Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
Feb. 12, 2017; Epiph 6A: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
This morning’s gospel not only sets the bar high, it sets the distraction meter high as well. From family dysfunction and everything from adultery, divorce, and remarriage to the cutting off body parts to avoid going to hell, it’s easy to miss the big picture, the reason all of these things – and indeed all the readings for this morning – were put together. Let’s get at this by going back again to St. Luke’s mission statement, a mission statement we share with the Episcopal Church. Our mission is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Jesus Christ.” This mission statement shows that creating, strengthening, and restoring relationships – with God and with one another – are at the center of what we as a church are about. Our Mission statement proclaims that everything we do as individuals and as a community of faith is about reconciliation – about the rebuilding and renewing the power that comes from loving God and loving our fellow human being.
Relationship and reconciliation provide an interesting lens through which we can look at the readings we heard a few minutes ago. While Jesus’ metaphor about cutting off limbs speaks to an ancient worldview and understanding of causality that sounds foreign to our modern ears, his call to cut out bad behaviors should sound familiar. If you want to lower your cholesterol or lose weight, you should avoid eating that that dessert or going for another handful of chips. If you want another day of sobriety, you need to say no to having a drink. Jesus isn’t telling us to cut off other people. He is asking us to cut out behaviors in our lives that separate us from them. Politicians talk these days as if freedom is something new. We have had freedom – and free will – from the beginning. As we heard in Deuteronomy, it is our responsibility to choose how we live… and accept the consequences of our actions. We know what leads to death and what leads to life. The choice is clear. Deuteronomy puts it simply: Choose life.
This is the theme of our reading from Corinthians. Here Paul addresses a church where members have split into factions and the congregation is divided by jealousy and quarreling. (I thank you that we are not there!) For Paul, church is not about personalities or personal or personnel issues. Church is about communion and community with one another. Church is about communion and community with God.
The problem is that we can’t get to God if our own stuff is in the way. Before we figure out our spirituality, we have to deal with our family… and with ourselves. Do you remember 1 John 4:20? “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen?” Here this morning’s gospel offers practical advice. If you come to the altar and remember that you have something going on with your brother or sister, go fix that first. Don’t wait for someone else (or God) to take care of your problems. Take the initiative. Take responsibility. Make that call. Have that conversation. Settle your issues. Work on your marriage. Don’t use divorce as an easy way out. Don’t fear of offending be an excuse not to be honest or real. If religion is about relationship, then loving our neighbor is the first step in loving God. Doing that with family is the hardest, and perhaps most important work.
I hope that this morning’s reading challenge you the way they challenge me. Before you come to this altar today, take a moment and ask yourself about relationships there that are broken or strained, things done or left undone, that separate you from others or from God. You can’t change other people. You can’t change your family. You can, however, shift your position, change your reaction to them, and change their power over you. If the person is distant or estranged, write them a letter or send a card. If they are dead, you can share their story – and your story with them – with someone else… or with God. You may not be able to forgive them but your are connected to a power far greater than yourself who can. At this stage, the only person you have to forgive is yourself .Just reaching out may be enough for reconciliation and the healing of relationship to begin.
Every year, lots of hype surrounds the commercials during the Super Bowl. This year, there were a couple ads that showed the journeys and struggles of people trying to make it to a new home. Rather than being silly, these ads were serious. By being honest about struggles – by making yes, yes, and no, no – these ads rose above the competition. Like the people in they showed, you may feel that your life is a mess and your journey is full of barriers and blockades. God, however, feels about you the way that way you felt about those actors. Healing and hope, reconciliation and relationship – with our brother and sister as well as with God – are possible. As Deuteronomy sets forth, the choice is up to us. Our goal is to choose life. Being honest with ourselves and dealing with our own issues are the first steps along the way.