Feb. 16, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Feb 16, 2020 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 16, 2020

When was the last time someone made you really angry? Who hacked you off to the point where you could think of little else? Can you think of a time you made someone else feel that way, inciting their hatred or vengeance beyond what seemed reasonable parameters? Sadly, both come to mind fairly easily for myself, and no matter which position I’m in—it feels awful! My gut is in a knot, I don’t sleep much, and the situation preoccupies me. This isn’t unique to me; it’s a very human way to feel and to some degree we’ve all been there. Think about what that feeling does to you, and how you want it to be gone. Then we ask ourselves what we can do about it. Sometimes it takes action on our part to resolve these things, and at times the resolution can only be had within ourselves; we try and fail to convince the other party to come to terms with us and we have to leave it with God, knowing we tried, and hoping the other person has a change of heart. Perhaps (and hopefully) we pray for them as well. In short, we try to live by a set of values and beliefs, knowing sometimes we do it well and sometimes not—and it is always a choice we make. Our reading from Sirach, or Ben Sira as the author is known, says, “Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.”

Ben Sira is part of the larger body called the “Wisdom Writings.” These writings generally seek to answer the question of ‘What promotes well-being?’ It was written about 200 bce, and includes advice and counsel on coping with difficult situations. While it can sound parental in tone, it’s addressed to people of all ages, and from this perspective of teaching faithful living comes our reading today. “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” Notice that “choose” or “choice” appears four times in just five verses—the author is clear that our lives are governed by our own choices, even when circumstances are difficult. Faithful actions are informed by convictions learned throughout our lives, and such actions, according to Ben Sira, bring us justification before God. An underpinning here is that people often believed (and some still do) that your faithfulness is determined by God giving you the material success you want because you’ve been a good God-fearing person. It was assumed that people with many children must have pleased God or when disasters or hardship befell people it was a sign of divine punishment for sin. The problem is, Ben Sira’s community saw this wasn’t holding true, and his response is that in big things and small we choose between good and evil, and it matters, if not right now, it will matter in being justified before God in the long run. So, if a couple was barren and lived virtuously, he says that’s better than having a large family of wicked children! Essentially, don’t go blaming God for your own choice to go astray, rather choose to keep the commandments yourself. Do this not for earthly reward but for right relationship with God.

The gospel today dives into some of this same territory, though regarding our human dealings with each other more than with God, and his lens for this is in how we choose to interpret obedience to the Law. For each of the commandments Jesus speaks of there is a three-fold response; reaffirmation of the law itself, a radicalization or expansion of the law, and then he offers situational applications of it. First, to refrain from murder is good, but not enough; we are to treat each other with respect, resolve differences, and do not speak cruelty to others. Secondly, yes, the law prohibits adultery, and Jesus takes it further by admonishing not indulge even in lusting outside of marriage. Next, he takes up remarriage; the laws regarding divorce were rather liberal for men in those days, and all too often impoverishing for women whose husbands divorced them. Jesus radicalizes this law by telling them, rather than treat people as disposable or ignore their vulnerability, they are to provide for them, to respect a woman enough to formalize the divorce, so that both can continue to live. Finally, he bypasses the intricacies of the law about swearing oaths and takes up the issue of honesty in a holistic way. He says it is not enough to simply keep from speaking lies unless one is under oath or exploiting loopholes by clever swearing. Taking an oath to affirm one’s honesty left the assumption that without one they were free to be dishonest. Jesus would eliminate any distinction between which words must be true and which words one must stand behind. We should be truthful in all of our words, and yet Jesus leaves it up to us to choose, I imagine him knowing there are circumstances in which stringent honesty would violate the greatest commandment to love.  When it comes to making the Law personal and relevant, Jesus sets a high bar; instead of discussing the finer points of the Law in abstract ways he shows how intensely relational the Law is for us. For that reason, it needs to be magnified and understood, extending the values behind it as more important than merely adhering to the letter of the law, because it must be based on human relationships if we are truly serving God.

Hidden within this is a key to our charge to think for ourselves to apply God’s commandments. Having gone from the prohibition against murder to mere anger, argument, or insults, he touches on an experience common to all of us. Though it is unlikely are there many murderers in this crowd or in Jesus’ audience, we have all been angry or have been at difficult impasse with someone. Again, Jesus sets his expectation high for even things like quarreling. He says to resolve difficulties with each other before we worship at God’s altar. We are not righteous in going to worship, if we do it with hardness in our hearts against each other. Sometime people won’t meet you in this, or won’t accept apologies, and at times it may be us who are not ready to let go of a wound we received. None of this is to say we must tolerate abuse or expect someone to give in or that we must agree. Frankly that “agree to disagree” position is how many people continue friendships these days!

The word ‘reconciled’ in this passage means to experience change in yourself; “I change” or “I reconcile.” The point is that we are to act intentionally to reconcile with our sister or brother, and this almost always means we must change. It isn’t a real apology if one says, “I’m sorry, but…” It isn’t really reconciliation if you put a good face on it but then carry around the same anger or resentment, nursing it now that we’re justified in saying we tried. Something has to change within us and we must be willing to be changed. For being faithful in small things reveals what we believe about the big things. Murder sounds unthinkable and enormous, but how often has someone caused the death of another’s creativity by criticism or mocking, the death of their belief or dreams, or confidence by ridicule or belittling?

The law isn’t to satisfy a tyrannical God or show how clever we can be in evading it. It isn’t to protect the tyrant who wants to use it only for their own gain or to wield power. Instead Jesus likens God to a loving parent who doesn’t want us to cause each other harm, who wants us children of God to thrive and flourish, making love the higher value. It reveals our own hearts and whether we choose a law of love or a law of convenience. Again, from Ben Sira, “He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” This is God’s gift to us; our ability to choose and hoping we will choose well, and it requires us to consider our actions humbly and consciously.

Often people tell me the stories of deep hurts or painful regrets as they get closer to dying, and I’ve had the blessing of being able to help with reconciliation in a number of people, and it always feels like God is powerfully present in the room with us. Many times such things keep a person from being able to let go of a life which has become painful and allow themselves to die in peace, knowing God’s blessing on their change of heart. Too many times I hear how much they wished they had not waited so long, wished they’d been able to let being right matter less than being forgiven or forgiving. It is such honest and humbling reflection which makes us people with wisdom to pass on to the next generation.

We don’t have it all right just yet as long as we keep trying. No matter how old or wise, mature or loving we are, there is always more to learn and more love to give. There will always be some way we can grow closer to God, and although we are God’s beloved just as we are, right now, we are never through growing in God’s love. In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he essentially tells this contentious group to ‘grow up!’ He takes them to task for their human sins of arrogance, jealousy, quarreling, and their divisive ways, and he calls them be stronger in living their faith. Instead of placing their trust in following others among them they should seek the Spirit of God. Paul writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” Can we be strong enough to take up the exercise of our God-given-growth? In some way this week perhaps you could you mend a quarrel, apologize or forgive where you need to, take a even a small step to set right that which weighs on you and pulls your spirit away from God, and know that our Lord rejoices in that change of heart and act of love.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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