Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Human Weakness and the Strength of God: Wandering in "the Place"

First Sunday in Lent – March 5, 2017
Olivia Hamilton


My best friend is a Hebrew School teacher in Brooklyn – one of the main responsibilities she has in this role is to prepare middle-schoolers for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. As a performer and a poet, she undertakes this endeavor with endless creativity, always coming up with new ways to engage young people in the richness of the Jewish tradition, and to help them locate their own unique place within it. The young people embroider prayer shawls, they create raps and rhymes in order to learn Hebrew letters and words, and they engage their Torah portions with awe and wonder, as if the text were alive, always being encouraged to make connections between the world we live in, and the world they encounter in these ancient stories.

 

There is one activity that she does with her students that I have become really fond of –the prompt is simple and goes as follows: the young people are instructed to identify ways that God is depicted and imagined in the Hebrew Bible. For example, some familiar images include God as a teacher, a father, a king or a ruler. In Exodus, God is called a “man of war” and Moses calls God an unchanging rock. The student’s attention is also drawn to more ambiguous terms that are used in the Hebrew Bible to talk about God, such as the word makom, which literally means “the place.” Rather than signifying a precise location, makom is a way of gesturing toward God’s revelation in time and space, and how God manifests in particular communities and is revealed in particular places. For instance, when Abraham is preparing to sacrifice Isaac at Mount Moriah, makom is used to signify both the place where God has instructed Abraham to go, but also God’s closeness to Abraham there. As Jewish scholar Barbara Mann writes, makom, in this instance “indicates the biblical topography – in this case the heights – as well as the presence… of divinity.” Makom is any place where we meet God intimately in our lives, and in the Bible is variously depicted as a desert, a mountaintop, a wilderness, a winding road – not places on a map, per se, but times in our lives when we are disoriented and must pay close attention to where God is leading us.

 

Next, the students are asked to think about how each of these images of God help to shape our understanding of ourselves – and by that I mean: if God is _____ than we are ­­­­­­­­______. So, using some of the examples that I just named:

 

·                    if God is a judge, than we are people who have erred and are in need of mercy.

·                    If God is a teacher, than we ought to listen, learn and observe.

 

Those analogies come pretty easily – but what about if God is makom, the place? I encourage you to think about this for a moment. (Silence).

As I think about it, if God is the place, than perhaps we are pilgrims or travelers, seeking rootedness, disoriented, but always wandering on the terrain of God’s loving-kindness, whether we know it or not.

 

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On Wednesday when I had ashes imposed on my forehead, I was thinking of this image as I heard the words “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” If we are dust, than it seems God is the place from which we came to which we are always coming back to. I think of it as a blessing that our scriptures give us so many images for who and what God is, and how what it means to be in relationship to God. I am especially grateful that starting with the ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season when we are reminded that although our lives are fragile, God’s love for us is unfathomably strong, and whether we are wandering through the temptations of the wilderness or walking on the road to Jerusalem, following Jesus to the Cross, God is the solid ground under our feet – the context in which our whole lives take place.

 

Today we hear the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness – the wilderness, I think, is makom:  it is a place that represents Jesus’ trusting relationship with God, and it is a potent reminder of human vulnerability, on one hand, and divine strength on the other. In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted by Satan, who desires to outsmart him and cause him to disobey God. Jesus’ time in the wilderness is a test of sorts: how bad are his hunger pangs that he would be tempted to turn a stone into a loaf of bread in order to eat? How compelling is his desire for power that he would follow Satan in order to have all of the kingdoms of the world handed over to him?

 

There Jesus is, famished and weak, vulnerable to temptation – a very human moment in the narrative of his life. But he also trusts in the strength of God’s promise to him, and knows that he will not be abandoned there. This temptation seems to foreshadow what we know will happen on the Cross: the jeers and taunting and humiliation that Jesus will endure, his body hanging in a posture of ultimate weakness, nailed to a cross, tempted to believe that God has forsaken him, but trusting in God’s strength nonetheless.

 

Human weakness and the strength of God. These are the realities that we encounter and move between in these forty days: we encounter our own weakness as we reflect on the ways that we sometimes sin and miss the mark, so to speak, failing to treat our neighbors as ourselves. We hold grudges, we don’t ask for help when we need it, we judge others and the world through our limited perspectives, failing to see how each person encounters God in a unique place, in a unique way. We encounter our own vulnerability as we are reminded that life is fleeting, and that our bodies will not last forever.

