Tag Archive | Epiphany

7th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

7th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A (preached 2/19/17)

first reading:  Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm 119:33-40

second reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

gospel reading:  Matthew 5:38-48


For the past four weeks we have been making our way through chapter five of the gospel of Matthew – the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  We end the chapter today with what seems like some really impossible guidance.

This is one of the reasons why instead of just reading the Bible “cold,” it’s important to take the time to look at the context and then prayerfully consider what a passage or passages can mean for us in the here and now.  Because passages like this have been used (or rather ABUSED) to tell communities or individuals who are oppressed that they should just “take it.”

“Do not resist an evildoer,” turn the other cheek, “give your cloak,” can all be twisted when taken out of context.

Now, we could do a fascinating Bible study on what Jesus’ statement actually meant for the people to whom he was talking, but suffice it to say, Jesus did NOT mean to roll over and play dead.

The English, “Do not resist an evildoer,” is actually not a good translation.  Matthew scholar Robert H. Smith says, “The meaning is actually very close to Paul’s ‘Repay no one evil for evil’ (Rom. 12:17).”¹  I mean, Jesus confronted and resisted evil and evildoers all the time in his earthly ministry!

What Jesus is saying here is that we shouldn’t resort to violence or take revenge against evildoers. Believe it or not, giving the other cheek, the cloak, and going an extra mile were SUBVERSIVE acts in that time and place.  They were acts that would cause shame and embarrassment and even negative consequences to those on the receiving end.  They WERE in fact forms of resistance.

Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. even cited the Sermon on the Mount as a strong influence in their practices of nonviolent civil disobedience.  Again, what Jesus means is for us not to take revenge, and not violently respond to violence.

When we see evil around us – which Jesus would define as NON-love of neighbor – he makes it clear in other parts of the gospel that we ARE to act, to serve and love the “least of these” (Matt. 25).  NOT to act is a sin.

Speaking of love, that’s where Jesus is going next.

In the first part of the passage, he tells us not to be violent or take revenge.  But not taking revenge isn’t good enough.  We’re to do more than not hate.  We’re to do more than not take revenge.  We’re to “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us].”  In fact, this is the FIRST time the word “love” appears in the gospel of Matthew, so it must be important.

And why this call to love – even to love our enemies?  Jesus says, “So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  As scholar Robert Smith writes, “Here is the first reason for loving:  so that you may be like God, reflect the essential being of God, display kinship with God.  Like parent, like child.”²

It goes back to what I preached weeks ago on the Beatitudes – what we do is a reflection of who we are and who we are is reflected in what we do.  We love because we belong to God who IS love.  And because we are God’s children we love.

But Jesus does give us a challenge here that’s for sure.  It’s not just about loving our loved ones.  It’s not about returning kindness to those who have been kind to us.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

Again, this doesn’t mean rolling over and playing dead with those who would want to hurt us.  It doesn’t mean we stay with abusers, or put our heads down when we see injustice being done.  It IS possible to love someone, or some group, without getting sucked into their dysfunction.  It IS possible to love someone while truly hating some of the things they do.

How do we know it’s possible?  Because Jesus did it, and continues to do it.  As he was on the cross praying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing,”(Luke 23:34) he was praying for the people around him then – and for you and me now.

How many times I wonder, does Jesus see me and shake his head in sorrow and frustration, and yet he still loves me. As Christians we believe God should rightly hate and condemn us – that we are sinful – and yet what we receive is love and grace.

The reality though, is that this is probably THE hardest thing Jesus asks us to do.  The whole Sermon on the Mount feels impossible.  And perhaps for regular folks like you and me it IS.  But the old standard Lutheran answer of, “We can’t do it, Jesus has done it for us.  Praise God!” seems like a cop out here.

It IS true that we are saved from our sin of failure.  But too often we can’t even be accused of trying. Let’s not fall into the habit of using grace as an excuse to be lazy.  If we call ourselves disciples of Jesus our lives should be centered around following him as closely as we can, knowing that his grace is for us when we fall.

We are living in a world right now where this preaching of Jesus – this SERMON – speaks volumes to us as believers.

