Year A — The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for February 13, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

One of the much-bandied characteristics of the “postmodern” age (a term that has been attached, by the way, since no one has figured out exactly what to call this age after the modern age just yet) is the propensity for “both/and” thinking, as opposed to “either/or.” Most of the time, I am fairly comfortable with “both/and” thinking — it’s kind of like another warm and fuzzy contemporary creation, the “win/win” scenario. Nice when it works out that way.

But the ancient text of Deuteronomy reminds us that, sometimes, “both/and” is just not possible. It is not possible both to worship Israel’s God alone and bow down to other gods; it is not possible both to choose the way of death and the way of life. It is not seemly both to bless and to curse, nor to obey the commands of the LORD and to turn one’s heart away.

We are called to choose one of the ways set before us. One path leads to blessing and long life, the other is apparently much, much shorter and far less pleasant!

Psalm 119:1-8

Speaking of postmodernity, perhaps no one ever captured the pure euphoria of exultation quite like Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi who, assisted by Charlie Brissette and Christopher Reccardi, penned the lyrics to the song, Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy! (If you are not the proper age to have grown up watching Nickelodeon, or to have children who watched Nickelodeon, you can get the skinny here.)

Not quite sure that this is what the psalmist has in mind in vv. 1-2…and I probably wouldn’t use the video in worship (if I wanted to keep my job!)… but it does help us get behind the all-too-churchy word, “blessed.” What is the reward for those who do manage to choose the right and follow the precepts of the Lord? It certainly has something to do with joy, enthusiasm, peace, contentment, wholeness, favor and good fortune.

Or it could just be a song about a whale — NO!

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

The Apostle is concerned with church members who seem never to have left the nursery. “You are infants in Christ…I fed you with milk…for you were not ready for solid food!” Almost reminiscent of Jack Nicholson blasting Tom Cruise with the famous line, “You can’t handle the truth!” (A Few Good Men…check the clip here.)

Certainly, petty jealousy and “allegiance” to this pastor over that one, this teacher or leader as opposed to another — these things have no place in the body of Christ. We are reminded that our allegiance is to Christ alone. As preachers, we too need to remember that whatever our role — seed-planter or crop-waterer — it is always God who gives the growth. We must faithfully render our service to the Lord and trust God for the increase.

Matthew 5:21-37

In last week’s lesson, Jesus urged us to “practice” the commands of God and teach others to do the same. As the Sermon on the Mount continues, Jesus illustrates with practical examples that show how his interpretation of God’s kingdom commands go much deeper than mere surface obedience. As Jesus’ people, we are called to examine the intent and motives of our hearts.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton

I have a book on my Bible resources shelf called: Hard Sayings of the Bible.
This text certainly contains a lot of them, doesn’t it?
Back in the 1980s I served a church a few miles from the town of Salisbury NC.  The local afternoon daily paper, the Salisbury Post, ran a weekly Church Page.   You know the sort of thing; location, worship times, Sunday school, pastors name, etc. all in impossibly small print.  The Post was a little different in that it asked you to supply a sermon title or they wouldn’t publish your church’s information.
My titles were never very good; usually something like A Sermon About Jesus, but my friend Glen Zorb was really good with titles.  One of my favorites was “You Can Rust-Proof Your Car; but Can you Rust-Proof Your Soul.”
I still remember Glen’s title for a sermon on this gospel lesson; Things I Wish Jesus Had Never Said. Can I get an amen?
There are a lot of hard sayings in here that many of us might wish Jesus had never said.
Even if we take the business about whacking off limbs and poking out eyes as metaphor and hyperbole and exaggeration for the sake of emphasis (which I am assuming all of us do), Jesus still sets out a moral standard higher than anyone I know could actually achieve.
No anger, no lust, no swearing, no little grudges and resentments and petty drama with siblings or co-workers or fellow church-members or all of the above?  Is he serious? 
And no divorce except for adultery?  What about people in abusive relationships, or people married to alcoholics or drug-users or people who find themselves trapped in a relationship with someone who refuses to even pretend to pull their weight in the marriage?  Is he serious?
Well, yes he is.  Jesus is to be taken seriously here, but not literally.  Jesus is digging beneath the surface of the letter of the law in order to get at the spirit, the intention, that undergirds it.
It is the peculiar; one might say “fallen,” nature of human beings that we seek out two contradictory things at once:
1) We want things broken down into “simple to follow” rules or instructions; and
2) we usually then try to circumvent those rules whenever possible.
In this text Jesus is inviting his hearers to think with him about the why of the rules they have been given.  Most people, then and now, don’t want to do that.
We want to know the rules, the facts, the guidelines, what do we have to do. 
The Bible is full of people asking these types of questions:
 What must I do to be saved?  What does the Lord require?  What is the greatest commandment? Etc. etc. 
And the always difficult to comprehend part is that when we find out what the rule or law or guideline is, many of us seem to then want to find a way around it.
“What’s the speed limit here?  It’s 55.  Hmm,” we think, “I can probably get away with 60 at least, probably a little more.” 
In this text Jesus takes head on the fact that “Thou shalt not murder,” was intended not only to keep people from bashing each other’s heads in or slipping a knife between the ribs every time there was a disagreement; but rather to call people to restrain their anger and to seek peace in all their relationships.
But people, then and now, decided that the minimum was enough.  “The fact that I hate my sister-in-law and treat her like dirt on a regular basis, passive-aggressively making her life miserable every chance I get; is not a moral issue because I have not murdered her.”
Jesus says to this, “You have not killed her but you have killed the relationship, slowly poisoning a sacred connection with the toxicity of your feelings.”
And so it goes with each of the things Jesus talks about in this part of the Sermon on the Mount. 
Adultery, divorce, lying; in each of these things Jesus asks us to look behind what is required to find what is both possible and preferred.
The language about gouging out eyes and sawing off limbs is not an invitation to self mutilation; rather it is a reminder that being the person God made and wants us to be may require us to painfully and carefully control or remove some parts of our life that we were sure we could not do without.
There is a movie out now called 127 Hours. (I am not advising you to go see it.  I hear it’s very good, but a bit rough on the stomach.)  It is the true story of a young man whose arm got trapped under a rock while he was hiking.  After days of trying to get the rock off his arm he decided he couldn’t and that he was going to die.  Then, he says, he had a moment of clarity, he didn’t have to die, but he did have to lose his hand and part of his arm.  And with a pocket knife, he cut off his own arm.  And lived to tell the tale.
It is a frightening, hard image isn’t it? And yet Jesus in the Gospels calls us to take our spiritual lives that seriously. 
What is the rock that is weighing us down, killing our spirits and keeping us from giving ourselves completely to Christ and the Kingdom of God?
Is this a thing that is so valuable that we cannot lose it? 
Cannot lose it, even if keeping it means losing our very souls?
Lent is only a few weeks away, Ash Wednesday is March 9.  Perhaps now is a time to take an inventory of our lives, to see where it is that we are living by the letter and not the spirit, to discover what things are weighing us down and keeping us back. 
Rather than chocolate, or red meat, or drinking or smoking; perhaps we should consider giving up some of those things that we hold so dear so that our hands are free to reach out to God and one another in love.
Amen and amen.

3 thoughts on “Year A — The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

  1. Glad that I am not preaching this week – these are definitely challenging texts! But I really appreciate the invitation to ask what rock might be weighing me down, killing my soul. A powerful and useful image to contemplate. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Year A: The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 16, 2014) | The Lectionary Lab

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