Monday, February 17, 2014

Choice, Growth, Obedience

Scripture for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Sirach 15:15-20; I Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

What a set of readings for us to bite into today! And I use that figure of speech remembering Eugene Peterson’s words that I read to you, last Sunday:

“Christians feed on scripture. Holy scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don’t simply learn to study or use scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love… healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of God, feet washed in company with the Son… Come to the Table and eat this book, for every word in the book is intended to do something in us, give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness to our souls and bodies.”

Every word? There’s a tall claim. Seems to me there was a bitter taste when I kissed the Gospel page today… Might we not get indigestion from some of these words? Every word intended for our good? What helps us make that claim is to affirm that some words—some teachings—draw us into holy argument and sharp reaction. And yes, this too qualifies as the “something in us” that scripture is intended to do in order to give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness. A holy argument qualifies, and while Jewish religious instruction has made that affirmation for millennia, Christians may still need to learn that an honest tussle with the Bible may glorify God (and serve humanity).

Speaking of words, each of our first and second readings highlights a key word. In that little portion from the Book of Sirach, it’s “choose”: he’s saying that our choice to obey God’s commandments is as dramatically clear-cut as choosing to stretch out your hand to grasp fire… or water. By the time we are done looking at Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount today, we may disagree as to how clear-cut a choice obedience is… but we may also like these metaphors of fire and water precisely because they are not easily grasped—nor is either best gotten by a grasping hand.

In the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear another key word: growth. He finds a pastoral way to urge them to grow up. At the moment, they’re acting like infants—but he treats them as “infants in Christ.” He cannot serve them the Word of God to eat, not the full message of the Kingdom of God, not the complete Gospel of grace—and yet that’s exactly his responsibility as an apostle, so he urges them to leave aside their immature jealousies and quarrels and grow up. Paul says they’re fighting among themselves because they are “people of the flesh”, whereas he knows they are also spiritual people.

But the Spirit unites, and they are divided. Divided into camps, cliques, you might even say (in a premature sort of way) denominations. Paul dismisses this partisanship, calling it “merely human”—and pointless, since all the pathways leading them to the table of new life ultimately are transcended by the fulfilling Christ in whom they are one. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians create a classroom in which he, the teacher, guides the growth of the church he had planted. We all get to sit in his classroom, and among the rich lessons we take away from his Corinthian letters is that peerless 13th chapter in the first letter, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Growing up into that vision is also the purpose of the Gospel writer Matthew, who presents Jesus’s stunning Sermon on the Mount. We’re going to look at a portion of that today, and next Sunday. And we’re going to keep handy those key words we’ve heard already this morning, choice and growth. We’re going to need them, because the overarching theme running through all these readings is obedience, the divine call to obey the commands of God; and in the absence of choice and growth, obedience would be a cold and loveless affair.

What are the commands of God? Well, isn’t that the Final Jeopardy question? In the Hebrew Bible, they are those ten commandments that Moses conveys from God to Israel—and as worthy a set of laws as they are, they were a hard sell from the start. Infidelity set in early, as our primal ancestors chose not to listen. Their hearts turned away and they did not hear God. Somewhere way back in the origins of language, the word “obey” is built on the same root as “hear”. The voices you choose to hear will influence how, who, and what you obey. The messages you choose to accept as true and worthy will have their impact on your growth.

The long shelf life of the ten commandments is a witness to their being found to have true and worthy influence. And then there’s what happened next: how the Torah, the divine teachings of Israel, came to assert not just ten key demands, but some six hundred detailed requirements, as more and more aspects of Israel’s life came under regulation. These hundreds of rules, still enshrined in the Torah, include many that have had their say, had their day, but are increasingly over time not found to have true and worthy influence. How do our themes of choice and growth apply to them?

By contrast to systems with cumbersome legal baggage, Paul’s sweet hymn to love makes you feel what a gift it is to be simple, a gift to be free, a gift to come down where we ought to be—and when we’ve come down in the place just right, it will be in the valley of love and delight: not fearing that we might be breaking some law that would put us on the wrong side of divine judgment, not needing a set of laws and rules to protect us from fault (or protect us from God), but choosing to grow towards God, to hear, to obey out of trust and love, not fear.