If, through our baptism, we believe we are called to be “workers in the kingdom of God,”³ then we’ve got a lot of work to do.  To be creative and faithful in standing against injustice and evil, while at the same time loving and praying for those who might even seek to do us harm.

May we take Jesus’ sermon to heart, and follow where his preaching leads us.

AMEN.

sermon on the mount, Laura James

sermon on the mount, Laura James


¹Matthew, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament.  Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis.  Robert H. Smith. p. 102

2 ibid, p. 104

³From the liturgy of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Lutheran Book of Worship

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5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

5th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A (preached 2/5/17)

first reading:  Isaiah 58:1-12

Psalm 112:1-9

second reading:  1 Corinthians 2:1-16

gospel reading:  Matthew 5:13-20


Sometimes preachers look at the readings for the coming Sunday and pray, “Oh God, what am I going to say?”  Other weeks we look at the readings and pray, “You’re speaking to me in a million ways Lord.  Help me choose!”  This is one of THOSE weeks.

Each of our readings today are wonderful – challenging to be sure, but also filled with amazing imagery, and profound truths.  This week I have been especially drawn to the prophet Isaiah.

In our reading from Isaiah today the people have been through a tremendous ordeal.  They have been oppressed and conquered.  They’ve been in exile, are “home” now – physically restored.  But something is still not right.

“Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways… they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.”

They are fasting as the Lord requires, they’re doing all the “right” things, but they’re not seeing any “results” from their fasting.  Why?  Something is missing.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  Through Isaiah, God tells them.  God tells them that their relationship with God is made up of more than just their individual actions towards God.  Through Isaiah, God tells the people that they can’t have blinders on, only looking to heaven, and be faithful.

And as the prophets often are when speaking for God – Isaiah is blunt – not so kind.

I read part of verse 2 a moment ago, but let me read the whole verse:  “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, AS IF they were a nation the practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…”  OUCH.

And there’s more.  The people ask plainly, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

I think we have all asked these questions at times in OUR lives.  I know I have.  Times when we pray and plead for God to help us or to give us a sign that we haven’t been abandoned.  Times when we feel like we’re doing all the right things but we’re still not getting anywhere.

I’m not saying that God’s answer to us in every time of OUR questioning is the same answer that God gives here, but I believe it’s worth looking at.  Because when the people pose these questions, Isaiah DOES give them an answer, and perhaps it’s not the one they wanted to hear.

“Look, you serve your OWN interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”

God tells the people that they may be following the rule that tells them to fast, but they’re going about it all wrong.  God tells them to look in a mirror and watch themselves – to see that as long as they perform this outward action to God, but mistreat one another, the action isn’t faithful.

Simply bowing one’s head and putting on sackcloth and ashes aren’t enough.  Going to church and praying on Sunday then going to work and being unkind on Monday isn’t going to cut it.  It’s not that God didn’t see their fast – God DID see how they were treating each other, so the fast meant nothing.

What’s the saying?  “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.”  In powerful words God then tells them what a FAITHFUL fast looks like.  It’s a powerful litany.

THIS is the fast:

  • “to loose the bonds of injustice
  • to undo the thongs of the yoke,
  • to let the oppressed go free, and
  • to break every yoke –
  • Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and
  • bring the homeless poor into your house;
  • when you see the naked, to cover them, and
  • not to hide yourself from your own kin…
  • remove the yoke from among you,
  • the pointing of the finger,
  • the speaking of evil…
  • offer your food to the hungry and
  • satisfy the needs of the afflicted…”

It’s not that God didn’t see their fast.  God also saw how they were treating each other, and mistreating each other, but also ignoring each other’s needs.

Last week, I preached about how in the Beatitudes Jesus blesses us for who we are and what we do.  That who we are is reflected in what we do, and what we do is a reflection of who we are.  This is what God through Isaiah is saying to the people here too.  Our faith is more that just coming to church and praying, or saying our prayers at night before we go to sleep.

