The Gift of Reconciliation, Epiphany 6A – February 12, 2017

[RCL] Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

Immediately after His Baptism and following the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew, presents a discourse of moral teachings we have come to know as “The Sermon on the Mount.”

It is a portion of these instructions that we experience in today’s Gospel. Jesus eloquently presents a series of specific and shared understandings or interpretations of the law of Moses and contrasts them with a renewed way of looking at these matters. He begins these statements with, “You have heard that it was said” and by concluding, saying, “but I say to you”; thus, presenting the true intent of the law through the lens of Jesus’s message.

St. Augustine of Hippo stated in his book “Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount” that “if anyone, will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as we read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he will find it, so far as regards the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian Life”

One of those standards highlighted in today’s Gospel is reconciliation. Jesus, through specific examples, shares with His disciples the negative impact of unresolved and conflictive human interactions, offering at the same time a mechanism for accountability and a path towards mending broken relationships.

For real reconciliation to occur, we must not only meditate and identify the offense, but also value the relationship that may be jeopardized by such offense. It requires openness of heart to engage in dialogue and to seek the restoration of that particular relationship. God desires for us to live in relationship with one another. When our relationships are broken, other areas of our lives may become off-balance to the extent that, at times, it may impact our ability to function.

Broken relationships separate us from one another and, in some ways, from God. At times, we are oblivious to the impact of our actions in the life of others. Our intent may be genuine or without malice, and the impact in others may be devastating. Pride may also play a significant role, impeding us from reconciling with those whom we love and love us, and from those who differ from us. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to build bridges, not walls.

In the current state of affairs in our nation, a difference of opinions at the political and ethical level has caused a visible divide among families, friends, and communities. It is practically a common occurrence to hear friends “de-friending” each other’s pages in social media as a result of political debates or opposing points of views about relevant and challenging topics.

How may we find common ground in the midst of our differences? How may we, even during challenging and uncertain times, create spaces for dialogue and reconciliation?

Jesus came to this world to reconcile us with God. It is that ministry of reconciliation that encourages us to create spaces for healthy and productive dialogue. It is that ministry of reconciliation that urges us to remain faithful to our vocation of love where we reject sin while embracing the sinner.

Author and researcher, Brené Brown, shared a cartoon about “Empathy versus Sympathy” at a RSA talk in 2013. Brown shares that “Empathy feels connection while sympathy drives disconnection”. She describes empathy as the ability to take on the perspective of another person while staying out of judgment, recognizing the emotions in other people and communicating that. Brené accurately states that “Empathy is a choice and it is a vulnerable choice.”

Having empathy for those with whom we differ may provide us an opportunity to listen attentively to their perspectives, creating spaces for holy conversations that may lead to reconciliation or even positive changes in the midst of profound and basic disagreement of ideology.

We can choose to nurture our divides and remain in a state of tension and dissension, or, we may decide to be open to the movement of the Spirit and focus on that which unite us, God’s love for humanity, and work together through our disagreements.

There is a story of a married couple who argue frequently. They have been married for 38 years. Both of them were known to have strong characteristics s and were quick to temper. One evening they engaged in yet another heated and emotionally charged conversation. The wife, reaching a point of no return, decided to pack a few things and walk away. While packing, she noticed that her husband placed another suitcase next to her and started packing as well. With a huff, she asked him, “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!”.

Similar to the case of this married couple, our disagreements, political or not, are not sufficient ground to separate us. We are bonded by something greater.

Avoidance of contact is a defense mechanism we may use to evade our responsibility to foster reconciliation and unity. Reconciliation is hard work. It is holy work.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, preached in Guatemala in August of 2011. In his sermon, he shared, “The gift of the church to the world is reconciliation. We have been given it as a gift for ourselves so that we may know God, and we have been given it to learn.”

As a church, we have a unique opportunity to become bridge-builders during this historic time in America. We have a chance to exercise our prophetic voices in powerful and unique ways, at the same time that we spread and teach the gift of reconciliation in our nation.

Jesus, our model, faced confrontations with determination and compassion. It is a healthy and necessary balance to mend and maintain challenging relationships.

Jesus’s determination ensured that the dignity of every human being was respected. His compassion showed God’s love to those who were difficult to love.

May we find holy balance in these challenging times to maintain a reconciliatory tone while challenging the injustices against God’s children in a way that foster dialogue and build bridges. Not an easy task, but a necessary one. Amen.

The Very Rev. Miguelina Howell is Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford. She serves as Chaplain to the House of Bishops, CREDO Faculty and is a member of the Latino Missioner of The Episcopal Church. Miguelina serves on the General Convention Task Force for Sustainability and Development of Latino Congregations.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 6A.

