a book whose name literally means, “second law.” It is the second place in which Moses shares the Ten Commandments and then goes into a long exposition on how the law is to be lived out in the worship life, dietary expectations, and relationships of people in the community. They have been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, so there has been a lot of time to contemplate what God’s expectations are for these people. So, after Moses repeats the Ten Commandments in chapter 5, he shares a very important teaching to all Jews – something called The Shema, because those are the first words of the teaching in Hebrew, which translate, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God …” And the teaching that Jesus called the greatest commandment is written – “Love the Lord your God with all of your mind, soul and strength.” From there until our passage today, Moses mostly lays out more rules about life in the community – from what to eat to how to worship, observing the Sabbath, what makes someone or something unclean and clean again, and other such things.

The six verses that make up our first reading is in the section where Moses encourages people to see the law as a gift, something that we have close by us to convey God’s presence and desire for us. Following these laws results in blessings and not curses, prosperity and life, not death. We are to choose life so that we may live long and love God and each other. Even though this is part of Moses’ parting words, this is not the end of the story. Immediately after this passage Moses will choose Joshua as his successor, make sure that the Law is preserved for future generations, then he will die and be buried before the people enter into the promised land and begin their new life there. It is a beginning, not an ending – thus Moses, in his parting speech, encourages the people to following God’s commandments in relating to God and each other. And to do it in such a way that they choose life.
Context is also important in understanding our Gospel reading. Jesus’ words from the 5th chapter of Matthew are a little more difficult to discern, especially when we consider the implications of taking them literally. If you insult your brother or sister, you are liable to the hell of fire! If you look at someone of the opposite sex with lust in your heart, you have already committed adultery – and (according to those verses in Deuteronomy that I explained), you are eligible to be taken out and stoned to death! We should pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands if they cause us to sin. Whoever divorces for reasons other than unfaithfulness commits adultery! These are pretty harsh words, especially coming from the mouth who just pronounced blessings on the meek and poor in spirit!

But Jesus is trying to get the attention of his disciples and the others who are gathering on this mount with him. He is also trying to get our attention as well. The reason he is trying to get our attention is that we all fall into the trap of thinking that we have any chance of justifying ourselves on the basis of the law. It is just not possible. Part of the reason is that when we justify ourselves, we never fairly judge! Our own words, actions or thoughts are never as bad as the other person’s words, actions or thoughts, are they?! But according to Jesus, that is never true. Even if we have not gone as far as to literally cheat on our spouse, we have fallen short of God’s expectations of us when we look at someone and fantasize. Even if we have never struck or physically harmed our brother in any way, we have fallen short of God’s expectations of us when we insult him. If we want to promote ourselves as being holier than any other, “thou,” we can never do it based on the law. It just is never possible.

Jesus uses exaggeration to grab our attention so that we can understand what the law is good for, and what the law is not good for! The law is good for preserving order in an otherwise chaotic world. It is good for shedding light on God’s expectations for our lives, harkening back to Moses’ exhortation to “choose life.” It is good for pointing out the ways that we are not equals with God, and drive us to the grace and forgiveness of a merciful God. The law is not good for helping a person be more worthy to be loved by God. It is not good for lifting ourselves up in the eyes of the community based on our accomplishments over others. It is not good for proving that God approves of us in any way.
The law has a role in making God’s presence known in the world today. Just before this Jesus claimed that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it! I don’t think that he meant that he came to provide a perfect example of holy living that all of us should try to exemplify. What I think he meant was that in him, the law has been fulfilled perfectly, so now we can be freed to focus more on that greatest commandment: to love the Lord your God with all your mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Love – that is what we are freed to do. To put others first in spite of our natural sinful inclination to put ourselves first in all things. To see others as loved by God despite the fact that we disagree with them in so many ways. To love those who are very different from us in the way that they live, work, raise their kids, shop and even vote.

I will be honest with you right now – I am personally very concerned with the direction that our new president is going in his first few weeks of office. Now you do not have to agree with me, but I am sharing this to make a point. I wonder what – if any response – is appropriate either publicly or in personal conversations about this subject. While I think and pray about this, I see others who are responding in many and various ways – with social media posts including links to news outlets who may or may not be overly interested in the truth; people protesting in streets and airports; government officials openly defying executive orders. Sometimes these seem appropriate, and yet even the, “peaceful” protests sometimes trouble me. Some of the signs that I read on the weekend of the women’s march on Washington were quite offensive to me personally and to my Christian faith.

When I read Moses’ words in the first reading to, “choose life,” I thought about these things. How do we choose life as we respond to leaders and neighbors with whom we disagree? Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” Thinking or saying hateful things about someone else, especially a president, congressperson or judge, while is not technically breaking any commandments, is still falling short of God’s expectations of us, according to Jesus. Besides, we have come to understand that it doesn’t work. All it does is rally the troops around the one who is being attacked with hateful words and actions. That is why I believe that to choose life and to express our concerns to those with whom we disagree in a loving way means not to attack, but to tell the stories of God’s love and mercy that fill our land. Tell stories of our Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, who does so much to help settle people from lands of violence and danger into this land of opportunity that so many of our ancestors came to. Tell stories of people of different color of skin, religion or sexual orientation with whom we have close relationships so that others can be led to love them too. Tell the stories of how reconciling with our brothers and sisters has led us to places where hate and resentment fade, and new relationships are possible. To choose life means to tell the stories of love active in our lives and the lives of those around us, and to allow the Holy Spirit to do the work of guiding our hearts to peace and joy. And when we do this, we engage in evangelism too, for we tell the story of God’s love in the everyday lives of people who don’t need to follow the law to the letter to be worthy of God’s love, but need the love of God to free them to love others.

I want you to pay attention to the words of the song that we will sing during the offering – they are based upon a devotion written by Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. In the years following the abolition of apartheid, Bishop Tutu has been instrumental in implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa to heal the brokenness between the races there. It has been successful not out of a spirit of retribution and punishment, but confession and forgiveness. As you sing the words, “Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death,” pray that God will help us to find ways to choose life in all of our relationships, even and especially with those who hold different political viewpoints from us. By telling the stories of reconciliation, relationships and community, the victory will be ours through God who loves us. May God win the victory that has been promised to us through our Lord Jesus Christ; Amen.