As Lutherans sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that because we don’t have to earn our salvation, because Jesus has gone SO over the top in loving and rescuing us, we can be lazy in loving our neighbor.  Isaiah – and Jesus, especially in today’s gospel – tell us that our actions towards our neighbors, near and far, DO matter to God.

The fast that God wants from us, the fast that God sees and loves – is the giving of ourselves, in God’s name, in serving one another.

Then there are wonderful promises.  The images that Isaiah paints are profound and beautiful.

  • “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and
  • your healing shall spring up quickly…
  • you shall call and the LORD will answer…
  • Your light shall rise in the darkness and
  • your gloom be like the noonday.  
  • The LORD will… satisfy your needs in parched places, and
  • make your bones strong; and
  • you shall be like a watered garden,
  • like a spring of water, whose waters never fail…
  • Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
  • you shall raise up the foundations of  many generations;
  • you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
  • the restorer of streets to live in.”

I’ve got nothing to add to that.

AMEN.

 

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, year A (preached 1/15/17)

first reading:  Isaiah 49:1-7

Psalm 40:1-11

second reading:  1 Corinthians 1:1-9

gospel reading:  John 1:29-42


Last week as we read about the baptism of Jesus his encounter with John the Baptist was front and center.  This week, we get to hear the declaration of John, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  But John and Jesus don’t actually speak in our text this morning.  John talks about Jesus, and Jesus talks to others.

When Jesus does speak, he speaks to two of John’s disciples – who based on John’s testimony, decide to “check Jesus out.”  It’s THIS encounter I want to focus on this morning.

John was with two of his disciples when they saw Jesus.  John again called Jesus the “Lamb of God.”  As a result, those two disciples followed Jesus.  Jesus sees these two following him, so he asks, “What are you looking for?”

Instead of answering Jesus, they ask him a question in return:  “Where are you staying?”  At this Jesus answers, “Come and see.”

Jesus’ question “What are you looking for?” and moments later, his answer to them, “Come and see,” form the foundation of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

Each one of us can be asked, as we walk through these doors on a Sunday morning, “What are you looking for?”  The question is a good one.  It get to the heart of why we’re here.  How many of us, me included, have Sundays when we get up, get dressed, get in the car, pull in the parking lot and plant ourselves in the pew, without thinking “Why?” or “What for?”

What ARE we looking for when we follow Jesus?  What ARE we looking for when we worship?

artist unknown

artist unknown

And when we really think about it, is what we’re looking for what we actually find?  Is the Jesus of our dreams the Jesus of reality?

I think sometimes not.  I think sometimes we expect Jesus to be a lot more “macho.”  I think sometimes we expect Jesus to be a lot more “successful.”  And when I say “we” I’m not just talking about you and me, I’m talking about Christians everywhere and throughout history.

Sure, we DO have a vision of Jesus victorious over the cross, the King of heaven, the one who we confess shall come again to judge the living and the dead.  But he is also the same God/man who walked and talked, ate, slept, cried and died.

Jesus is no superman or Rambo.  He didn’t come to earth to beat other people down, or to give us earthly riches, power or prestige.  As one of my former pastors used to say, “God is not our heavenly Santa Claus.”

Ethiopian - artist unknown

Ethiopian – artist unknown

Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, only AFTER being betrayed, beaten and killed on the cross.   Jesus is the God/man who DIDN’T save himself – and by NOT doing so, has saved each one of us.

So… if we follow him or come to worship so we can be powerful or successful or find answers to every question we have in life, we will NOT find what we’re looking for.

But…

if we’re looking for a savior who can carry us, who will be our companion and strength and guide through all of life, whether we succeed or fail;

if we’re looking for a savior who will gift us with heaven despite our sin and failures, who has prepared a place for us not because we deserve it, but because he is LOVE;

if we’re looking for a place to gather where we can be accepted as a saved sinner/saint, and accept others as the same…

well then – to that Jesus says, “Come and see.”  This is discipleship in a nutshell.

Jesus said, “Come and see,” and those two men “came and saw.”  And once they “came and saw” they started to witness, “We have found the Messiah.”

Following Jesus, being a disciple, is as simple and as hard as that.  We follow, we see, and we witness to what we have seen.

