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Monday, February 14, 2011

Sermon from February 13, 2011 + The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, A

“A Matter of the Heart”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen (Text: Matthew 5:21-37)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Well, at least we can stop blaming Martin Luther for all this. I mean, his treatment of the Commandments in the Small Catechism clearly extends their reach to beyond the original intent. So not only are we to refrain from bearing false witness against our neighbors, we are to defend them, speak well of them, and put the best construction on everything. Not only are we to keep from stealing from our neighbors, we are to help them improve their living situation and their ability to earn a livable income. Under Martin’s deft hand, the Commandments become not only prohibitions but commands to very challenging behavior.

As it turns out, Martin was only building on what Jesus did. In this section from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus apparently is ratcheting up the intensity and scope of several key commandments – the Fifth (anger against a sister or brother is like murder); the Sixth (even thinking about adultery is committing it, and remarrying after divorce is also breaking it); and the Second or Eighth, depending on how you look at it (it’s not just taking God’s name wrongly or bearing false witness that is out of bounds – anything other than simple, true speech is not of God.)

So as Lutheran Christians we seem stuck at both ends of that phrase – both our Lord Christ and our chief theologian have just made the Ten Commandments almost unattainable by us. How on earth can we keep such a law?

I would suggest that’s not the real question here. The question is this: are Jesus and Martin Luther truly just making the law unattainable – either to show us how desperately we need God’s forgiveness or to create a new standard that makes the old law look like child’s play? Or are they suggesting that behind the law is a deeper concern of God, something that cannot be reduced to lists of right and wrong, or to simple rules? If elsewhere Jesus claims that all God’s law is summed up in love of God and love of neighbor, then the latter possibility seems to be the true one. Both Jesus and Martin Luther understood far better than we usually do the whole purpose of God’s law, and what it means for our lives as disciples.

First, that God gives the law to guide us back into right relationship with God and each other.

Even at Sinai, the giving of the Commandments was a part of God’s creating a people, a community which cared for each other and worshiped God with all their lives. The Ten Commandments are at their root describing such a community: The first three describe our relationship with God. The second seven describe our relationships with each other.

When we look at the bigger picture of the Scriptures, God’s law is never intended in the legalistic way we tend to think of law. For us as citizens of the United States, for example, about the only time we think of the law is in terms of someone breaking it. Perhaps even we ourselves – when we take a yellow light a little too late and realize it’s turning red as we enter the intersection, we remember the law, and if you’re like me, we fret about it. But mostly the law is not a part of our daily thinking or involved in shaping our lives.

But God’s law is different, or at least it was intended to be. It was intended as God’s way of shaping the people of God for their purpose to be God’s light in the world, and a blessing to the nations. To shape their relationships with each other and with God.

And it is with each other – this is a community God is making, and this law is meant to be lived communally. It’s interesting to look at Jesus’ words carefully. In this section he is consistently using the plural form of “you” when speaking of each commandment. And then the singular form when giving examples.

So we might say it this way: “You all have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you all.” He means the community to understand this as their call, their task. Then when he gives examples, it’s individuals who are addressed. “But I say to you all that if you are angry with a brother or sister.” You, singular. The life is ours to live together, but each of us lives within that community with our individual lives.

That seems significant to me. None of us are called or able to live each of these ways perfectly. Together we hold ourselves accountable and we help each other. We model to each other. We shape each other. We become a community where we take anger and hatred as seriously as murder. Where relationships are valued and respected and honored. Where truth is told without dissembling or ornamentation.

And we help each other to live in this way – this is how our relationships, our love of each other, is shaped and is meant to be lived. Jesus says that love of neighbor is equal to love of God – we cannot do these things alone, nor are we asked to. Together we are shaped by the Spirit into loving, gracious, people.

Second, if it’s a community thing, this is how we become salt and light, the call we heard last week: we are examples of the way of Jesus for the sake of the world.

And we might find this awkward. Our culture is peculiar in that it struggles to know what to do with people who act ethically and graciously. Either it’s so astonishing that it makes the news when a community or an individual acts this way – think of the amazement people had about the Amish community which forgave the people who shot and murdered their children in their school – or it’s seen as threatening. So people who make counter-cultural decisions to love, to be gracious, to put aside anger, are seen as a threat, as “goody two-shoes,” “holier-than-thou” people. And folks are eager to look for flaws which can be declared as proof that these people are “no better than anyone else.” We have so many clichés and phrases for this phenomenon because it’s so pervasive.

All of which might make us hesitate to think of our faith community as a model of anything. Either our awareness of our own truth, our own sinfulness, keeps us from seeing this. Or our concern that we’d be seen as self-righteous.

Be that as it may, it is what Jesus asks of us. From the beginning, Israel was to be a light, a blessing to the nations. Now the Son of God has called us to that task. So in John: “they will know you are my disciples by your love for one another,” Jesus says. It is how we live in community which enlightens the world.

A community where we take seriously our love for each other so much that we address our anger before it harms the other. Where we don’t make our offerings before God until we’ve reconciled with each other. Where we take our relationships so seriously and so lovingly that we respect and honor each other – and each other’s partners. Where we take the truth so seriously and so lovingly that we needn’t couch our conversation in vows or promises – we speak yes and no to each other in love and grace.

Such a community in a world like ours would be remarkable. It would be a witness. It might even bring God’s light into the darkness of the world.

And third, we live this way because our Lord, the Son of God, has called us to this – and has fulfilled it for us.

We do not understand this way of life apart from the cross of Jesus. His life was this life – and he died living this life. His witness changed his disciples and the world. And his forgiveness of us is at the heart of this call. We are called to be a Christ community, a people of God who look like Christ and so witness to the world. We are forgiven by Jesus for just that reason: that we might become such witnesses through the grace and forgiveness we are given.

Because we are called to honesty, and because we are shown the heart behind the law, there are no pretenses here. We confess our sins because we know that even if we think we’ve followed the letter of God’s law, we have failed to follow the spirit of the law Jesus shows here. We see the heart of God’s plan for how we are to be with each other and with God, and we know we have failed to live that way.

But it is the Son of God we follow, whose forgiveness and life given us in his death and resurrection continue not only to call us to this heart of God, this new life, but also give us the power to become such witnesses, such disciples.

It’s all a matter of the heart. And so we pray with King David – as we will again on Ash Wednesday – for new hearts.

To have God continue to make clean hearts in us, new hearts which are shaped in love for God and love for neighbor. Which are shaped to be in this place a community of witness and grace for the sake of the world – not because we are holier than anyone else but precisely because we are not, and we speak truth here, and we seek God’s forgiveness and grace here. And in that forgiveness and grace we are shaped to be salt and light for the whole world. Or at least our little corner of it. And through us, God’s blessing continues to spread to all people.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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