Thursday, February 13, 2014

Epiphany 6A February 16 SGWA

          From today’s 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. . . “

          Many of us much of the time give in to the temptation to live by law and not by grace.  Many of us have also learned by life experience that living by grace brings life, and creativity, and joy, while living by law brings death, and rigid structures, and it is boring.

Our experience with the living God in Jesus Christ teaches us that the good we do is a sign of God working in and through us, and when our lives show forth God’s love and grace we get a first taste of the joy of heaven.

          The Gospel lessons in February are from the 5th chapter of St. Matthew – the Sermon on the Mount. We begin reading the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes on the 4th Sunday of Epiphany (which this year was February 2 and gave place to our celebration of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.) Jesus’ teaching continues in last Sunday’s gospel – teaching about salt, and light, and fulfilling the law. That reading ended “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

          I have some sympathy for actor and skeptic W.C. Fields who is reported to have said to a friend who saw him reading the Bible in his retirement, “I’m looking for loopholes!” 
          Today’s gospel includes Jesus’ teaching on anger, on adultery, and on promises. They are hard teachings, and those of us who live by law have looked for, and found, our own loopholes.
          The first loophole has to do with anger. Jesus’ teaches self-control and love. We have found a loophole called “righteous indignation.”  Ephesians (4:26) tells us, “Be angry and sin not.”  Anger is a human response to fear and frustration, and also a response to injustice. We know ourselves better than we know others, and it is easier for us to recognize injustice done to us than to recognize injustice done to others.  Anger is a feeling; feelings come and go. Christian ethics regards feelings as morally neutral. How we deal with those feelings is the moral point.
          The gospel deals particularly with anger within the family and the church family where the basic relationship is one of love. I find no scriptural basis for the idea that God judges our feelings. Feelings are morally neutral. How we deal with those feelings is the moral point
          This morning we will exchange God’s peace as we have done at the eucharist for almost 50 years, restoring the practice before the Reformation.  We exchange the Peace is a sign that we obey Jesus’ teaching, “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.”

          The gospel offers practical advice to a minority community under suspicion in disputes financial and personal, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him.” When I do pre-marital counselling I remind couples of three things. The first is, “Don’t go to bed mad. Stay up as long as you need to but either settle the dispute or agree to settle it at some definite time soon.”

          The other two points I make are from Romans 13:8,  “’Owe no man anything but to love God’ – that is stay out of consumer debt.” And from I Corinthians 7:5,  “Do not refuse yourselves to one another’ - Don’t use sex as a weapon.” In 411 BC Aristophanes wrote about a woman’s effort to end a war between Athens and Sparta by a sexual strike, but that’s Greek theatre, not Christian teaching.

          Jesus’ teaching about anger is followed by similar teaching about the feeling of lust. Feeling of sexual attraction are morally neutral. They come and go. Lust is  powerful emotion. In all created nature it serves to perpetuate the species.  

          Powerful sexual feelings need a strong social structure to be spiritually constructive rather than spiritually destructive.  Two of the Ten Commandments deal with sexual behavior – “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife or anything that is thy neighbors.” Jesus expands the understanding of adultery beyond the physical to include mental acts. The Roman world in New Testament times was a licentious culture and the Christian emphasis on the holiness of marriage was ridiculed, then as now. Jesus teaches sexual self-control, and the gospel adds teaching on divorce stricter than the rabbinic interpretation.  The gospel recognizes that marriages sometimes do not last, but it requires concern and care for the divorced spouse. Christians, as individuals and in churches, disagree on the interpretation of this gospel teaching, but we all know that ending a relationship is painful for all concerned, and the temptation to blame others and excuse one’s own behavior is strong.  

          Those temptations and the additional human temptation to boasting and overweening self-importance are the loopholes Jesus deals with in his teaching on oaths and promises. People are such natural liars that we need some way to say. “I really mean it this time.” Jesus expects us to mean what we say all the time.

          Our collect says, “. . . 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. . .” When we compare our behavior and Jesus’ teaching we see how far short we fall. The first step of the 12 says, “We admitted we were powerless . . . that our lives had become unmanageable.” That’s a simple statement of fact, and it is hard for us to overcome our human pride to say it – and harder still to live it. Yet when we do we experience God’s grace, God’s love, the divine power to behave differently, to begin to recognize the work of the power greater than our own.

          We live by the life-giving, joy-giving grace of God. And that is good news. Amen.