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Feb 12, 2017

You have heard...

Passage: Matthew 5:21-37

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Kurt Gerhard

Series: Epiphany 2017

Category: Discipleship, Epiphany

Summary:

Jesus makes us uncomfortable to get our attention about the life-long work of strengthening relationships

Detail:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times”

I want to say a few words before I begin preaching today. Our seminarians and assisting clergy and guest preachers will often step into this pulpit to preach and they will glance over at me and say or at least insinuate that I might have a plan in scheduling preachers to avoid challenging passages. Usually the congregation laughs and I laugh and then we move into the sermon. After worship, while gathered in the Great Hall, a few people will tease me a little about planning ahead and getting out of a tough situation. Charlie Johnson will say, “How dare you?” Or something to that effect as he gives me a side glance.

This week is proof that I don’t have some scurrilous plan. The thing is, I looked back and I have preached on this set of passages in 2011 and 2014. The previous times that it has appeared in the lectionary since I began my rectorship in 2010. And let me tell you, if I were going to assign a passage of scripture to a seminarian or an assistant in an act of avoidance, it would be these. And here I am.

The thing is, the Gospel and God’s Word in general is not easy to digest and requires wrestling to understand its meaning. So, almost every week, a reading from scripture can trip us up on initial reading, as we hear it in light of our present situation. As a preacher, that is what makes this task, preaching, challenging and, if I might say, rewarding. If the scripture every week was Paul’s declaration of love, this whole endeavor would be boring. Yet, the breadth of the Bible and its challenges for its readers help us grow in God’s kingdom in today’s world just as it has for 100s of generations. But let’s get to the text at hand.

I paid close attention as our deacon read the Gospel. I didn’t see anybody pack up their things and stomp out of the room. It is not easy to listen to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount because he laid out some tough lessons and he was using hyperbole. It is hard to interpret hyperbole when it is written down and passed down over thousands of years. But let’s just say that Jesus’ followers, even the most ardent ones, were not cutting off their hands or plucking out their eyes in order to live up to Jesus ethical code. And, honestly, there are no hearers of his word who aren’t uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because all, all of us, can see ourselves in Jesus’ pronouncements. “You’ve heard it said in ancient times…but I say to you.”

And it’s not just the words of Jesus. In Deuteronomy, Moses told the Israelites to consider others before themselves (and the Israelites were as self-absorbed as we are).

We get carried away when we hear this portion of the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus’ examples (how condemning they are of human nature and of the choices that we make in good conscience), we get distracted by them (as they apply to us), and as a result, we fail to grasp why Jesus (and Moses) said these things in their speeches that make us uncomfortable.

Too often today, Christianity is defined as a list of actions and beliefs that define Christians as different. Whether it is “traditional marriage” or “pro-life” or “creationism.” There are Christians want to point to ways of thinking and doing that are “biblical” and non-negotiable principles of the faith.

This style of Christianity is slowly fading away (losing influence in the public sphere), but there has been a resurgence of late. They say in essence that the heart of the Christian message is to keep our people, the insiders, safe and pure. If we live that kind of pure life (not like most people) then we will be blessed by God with fortunes. Many more words are used, but that is the heart of the message.

This is exactly what Jesus (and Moses) are preaching against in today’s lessons.

For them, getting on God’s path involved realigning the soul, the motives, and the inner motivations. For Moses and Jesus, action was only the byproduct of changing the heart. And making those kinds of changes involved some deep work. It involved a change that would impact every part of our being, in every action, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Jesus says don’t be angry, seek justice even if it might put you at risk, make your word your word (don’t let it be contingent on exigent circumstances), and love from deep down, not because someone does something, but because they are created.

This form of adherence to the Law is deep. It requires much more than being a model citizen, it requires a lifelong commitment to forgiveness, grace, and love.  Christianity is about exercising the portion of our being that no one else can see and taking responsibility for what is truly in our heart and soul.

So, when Jesus is speaking about divorce and anger and adultery, he is saying uncomfortable things so that everyone realizes that we all have work to do to be in relationship with others. In a time such as this one (I am talking about 2017), it is obvious that we have pent up anger, dismay, and fear that permeate our very existence. It might seem that all that we hold to be true is shaking around us. I have heard that from you over the past several months.

Uncertainty, danger, dismay, and powerlessness is where Jesus spent his entire life. It would describe the feelings of those who heard the Sermon on the Mount, firsthand. The powerful wanted them to feel that way and they used the law to do it. So Jesus pointed to the law, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…” But then Jesus pointed beyond it. He was pointing at the soul and saying that if we want to overcome that fear, that anger, that desperation, and hopelessness, that we have to start in the soul and work out. Otherwise, we dig a deeper hole from which we will never escape.

So, I would not read it as a curse to those who divorce or those who swear or those who express anger, I would read it as a call to love and forgive and to realign your being toward peace, to reconciliation because that is how we discover hope.

Is there more to life than this? Yes, there is more to life if you are willing to dig deep. To ask questions and to be in relationship with people who challenge you to discover your core values. It is a task of a lifetime. And if we make the effort, we will discover what exists deep within without casting blame or judgements. That is the work Jesus called from each of us. Are you willing?

 

The Rev. Dr. Kurt Gerhard

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church

Washington, DC

Epiphany 6A

February 12, 2017