Tag Archive | good works

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

Advertisements

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.