Last Sunday, we heard Jesus say he has come not to abolish the Torah, but to fulfill it. How? Look at what he does in today’s portion of his sermon on the mount. “You have heard it said in the time-honored Torah which has been read to you each sabbath… but I say to you, now, in the present moment…”

The rabbis, steeped in reasoned argument and debate, would readily call to task a colleague with a sharply different point of view. That rabbinic style shapes Matthew’s recounting of our Lord’s sermon. And the astonishing thing to catch is that Jesus is doing so much more than announcing a new improved interpretation of the Law of Moses: no, he is relocating authority from the written text to himself, or more exactly to God present in his life, his teaching, his death, his resurrection. How does Jesus fulfill the Law? Completing it, he transcends it; he stands upon it, as if upon the shoulders of Moses and the prophets—think of the story of the Transfiguration, which we’ll hear in just another couple of Sundays, when he stands on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah.

Following this pattern-- You have heard it said… but I tell you-- Jesus deepens, broadens, heightens the law. (O love, how deep, how broad, how high, how passing thought and fantasy, that God the Son of God should take our mortal form for mortals’ sake…) He chooses six examples of What Was, but Now…

And with each, he follows this path: He reaffirms the law, then he radicalizes the law by going to its very root (radix is the Latin word for root), then he offers an application, a situational use, for that law. He fulfills by going to the root, radicalizing—just the opposite of the religious hypocrites he chastises, later in Matthew.

“You have heard it said… You shall not murder. But I say to you that if you let anger rule your heart, if you let that anger rule your choices and you insult a person, then you will be subject to judgment and deserve punishment by the council. If you wipe your feet on the dignity of a person and call him Fool, you have chosen to step into the hell of fire.”

Has he caught their attention? Has he caught ours? Now, what if what he’s trying to catch is the legalistic mind that makes its way by threat and intimidation and fear? That’s what one respected commentator says: in these six examples, Jesus is engaging in such overkill that he means to parody the legalist who commands obedience out of fear of punishment. Being thrown into prison, having to pay the full fine, plucking out your offending eye, cutting off your straying hand, all these disproportionate penalties… What if things are not as they seem, because for sure they already don’t sound one little bit like the grace and pardon and compassion and generosity that we want to grow into in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not based on our getting what we deserve! What if in this sermon Jesus means to wake us up to the futility of snap judgment, the damage of harsh human judgmentalism, the influence of old inherited values now needing a paradigm shift-- making us eternally grateful that God is our judge, because what Jesus has shown us in himself shows us God, shows us the true and worthy goals of God that we are free to choose to hear and obey, shows us the undeserved grace that is the signature trait of God.

Don’t expect the Sermon on the Mount to behave itself nicely. It won’t. As right as Eugene Peterson is in saying that “every word in the book is intended to do something in us, give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness to our souls and bodies,” the fact is that the making of any one of the four Gospels is a little like making a sausage: there are chunks that defy careful definition, though the end product is wonderful and so worth the steps it takes to appreciate the whole.

Appreciating Matthew’s Gospel requires remembering that the Kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, who calls us to an obedience that he calls perfection, wholeness: not getting it all right, but taking it all in, embracing all, loving all. Obeying his commands requires an accurate vision of what matters most. Matthew gives us that in chapter 22, when a lawyer asks Jesus, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest? He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

But how? How to love? This same Jesus who calls us to the wholeness of the Kingdom of God also stands with us in our struggle with How, for the old age continues, we live in the tension between the pure standards of his kingdom that has come and the conflicting demands of obedient love here and now. We are people of the flesh as well as the spirit, sometimes infants still, choosing sometimes poorly, growing sometimes slowly.

So to us he declares in this sermon six most important thing about love. We have heard five of them today:

Love shows no hostility.
Love is not predatory.
The stability and sacred purposes of marriage are essential.
Love is unconditionally truthful.
Love does not retaliate.

And, as we shall see next week:

Love extends to the enemy.

Stay tuned.

(The Eugene Peterson quotations are from his “Eat This Book: A Conversation with the Art of Spiritual Reading.”)