 

The poet Christian Wiman grapples with this in his lyrical autobiography, My Bright Abyss, which was written shortly after he was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. He writes, about his own frailty, saying -- “Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ's weakness equals… strength.”

 

What Wiman seems to be saying here is that in Christ, strength and weakness are altogether bound up in one another, and more, that our own weakness – our own tendency to give into temptations of power or ease or material stability – is reconciled through Christ’s total trust in the strength of God.

Thinking back to the concept of makom – the place or places where we encounter God – I want to leave you with a few questions to ponder today, and throughout these next forty days:

In the terrain of your life, where are you feeling closeness (or distance) from God?

Where is the place where the wounds of Christ are touching your wounds?

Where is the place where God’s strength is yearning to meet your human weakness?


I want to close in the words of our collect for the day, which I think is so powerful as to bear repeating: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” Amen.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Get Up and Do Not Be Afraid


Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Matthew 17:1-2

Last Epiphany 2017 – February 26, 2017
The Reverend Luther Zeigler

Mountains are holy places.  They are high places, where the earth and heavens seem to touch.  The air is crisp and invigorating.  On mountains, we are closer to the brightness of the sun during the day and the illuminating array of stars at night.  We go to the mountains to retreat from the craziness of our daily lives, and from their tops we are able to gain perspective, to see more clearly where we are and who we are.

It is no wonder that mountains figure so prominently in the Bible as places where people meet God.  In Exodus, Moses goes to the mountain in Sinai to receive the law, and it is on another mountaintop that Moses sees the Promised Land just as he is about to die.  In First Kings, Elijah, the great prophet and forerunner of the messiah, goes to the holy mountain to hear the still, small voice of God in the sheer silence of the mountain pass.  And today, in our gospel reading, it is on the mountaintop that Jesus is transfigured before his inner disciples – Peter, James, and John. 

Every year at this time we hear the Transfiguration story, at the end of Epiphany season and before we embark our Lenten journey to the Cross.  Transfiguration Sunday, as we sometimes call it, is a “hinge” time, a transitional moment in the liturgical year, a time when we are invited to look both backward and forward, as if we were indeed standing on a mountaintop, glancing back whence we have come and looking ahead to what is yet to be.  And so too does the Transfiguration story itself invoke both past and future.

The story looks to the past by connecting Jesus’ life and ministry to the two great prophetic figures of the Old Testament – Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the prophet whose primary mission is to herald the coming of a Messiah.  Their appearance with Jesus in this vision tells us that, yes, Jesus’ life is in continuity with the prophetic tradition and the Torah. Jesus is fulfilling the work God started in Moses, and he is responding to the clarion call of Elijah for a messiah. 

The Transfiguration story likewise looks backwards to the scene of Jesus’ baptism.  You will remember that at his baptism in the River Jordan, a spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, with a voice from the heavens saying to him:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”  Now, this same voice from the heavens calls out again, but this time it speaks not to Jesus alone, but to those who would follow Jesus, saying:  “This is my Son, the Beloved,” and then adding three simple, yet daunting words:  “listen to him!” 

But the Transfiguration story also looks forward, foreshadowing things to come.  Jesus’ mysterious transfiguration into a dazzling white figure, such as no one on earth has seen before, points us unmistakably to the Resurrection.  In this brief mountaintop experience, the disciples get a glimpse of the glory that is to come, and are thus reassured that, even though the way of Jesus will be a way of suffering, and even death, Jesus’ solidarity with God will somehow endure.  For all of these reasons, it is entirely fitting that we end the season of Epiphany with this greatest of Epiphany stories.  

Many commentators have pointed to the many striking parallels between Matthew’s description of the Transfiguration, on the one hand, and the account of the crucifixion, on the other.   In the transfiguration, Jesus’ clothes shine with the glory of God; at the crucifixion, the soldiers gamble over his garments.  In the transfiguration, Jesus is surrounded by Moses and Elijah; at the cross, he is flanked by two criminals.  In the transfiguration, God Himself declares Jesus to be the divine Son; at the crucifixion, the words “he said ‘I am God’s Son’” become a taunt of mockery on the lips of the religious authorities.  At the end of the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah have departed, leaving Jesus to stand in singular glory; at the end of the crucifixion, Jesus dies in humiliation while the crowd stands around waiting to see “whether Elijah will come to save him.”  In both stories there are three witnesses: in the transfiguration, the witnesses are men (Peter, James and John); at the crucifixion, they are women (Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Salome, the mother of James and John).