Scholar Robert Kysar highlights this order.  “The risk of the journey (come) necessarily precedes the experience of seeing.”¹  It’s true.  We who follow Jesus ARE on a journey – a journey of faith where we don’t know what’s around the corner, even if we DO know the ultimate destination.

We come along for the ride with this savior, not knowing exactly where we’re going or what will happen. We often can’t see where God has been working in our lives to get us through things, how we got from point “A” to “B” until we get to point “C.”  Discipleship is an amazing act of trust given to us through faith.

Following – being a disciple – coming and seeing, then leads to witness.

Andrew (one of the men who “came and saw”) responded by searching out and saying to his brother, “We have found the Messiah,” and then “brought [him] to Jesus.”  Our calling as disciples, once we have come and seen, is to give that invitation to others.

We hear “come and see.”  So, we “come, and see.”  Then we tell others to “come and see.”

No matter what our station in life, our mission as disciples is the same.  Tomorrow we will honor The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   A man of courage, who preached the love and JUSTICE of Jesus, who knew his life was constantly in danger and yet kept preaching Jesus’ gospel of equality and loving neighbor anyway.  Today we read about the call of some of the first disciples, who would also preach to many, and whose testimony we still hear.

Thousands heard their words – yet our call – yours and mine – is the same as theirs.  We may not have the audience or the influence they did and still do, but our call is just as important as theirs.

It is the call of the disciple who preaches to hundreds as well as the disciple who shares with just one – telling the love and forgiveness of Jesus for every person –

“We have found the Messiah.”

“Come and see.”

AMEN.

2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 2016

2nd Sunday after Epiphany, year C, 2016 (preached 1/17/16)

first reading:  Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

second reading:  1 Corinthians 12:1-11

gospel reading:  John 2:1-11


Today the lectionary presents us with weddings.  The institution of it and the joy of it.

Marriage is an important part of our culture.  Perhaps not as much as it used to be – more people are choosing to remain single, and others don’t feel the need for the state or Church to legalize their relationships.  But, in general, we have a culture that values marriage.

Things were quite different in the time of Isaiah and when Jesus walked the earth.  Marriage was EVERYTHING.  For a woman it offered protection and security.  For a man it was the way to provide legitimate heirs.  How much love played into it depended on the individuals, but to be married was the goal for everyone.  To be alone was culturally “second rate.”

This is why Isaiah uses marriage to describe Judah’s future.  They will go from “forsaken” and “desolate” to delightfully married, and God will rejoice.  The same attitudes of marriage were present in the time when Jesus was born and lived among us.  Weddings brought two individuals together, brought two families together, brought the whole community together, and were a sign of hope for the future.

Weddings are wonderful and special.  In Jesus’ day they could last up to a week!  In our day we have a party, we take pictures, we remember the day every year.  And yet, at the same time, weddings are pretty ordinary.  I mean, people get married all the time.

Over 2.1 million couples got married in 2014 in the United States.  That’s almost 6,000 weddings a DAY.

Isaiah’s vision of a nation restored, legitimized and filled with joy,  and the setting for Jesus’ first miracle in the gospel of John, tell us something wonderful about how God operates.

Many times we think that for something to be holy it has to be unique, ULTRA special, EXTRA ordinary – something set apart.  And while it’s true that holy things are things set apart, what makes them holy is the function they serve.  No thing is inherently holy.  It’s what we DO with a thing that makes it holy.

Over 6,000 marriages a day, nothing special about that.  But God gives us a message through using this example in Isaiah and John.  And the message is this – that God can and does take what is everyday and ordinary and make it holy.

Through the marriage imagery in Isaiah, and Jesus’ attendance and first miracle at a marriage banquet, we learn the God wants to take things familiar to us and use them to help us experience the divine.

A wedding may be commonplace, and even if it takes place at city hall, invoking God’s name and blessing makes it a holy thing.  Our meeting here together this morning in and of itself is not a holy thing.  People meet together all the time:  at the grocery store, a concert, the doctor’s office, at restaurants, the senior center.  But when we meet and call on God’s name, to praise God and hear God’s Word, then it becomes worship, and worship is holy.