Intensifying the Law, 6 Epiphany (A) – 2014

February 16, 2014

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20 or Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

In the moral life, we can think of commandments in at least a couple of ways. One way to think of a commandment is as a rule by which we can evaluate the rightness or wrongness of a given action. We might think of a commandment like, “thou shalt not bear false witness” as a rule against the deliberate telling of untruths. The moral task then will be to decide whether telling our spouses that “we love” their new neon green and brown plaid blazer breaks the rule against lying or not.

A second way to think of a commandment sees it as a guide and exhortation in the formation of our moral character. Taken this way, the command against bearing false witness is not just about following the rule, but it is also about the formation of an honest character. The rule is followed not just for the sake of following it, but because by repeated attempts to follow the rule in our ever-changing circumstances, we become people who are disposed to act honestly.

Jesus thinks of commandments in the second way. Our gospel lesson for today comes from a section of the Sermon on that Mount that traditionally has been called “Antitheses,” because Jesus’ teaching is presented in the following pattern: First, Jesus says, “you have heard that it was said ”; then Jesus follows with his own magisterial statement, “but I say to you”. The problem with calling these teachings “Antitheses” is that it suggests that Jesus is contradicting the earlier statement. But this is not so. Rather, what Jesus is doing is intensifying the particular law’s claims and thereby clarifying its true meaning.

In the so-called “Antitheses,” Jesus is showing what he meant earlier in the Sermon on the Mount when he said he came “not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” and to teach a greater righteousness: “If your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” The commandments are not just rules to be followed, they are given so that by following them we might become formed in a greater righteousness.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”

Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against murder, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to kill, we can still hate and despise others. We can follow the rule and still kill relationships, still treat people as if they were dead to us. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to kill is the formation of our hearts and minds so that we look at others not with anger, but rather with love. The greater righteousness is to love others as we would have them love us, even when they are our enemies. The commandment is given not just so that we won’t kill each other, but so that we will be the type of people who will seek out someone who has wronged us and work to be reconciled with them.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Again, Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against committing adultery, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to commit adultery, we can still demean and belittle others. The lustful glance, the undressing with the eye, treats others as objects and takes what doesn’t belong to us, even if it keeps its distance. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to commit adultery is a faithful heart that cherishes our spouses and respects our neighbors.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’”

Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against swearing falsely, he is intensifying it. Jesus knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we can still manipulate others with our words and lead them astray with our tongues. We can make frivolous oaths in the name of heaven and belittle God’s holy name. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the law is not just to refrain from swearing falsely, but that our words ought to be so reliable and honest that no oaths need to be taken. The greater righteousness is to let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” The commandment is given so that we would become honest people.

L. Gregory Jones, in an essay entitled “The Grace of Daily Obligation: Shaping Christian Life,” reflects on how we become grace-filled people through the daily and disciplined practice of Christian obligations. He writes:

“Isn’t it interesting that when we are talking about a ballet dancer, or, if you prefer, a Michael Jordan on the basketball court … we describe them as being graceful – full of grace. Yet anybody who has ever undertaken the craft of ballet or piano or basketball knows how much work day by day by day goes into the cultivation of that gracefulness. In this sense, gracefulness is not simply a process of sitting back and waiting. Rather, through the activity of daily habits people are prepared to move gracefully, in a way that transcends the day-to-day preparation. It becomes so natural that the graceful performer doesn’t have to think it through. … The gracefulness develops over time so that eventually the steps come together in a powerfully new way, a performance. That happens only through daily obligation.”

Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus came to call and form disciples in a community devoted to the higher righteousness. We follow the commandments not simply because they are rules; we follow the commandments so that we might become the type of people Christ wants us to be, people formed and fashioned for life in the kingdom of God.

At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us a description of the character of disciples fit for the Kingdom:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

We become these types of people not by forsaking the law; rather, we become these types of people by following the law with true intention. God gave the commandments not so that we would become moral rule keepers; rather, God gave us the commandments as guides and exhortations for the formation of our character, so that we might become people who are pure in heart, so that we might love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and that we might love our neighbor as ourselves.

Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. … For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and co-author of “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

Listen to the heart of God, 6 Epiphany (A) – 2011

February 13, 2011

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20 or Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

The church makes many claims about God – about who God is and what God does and what God is like. We make big claims, and the biggest of all, the one that is at the core of all our claims is that God is love.

Above all else, God is love. We sing songs about the God of love, we pray to the God of love, we offer the gift of ourselves to the God of love. And then, this morning, which happens to be the day before Valentine’s Day, we hear these lessons, most of which have to do with Law. And we may be taken aback, especially by our gospel lesson, which contains phrases such as, “if you call your brother or sister ‘you fool,’ you will liable to the hell of fire, 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.”

