Sunday, February 12, 2017

Epiphany 6A

Deuteronomy 30:15–20, Matthew 5:21–37




Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.


It must have been a bittersweet moment for Moses and the people of Israel. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, many of them very turbulent years, they were on the verge of entering the Promised Land. For all these years Moses had led them out of slavery in Egypt through the wilderness. But he himself would not be crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. As he told the people of Israel, “I am now one hundred twenty years old. I am no longer able to get about, and the Lord has told me, `You shall not cross over this Jordan.’”


Our lesson from Deuteronomy 30 is the conclusion of his farewell address. Moses set before the people of Israel a choice: the way of life or the way of death. At the core of the way of life is a deep and abiding love of God.


Through the centuries the shema served as Israel’s most basic confession of faith: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” They were instructed: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”


In the Hebrew mind there was no such thing as hearing God’s word without obeying it. To obey the shema was to choose the way of life. Loving the Lord God entailed worshipping God, walking in God’s ways, and obeying God’s commands. To fail to heed the shema, to turn away their hearts from God, to bow down and serve other gods, was to choose the way of death. Moses’ final exhortation to the people of Israel is to choose the way of life.


The Ten Commandments given to Moses flesh out the shema. The First Table (1–3) focuses on the love of God. The Second Table (4–10) focuses on the love of neighbor. As Jesus taught, the Greatest Commandment is to love God; and the Second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God and love of neighbor are the two classic core values in our faith tradition. Both core values are crucial in choosing life.


A number of Biblical commentators have suggested that Matthew views Jesus as the new Moses. Six times in Matthew 5:21–48 Jesus states: “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you.” He then articulates some striking teachings. Is Jesus rejecting the teaching of Moses and those who have gone before him and offering brand new teaching?


Matthew 5:17 makes clear that is not his intent: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus wanted his followers to fulfill the Shema, to live by the core values of love of God and love of neighbor, to obey the Ten Commandments, and to heed the teachings of the prophets. Like Moses, Jesus sought to set before his followers the way of life and the way of death. The Sermon on the Mount was Jesus’ effort to discern and articulate what the way of life looked like in their time and place. He exhorted his followers to choose life.


Our gospel reading for today provides some specific examples of what the way of life looks like. First of all, God does not intend for human beings to pronounce ultimate judgment on one another. That does not mean we are to ignore sinful or destructive behavior. What we are to avoid is self-righteous behavior. We are to let God be the judge. Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers further instruction on this point: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, `Let me take the speck out of your eye.’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Individuals, congregations, and nations are all susceptible to self-righteous behavior. Jesus seeks to inject a dose of humility in us so that we can see clearly to identify sinful or destructive behavior that needs to be called to account. God will be the one to pronounce ultimate judgment on our thoughts, words, and deeds.


Secondly, Jesus warns against using insulting language toward other people: “if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say `You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Insulting language can cause tremendous damage in our relationships. It has been said that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Jesus’ teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount challenges the truth of that saying. Words can be devastating. Many have been troubled by the increase in insulting language in our public discourse. Such language has opened up deep wounds. It will difficult to heal those wounds without an increase in respectful language. Once again, Jesus is not advocating that we overlook sinful or destructive behavior. But the way of life entails calling people to account in a respectful way. The Apostle Paul echoes Jesus in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Our Table Talks are an attempt to engage in respectful discourse with one another on the pressing issues of our day. We want to bear witness that it is possible to speak with conviction and to be civil at the same time.


Thirdly, Jesus places a priority on reconciliation with our neighbor who has something against us. “So when you are offering your gift at the altar,” says Jesus, “if you remember your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus certainly wanted people to worship God. He supported giving gifts at the altar. But worship and generous giving do not remove the need to seek reconciliation. Along similar lines, we read in 1 John 4:20: “for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.” In the biblical tradition the way of life always includes love of God and love of neighbor. They go hand in hand. When it comes to seeking reconciliation, Jesus also adds a word of practical advice: “Make friends quickly with your accuser.”


Much could be said about Jesus’ teaching on adultery and divorce— several sermons actually. He challenges patriarchal norms that treated women as second class citizens in the marriage relationship. Basically in that time men were being allowed to do whatever they wanted to do. The way of life entails spouses treating one another with respect—as equals. Another crucial insight has to do with our thoughts lining up with our words and deeds. For those who choose life, their inner life and outer life will cohere. Loving attitudes will be consistent with loving words and deeds.


Jesus’ final teaching in our gospel reading for today has to do with oaths. Apparently people were using oaths and vows to mislead, manipulate, and evade. His point is that in a community of integrity and healthy relationships people do not need to resort to oaths. A person’s word can be trusted. Our most life-giving relationships tend to be those in which we can trust the other person’s word and they can trust our word.


Martin Luther’s Small Catechism has been the most widely used of his writings. Part One focuses on the Ten Commandments. For each commandment he asks the question: “What does this mean for us?” I have always appreciated that Luther instructs us not just on what we are not to do, but also on what we are to do. It is his way of encouraging us to choose the way of life, not the way of death. For example, in his explanation of the 2nd Commandment— “You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain”— Luther writes: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not use his name superstitiously, or use it to curse, swear, lie, or deceive, but call on him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.” Another example is his explanation of the 5th Commandment— “You shall not kill”: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help him in all his physical needs.” Hurting our neighbor is the way of death. Helping our neighbor is the way of life.


Our five core care values— God care, Earth care, community care, neighbor care, and self care— are our attempt to interpret what it means to choose life in our time and place. On Thursday St. Andrew hosted an Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon Climate Advocacy Workshop. Climate change has the potential to devastate all life on our Earth home. Addressing human-induced climate change was not a major concern for Moses, Jesus, or Luther. It is our responsibility in our time to articulate why Earth care is an essential part of choosing the way of life.


Currently people of faith are also struggling to discern what it means to choose life in our divided society. The shema, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Small Catechism are wonderful sources of inspiration and guidance in seeking to pursue the way of life. But it is our responsibility as followers of Jesus to choose life in this time and place. Like Moses, we will not necessarily see all the fruits of choosing life. It may seem like we are still wandering in the wilderness. We may feel overwhelmed at times by the forces of death and destruction. In a given situation we may struggle to discern the way of life from the way of death. That is all part of choosing life. But be assured: God promised Moses and the people of Israel to bless the way of life, and that promise holds today.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.