6th Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
The sermons you hear on a week to week basis are supposed to be posted on-line on the church website. But don’t go looking for my last couple, at least not for a day or two. As usual, I’m behind on getting them posted. The reason I’m behind on posting them, other than the unfortunate reality of never being quite caught up – the main reason, or at least the reason that gives me immediate excuse at any given time for delay, is that in order to post, the sermon requires a title. I have an awful time coming up with titles. There are some very clever, engaging sermon titles out there. I haven’t written any of them. One Lutheran pastor wrote the perfect title for today’s Gospel lesson, however, entitling his message “Things I Wish Jesus Had Never Said” (Delmer Chilton, Lectionary Lab)
This is the third week we have spent “listening” to the Sermon on the Mount. We have moved from the dissonant poetry of the beatitudes, to last week’s compelling metaphors of spice and light. Now we wade into this seeming morass of prison and eye gouging; dismembering and hellfire. This is not one of those lessons that we can look at through a scholar’s eyes and confidently assert that “If you read this in the original Greek, it sounds so much better”. I am assured by folks more scholarly than myself that reading the Greek does not help even a little bit – it still sounds violent and messy. (Amy Richter, Sermons that Work)
Since that is our Gospel world today, let’s talk about Sirach for a while.
Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus) is a work of ethical teachings from approximately 200 to 175 BCE written by the Jewish scribe Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira, inspired by his father, Joshua ben Sira. We don’t hear a great deal from this book. Part of the reason we don’t is that the book is not universally accepted as scripture at all. It is part of the Apocrypha – accepted by some denominations and not by others. The Anglican Communion accepts the Apocrypha for “instruction in life and manners, but not for the establishment of doctrine”.
If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given.
It’s all about choices. Choose fire or choose water. Choose life or choose death. And it all seems so simple when Ben Sira says it. Decide. Act faithfully or don’t. Live or die.
Jesus says the same thing, but Jesus gives life to the choices, depth to the law. Jesus intensifies the law, teaches us that it takes its meaning from relationship. Don’t murder. Yes. Don’t commit adultery. Yes. Don’t divorce (in Jesus’s day, divorce, a right of men only, left the man’s former spouse alone, disgraced and adrift without family, friend or resources). So, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, and don’t leave a fellow traveller on this earth profoundly abandoned and bereft of all support. Yes. Yes. and Yes.
But these are examples, not revelations. Jesus’s underlying message is to offer the choice to live into the loving relationship with God and His creation that underlies the law.
One priest tells a story of a couple who had been married for almost 40 years. They were both known for their strong personalities, strong opinions and quick tempers. One evening saw them embroiled in yet another stormy altercation. Fuming, angry, and spent with the emotional toll of that argument along with all the other arguments, the wife opted to leave, just go. She went upstairs and began throwing things into a suitcase. As she packed, her husband placed another suitcase next to hers and started packing as well. Angrily she snapped, “Where in the world are you going?” Her husband responded, in an angry tone, “I don’t know. I am going wherever it is that you are going!”. (Story taken from a sermon by the Very Rev. Miguelina Howell, Sermons that work)
Anger is a part of our nature when we are threatened, physically, emotionally or psychologically. Physical desire is a part of our nature, well, pretty much any time in some cases. It allows our species to procreate, and often allows our relationships to deepen. We are not asked to prevent our emotions in the first place – that is not our nature. We are not asked to deny our emotions, stuffing them down where they merely fester and grow in unhealthy ways. We are asked to mindfully, lovingly, make a choice about how to direct them, to decide against self-centeredness, self-doubt, self-righteousness and exclusion.
Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
We live in a polarized world. Maybe that has always been true, but the cries of polarization seem more strident than I have known in my lifetime and our technology serves to amplify them. It is nothing to “unfriend” someone (what an awful verb!) and hurling insults across the ethernet divorces the act from the impact. Showing empathy takes a back seat to demanding respect; compassion for others a backseat to controlling others. We can allow anger or desire or pain or differences to create a wall between us, or like the married couple above we can choose to live into love.
We, as God’s children, God’s servants, God’s field, God’s building, we as the Body of Christ – we have choices to make:
Build bridges or build walls
Serve God or serve self
Reconciliation or rift
Fire or water
Life or death
Whichever one chooses, will be given. Amen.