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Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany

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

Susan was walking through the office when she saw “the new guy” looking perplexed by the large commercial shredder. She went over and asked if she could help. “You see you just turn on this switch and stick the paper here and touch this button.” He said, “Thanks….…but where does the copy come out?” Assuming…jumping in without asking questions…we all do it. Paul’s words to the church at Corinth move beyond assumptions.

The season of Epiphany provides us with a way forward. But, sometimes it feels like a bunch of disconnected weeks to move us from Christmas to Lent. We are invited to contemplate the vulnerability of the child lying in the manger, a child whose family fled to Egypt to escape harm. A story, all too common in human history. In the Epistle reading, Paul insists that not only is God made manifest in the world, but that on the cross we most clearly see that Christ comes among us, not among the powerful but the weak. Too often in the church, our leadership styles mimic the examples of the world rather than the gospel. Some say that they belong to Cephas or to Apollos or to Paul. All belong to Christ. Paul says that they are God’s servants, God’s field, God’s building. Christ is the sure foundation upon which they have been built, and eventually they are nothing less than the body of Christ, members one of another. No assumptions….only truth.

Today’s Gospel reading is often called “the antitheses,” because six times we hear similar statements: “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” Jesus’ declaration is the antithesis of what has gone before. This has been mistakenly interpreted to mean that Jesus makes his teaching the antithesis of the Old Testament. But, really Jesus is contrasting his interpretation of the Old Testament with faulty interpretations and applications. In each antithesis, Jesus demonstrates how the Old Testament is to be properly interpreted and applied. This shows how the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled. This elevates Jesus above all interpreters, making his pronouncements equal to scripture itself. This is difficult for his followers to understand. And it leads to points of grievous conflict with the religious establishment.

God’s moral and ceremonial laws were given to help people love God with all of their hearts and minds. Throughout Israel’s history, these laws had often been misquoted and misapplied. By Jesus’ time, religious leaders had turned the laws into a confusing mass of rules. When Jesus talked about a new way to understand God’s law, he was trying to bring people back to its original purpose. Jesus didn’t speak against the law itself, but against its abuses and excesses.

If Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, does that mean that all the Old Testament laws still apply today? In the Old Testament, there were three categories of the law: ceremonial, civil and moral. The ceremonial dealt with the rules and ways of worship. The civil laws applied to day-to-day living. The moral law, such as the Ten Commandments, is the direct command of God, and it requires strict obedience.

Some of those in the crowd were experts at telling others what to do, but they missed the central point of God’s laws themselves. Jesus made it clear that obeying God’s law is more important than explaining it. It’s much easier to study God’s laws and tell others to obey them than to put them into practice. So, how are we doing at obeying God ourselves?

The Pharisees were exacting and scrupulous in their attempts to follow their laws. So how could Jesus reasonably call us to greater righteousness than theirs? The Pharisee’s weakness was that they were content to obey the laws outwardly without allowing God to change their hearts and attitudes. Jesus was saying that the quality of our goodness should be greater than that of the Pharisees. They looked pious, but they were far from the kingdom of God. God judges our hearts as well as our deeds, for it is in the heart that our real allegiance lies. We should be just as concerned about our attitudes that people don’t see as about our actions that people do see.

Jesus was saying that his listeners needed a different kind of righteousness altogether, love and obedience, not just a more intense form of the Pharisees’ righteousness, legal compliance. Our righteousness must come from what God does in us, not what we can do by ourselves. Our righteousness must be God-centered, not self-centered. It must be based on reverence for God, not approval from people. And it must go beyond keeping the law to living by the principles behind the law. Our righteousness requires us to be in right relationship with God.

When Jesus said, “But I tell you,” he was not doing away with the law or adding his own beliefs. He was giving a fuller understanding of why God made that law in the first place. For example, Moses said, “You shall not murder.” Jesus taught that we should not even become angry enough to murder, for then we have already committed murder in our heart. The Pharisees felt righteous when they read this law, because they had not having literally murdered anyone. Yet, they were angry enough with Jesus that they would soon plot his death, though they wouldn’t physically carry it out. We miss the intent of God’s word when we read his rules for living without trying to understand why he made them. When do we keep God’s rules but close our eyes to their intent?

Killing is a terrible act, but anger is a great separation from God too because it also violates God’s command to love. Anger in this case refers to a seething, brooding bitterness against someone. It is a dangerous emotion that always threatens to leap out of control, leading to violence, emotional hurt, increased mental stress, and spiritual damage. Anger keeps us from developing a spirit pleasing to God. Have you ever been proud that you didn’t physically react to someone and say what was on your mind? And been sorry those times you didn’t hold it together. Self-control is a good thing. But Christ wants us to practice thought control as well. Jesus said that we will be held accountable even for our attitudes.

Broken relationships can hinder our relationship with God. If we have a problem or difficulty with a friend, we should resolve the problem as soon as possible. We are hypocrites if we claim to love God while we hate others. Our attitudes towards others reflect our relationship with God.

In Jesus’ day, someone who couldn’t pay a debt was thrown into prison until the debt was paid. Unless someone came to pay the debt for the prisoner, he or she would probably spend the rest of their lives in prison. It is practical advice to resolve our differences with our enemies before the anger causes more trouble. You may not get into a disagreement that takes you to court, but even the small conflicts mend more easily if you try to make peace right away. In a broader sense, Jesus encourages us to get things right with our brothers and sisters before we stand before God.

In reading and struggling with this gospel reading, I was reminded of a woman in the little church in Louisville. She was a legend, long gone by the time I got there. I have mentioned her to some. When she would read the lessons, she would pause and look at someone she thought it applied to. The pauses were painful because folks waited for her gaze to land on them.

Last Sunday, I talked some about folks in our Grace family being the hands and heart and feet of Christ. The few examples I gave came to me in my prayerful sermon prep. I could have given many more examples of folks in our Grace family who are making the community a better place. This week’s reading about murder and adultery and divorce are a different story. Being a divorced woman and a minister of the Word and Sacraments, I don’t have a lot of room to point fingers. But, in light of the reading, I think we should talk about those folks who have lusted in their hearts. Just kidding….. that is between them and God.

The purpose of these readings is to promote supportive relationships. As Paul said, we are all a part of the body of Christ. Jesus said that love is more important than judgement, regardless of who we are. Jesus makes it clear that if we have conflict with one another, we are to resolve the issue. Sometimes that involves asking for forgiveness, and seeking reconciliation with our brothers and sisters. Forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation. It is the knowledge that we have been forgiven that moves us to forgive others.

Mark Twain wrote, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” It is not about us being able to forgive. It is about God equipping us to forgive. It begins with the desire to forgive someone in our minds and then moves to the heart. We are in this together. We are to be the hands and heart and feet of Christ. Sometimes we struggle to see Jesus, like Zacchaeus in the tree, and other times others help us see Jesus. But Jesus is at the heart, the center of all that we do – not hate, or judgment, or what’s in it for me. Jesus calls us to be one. How we respond shapes who and whose we truly are. Amen.

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Grace Episcopal Church is an affirming church where all are welcome to worship and serve Christ in faith and love.

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