IMG_0879I drank a glass of water this morning.  Thank goodness that for most of us here, water is an everyday ordinary thing.  We turn on the faucet and it’s there like magic.  My glass of water was not holy.  But God decided that the act by which you and I would become God’s children would involve simple everyday water.

Again, God using an ordinary everyday thing to make a holy connection to us – a holy covenant.  Because when God’s Word is spoken over everyday water, it becomes in the words of Martin Luther, “a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water.” (Book of Concord, Tappert ed, Large Catechism, p. 438)

We eat and drink every day.  It’s one of the first things we do as a newborn, and one of the last things we will do before we die.  Once again God chooses one of our most ordinary activities to make holy.

11173340_1208991342450171_5284530707964794726_nIn the Old Testament God instituted the Passover – in the New Testament Jesus gives us the new covenant through the eating and drinking of holy communion.  Everyday substances of bread and wine, that when joined with God’s Word, become for us a sacrament of forgiveness.  Jesus took the bread, took the cup, blessed them and made them holy.

Over and over again, God takes the things we KNOW – the things we experience in our daily lives – and uses them to form and keep a relationship with us, and to strengthen our relationships to one another.  Because God knows we are both spiritual AND earthly people.

We cannot disconnect from our human senses, and so God USES those senses – sight, touch, taste, hearing and even smell – to connect with us.

Indeed God loved us SO much, want to be so intimately involved with our lives and way of living, that God chose to be among us.  God chose to be born and live with us, to experience the joy of a wedding, the relaxation of eating with friends, the death of a loved one, and even death itself – all out of love for you and me.

It’s an amazing thing – that God stoops so low, indeed Jesus BECAME an ordinary person, to meet us in love.

Because Jesus lived among us, God understands first hand our humanity and how it works.  It’s wonderful, and I’m so grateful, that God uses the things we find familiar, in order to form and keep us in faith.

We don’t have to travel to some far off place to find what is holy, we don’t have to conjure up complicated potions, we don’t have to perform great athletic feats, we don’t have to be perfect people to find the holy.

God comes to us in Jesus – with water, with bread and wine, saying, “where two or three are gathered together in my name.”

May we recognize him in these moments, in these things, and give thanks.

AMEN.

 

5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2015

5th Sunday after the Epiphany, year B, (preached 2/8/15)

first reading:  Isaiah 40:21-31

Psalm 147:1-11

second reading:  1 Corinthians 9:16-23

gospel reading:  Mark 1:29-39


Each of our gospel writers has a distinct character.  They each add their own flavor to their version of the events in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, depending on when they were written, their target audience and their personal style.  There are things I like, and don’t like, in each of our four gospels.

One of the things I love about Mark, which we believe was the first of the gospels to be written, his his intensity.  In Mark, there is no small talk, no procrastinating.  Everything is done quickly, if not immediately, as soon as possible – no delaying!

In today’s gospel we see this clearly, but we also have a chance to be surprised by Mark – and Jesus.

We open with Jesus and the disciples leaving the synagogue to go to Simon and Andrew’s house.  They didn’t dawdle or take their sweet time:  “AS SOON AS they left the synagogue” they went to the house.  And again, in Mark’s character, we get right to the point, no poetic language – Simon’s mother-in-law is sick and they tell Jesus “at once.”

Kind of reminds me of when I walk in my house after being out for a bit and I get bombarded by kids before I can get my coat off!

After Simon’s mother-in-law is healed she serves them.  She gets right back to work.  She uses her new-found health to serve others.  A good lesson for us.

The scene shifts to sundown and the house being innundated with folks who want healing, a chaotic scene to be sure, filled with noise and sorrow and joy.  Then it stops.  Like when the last guest leaves your party and you close the door and take a long deep breath of relief.

We don’t expect this from the Mark that constantly keeps moving.  He doesn’t write anything extraneous.  But here it is, so it MUST mean something.  It must be important.  But it only lasts for one verse so we’ll miss it if we’re not careful.

