A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany
Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Texts for Proper 6A: Lectionary Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matt 5:29-30)
At Christmas we worshipped the newborn King of Kings. Did we not think our King might one day grow up and one day give royal commands?
We were told that we are be salt and light. Did we not think that salt might sting, or that light may reveal unpleasant things in dark corners?
We sang a hymn asking to be purified by the Refiner’s Fire. Did we not expect that fire to burn and change us?
I ask these questions because the words of our lessons, particularly the Gospel, may make you uncomfortable. They certainly make me uncomfortable, because the Jesus we meet today in Matthew’s gospel, who speaks these words from the Sermon on the Mount, is confrontational and threatening. This is no “gentle Jesus meek and mild” who wouldn’t offend anyone. Instead, this is a Jesus who, by the standards of church marketing today, is hardly the face that Christianity would want to put forward to a largely unchurched world.
Yesterday in my neighbourhood I noticed a sign outside a church asking people to visit and “worship with us in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere”. That invitation sounds attractive, if not specifically religious. Substitute the word “eat” for “worship” and it could just as easily be a sign advertising a restaurant or a bar. I wonder, if we invited people to come and worship a Saviour who says that an angry thought is as good as murder, or an admiring glance is the same as adultery, would we pack them in?
I have some young friends I like to verbally joust with, who tell me that if church was exciting and fast paced, with some miracles thrown in, they would come. I don’t think they’d come to church to hear Sermon on the Mount Jesus. Likewise, all the people whom, in poll after poll, say they perceive Christianity as a religion all about rules and moral score-keeping, whose followers are all hypocrites, well, I don’t think Sermon on the Mount Jesus would entice them. In fact, even the word “Sermon” is out of fashion these days. We are told that “sermon” has connotations of grim, finger-waving, lecturing, that a sermon is talking down to people, and is not affirming. So really, the words we’re listening to today, and the God whom we believe speaks them to us, are not the ones we would want to present to the world if we wanted to be popular.
And, if we are honest, I think we need to admit that today’s Gospel is difficult enough to hear even for we who are churchgoers. The idea that Jesus might actually tell us what to do and how to think, what to do and what not to do, strikes at that deepest core value of our age, our sense of personal autonomy. We might be stung in some way by how these words of Jesus strike at our personal lives or histories, whether its our experience of a failed friendship or of an animosity, our sexual history, a divorce, or whatever it is that causes some friction or resistance as we hear the gospel today. Possibly there’s not resistance, but perhaps the temptation to spiritual despair or fear, the idea that if Jesus is setting the bar for the moral life so impossibly high, none of us can get there, none of us can hope to be good enough to be saved. But again, if we are honest, I think that we would agree that however uncomfortable these words of Our Lord’s may be, they are necessary. I think it would be hard to spend time in Suffield or in Ralston, or anywhere else in military life, and think they weren’t necessary. Our offices workplaces, messes and homes are full of gossip, character assassination, and intrigue. We can say damning things about others to our friends, and then appear to be that person’s friend when we meet them (and this is as true of chaplains as it is of anyone else). And we all know how terribly fragile military marriages can be. So we need to hear these words of our Lord’s today. We need to hear them and we need to live them.
There’s a difference between hearing and living, though, isn’t there. Really what our Lord is saying today is that the Law of God can’t just exist at the level of a legal code. It has to come into us, it has to be lived at the level of our inmost thoughts and feelings, for it to become real. And that should come as no surprise to us, really. If you’re in the military, you know that there is a certain kind of person you are expected to be. We hand out T Shirts like this one with words printed on them like “Loyalty”, “Courage”, “Integrity”, “Duty”. We spent a lot of money on things like the Defence Ethics Program and we require units to do mandatory ethics training. These programs look good on paper, but in reality we know that the core values of these programs need to be internalized and owned by soldiers at the head and heart and gut level if these programs are to work. Likewise, we spend a great deal of time and effort on our MFRCs, on programs and slogans like “Military Families: The Strength Behind the Uniform” “Basic Relationship Training”, and the like. To go beyond slogans and programs, military families and couples will only survive if they can live out these values at the head and heart level during long separations, or during the stress of postings and the like.
The reason we try to promote these values is because we know that the military needs to be a strong community to succeed. This strength comes from units and workplaces that are supportive environments, free of harassment, where people feel valued and supported. Having strong military families feeds into that unity and strength of culture. In the same way, I think Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are a source of strength and purpose for that community of his followers known as the church. A Christian community, if it is to be real and attractive to the world, needs to be a place that works at the heart level. It needs to be a place where people are honest with each other, and since the purpose of the church is really to be the means where people are reconciled with God (that is, in a good relation with God), then the people have to be reconciled with each other. That’s the truth that we’ve heard Paul preaching to the Corinthian church for the last few Sundays, the truth that if the church is one with Christ, then it must be one with itself.
The same truth, that the church must be one with itself if it is to be one with God, I think explains Christ’s emphasis on sexual and lustful thoughts. The church was coming into being as the one place on earth where men and women could see each other on equal terms, as creations of God and adopted children of God, people living in a new way, the way that God intended. The old, earthly way of life, where women were sources of sexual gratification and chattel that could be dispensed with in a quick divorce, had no place in the community of the church as God’s people. If men and women were to claim their new identity in Christ, then men would have to change their thinking about women. Really, there should be nothing surprising or quaint in this. Isn’t the secular workplace’s emphasis on raising awareness about sexual harassment simply a way of making space for women in the workplace as equals? People grumble about Christianity being inherently misogynistic, but seen this way the gospel is incredibly progressive. As the English writer Dorothy Sayers once observed, never once in all the gospels does Jesus treat women as anything less than full citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
So why should we take Jesus’ message today to heart? If we decide that we need to obey the Sermon on the Mount because if we don’t, we’re going to hell (a word which occurs with ominous frequency in the NRSV version of today’s gospel text), well, good luck with that. Even if you were to succeed for any length of time, a vision of Christianity wherein God wants us to behave or else he gets his belt out is a gross distortion of the Saviour who says elsewhere that he came so we may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). It’s a given that we won’t fully succeed at this. A theologian I read this week put it this way: “The history of the church is God’s people trying and getting it wrong, trying and getting it wrong, trying and succeeding, then trying again and getting it wrong …). It’s hard, as Eugene Peterson writes in his translation (“Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do”) but it’s worth the effort of trying and failing and trying again because that’s what community is, an ongoing attempt at a better life.
What Jesus does in today’s gospel, I think, is offer us a vision of life as God intended it, of a community where our hearts and mouths and actions are all congruent with God’s law. The benefits of this congruency are twofold. One can be described as holiness, which sounds very churchy and otherworldly, but is still what we strive for, as the words of “Refiner’s Fire” remind us. The other benefit is happiness. Look at the opening lines of Psalm 119, where the psalmist expresses joy and satisfaction that he is living a life in guided by God’s law. He lives life this way not out of fear of punishment, or out of sanctimonious piety, but because it feels good to live this way We miss that aspect somewhat from Peterson’s translation, so here’s the NRSV version.
Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. 2 Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, 3 who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.
The Sermon on the Mount, like all the gospels, is thus really about living God’s way of life because it is a life of true happiness and satisfaction. It isn’t a life of grim asceticism or of constant fear and trembling. It’s about true happiness that comes from living as God’s people, one with God and one with another. Happiness maybe isn’t the place where you saw this sermon landing, but there it is, and really, why worship a God who doesn’t want us to be happy?