These extraordinary parallels invite us to consider the deep theological connection between power and powerlessness, between glory and sacrifice, between self and selflessness, and how God in Christ utterly upends our all-too-human fantasies of how we would like our lives to be.  As followers of Jesus we live between the two poles of crucifixion and transfiguration.  

Like Peter, I am sure that most of us would prefer to stay with Jesus on the mountaintop, to build him a house there with Moses and Elijah, to preserve that moment of mystery and splendor forever, to bask in it, and to block out all this business about suffering and serving and bearing one’s cross.  But that is not Jesus’ way.  Much as his disciples want to hang on to the glory of the moment, Jesus gently leads them back down the mountain.  His future is not to withdraw from the world, but to serve it, to stand up to its injustices, to speak out against its corruption, and ultimately to suffer at its hands and to die for it.  And, if we are to “listen to him,” as the voice of the Father urges us to, we know that we must follow him down the mountain, through the stark wilderness of Lent that lies ahead, toward that mount on the other side, Calvary. 

But notice this one other detail in the story.  What happens to Peter, James and John when the veil is drawn back, and they see Jesus in his glory, and they hear God’s command to listen to him?  As usual, the disciples are afraid, and fall down.  And what does Jesus do?  He gently comes over to them, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  The Greek word that is here translated as ‘get up’ has the same root as the word for resurrection.  Jesus literally raises them up out of their fear, so that they might follow.

I have a foreboding sense that this year’s season of Lent may well be one of the more challenging ones of our lifetimes.  We’ve already seen the dark clouds on the horizon:  signs that our country is so intoxicated with “making America great again” that we are prepared to crush those who get in our way, to ignore those whose needs are perceived to be a drain on our greatness, and to silence all those who dissent from the ruling narrative.

In the face of such idolatrous nationalism – for that is what it is – our call as Christians is to stand with the weak and forgotten, and to give witness to an alternative community that is rooted in love rather than fear, and that is known by embrace rather than exclusion.  From the vantage point of the world, nothing could be more foolish than to pick up a cross and follow Jesus.  A life that is spent soothing the pain of the sick, welcoming the stranger, sharing bread with the hungry, visiting those in prison, and denying oneself may seem like a squandered life in the economy of a self-centered age; but in the divine economy, such a life is a precious thing indeed.  Suffering on behalf of others may appear to the world to be pouring one’s life down the bottomless drain of human need; but in the Kingdom this is what saving one’s life looks like.

One of the gifts of the season of Lent, which begins for us this coming Wednesday, is that it offers us a ‘pause’ in the midst of overwhelmed lives and a troubled world, to consider whether we are being truly attentive and receptive to the transfiguring work of Christ in our lives.  Let us use this season of Lent to listen to him with a renewed sense urgency, confident that when we do choose to follow him, he always remains by our side, ready to raise us up when we fall.
  
Please pray with me:  “Lord Jesus, pull back the veil of ignorance and unbelief that blinds us to your glorious truth, dispel our fears, raise us up out of despair, and then send us back out into the world to be your agents of transfiguring love so that through us you might heal all who are hurting, make whole all that is broken, and renew the spirits of all who have lost hope.  We pray these things for your love’s sake.  Amen.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Edges of the Field


“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”  Leviticus 19:9-10

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Epiphany 7A – February 19, 2017