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went to a deserted place…”

In my house, I am almost always the first person awake.  Now that my oldest is in high school and it’s winter, when I wake up it’s pitch black outside – and quiet.

The frantic pace of Mark’s gospel stops in the stillness, darkness and quiet of the very early morning.  It turns out that even Jesus needed time to catch his breath.  And what did he do with this one little bit of quiet solitude?  HE PRAYED.

Durer's praying hands

Durer’s praying hands

Quiet, solitude, prayer.  In the crazy busy important life Jesus was living, even busier than you and I could ever be, he took time to recharge, refresh and reconnect.

Certainly public worship and prayer plan an incredibly important role in our life of faith.  But we also need to take time of solitude as well.  Time to allow God to fill us once again when we’re feeling empty.  In the words of Isaiah, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.”

So this isn’t just alone time to sip our cup of coffee and read the paper – it’s time to PRAY.  Connecting with God.  Time for us to share with God our troubles and joys.  Time to remember how God has been present for us in the past.  Time to receive God’s love and forgiveness and guidance.

Time to talk, time to remember, and time to listen.  If Jesus needed this time, than how much more do we?

Because soon enough Jesus is at it again.  He’s interrupted by the disciples who were out searching for him.  And then they’re off once more.

The disciples want to go back, but Jesus says they need to go forward.  There are those who have yet to hear the message and THAT is where they need to go.  Good for us to ponder on this day of our annual meeting, when we look at the year that is past, and set our focus on the year to come.  Where are WE to go, what are WE to do, in order to live out the great commission to make disciples of all nations?

But back to the question I asked, “If Jesus needed this time, than how much more do we?”

Quiet, solitude, prayer.  “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

When we neglect taking the time to stop and pray, we run the risk of taking God for granted.  When we think we’re too busy to stop and pray – THAT is when we absolutely NEED to pray.

Even our electronics need time to recharge.  Our physical bodies will break down without sleep.  In the same way, our spiritual life breaks down if we don’t rest and recharge in the Lord.

There’s always so much going on in our lives, whether it’s work, kids, our health and physical strength concerns, paying the bills, even our concerns for others, and can get tired and discouraged.

But listen again to how the prophet Isaiah describes GOD:  “He does NOT faint or grow weary…. He gives power to the faint, and strength to the powerless… those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength…”

Jesus needed to take that time of quiet, solitude and prayer.  He gives us his own example to follow in our lives.

He loves you and I, and wants us to be able to rest in him.  He loves you and I, and wants us to find comfort in him.  He loves you and I, and wants to give us strength.

In the midst of Mark’s busy gospel, and in the midst of OUR busy lives, that’s a good message to hear.

AMEN.

7th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2014

7th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A, 2014 (preached Feb. 23, 2014)

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm 119: 33-40

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Gospel Reading:  Matthew 5:38-48

On of the toys my two younger children have liked over the years are Legos.  I loved Legos as kid and I’m glad that my children like them too.  In fact, when we go to the mall, the Lego store is one of the places we MUST go.

I marvel at the elaborate sets Lego makes now.  When I was young Legos were mostly just blocks, and you supplied the imagination to build.  While they can still be that, there are some amazingly intricate and complicated sets you can buy for houses, trucks, police stations, and Star Wars and Harry Potter sets.  Neat stuff!

I don’t know about the huge models, but one of the things I like as a parent about the smaller sets is that they have good, simple directions.  And you don’t even have to deal with different languages, because all the directions are in pictures.

I was thinking about that when I read our passages for today.

Our readings provide us really wonderful directions on how to live in relationship with God and one another, especially in the Old Testament and Gospel.  They give us good pictures of how society and faith ideally work.

In Leviticus, the Lord is giving his people commands on how to go about their daily living so that their relationships with one another will please the Lord.

He tells the farmers to leave a bit of their harvest out in the fields so that the poor and strangers passing through may search and find sustenance.  Don’t steal or deal falsely, and do not lie to each other.  Don’t defraud your neighbor, don’t withhold wages from your workers.

