A Sermon by the Rev. Lara Stroud
Assistant Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Sunday, February 12, 2017
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
I think whoever came up with today’s selection of readings wanted to throw preachers a curve ball. I can’t tell you how many priests I’ve seen posting online asking for ideas, saying that they had no idea what to carry to the pulpit. All week long those of us now standing behind the pulpit have struggled with these texts, willing a sermon to spring up out of the difficult lessons. In the readings we’ve got life & death choices, “jealousy and quarreling,” Paul calling the Corinthians babies, murder, adultery, divorce, a hell of fire, and tearing out of limbs. While it is very tempting to avoid all these difficult topics and find only the parts that are easy or straightforward, that’s not what we’re going to do today.
Today in the readings we hear several times about commandments. For the Israelites, there are not just the 10 Commandments that Moses brought down from the mountain, but there are 603 others. 603! They deal with pretty much all aspects of life, from temple practices like sacrifices and offerings, to how to conduct oneself in times of war, to what kind of fabric to wear/not wear, to how to treat the poor, most especially widows and orphans.
To outsiders, these commandments may seem oppressive. It’s hard enough to follow the 10 commandments, let alone 603 others. I don’t know about you, but I found honoring my father and mother to be quite difficult growing up, especially when I was a teenager. And I often catch myself coveting other people’s stuff. At least I’m good as far as the murdering part is concerned, and I’m not planning on getting a divorce–that counts for something, right? Wrong, at least according to the Gospel reading for today. Jesus says that “if you are angry with a brother or sister” you might as well have murdered them. And if you look at someone with lust in your heart, you have already committed adultery. C’mon, Jesus, give us a break! What’s with all of these rules?
When God gives the 10 commandments and then the 603 others, God’s purpose isn’t trying to figure out ways to make life more difficult for the Israelites. God’s purpose is to make sure that in every aspect of our life we are thinking about God–that every decision we make requires us to take into consideration that we are children of God and should therefore behave accordingly. That every minute of every day we remember that God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the promised land. That every time we come into contact with another person we remember that all people are a creation of God and should receive our respect. The commandments are really about relationships: our relationships with God and with each other.
Jesus is reiterating these relationships in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s not enough to just look at the big picture: just because we don’t shoot someone when we’re angry with them doesn’t mean we should get a pat on the back or a gold star. All the little things we do, like being jealous or angry or calling people names, all these little things tear apart–literally dis-member–the Body of Christ. These things we do to each other eat away at the fabric of our community, weakening our relationships with each other and also with God.
We come to realize how important these relationships are because we are able to see the pain that results when they are broken. Family members estranged because of an argument. Friendships ruined by deceit or jealousy. Marriages ended by lack of communication or betrayal. Not one person here hasn’t been affected by bitter arguments, lost friendships, or divorce on some level, and even more so these days in our fractured country. The more we have committed to a relationship, the more pain we feel when it comes to an end. That’s why we are urged to take our commitments to each other seriously. To take our vows seriously. To take the commandments seriously. Relationships are not to be taken lightly; they are everything. In fact, the whole concept of the Trinity, of the essence of God, is relationship: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of this, then you are not alone. In fact, you’re actually right where you’re supposed to be. Another point of the commandments is to help us to realize that we are unable to keep them on our own. The commandments remind us that we desperately need God in our lives. We are constantly doing things which fall short of where we are called to be, constantly damaging relationships with each other and with God.
But this is where God steps in. Throughout the course of our relationship as God’s people, the pattern is as follows: we get ourselves into a mess and God comes in to fix it. We say we’re sorry, God forgives us, and all is well…until the next time we mess up. God doesn’t have to, but time and time again God chooses to bail us out. We push—rebel— against God and God’s ways, but God does not abandon us. And to show us just how much God really loves us, God became one of us, came and met us on our terms, reached us on our level. God came to us to try to repair the damage we had done, to fix the tear in our relationship with God. Jesus taught us how we should act toward God and how we should treat each other. He never said it was going to be easy, he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).
A friend of mine once posted a quote by G. K. Chesterton in one of her blog posts, and it has stuck with me ever since. The quote reads, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” The readings for today are compelling us to do the hard work of being Christian, of being in right relationship with one another and with God.
There’s a thanksgiving prayer in the back of our Book of Common Prayer that expresses these thoughts better than I can. Everyone please take out the black BCP and turn to page 836. The prayer to which I’m referring is called “A General Thanksgiving” and was written by a professor at Virginia Theological Seminary. I want to draw your attention to the third and fourth paragraphs. Please pray with me:
“We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. We thank you also for those disappointments and failures which lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone” (BCP 836).
We cannot accomplish this on our own, but we are not alone. We have each other, and we have God. Every time we renew our baptismal vows, we say that we will continue to pray and break together “with God’s help.” We will persevere in resisting evil and repent when we fall into sin “with God’s help.” We will proclaim the Good News, seek and serve Christ in all persons, and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being, all “with God’s help” (BCP 304-305).
Every day we have on this earth is a gift. The experience of being in right relationship with each other and with God is challenging, yes, but it is also incredibly rewarding. Through it all God will be cheering us on, there to pick us up when we fall and to celebrate with us when we succeed. May God give us the “help of [God’s] grace, that in keeping [the] commandments we may please [God] both in will and deed…through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (Collect for Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, BCP 216).