         St. Francis famously said:  “Preach the gospel always; use words if you must.” At the heart of this saying is the insight that what we do matters every bit as much as what we say, if not more so.  Long before Christianity became an institutionalized religion with creeds and confessional statements, the faith was known simply as “the Way,” and its followers were known primarily for how they lived, not just what they believed.  The early church was organized around a commitment to Jesus Christ as the divine embodiment of a new humanity and a new model for human community.
         In the early Church, what differentiated Christians from others in the Empire were primarily practices that pointed to the in-breaking of God’s reign:  early Christians cared for the sick; established communities without regard to class, social status, privilege or gender; repented of their sins with humility, and sought and extended forgiveness; exercised an unrelenting ministry of reconciliation; and they prayed for others and for the world with regularity.
         But there was another set of key practices that marked the life of the early Church too – how Christians related to property. The earliest Christians were known for sharing their resources without a sense of possessiveness, giving to the poor, and extending hospitality to strangers.  We hear this message, of course, in Jesus’ words today, in which he urges us to give to anyone who asks, to lend to those who need to borrow, and to give up not only our coats but our cloaks as well.
         This notion that our lives should be grounded in generosity, freed from undue to attachment to the things we own, has deep roots in the Bible that we can trace back to our first lesson from the Book of Leviticus. God is describing what it means for his people to be holy, and notice what the very first item on God’s list is.  God says: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”  (Leviticus 19:9-10)
         I used to think that this holiness commandment, like many others from Leviticus, was an antiquated, if charming, holdover from an agrarian society that has little relevance to us today.  But I was convinced otherwise – and here, you may be surprised – by a member of the faculty at the Harvard Law School, Joseph Singer.  Joe is a distinguished property law professor, the husband of Dean Martha Minow, and an observant Jew.  Joe is also the author of a gem of a book entitled, The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership,[1] in which he seeks to demonstrate the enduring relevance of these two verses from Leviticus 19 to modern property law and American capitalism. And he does in a mere 136 pages in plain English that any layperson can understand.
         And like any good rabbi, Joe organizes his book around a story:
         Just before Christmas 1995, the Malden Mills textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, suffered a devastating fire. When the flames finally died down, three of the nine buildings were in ruins. The next day, the owner, Aaron Feuerstein, assembled the workers in the high school gymnasium. They feared the worst. Most of the textile mills in New England had long ago moved to other parts of the country, other parts of the world. Aaron was seventy years old and might be ready to call it a day. The workers wondered if he would collect the insurance money and retire. What was going to happen to them? More than three thousand people worked for Malden Mills and their prospects looked bleak.
         Then Aaron got up to speak.  To their astonishment, Aaron announced that he would rebuild the factory and that he would rehire every worker who wanted a job. He would continue to pay their wages for the next month and they would each receive their expected $275 Christmas bonus on time. Pandemonium broke out in the gymnasium.  It is reported that “grown men cried, and in the several languages of the largely immigrant workforce – Portuguese, Spanish, and others – prayers of thanksgiving were said.”
         Aaron Feuerstein made good on his promises.  Not only that:  He continued to pay his workers’ salaries for several months, until he could no longer afford to do so.  He had no legal obligation to pay these salaries or to help his employees get through the down time.  Ultimately, the factory was rebuilt.  As of 1998, almost all the workers had been rehired.
         When asked why he did it, Aaron replied simply that he had a moral obligation to do so.  “The workers are depending upon me,” he explained.  “There was no way I was going to take 3,000 workers and throw them into the street, and there was no way I was going to send the city of Lawrence into economic oblivion.”
