Sunday, February 13, 2011

Choose Life Then...

Sheepscott Community Church February 13, 2011

Deut. 30: 15-20

1 Cor. 3: 1-9

Matthew 5: 21-37

Choose Life Then...

I want to call your close attention to today’s message, right from the get-go. Not for my sake, except insofar as I care about you, but for your own sake, please try to not only stay awake but to really take in what I have to say. What I am going to lay out are God’s words of life, nothing less than that, God’s words of life for all of us. We have a free choice––life or death, prosperity on God’s terms, or destruction. These are matters of genuine religion, which is urgent religion. What I will talk about this morning is indeed a matter of life and death.

Two weeks ago we considered the beatitudes, a new manifesto, which Jesus clearly laid down in the religious arena of his time, when he delivered those sayings to the people: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and so forth.. The beatitudes are an amplification, a means of carrying out the directive in chapter 6 of the book of the prophet Micah, which deserves quoting again today. “He [God] has showed you, O man, what is good./ And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

So, from the mouth of God through his prophets, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life for you and length of days.” Again, as I said, this is the stuff of genuine religion. The issues are sharply defined and demand a concrete decision. The edges of what God is saying are not smoothed out so as to not scratch the comfortable. Sooner or later, everyone must face such a challenge that demands decision and commitment. It is the challenge that Jesus gave the rich young man, when he told him to sell all he had, give it to the poor and follow him.

It was more than the young man could deal with and he went away sad. Mind you, Jesus did not love him any less for his decision, but the young man had rejected the opportunity to be more completely avalable to God. He had asked the question, What do I need to do to gain eternal life? He had kept the commandments, as Jesus answered him. But what else? What can I do? I can imagine how caught up he was in the power of Christ’s teaching and his personality, and he must have felt like he could and would do anything for God, but when he heard what the “what else” was, that’s when he walked away slowly with his head down. He was very rich and not yet able to give up that idol, and Jesus knew that that was the sticking point for him because he knew men’s hearts like no one else. It would be interesting to know if years later, he did do what Jesus had recommended, because our values do shift as we age. But we don’t know that. These snapshots we have in the gospels are all we have as our guides to ferreting out our own thoughts and responses to God’s call on our lives, which is always deepening, always widening to fill every nook and cranny of our hopefully increasingly surrendered souls.

This morning’s reading from Deuteronomy, the quotation from Micah, and the beatitudes constitute a foundation, a kind of roadmap to the kingdom of God, to life in God and with God, the life laid out in service––whatever you want to call it. The signposts on that roadmap are the spiritual realities in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Those realities are not a Never-Never Land that has nothing to do with our everyday life. The fact is that those spiritual realities underlie everything we do, positive or negative, depending on the state of our souls. They influence every choice we make. Remember, we are not simply a body. We are body, mind, and spirit, and those dimensions of the human being are integrally connected. They are one.

Our spirits influence the choices we make in matters of forgiveness; in matters of compassion and how that compassion is acted out; in matters as seemingly insignificant as eating and drinking for the health of the body, which is at the service of the soul and affects the health of the soul. It is so important to remember not to compartmentalize body, mind, spirit. One unit: a human being, our selves.

Let’s look at today’s gospel for an application of these scriptural declarations I am talking about. Jesus reminds the people who are listening to him that their law says anyone who commits murder will be liable to judgment, but he has a new teaching. Anyone who is angry with another is liable to judgment. The law as it stood dealt with punishment for the act of murder at the end of the judgment process. Jesus, on the other hand, saw the connection between anger with another and how that can eventually lead to murder. He dealt with the inward thought of the individual and the means of changing that thought and preventing murder at the beginning of the process, not dealing with it at the end. Very different. Jesus would prevent crimes of violence by rooting out the elements in a person’s character that could lead him or her to kill. In 1 John 3: 15 we read, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.“ That statement indicates that the writer of First John got the message Jesus put out there.

Notice again the inwardness of the new law as promulgated by Jesus. Anger, if it is not righteous indignation, which in fact leads us to seek justice for ourselves or others, anger which is not righteous indignation and which goes hand in hand with contempt constitutes incipient murder. Killing is not done only with knives and guns and weapons of mass destruction; it is done in the daily round by contemptuous sneers, gossip, indifference. Certainly Jesus himself had dealt with that kind of contempt and gossip. Wherever he turned, there was another pharisee looking to bring him down, so he spoke not simply with the authority that came out of his own deep life with God, but also out of the difficulties of his everyday life. He knew people’s hearts and must have felt profoundly discouraged at times with their apparent deafness to his teaching and the responsibility to apply that teaching.

Even with their contemptible behavior toward him, however, Jesus had compassion on the pharisees, as he had on all people, because they all were finally children of God. Jesus knew the value of the human soul, and because he himself was fully human, he had compassion on the human condition, in a way he could not have had otherwise.

If the new law of Jesus’s teaching was inward, with regard to the consideration of motives––if the new law was inward, it was also Godward. For God sees the inmost motive and must be worshiped in truth, worship being the crowning act of life. A heart that carries a grudge against any other person cannot be a heart fully available to worship, ergo, Jesus’s admonition, “...if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” That’s very practical, very real stuff. Haven’t most of us hidden self-righteously behind a grudge? How that kind of thinking and acting must grieve the heart of God.

I am only selecting one of the issues that Jesus elaborated on in this morning’s gospel: anger as it can lead to murder. I know that seems outrageous and impossibly exaggerated, but is it really? When we truly examine our consciences before God, when we are willing to look at our own motives, we are inevitably humbled by what we are capable of.

Well, maybe I will touch on another of the issues mentioned in this morning’s reading. Adultery. Sex. There, I admonished you at the beginning of this sermon to try to stay awake because I had something important to say. For those of you nodding off, let me say again, Sex. Are we all awake now? Just as the grudge in the heart, unforgiveness can lead to a kind of murder, even if it isn’t an actual physical murder, we sometimes kill a person off in our minds just by refusing to have anything to do with them. That's shudder-worthy, isn’t it? Because it’s recognizable.

Well, in the adultery department, Jesus is saying that we don’t have to actually be physically intimate with another person to commit adultery. A deliberate touch of the hand, a look of the eye, and flirtation is underway. Innocent? No, not really, not if we are our best selves when we bring it before God, although more likely, we just don’t have time for prayer in the days when we are engaging in this sort of flirtation because we have a pretty good idea of what we would hear. Jesus says that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. I think it needs to be said that it works both ways in these post-Victorian times. Anyone who looks at a man lustfully has already committed adultery in the heart. Understand that those who are so looked at are––so to speak––already taken. Not fair game. While sexuality is one of God’s best gifts, we have to honor the gift in the honorable settings that God has laid out, i.e., marriage or committed relationship. TELL THE TRUTH.

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Amen.

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