These are words from the God of love, the very heart of God made flesh, Jesus?

This is not one of those Well-if-you-read-it-in-the-original-Greek-text-it-sounds-very-different texts. There isn’t a way to get around this lesson. No, we need to go through it, get to the very heart of it, and therefore, to get a glimpse of the heart of God.

Listen to the heart of God. Today’s gospel says a lot about what we would hear if we listen to our hearts and if we listen to God’s heart.

We know the joys of listening to the sounds of the heart. We have felt, even heard the sound of our own hearts beating in excitement. Some of us have heard the heartbeat of a baby not yet born, but already audible and very much alive. We know that listening to our hearts can give us a diagnosis of a healthy or an unhealthy heart.

But we also know the heart is more than a vital physical organ. “Heart” means the core of our selves in all our most vibrant aspects. We talk about the human heart as the seat of loving, of compassion, or tenderness, of courage. Our language knows this: we say, “Take heart.” Be assured. If you have had a change of heart, you have had a shift of perspective, a shift of plans, a significant change in your outlook. Heart is the seat of memory: to know something by heart is to know it perfectly. Heart is the seat of yearning and desire: to seek with your whole heart is to pursue, search for diligently, strive for something with all the perseverance you can muster.

We listen now to the songs of our hearts and of God’s heart in today’s gospel lesson.

Jesus is sitting with his disciples, teaching them what it means to follow in the path he would have them walk. Jesus is giving words to the love song of God’s heart. We hear a section of the Sermon on the Mount, a section that began in last week’s reading with these statements of Jesus, “I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” and “if your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” And lest this be lost to our modern ears, those scribes and Pharisees are pretty righteous. What follows in today’s lessons are the illustrations and implications of those statements.

Jesus came not to abolish the law, but apparently to make it even tougher, to make it more exacting. Jesus lists some of the big commandments: You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not swear falsely. And were that all, it could make for rather dull preaching.

Yes, of course, the disciples would say, we’ve heard that before. We know that’s what God wants for us. But then Jesus goes on to breathe new life, new relevancy into these commandments by explaining what they mean in their fullness – by going to the heart of the matter. He explains what they mean if we are to love as God loves, because the law tells us what is in God’s heart. Law exposes God’s fondest desires of how we would live with one another. Law also exposes the difference between our hearts and God’s heart.

Listening to our hearts does give a diagnosis. God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep the commandment not to kill one another, we still hate and despise others. We are willing to kill relationship with others, to treat others as if they are as good as dead to us.

God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep a commandment not to commit adultery, we still can disrespect others by treating them as less than fully human.

God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we are still willing to manipulate others with our words, to lead others astray by what we say, to let our words be meaningless rather than let our yes mean yes and our no mean no.

Our hearts, though we are made in the image of God, do not keep time with the beating of God’s heart. While God’s heart sings out a love song, begun in creation and sung to us still, our hearts fall far short.

The diagnosis: our hearts are diseased, unhealthy, disheartened.

And so, in God’s mercy, God gives us law. In the teaching of Jesus, this is law that will not let our hearts fall short of loving as God would have us love. It is law that would have us love in a way that respects the dignity of every human being, as we say in our baptismal covenant.

And it is law that ultimately convicts us, because what it demands of us, we cannot do.

And here again the law shows us God’s love, by showing us our failing and driving us into the arms of our merciful God. St. Augustine put it this way: “The law was given for this purpose: to make you, being great, little; to show that you do not have in yourself the strength to attain righteousness, and for you, thus helpless, unworthy, and destitute, to flee to grace.” The grace of God is there, offered for us. We need only take it.

Listen again. Does all this talk of law and our failing to keep it bring you sadness? Good, said John Donne in a sermon, then it is a holy sadness, because a sense of our sin is “god’s key to the door of his mercy, put into thy hand.” God’s heart is a rich treasure house of mercy to which our sense of sin is the key.

Discovering our failure to love as God loves is not then a cause for despair. No – it is a call back to God, into the arms of God, who loves and strengthens us, and sends us out to love again; bids us love more fully, more perfectly, because although showing perfect love is impossible for us, nothing is impossible with God.

The sound of our hearts and the sound of God’s heart are different now. They’re meant to sing the same song. So we are given law, that we might know more completely how to love, and when we fail – because we do fail – we are given the key to God’s heart, the key to the vast treasure of God’s mercy that stands ready for us to take. The key to a heart that offers us true pleasure, true love.

Take heart. Because our God is a God of love. Our God is love. In that we can be sure.
— The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.