         In his book, Joe Singer explains that, as an orthodox Jew, Aaron relied upon traditional Jewish teachings about the moral obligations of property owners, whether they be farmers (as in the days of Leviticus) or factory owners (as in Aaron’s time). At the foundation of such teaching is the conviction that human beings are not the ultimate owners of their property and labors, but that God is.  In the words of the Psalmist:  “‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’ Ps 24:1.  Stated differently, because the land and its fruits and our labors are all divine gifts, human beings are merely stewards of these gifts.  Through our time, talent, and effort we may well earn the right to exercise responsibility over property and labor, but within the Torah these property rights are only qualified rights.  And because God intends for the fruits of the land and our labors to be enjoyed by all God’s people, such fruits cannot be withheld from those who need them.
         And so, as we see in our lesson from Leviticus, God commands individual owners of property to set aside a portion of what they own for the poor. Property holders are commanded not to reap to the edges of the field, not to pick up grain or grapes that have been dropped in the course of harvesting, and not to return to the field to retrieve ‘forgotten sheaves.’ This portion of the fruits of the land is in fact owned by the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor – those who have no access to land of their own or whose family ties have been shattered. To preserve such fruits is, on this view, not a matter of charity and does not constitute a transfer from the landowner to the dispossessed. Rather, the fruits at edges of the field are the share of God’s bounty belonging to the landless.” (Singer, 49)
         Aaron Feuerstein recognized that his family’s success in the textile business was made possible only by God’s grace and with the support of the community.  And so, in a time of crisis, Aaron recognized his own responsibility to care for those who made his business the success that it was.  
         The biblical notion of titheing – of giving away ten percent of one’s income – likewise has its roots in this biblical concept of stewardship.  The admonition to tithe is not fundamentally an exercise in charity so much as it is an exercise in humility and gratitude, acknowledging that what we have was made possible only through God’s grace.  We give away ten percent not because we’re altruistic but because we are acknowledging that at least ten percent of what we have properly belongs to God in the first place and should be used for the benefit of others.  St. Augustine had a beautiful way of expressing this:  “Find out how much God has given you,” Augustine writes, “and from it take what you need; always remembering that the remainder is needed by others.”
         These biblical practices of good stewardship, responsible ownership, and generous giving are, I am sad to say, increasingly at odds with the American spirit of private enterprise, self-reliance, and maximizing shareholder value.  But it needn’t be so.  I don’t have time here to summarize all of Joe Singer’s argument as to how America property law might be transformed to more humanely reflect the compassionate spirit of Leviticus 19.  But I will leave you with this observation of his: “Contrary to what some believe and others fear, the protection of property rights does not commit us to the view that gross inequality is a necessary fact of life or that individuals have no legitimate claim to lean on other people. Property is not merely an individual right, and it is not based solely on the notion of self-interest or self-reliance.  It is, in fact, an intensely social institution. And ownership, far from being an absolute right, is a curious blend of security and vulnerability between owner and non-owner.  The manner in which property shapes social relations of power is as important as ownership rights.”
         We Christians have a lot to learn from the Aaron Feuersteins of the world about what responsible and generous ownership looks like.  Faithful Christians and Jews, it seems to me, can work together to re-orient our perspectives on property and how we relate to it based on a prayerful appreciation for our shared sacred texts. 
         As you think about what you have, and what you may do with your talents and treasure in the future, I’d invite you to remember that all of these things are gifts that ultimately belong to God.  God is counting on you to use these gifts wisely and generously to care not just for yourself, but for all of God’s creatures and all of His wonderful creation.  Listen again to the words of St. Augustine:  “Find out how much God has given you, and from it take what you need; yet always remember that the remainder is needed by others.”
         Amen.