Treat those with disabilities with integrity and respect.  Practice true justice, don’t slander, do not profit from your neighbor’s blood.  Do not hate, do not take vengeance.

To sum it all up, love your neighbor as yourself.  Be holy, as the Lord is holy.  The overwhelming message of HOW to be holy in this reading is to be concerned about the plight of our neighbors, the strangers in our midst – how we treat one another.  We learn that we please God when we are concerned about our neighbors’ well-being, and act on their behalf.

But leave it to Jesus to muddy the waters.  He raises the bar in our gospel reading.

I think we can pretty much agree that the Leviticus reading makes sense.  It could be argued that our gospel reading makes little or no sense.

Who among us here, if struck on the cheek, would willingly volunteer the other one?  Perhaps I could restrain myself from striking back, but unless I was being held down, I would certainly at least move out of the way before the person could get me again!

In the bitter cold and snow of this winter I hope we all looked through our closets for donations for those less fortunate.  But to give the coat off my back – to go so far to insure the warmth of a neighbor that I end up suffering from the cold – I’m not sure I can do that.

And loving my enemies?  That might be the hardest of all.  Like Jesus said, it’s easy to pray for those you love, or those who love you, but to pray for those who hate you, for those who actively work against you?  That’s A LOT to ask.

Does a kid being bullied at school have to pray for the bullies?  Does that person at work who constantly undermines us so they can get ahead deserve our prayers?  And we’re to pray for people who plot attacks against our country?

And just so you know, when Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, he DOESN’T mean for us to pray they go to hell – just the opposite.  He wants us to pray for their conversion to love and peace so that one day we may enjoy their presence, and that they may know God’s love.

A side note:  praying for our enemies doesn’t mean we don’t work to make sure they’re held accountable.  Perhaps the thing that will turn the bully’s life around is being confronted with their behavior, so they have an opportunity to change.

All this is hard, no denying it – Jesus KNOWS it.  He reminds us that it’s easy to love those who love us back.  But Jesus expects more of us than that, and as always shows us the way WITH HIS OWN LIFE.

For in Jesus we see one who loved those who not only persecuted him, but killed him.  From the cross, he begged the Father to forgive them – and to forgive us too.

But why does he ask all this of us?  He gives us the reason:  so that we may be like God, reflect the essential nature OF God, and to display our kinship WITH God.

Jesus also gives us another reason.  Later in the gospel of Matthew Jesus tells us as we “do” to the least of these, we do to him.  When we share our food with others, we are sharing it with Jesus.  When we treat the disadvantaged with respect, we treat Jesus with respect.  When we give away our coat, we’re giving it to Jesus.

And when we pray for our enemies, we are praying for us to recognize Jesus even in THEIR face, and for Jesus to be known to them.

In Leviticus we are told to be holy, as the Lord is holy.  In Matthew we are told to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.  And we learn that perfection and holiness are most demonstrated in how we regard others.

Now, NONE of us is perfect, but through Jesus’ forgiveness we are bold to try, because we don’t have to fear failure.

So may the salvation we have received through the forgiveness, love and sacrifice of Christ Jesus so move US in love, that we seek each day to treat our neighbors with the same honor we would give to the Lord himself.

AMEN.

6th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2014

6th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A, 2014 (preached February 16, 2014)

First Reading:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Psalm 119:1-8

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Gospel Reading:  Matthew 5:21-37

You know, even as a pastor I admit that I don’t “love” every word of Scripture.  Some passages make me uncomfortable, some parts don’t jive with the overall picture I have of who God is.  There are some parts of the Bible that I wish we could just skip over.  Today’s gospel is one of those parts.

If the word “gospel” means “good news,” then where is the gospel in Matthew’s reading?  What does it give us?  A whole bunch of commands on how we should live.  And they’re not easy ones either.

They don’t just deal with how we should behave toward our neighbors, they deal with how we should FEEL, with our hearts, and that is HARD.

In addition to that, this text shows us just how much we HAVEN’T done.  It puts us in our place.  It shows us where we have failed.  And NO ONE likes to be shown where they have failed.

