Sixth Weekend after Epiphany
February 11-12, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Just two weeks ago, we climbed the mountain with Jesus and his disciples along with many others and everybody received His blessings: the meek, the broken-hearted, the merciful, the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, surprisingly- EVERYBODY! And they hadn’t even done anything yet. But then, that’s how God works. He blesses us not because we’ve done something wonderful, but so that we CAN do something wonderful. He blesses us so that we can go and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. You may remember Pastor Mary likening the Sermon on the Mount to an inaugural address, as Jesus revealing to us what’s on God’s agenda and what the kingdom of heaven looks like. This week, as he continues his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is painting a very detailed picture indeed of what the kingdom of heaven looks like, what it might look like when we don’t just keep the Ten Commandments, but when we truly have a heart for one another and we honor our relationships with each another. So let’s just picture living in a kingdom with no anger; no insults; no name-calling, no adultery, no lust, no divorce, no swearing. Wow! No wonder it’s called the kingdom of heaven. How on earth could we ever get in? Before you start tearing out your eyeballs or chopping off your hands, I’d like to share a very personal story with you.
He was my sixth and only healthy pregnancy, my miracle baby. His father left us for parts unknown when he was only 18 months old. Without any nearby relatives, I raised my miracle baby, Patrick, with the help of my brothers and sisters here at Holy Trinity. A few of you old-timers know this story and played a very important part in it. He was a gifted student. He was eventually offered a scholarship at Tulane University, 1000 miles from here in New Orleans. It was one of you who fronted us the money to go meet with the Admissions office and the rest is history. August 2006. The big day, or should I say, the “big goodbye” snuck up on me. I knew it was coming, of course. I prepared my goodbye speech, and I also wrote it out in a beautiful card so he could keep it always. I didn’t write about how much I was going to miss him. Instead, I wrote words of encouragement, words that conveyed my confidence in him, and the assuring reminder of God’s promise that He is with us always.
I told you that story because it helps me relate to today’s first reading from Deuteronomy with Moses, standing on the brink of the Promised Land, which he will never enter. He is giving his goodbye speech to his beloved children of Israel. Unlike my Patrick, they won’t be coming home for Christmas. This is it for them. Moses led them out of Egypt, out of slavery and has spent the last 40 years lovingly teaching them right from wrong. He even hand delivered the Ten Commandments. They’ve been on this journey together 40 long and difficult years and now it’s time for Moses to give them their wings.
“It’s all about the choices you make”, he tells them; “it’s your life now. You can do this!” (I used that in my goodbye speech too!) “Choose life”, Moses says and we parents echo that to our children, perhaps using different words, but always out of love, out of wanting the very best life for them. “Choose life” sounds like a no brainer, except that it’s not a “one and done”. You cannot just check off the “Life” box and be finished. Choosing life is about all the little everyday decisions along the way, the life-giving choices that keeps us in close relationship to God and honors our relationship with each other, and that is the abundant life that God wants for each of us.
Certainly, choosing life is still about keeping the Ten Commandments. From ancient times, the scribes and Pharisees taught a literal and very strict understanding of these commandments, like they were the “Ten Commandment Police”. Jesus felt that approach did not convey that true loving intent of God, our Father. Martin Luther phrased it this way: “The Ten Commandments are aprecious gift of an adoring parent given to beloved children, urging them to treat each other well.” Jesus summarized all the commandments this way, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: you must love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22:37-39)
But we don’t always treat one another so well. Sometimes, we get so angry that we stab somebody in the back with unkind words. It’s not “murder,” but words can kill a relationship. There’s been a whole lot of anger in this country lately. They even invented a new word…hangry. It’s when you are so hungry that you become angry. Jesus went to the cross for us because we get angry, we get hangry; we insult someone, call them a fool, or idiot, or worse. We know that’s not the life that God wants for us. That’s not why we’re here. We’re supposed to be helping each other with our problems, bearing one another’s burdens and sharing one another’s joy. We’re supposed to have caring hearts, and not just on Valentine’s Day. We should be as Christ to one another.
And, by the way if you remember that your brother or sister has a beef with you, please don’t feel that you have to leave before the offering today. You can certainly wait until we finish our worship service. In preparing for today, I learned that today’s Gospel is the reason we offer each other the sign of peace immediately before the offering.
Many of us, when we hear the words adultery or lust will immediately flash back to November of 1976. Then-Governor Jimmy Carter famously said in a Playboy Magazine interview "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times." The media had a field day with that, but he was trying to speak very honestly about his faith. He did not rip out his eyeball or chop off his hand.
We can’t blame our sins on our eyes or our hands. All sin starts deep in the heart. Jesus is saying, “It’s not enough to just keep the commandments. Pay attention to your heart where your moods and motivations and your fears and fantasies can hide and grow into actions that can hurt you and others.”
I want to address the divorce elephant in the room because I know I’m not the only divorced person here today. It would be easy to say, “Oh, Jesus didn’t really mean that.” I believe Jesus does mean it, though what he means by it goes back again to relationships. No matter what spin we want to put on it, divorce affects not just the two people who aren’t married anymore, but family and friends, neighbors, even sometimes even our church family. I can try to justify my divorce to you, but let’s face it-divorce will never be a badge of righteousness. It certainly is nothing I will ever want to brag about. Divorce is painful. My divorce is just one of the many reasons I refer to Holy Trinity as my healing place.
I haven’t even got to the part about swearing by heaven or by earth and it’s already getting pretty obvious that none of us are good enough for this kingdom of heaven, without the grace of God. The Good News is that we have that grace, no matter what we have done. Today, Jesus is really asking us, “Do we have a heart for one another?” And, no matter how we answer that question, He promises to help and heal us, to create in us a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us. We cannot do it on our own, but since our baptism, the Holy Spirit is always at work in us. No matter how old we are, every time we receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, our lives are being transformed and shaped and empowered by God in accordance with His purpose.
Just as Moses was launching his beloved Israelites into the next chapter of their lives, so Jesus, as he continues this Sermon on the Mount, is lovingly launching us into a world that has lost its saltiness and has lots of dark places. He is giving us our wings, and empowering us to make that kingdom of heaven come to earth. As we head into the week and months ahead, may we have a heart for one another. May we always keep choosing life.
My Valentine prayer for us is that God grant each of us the opportunity this week to be kind to someone that God places in our path that we can bring the kingdom of heaven a little closer to earth. Amen.
Linda S. Magill