Tuesday, February 18, 2014

An Epiphany Sermon: Going Deeper

This sermon was given by the Chaplain, Revd. Luther Zeigler, on February 16, 2014, at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard.

There is a version of our faith that goes something like this:  The Old Testament is about “law,” while the New Testament is about “grace”; the Old Covenant is an oppressive system of rules, while the New Covenant liberates us with the gospel of love; the former world is governed by a vengeful judge who wants nothing more than to trip us up for failing to conform to his requirements, while the New Jerusalem is overseen by a God full of mercy and forgiveness for every last one of us.  And at its worst, this tendency to insist upon a sharp contrast between the old and the new has led to a pernicious caricature of Judaism as a particularistic and legalistic tradition from which the more generous and universalistic religion of Christianity saves us.

A close reading of Matthew’s gospel – and of the Sermon on the Mount in particular, from which today’s reading is taken – tells a rather different story.  Let’s summarize where we are:

In chapter one, through the deceptively boring device of a genealogy, Matthew gives us the first hint about Jesus’ identity:  this child is descended directly from the family of Abraham, through King David, and born of a virgin, in fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah. Then, in chapter 2, we hear how God’s messengers protect the infant messiah from the scheming of a jealous and murderous imperial king, just as the Hebrew prophets Micah and Jeremiah foresaw.  We meet John the Baptist in chapter 3, who is portrayed as the new Elijah, preparing the way for the very messiah so long-awaited by Israel.  Chapter 4 finds this beloved Son driven into the wilderness for forty days, repeating the exodus of his forebears, to be tempted by the forces of darkness just as they were tempted.  And then, like Moses, who gathered and led a people out of bondage, so too does Jesus call a community of disciples out of the captivity of their impoverished lives to be a renewed people.  And thus, we come to where we are today:  chapter 5, the famous Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus, the new Moses, teaches his followers what God commands from a mountaintop.

There is no mistaking in Matthew’s carefully constructed narrative that Jesus’ life and teaching is in complete continuity with the covenantal relationship established by God with Israel through Abraham, Moses, and David.  And lest we doubt this, Jesus tells us right up front in verses 17 and 18 of his sermon:  “Think not that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets:  I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

This is an enormously important key for unpacking everything that follows in his sermon because here Jesus takes off the table any understanding of his words that would view them as displacing Torah.  Whatever the antitheses offered by Jesus in today’s gospel text may mean, they plainly are not “replacement commandments” for an old, arcane, and outdated Mosaic law.  Rather, Jesus is calling us into a deeper understanding of this very same Torah.

Torah, as today’s lesson from Deuteronomy and our Psalm remind us, is not so much a dusty set of laws as it is a way of walking in relationship with both God and neighbor.  The Hebrew people understood these teachings not as a legalistic burden, but rather as a living and breathing guide for shaping their communal behavior so that the nations of the world might see in them what the God of Israel looks like.

Torah is thus more like a constitution for living in community as a faithful people than it is a code of individual ethics for the purpose of achieving personal goodness.  As post-Enlightenment Westerners, we are trained to view the world in individualistic terms, each of us discrete Cartesian egos, responsible for our separate destinies, encouraged to be self-reliant and self-sufficient.  These are the virtues the West celebrates.  Yet, this distorted focus on the individual, and his or her right of self-determination, is decidedly unbiblical.

For Jesus, like the Hebrew tradition from which he emerges, keeping Torah is not primarily a personal matter, and salvation is not primarily an individual project.  Torah is, rather, a revelatory expression of what it means to live together as God’s children, and through Torah God redeems not individual souls but a faithful community.  And, just as the Torah was not given by God to Israel to produce a collection of heroically righteous individuals, so too would it be a mistake for us to understand Jesus’ antitheses in his Sermon on the Mount as an effort to one-up Judaism by creating a super-righteous band of personal followers. 

The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are, rather, a divine commentary on Torah intended to draw us as a community, as the gathered Body of Christ, more deeply into the nature of God by revealing the fundamentally relational character of God’s will for us. 

Let me illustrate this point by exploring just one – the very first – of Jesus’ antitheses.  Jesus says:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘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.”  He continues:  “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.”

Plainly, Jesus keeps the traditional prohibition on murder in tact; but he goes deeper, insisting that it is not enough to understand God’s will for us merely in terms of what we are to avoid.  We instead must see what lies at the source of human conflict – the angers and resentments we often harbor toward one another and that can eat at our soul.

Jesus’ words recall not only the sixth commandment, but also the foundational story of Cain and Abel that underlies it.  Jealous that God favored his brother Abel’s offering over his own, Cain allows his anger to swell.  Though warned by God that sin is “lurking at his door,” Cain gives in to the anger, and rises up against his brother. And so, murder enters the world through Cain’s unbridled anger, and our relationships with God and each other lie shattered.

We come into a world, this story teaches us, where rivalry is the norm and people take revenge upon one another.  From the beginning we learn to blame others for whatever is undermining our place in the universe.  We make those others scapegoats, sacrificing them in order to restore our identity and status.  This is the human cycle of violence.

Yet, Christ teaches us in his sermon, and shows us with his life, that into our vengeful world has come One who is utterly benevolent, who is not in rivalry with anything or anyone, and who transforms everything from within, including altering human motives and desires.  He is the pattern who changes everything about what it means to be human.

Thus, the kingdom into which Jesus calls us requires more than a mere promise not to murder one another.  We are invited to go deeper, to uncover the anger in our hearts, to confront our resentments, to diffuse the hostility, and to be reconciled with one another – and all this before we can ask for reconciliation with God. 

And so for centuries the Church has in its liturgy placed penance, the confession of sin, and the exchange of the peace – in a word, the practice of reconciliation – immediately before the Eucharistic feast.  Before we come to the Lord’s Table to share in Christ’s love for us we are urged to show that same love to each other.  The passing of the peace, as we call it, is more than genteel politeness, more than a half-time show of hospitality; done faithfully, it is the opening of our hearts to each other in preparation for receiving Christ’s own body and blood. 

Jesus’ teaching about murder and anger – like his teaching about divorce and lust and deceit and swearing oaths – are centered on the quality of our relationships.  Our God is a God who cares deeply about our relationships, and desires those relationships to have the same health, vitality, and purity as does His relationship with us.   These are not commandments intended merely to guide our external conduct, but commandments designed to change our hearts.

Christ’s call to be free of anger and malice, to rid ourselves of the distortions of lust, and to live without deceit or pretense, can seem impossibly hard.  And, but for God’s grace, it would be.  The good news, though, is that the Christ who gives us these commandments, and calls us into this holy life of community, is the very same Christ who assures us that He will chase down every lost sheep, and welcome home every prodigal son or daughter, when we lose our way.  He invites us to be faithful witnesses of the Kingdom he describes and embodies, even while he knows that we will from time to time stray from that vision.  And for this we can be forever thankful:  that while Christ is constantly calling us into new and healthier ways of being human, as he does today, he is at the same time loving us just as we are.  Thanks be to God.

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