You see, in this text, Jesus redefines the 5th, 6th and 8th commandments.  He broadens their meaning to include our FEELINGS as well as our ACTIONS – so much so that none of us have a place to hide.

The first part, vs. 21-26, concerns the 5th commandment, “You shall not murder.”  I can honestly say to you all that I’ve never murdered anyone.  That may put me in good standing with the Pharisees – but it doesn’t with Jesus.  He wants more.

He says that if I’ve had ANGER in my heart towards a brother or sister I’m just as guilty.  So I’m supposed to live anger-free.  I don’t live alone.  I’m not a hermit.  I have a husband and three kids.  I’m angry several times a day, sometimes several times an hour.

WHO CAN DO THIS?

The second part in vs. 27-32 concerns the 6th commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”  Again, Jesus is concerned both with how we act, and how we FEEL.  He expands this command to include not only the physical act of  adultery, but also how we FEEL when we look at someone who is not our spouse.

WHO CAN DO THIS?

And Jesus speaks not only of adultery within marriage, he also speaks about divorce.  Such a “touchy” subject.  I know many good, faithful people who have been through the pain of divorce.  I know many people who have left marriages because of abuse.  But Jesus clearly states that it is sin, just like the rest.

In the last part of our reading, Jesus discusses the 8th commandment, “You shall not swear falsely, ” or as it’s more popularly known, “You shall not bear false witness.”  As we have come to expect by now, Jesus takes this commandment one step further.

New Testament scholar, Robert Smith, speculates on why Jesus tells us not to swear at all.  We have the wrong motives.  Smith writes, “Precisely because talk is cheap, memories self-serving, and promises often broken:  people resort to oaths, dressing up their poor words by throwing over them a cloak of divinity, thinking to ‘use God’ makes their words more impressive.”*

Again I ask, WHO CAN DO THIS?

The obvious answer is – NO ONE.

Maybe some of us can fulfill some of what Jesus laid out in today’s gospel – but I guarantee you that no one here can fulfill ALL of these commands ALL of the time.

So what are we to do?

What I DON’T like about passages like today’s gospel is that some people read it and come away thinking they have to follow every word of it to be saved – that they have to measure up to Jesus’ standards in order to be accepted by him.  They use passages like this and others to exclude people from the fellowship of God, for not living up to Jesus’ expectations.  This is a misreading and misunderstanding of the whole purpose of Jesus’ life and death.

Martin Luther said repeatedly that the purpose of passages like this, the purpose of the law, was to hold up a mirror for us, so that we may see how little we can do on our own – and how much we need Jesus.  The purpose of a passage like today’s gospel for Luther, for me, and I hope for you, is to show us how utterly WE NEED A SAVIOR.

novgorod-icons18This can be difficult for us to accept at times.  We like to think we have some control over our salvation, that it’s somehow a “partnership” between Christ and ourselves.  But today’s gospel is a reminder of how wrong we are when we make that assumption.  This is perhaps what makes us MOST uncomfortable.

There is absolutely nothing we can do to make ourselves righteous, nothing we can do to earn our salvation.  We are completely, totally, utterly dependent on Jesus – on his sacrifice and love and forgiveness and mercy.

If we could live up to Jesus’ expectations, if we were humanly able to DO and BE everything he calls us to – then we WOULDN’T NEED HIM.   If we were capable of doing it for ourselves, then Jesus died for NOTHING.

But the truth is that we CAN’T fulfill the law’s demands.  Even as he spoke these words Jesus had to know it was impossible for those disciples, and for us.

But does this mean that we’re free from TRYING to follow God’s commandments?  By no means.

We need to make our best attempt to follow the commands the Lord has given us.  We are part of God’s family, you and I.  And as Christians, what we do with our lives reflects upon the whole Church, and as we read last week, gives God glory in heaven.

This doesn’t mean we won’t fall, that we won’t fail.  What it DOES mean is that, through our baptism, forgiveness and reconciliation are always there for us.

And that brothers and sisters IS “good news.”

AMEN.

*Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew.  Robert H. Smith. 1989, Augsburg Publishing House, p. 101.