Sermon for Sunday, February 13, 2011|| Epiphany 6 – Year A|| Deuteronomy 30: 15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5: 21-37
by Amy Whitcomb Slemmer
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Mother and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I was asked to preach this morning, I got excited thinking about all the possibilities that would be available the day after our church celebrated the wedding of our Assistant to the Rector, Adam Thomas, to his lovely bride, Leah– and the day before Valentine’s Day. In fact, I was invited to preach the week that I had attended an enormous wedding at the Cathedral. The President of the Episcopal Divinity School married the Canon to the Ordinary – definitely qualifying as a serious Episcopal Power Couple. What I didn’t know at the time was that Mally and Catherine’s marriage was the first same sex union that our Bishop, Tom Shaw, consecrated.
So for this sermon, I was primed and ready for preaching about the love of God. “God is Love” is one of my very favorite themes and as you can imagine, it offers endless opportunities for learning and new insights about God and our relationship with the divine and with one another.
Then I looked at today’s readings: They are tough! Today’s Gospel is among the most challenging readings that we will have during all of year A. (As an Episcopal refresher – we cycle through the Gospels every three years, and we designate our years A, B and C. This morning we and the rest of the members of the Anglican Communion are celebrating Epiphany 6 in year A).
This Gospel talks about plucking out your right eye if it causes you to sin, and cutting off your hand if IT causes you to sin – as it is better to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. Also calling someone a “fool” is equated with breaking the commandment against murder, thinking lustful thoughts is adultery, and divorce creates adulterers.
Those of you who read the recent Carillon or the St. Stephens’ e-mail this week, know that I am in the process of discerning a call to the priesthood. It is an amazing process that requires an intensive period of openness, study, and reflection in community. Our St. Stephen’s community has gathered a committee of Nancy St. John, Jim Graham, Sandy Emler, Sam Pease and Kris Broe. These generous individuals will represent you as we work to learn what the next steps of my faithful call will be.
Taking on this Gospel at this point in my discernment process feels a bit like the Anglican version of a “Holy Hazing.” But it also offers a great opportunity to wrestle with some tough and ultimately rewarding themes together, before finally connecting with our perennial challenge to manifest the love of God.
Each of the readings today – and even the psalm we just sang, emphasizes the need to keep God’s commandments. Deuteronomy tells us that if we do – by loving the Lord our God and walking in His ways – we will live and be blessed. Psalm 119 tells us that happy are those who fully keep the commandments. And then there is this morning’s Gospel.
To put this section of Matthew in context, today’s reading is the third part of the Sermon on the Mount that we have read. The first week we began with the Beatitudes – those beautiful and radical words that Jesus gave his disciples about the downtrodden, lonely, grief stricken. Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the poor. These were hopeful and loving sentiments that conveyed not just the notion that God had not forgotten the miserable, but that He loved them and that they would each have a special place in His kingdom.
Last week we focused on the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus told his followers that they were salt and light, and he extolled the need not to hide our lights. Margot used this opportunity to invite us to take our lights out into the world and to tell people about how wonderful this church, our community, and the experience that we have here is. She suggested that we invite others to join us. So, for those of you who took Margot’s words to heart and brought new people to the pews this morning – well done and welcome! For anyone visiting or new, thank you for coming and here’s a heads up: This week we have a Gospel with two references to Hell, and suggestions as to how we might get there.
In truth, Jesus is filling in the details of the commandments. I think that he was trying to shake things up, as we can get complacent and move into the boxchecking mode when faced with, “Thou shalt not murder…” okay, I’ve got that one. “Thou shalt not commit adultery…” we’ll not be looking for a show of hands here, because in today’s Gospel the definition of adultery is expanded to anyone who looks at someone with lust in his heart.
Remember when Jimmy Carter did the interview with Playboy Magazine at the end of his first Presidential campaign? He said that he had committed adultery and had lusted in his heart many times. His pronouncement threw not just his campaign into chaos, but much of the world was completely unfamiliar with the context, so there was a huge uproar about what he really meant.
He was referring to this passage of the Gospel, and was trying to convey the point that he was a sinner – a common man who had come up short of God’s expectations for him. And President Carter’s declaration was shocking because he was using church language to characterize his behavior in every day life.
I think that this is precisely what Jesus is challenging us to do in today’s reading. Of course we are not allowed to murder, but how often is that a choice we have to wrestle with day to day? However, the expansion of the commandment this morning says that we aren’t even allowed to be angry with a brother or sister.
The example of forbidden anger is pretty tame; we are not to call each other fools. If you are the parent of siblings, there is a high probability that if there was frustration during the chaos of getting children from bed to breakfast to church this morning, less delicate things were said than “you fool.” But does that mean that in God’s view according to this passage we will be dealt with as murderers? And in this morning’s context we are pretty sure that Jesus is not restricting his admonition about our behavior toward our actual siblings, but is referring to all people as our brothers and sisters.