            [1] Joseph William Singer, The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership, Boston:  Beacon Press, 2000.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Law of Life, the Law of Love

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” Deuteronomy 30:19-20

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
6A Epiphany – February 12, 2017

         An engineer, a physicist, and a lawyer all die on the same day, and find themselves in line outside the Pearly Gates.  As they approach the entrance to heaven, they are greeted by St. Peter.  Peter says to them, “We just have one very simple question for you to gain entrance to heaven.”  The question is this: “How much is two plus two?”
         The engineer is first in line.  She leans over to St. Peter and whispers confidently in his ear, “four.”  And, as she does, St. Peter waves her in to Paradise.  The physicist then approaches, and gives the same answer.  “Please, come on in,” replies St. Peter.  The lawyer is last in line, and is asked the same question by Peter.  “How much is two plus two?” The lawyer looks over one shoulder, and then the other, and leans forward to whisper into St. Peter’s ear:  “How much do you want it to be?”
         As a recovering lawyer myself, I feel I have permission to share this laugh at the expense of my former profession.  I do so today because our lessons are very much about the “law” and our relationship to it, and this joke, while corny to be sure, has a kernel of truth to it:  human beings have a deep-rooted tendency to try to work around the requirements of the law and to take matters into our own hands.  We see the law as something that is imposed upon us from the outside that prevents us from doing what we’d like to do, or want to do, or think we need to do. 
         Moses’ prophetic career, which is the subject of our first lesson from Deuteronomy, is a classic illustration.  Having received the Torah from God’s hands, and being commissioned to lead God’s people through the wilderness and toward the Promised Land, Moses spends most of his time and energy watching the people rebel against God’s law.  Every time, it seems, that the people get hungry, or thirsty, or weary, they set aside what God has told them, believing they know better.  All of this comes to a climax in our first reading, which comes near the end of Moses’ life. Knowing that his time is almost up, in this farewell discourse Moses gives an impassioned plea on behalf of Torah.    
         Living in accordance with God’s law, Moses says, is a matter of life and death. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live . . . but if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish . . . . I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”
         At the core of Moses’ message are three deep theological convictions:
         First is the insistence that human flourishing requires turning toward God alone, depending upon His loving care, and trusting in nothing else.  Time and again, human beings are tempted to rely on their own counsel, their own desires, their own sense of what is right, but that way lies folly.  God is our only guide.  As the Psalmist says, “Happy are they who walk in the law of the Lord . . . who seek him with all their heart.”
         Second is the conviction that Torah, far from being a set of restrictions on our freedom, is in fact a life-giving framework that allows our freedom to find its healthiest expression.  Law is blessing, not curse.  By loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and strength; by loving our neighbors as ourselves; and by otherwise aligning our lives with God’s law; we find our truest identities as God’s children.
         Third is the conviction that the law is not primarily a rulebook for individuals, but rather a constitution for a people.  Ever since the Enlightenment in the West – ever since Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am” – there has been a shift towards individualism as a basic philosophical orientation.  Yet the biblical perspective is very different:  it is a people with whom God covenants; a people to whom God gives the Law; a people whom God saves.  Our salvation lies in community, not in self-reliance or individual accomplishment.
         In short, says Moses, to “choose life” means:  to love and depend upon God alone; to view Torah as a life-giving blessing that allows human freedom to flourish; and to know that we are intended to live in community and not in isolation.
         As Christians, of course, Moses’ view of the law, as rich and right as it is, is not the last word.  And so we turn to our gospel, and another section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  That Jesus gives his sermon on a “mount,” reminiscent of the giving of the Law to Moses on another mount, is of course no accident.  Jesus is the new Moses, the new Law-giver.  Jesus comes, as he told us last week, not to “abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill [them].”
         And so, Jesus does not set aside what Moses has done and said, but instead Jesus takes us deeper:  into the very heart of the Law.  The specific examples Jesus takes up in our text were undoubtedly problems that confronted Matthew’s church:  problems of anger, adultery, divorce, breaking promises made under oath.  These challenges, of course, persist today.  Underlying Jesus’ treatment of each of these issues is the basic insight that what ultimately matters to God is right relationship to others, not merely complying with behavioral norms or legal externalities.  It’s not just that we should keep from murdering our neighbor when we disagree; we should learn affirmatively to love and be reconciled with her.  It’s not just that we should avoid adulterous behavior; we should learn to cherish all covenanted relationships and honor one another as God’s children.  It’s not just that we should avoid using God’s name in vain; we should treat all of our promises as if they are sacred commitments.
         In short, Jesus is inviting us to view God’s law not as an external code of conduct, but as something written on our hearts, something that is integral to our very being.
         Well, if you’re like me, your reaction to all this is fear and trembling.  On the surface, it seems like Jesus is asking the impossible of us.  It sounds like he wants us to be perfect.  And the truth is:  He does.
         But here is the saving grace:  We are not called to be perfect as individuals; for as individuals we will certainly miss the mark time and again.  Rather, we are called to be perfect within the Body of Christ, and it is through, and only through, our participation as a community in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, made possible in our baptisms, that we are able to become citizens of this heavenly realm where right relationship with God and neighbor is perfectly possible.  Whereas under the Mosaic law, God’s people endeavored to live out God’s law by adherence to the 613 commandments of Torah, for Christians, that very same Torah has been embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, and he has taken upon himself, for our benefit, the perfect fulfillment of holy living as God’s Chosen One.
         So, don’t be disheartened if in your individual lives you fall short of the holy life Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount – because we all fall short on our own.  The good news to keep near your heart is this:  by prayerfully organizing our communal lives around Christ’s teaching, by encouraging and supporting one another in our common life, and by participating in Christ’s life through the sacrament of bread and wine we are about to share, we are able, through grace, to become the redeemed people and beloved community God desires us to be. 
         Many people are asking me in these troubled times, what can we do as Christians?  What ought we to do?  Our lessons today suggest one answer:  first, anytime we are confronted with human laws, policies, or practices that are inimical to the law of Christ, we are called peacefully yet boldly to resist such human distortions of God’s will for us.  And second, and perhaps even more importantly, as Jesus’ beloved community, we are called to model for the wider world as best we are able the alternative vision for humanity described by the Sermon on the Mount as it is perfectly embodied in Christ’s life.  This is our primary vocation:  to lift up the person of Jesus Christ himself — not Christianity; not the Episcopal Church; not a social agenda; not a political philosophy – but the person of Jesus Christ himself.
         Amen.