The Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that 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. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Prayer: Lord, you have promised that when two or three gather in your name you will be present with them. We depend on that promise today and pray that you will move among us. Lord, we pray that you have inspired Mike's preparation, that you will enliven his presentation, and that you will empower our application. Amen
The Message: So, today I am going, to begin with, the Collect for this morning. I know you heard it a few moments ago as the introduction to this morning's readings, but I think it is worth taking a few moments to consider it again.
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Did you catch the center section of that prayer? I don't know about you but I find that incredibly encouraging.
"because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed" Man, whoever wrote that Collect certainly understood the dilemma so many of us struggle with in living out our faith.
Now, if you happen to be one of those rare individuals who has conquered your own desires and your own willfulness and you can live your life every day walking in the grace and peace of the Lord, then I bless you.
It seems to me that the Collect presents the truth of the experience of most of us. We identify all too well with the phrase: "we can do nothing good without you"
That it is only through the help we receive from the Lord and the grace that we experience daily, that we can keep the commandments and please the Lord.
I could probably stop speaking right there and that would be enough for us all to think about.
But I want to take some time this morning and address what seems to be a contradiction between the reading in Deuteronomy and the reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
Before we go there though I want to share something with you that has helped me in comprehending some of the challenges of Scripture and its application to my life.
In the ministry that Fiona and I were part of for more than 30 years we used to travel for four and a half months at a time through a particular region or area. Then we would all come together for a training session for about a month and a half.
At one of those training sessions, we were introduced to the American West in a very interesting way. The ministry was in a transition at that particular time and the leadership was trying to help us all understand what was happening.
So, we were introduced to the concept of pioneers and settlers in the American West. Being from somewhere else I was very interested in what I might learn about the development of this nation.
The class began with a description of the character of the pioneers. These were generally seen as visionary individuals. People who looked to the edge of the frontier and wondered: "what was out there?" They were risk-takers and adventurers who would be drawn by the unknown to seek out new experiences and opportunities to push the boundaries of the unknown.
Then we were told about the settlers. These were people who came after the pioneers. They followed maps drawn by the pioneers. They found wild and beautiful places based on the knowledge developed by the pioneers. They would find a place, maybe in a well-watered valley, or beside the clear waters of a lake. They would set up camp and soon others would join them and develop towns or small settlements. They began to build schools and churches and general stores. They would establish guidelines for how they would live together and perhaps elect someone to help them keep their rules and regulations. These people were also visionaries. But their vision was for organization and order and structure.
I would like to suggest that there is one more group that we could look at. That is the people who have grown up, a couple of generations, after the settlers. These are folks who have benefited from the settlements and found that they don't have to be quite so aware of the threats and dangers that surround them. Their application of the rules and community regulations is a little looser because everyone knows what they are and after all, you can't keep every "jot and tittle" of the law.
So, you might be wondering what this has to do with our readings from this morning. Well, I believe that in many ways these descriptions are central to some of the challenges that every church faces every day. Because as we sit here this morning there are people here who would identify themselves as pioneers and there are those who would identify themselves as settlers. There are those who are visionaries and explorers. Folks who want to look, and seek out the next horizon of growth and development. Then there are those who are longing for organization, and order. For things to be settled and comfortable. Truth be told there are probably some who feel all that exploring and settling have been accomplished and we should be able to live without all that unnecessary upheaval.
Again, what does all that have to do with the readings for today? The People of Israel have been through a long period of pioneering. They have been exploring and seeking out what is next across the horizon. They still have some of that in front of them as they move into the Promised Land. But they are about to become settlers in the land that God had promised to their ancestors. The Lord through Moses is laying before them the community rules and regulations for being a settled nation.
The problem is the People of Israel and I would dare say we have a love, hate relationship with rules and regulations or the Law. We love to have them in place so we know what they are and sometimes so we can hold others accountable to them. But we also seem to hate them, because they are so restrictive and so confining. We might just be like the people in Jesus' day and love to find ways to bend them because they just don't seem possible for us to keep.
In Deuteronomy this morning what is laid out makes it plain. Moses seems to lay it out simply: "if you do this then you will receive these blessings. If you do this you will suffer this punishment or these consequences." We human beings love to have formulas, but we have an awfully hard time operating by them or following them.
By the time we get to the people that Jesus is dealing with they have tinkered and adjusted the expectations of the law so much they are barely recognizable. One source I looked at said that the Pharisees had an additional 613 laws or commandments, that they had added to the laws of Moses, in an effort to make them work.
In the Gospel, this morning, we find Jesus saying: you were told this in the past but now you have developed these concessions, you have codified the law so that you can make it work.
Jesus calls the people to account and points out three of the ten commandments - you shall not murder - you shall not commit adultery - you shall not swear falsely - to illustrate just how far the people have strayed from the original intent.
Now, just in case we would like to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves for our ability to accomplish what the people couldn't, all we have to do is take a quick look at the reading from Corinthians. Paul challenges our basic ability to just get along. He challenges us all to consider what is in the center of the passage from Matthew: "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that 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."
If you remember that someone is holding something against you go and get it straightened out. Let's consider how we can stop bending the rules.
But most of all let's remember the words of the Collect: "because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed"
Bishops & Father Mike