God wants us to heal our broken relationships. In this part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that without healing those relationships, we can’t even make an offering of a gift at the altar. Listen to part of it again – “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you….go and be reconciled and then come and offer your gift.”
I have heard of priests sending parishioners home with their plate offering on the Sunday that this Gospel is preached, with the request that they should carry their offering (or gift) around for the week, and pray to be reconciled with all the people with whom they are currently at odds.
I will not make the same suggestion, as I don’t want to run afoul of members of the Stewardship Committee whose work has been so extraordinary this year. But I would invite each of you to think and pray for someone with whom you are in conflict as the offertory plate is passed, and see if it makes any difference in your experience as you make your offering this morning. The resentment or separation or brokenness that you have with someone is a barrier between you and God, and God calls us to be rid of these barriers.
I do not believe that today’s Gospel is meant to set up unattainable goals for our behavior. Rather, I think that Jesus is teaching his disciples and us more about God’s kingdom and how God loves. God loves each of us without reservation, without insult, accusation, or condemnation. God’s kingdom is without separation. And I think that today’s lesson is an invitation to think about how we, as a community, move closer toward living into God’s ideal and creating this kingdom together.
This building – our church – is a conduit for kingdom work all week long. We marry and bury people here. We baptize and bless people. We offer the opportunity to come together as vulnerable and seeking people in a setting that is safe and welcoming. We host 12-step groups and prayer gatherings.
This week we held an acolyte training so that a new group of young people could learn the rituals that mark the rhythm of our service together. Our goal as acolytes is to enhance and help worship happen in a way that allows each of you to be available to connect to God. Some of us are newer at this ministry than others, so as a community you will bear with us as we learn.
The choir is a conduit for kingdom work as the members sing and amplify our prayers in a way that is more beautiful and powerful than we would be able to do on our own.
The ushers are here to make it easier for each of us to come to church and make the transition from the daily concerns we might have been contemplating in the car, to the corporate work that we will do together this morning. They extend a warm welcome, hand us a copy of the liturgy and help us to and from our seats, so that we can be available and about connecting to God as easily as possible.
Yesterday in this building, we married Adam and Leah Thomas. It was a joyful occasion – and one about which I am sure that Adam and several of his friends will blog. Church weddings are remarkable because in our tradition a marriage is not just the recognition and celebration of a permanent connection between the spouses, but it is seen as the manifestation of God’s love for us as human beings. And when two people marry each other in the church or with a priest present, a third thing is created – the marriage itself– and that marriage is blessed by God.
I have a priest friend who provides marriage counseling, and has said that couples come to him hoping to get him to declare who is right or wrong in the disputes that threaten their marriage. They are seeking a sort of spiritual referee. Before he will begin counseling however, my friend tells the couple that he is going to fight for the marriage first, because it is a great and sacred living thing to be celebrated, cherished, and nurtured so that it can grow and allow the parties involved to become even more of who God calls them to be.
Think about the participation and vow that we say when we have a baptism or marriage at St. Stephen’s. We vow to uphold the newly baptized or the married people when times get difficult. That is kingdom work. That is helping to create God’s kingdom here on earth where we do not stand in judgment, but rather offer shoulders and prayers of support.
Every Sunday we have an opportunity to practice God’s ideal. We are joined in community for the common purpose of worship, learning and deepening our faith, and understanding and relationship with God and one another.
We are here even when the lessons offered are difficult or thorny like today’s –or when we have had a tough week and are particularly vulnerable and broken. We bring all of that with us to the pews. We follow the service and move outside of ourselves as we pray for ourselves, one another and for the betterment of the world.
We also pray the confession together which I think is a remarkably powerful moment. We each are invited to reflect on how we have come up short of God’s expectations for us, yet our voices are joined as a contrite community, stronger than any of us would be individually. We are confessing about how we fell short of the ideals included in today’s Gospel, how we failed to pay attention to and demonstrate love through our thoughts, words, and deeds. And then, mirroring God’s Kingdom, we are absolved of these failings and forgiven. This gift of absolution frees us up – makes room for us to try again to be God’s ideal. To love one another as God loves us.
Tomorrow, we know that we are called to love our neighbors and each other on Valentine’s Day – a day that does not hold universal appeal. So I thought that I would close this morning with a prayer that can be God’s Valentine to each of us. It is written by Edwina Gateley, and it is called, Let Your God Love You:
“Be silent. Be still. Alone. Empty before your God. Say nothing. Ask nothing. Be silent. Be still. Let your God look upon you. That is all. God knows. God understands. God loves you with an enormous love, and only wants to look upon you with that love. Quiet. Still. Be. Let your God — love you.” Amen.