editors note: a recorded version of this sermon is also available at this blog
I come to you in the name of One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the Episcopal Church it is not uncommon to hear our faith as that of being “Easter People.” The resurrection of Jesus Christ dominates our tradition, and rightly so. This amazing salvific act speaks to the love of God for all of creation, and it reminds us of the great depths to which our eternal salvation is owed. However, it is important to remember that we are not only “Easter People.” We are in fact people of many facets of faith, not the least of which is the season we find ourselves in currently. A season that is stretching longer into the winter with each passing week, surpassing the length of this same season last year, allowing us room to further grow into our understanding of Jesus’ earthly mission. As such, it is fair to say that we are also, and must be, “Epiphany People,” people who are unafraid to grow in their knowledge of Christ’s ministry, while beginning the preparations for that season of ultimate preparation, Lent.
As we begin to look forward we see the beginning of Lent looming only a couple weeks away, making now the perfect opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness, as we prepare ourselves to enter that holy season. Luckily for us, the words we have heard today are perfectly timed for our personal preparations.
God is calling out to us today.
Our sins and transgressions are known, and yet God still calls to us, begging us to choose life. Jesus is reiterating this call to choose life as he continues to preach on the mount, following up the exhortations in the beatitudes with a stern warning. The law that has been handed down from God to Moses, all the way down to the scribes and Pharisees, is no longer enough. The people have been given many a chance to follow the law, to give their lives to God, and to love and serve their neighbor with love and respect, but they have turned away, following the law for their own personal gain, abusing the system and losing sight of the meaning behind the words. Due to this egregious error, God has sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, so that the record may be set straight.
But Jesus has not come to simply remind the people the true meaning behind the law of God that has been passed down from generation to generation, instead Jesus has come to radicalize the law, putting the onus on the people to step up and accept this new charge, or face the consequences. God is calling us to choose life, and yet it is clear that the easier choice seems to be death. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that if our right eye, or our right hand is the source of our sin, than it is better to cut it out or off, for it is better to lose one part than for the whole body to be thrown into hell.
This is pretty radical.
At this point, I’m sure that you’re asking yourself, Is Jesus really calling us to cut off our hands, feet, arms, legs, cut out our eyes tongues, and on and on? Is that really what it takes to live into this call? And, why would I want to do that?
These questions also give me pause, is this the Lord that I am devoting my life to following?
In order to get a better understanding of this particular passage, I brought it to my Wednesday night Bible Study. Each Wednesday night, I, and a couple of my classmates, join together with a group of gentlemen in our community, for fellowship, Bible Study, and sharing of testimony. Many of the men that come to this study are very well versed in the scripture, and are willing to engage deeply with the word, as it is a source of great comfort, strength and support for them. Our particular gathering is especially important to them because it is one of the few opportunities they have each week to gather with their fellow brothers from the different isolated areas of their current home, a home more commonly known as the Alexandria Jail.
One of my colleagues referred to our brothers inside as our “Expert Panel on Sin,” and I know that these gentlemen would be proud of that designation, as they are fully aware of the sins of their lives, the sins that not only got them arrested, but more importantly the sins that led to them perpetrating the crime that led to their incarceration.
In discussing this particular passage, the message that made itself clear, is not that Jesus is literally asking us to start cutting off body parts, but the radical call he is proclaiming is not too far off from it. We are called to cut off those parts of our lives that lead us to sin. Whether it be, as it is for many in our group, turning away from the addictions of alcohol and drugs by following through with sober living programs and trying to better their lives, or knowing that when they leave their place of incarceration, they will have to cut off those relationships that led them to sin in their previous lives. This is a call to stay rooted in the Word, for it is only through the power of faith that we can begin to try and choose life, over the sure death that is continuing in sin.
There still remains a stumbling block for these gentlemen, one that I know far too well, and one I am sure you also share with us, a stumbling block that is presented by Jesus in the beginning of this particular passage.
If we are angry with our brothers or sisters, if we remember that our brothers or sisters has something against us, our first inclination is to either stand up and fight back, or run away and ignore. It is far too easy to become emotionally charged and wrapped up in what we view as a wrong done upon us. These wrongs can begin to permeate our lives, and the feeling of persecution and sense of victimhood can begin to override our natural inclinations. We begin to protect our bruised ego, and this often leads to damaging confrontations where nearly unforgivable things are said or done. We cannot let someone continue to lord over us, so we become bitter, angry, and mean.
This is not choosing life.
It is often said that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but that is all sorts of wrong. In reality, the enemy of my enemy is my enemy because this person is allowing me to perpetuate in a broken system, where we join together to further drag down a third party and make them feel the lesser. We prop ourselves up, feeling a fleeting sense of victory, that ultimately feels hollow, leaving us right where we started and wondering why we don’t feel any better. We don’t feel any better because we are refusing to choose life.
To choose life is a simple thing that takes a lot or work, a lot of effort, and will ultimately offer a very large reward.
Choosing life is not about giving up or giving in. Choosing life does not mean quitting on ourselves, on others, and on the vows we make. So, what does choosing life look like? Thankfully, we have been given a model for what choosing life IS.
Jesus explicitly states what we are to do to choose life, and it starts with the heart. For it is in the heart that our true intentions are known, and it is in our heart where we can begin to seek that love and peace that comes from being in fellowship not only with Jesus but with our fellow brothers and sisters, not just in Christ, but in the world. God knows what is written on our hearts, and it is not something that we can hide from God. As much as we may try and hide it from ourselves, or even trick ourselves into thinking that we have hidden it from God, the fact remains that God can read our hearts with the clearest of vision, knowing what is truly there.
AND THANK GOD FOR THIS!
Because it is in our hearts that we must begin to seek reconciliation with our brothers and sisters. It is to our hearts that we must look, so we can truly have our eyes opened to how we are treating our brothers and sisters, and it opens us up to allowing our brothers and sisters to also seek reconciliation with us. For it is not enough that we seek reconciliation, we must also be willing to be reconciled with those who have caused us harm. It is in this dual act of reconciliation that we begin to prove to God that we truly want to choose life, and we are willing to go to extreme lengths in order to come into the Kingdom of Heaven with clean hearts and minds.
The lessons that Jesus put before us challenge us to our very corps, putting a spotlight on our iniquities, and forcing us to consider whether or not we truly want to choose life. It is in choosing life that we make a radical decision to buck the common trend. In making this decision we are declaring to God and to our neighbors that we will not stand for injustices, and most importantly we will not stand for the injustices that we create each and every day in interactions with friends and family, coworkers or bosses, strangers or neighbors.
We must remember that in addition to being “Easter People,” we are also “Epiphany People,” learning the lessons that Jesus illustrated throughout his ministry, and preparing ourselves each year to enter into a holy season of preparation, a season from which we should expect to emerge forgiven, healed, renewed. We cannot succeed in this goal if we do not first examine our own lives, questioning if we are truly living into the radicalized law that Jesus has put before us today. So, I again put it before you, just as Jesus did 2000 some years ago:
When you are offering your gift at this altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift here before this altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come, and offer your gift.