Year A: The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 16, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
What we’ve got here (tip of the hat to Cool Hand Luke) is a clear communication about the simple, direct choices that often lie before us. God wants us to understand that we have two ways to go in life: the way of life and the way of death. Every choice we make bears a consequence. Some of those are good consequences that we desire — e.g., if you put away 10% of every paycheck you earn, you’ll have plenty of money one day when you need it. Others are bad consequences that we’d rather avoid — if you spend every penny you earn, you’ll come upon a day when you’re flat broke and dependent on the kindness of strangers (second tip of the hat to A Streetcar Named Desire.)

It is simply not possible to walk the two paths at the same time. The “commandments” of God, rather than being vicious rules imposed upon us by a Heavenly Tyrant, are rather intended for our good, serving as guides along life’s way to help us choose the better path. Hmmm?

Can you think of other paired sets of consequences (positive and negative examples) that confront us along life’s way? Where do you see the grace of God made available to help us make the better choice?

Sirach 15:15-20
Verse 16 in this brief passage provides a very vivid image to underscore the message of Deuteronomy (see above): where would you rather stick your hand? Into a bowl of water or into a raging fire?

Psalm 119:1-8
The psalm text continues the theme of the joy (happiness) to be found in following the way set out by God in God’s commandments. Why do you think it is such a strong human tendency to focus only on the negative aspects of “commandments” — i.e., what I have to give up or might lose if I do things God’s way — rather than on the benefits gained by keeping to the path?

1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Two thoughts surface as we consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians here:

  • There are basic, introductory kinds of things that we need to learn as we begin coming to faith; these are like the “milk” that an infant needs in order to survive and thrive in the first days and weeks of life. When proper growth ensues, “solid” food will be the natural progression for continued growth. What would happen if a baby continued to feed only on a mother’s milk? Spiritually, what happens to us if we never move on to the “solid” food of God’s word and the church’s teachings?
  • Jealousy and envy will kill a church quicker than almost any other “sins.” Even preachers are subject to it (maybe they are especially subject to it!) How important is it to realize that “we are God’s servants, working together?” What does the Apostle mean by “we all have a common purpose?”

Matthew 5:21-37
We have here a lengthy section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; it seems that Jesus is interested in helping us “get behind” the rules laid down in God’s commandments. Why is it important to understand the feelings/motivations/issues that surround the kind of anger that makes us mad enough to kill? (And, to realize that there are many different ways to “kill” a person — like sabotaging a reputation, poisoning a relationship, or purposely causing someone to suffer.)

Perhaps Jesus isn’t really all that interested in how well we attend to a rigid checklist of things we’re not supposed to do — “Okay, I didn’t commit any adultery today, I didn’t pull out a gun and shoot anyone — I guess I’m okay!” Rather, the Lord desires that we dig a little deeper — or a lot deeper — and discover why we can’t seem to get rid of the grudge that has kept us from speaking to a fellow church member for the past year, or the envious way in which we wish we could trade lives with a well-to-do sibling or classmate.

How hard is it to face the feelings that lie just under the surface of our hearts and minds? How important is it that we open these sensitive areas to the scrutiny of the Spirit and our own self-consciousness?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

23”So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

These words come near the beginning of our rather long Gospel reading, which at first glance seems to jump all over the place – going from murder, to calling people names, to worship etiquette to courtroom advice and warnings, to adultery to rather bizarre and exaggerated talk about self-mutilation.  The writer then catches his breath before taking off in a new direction on divorce and the taking of oaths. It all seems rather random and quite confusing.

When confronted with a text like this, the preacher has two options (well three really; you can chicken out and preach on something else.)

Okay, two options: 1) you can attempt to explain everything in the text, or 2) you can pick a bit of the text and through it try to shed some light on the larger picture.  I have chosen this “small bit of the text” option.  I tell you that so you won’t be sitting there with bated breath waiting for me to explain Jesus on divorce or the thing about gouging out your eyes; those things will have to wait for another day.

23”So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

My father died about ten years ago.  At his funeral, my cousin and her husband sang a song he had asked them to sing, an old mountain tune called, “Don’t Bring Me Flowers When I’m Dead.” I smiled as to myself as they sang, thinking the song a perfect choice by my daddy to sum up his theology, his straight-forward way of dealing with others, and his musical taste. Some of my good Lutheran friends, who had never experienced an Appalachian Methodist/Baptist funeral and were unfamiliar with the folk “hymnody” of the region, were puzzled by the whole thing.

I explained to them that the song had in mind a tradition still carried on in some small mountain churches of what is referred to as the “Flower Service.”  (This is not to be confused with “Decoration Day” when people bring flowers to decorate the graves in the church cemetery.)

At the flower service, everyone brings a bouquet of flowers and places them on a table in front of the pulpit.  These are not arranged bouquet; they are a large fistful of flowers from the garden and wild flowers from the fields and woods.  Then the minister preaches a sermon on Matthew 5:23-24, stressing the need for harmony and peace in the congregation and reminding people of Our Lord’s admonition to make peace with our neighbor before kneeling at the altar to pray to God. After the sermon, a genuinely amazing “passing of the peace,” takes place as everyone in the congregation comes to the table and retrieves their bouquet and then begins to go to every other person in the church to apologize for any hurt feelings or harsh words or misunderstandings.

From the oldest to the youngest, everyone talks to everyone else, not caring how long it takes. After  apologies and words of forgiveness and reconciliation have been spoken and heard, people then exchange flowers, sealing the restoration of their relationship and then moving on to another sister or brother in Christ. (see Howard Dorgan, “Giving Glory to God in Appalachia: Worship Practices of Six Baptist Subdenominations.” University of Tennessee Press, 1987, p. 147)

This practice in these small mountain churches is spiritually a very wise thing. It comes out of a deep understanding of what Jesus is about in this entire lesson.  Jesus is digging beneath the surface of outward observance to get at both the difficulty and the serious importance of being genuine and transparent in God’s new community of the church.  For the writer of Matthew’s gospel – it is unimaginable that people who profess to be followers of Jesus should be Christians on the surface only.

Therefore, there is to be no walking about with deep resentments against others festering inside while on the surface we act as if nothing is wrong.  We are not only not to murder; we are to deal with our anger appropriately and honestly.  There is to be no secret lust driving your life, if you have problem with that sort of thing, Jesus says, acknowledge it, deal with it, get help. All throughout this text, Jesus’ words are about dropping pretense and dealing with the real problems of being in relationship and community with others by being honest, straight-forward and humble with each other.

Which brings me back to Daddy’s choice of this song for this funeral. My father was not a perfect man; but he was the most honest man I have ever met.  It was his firm conviction that if we would tell each other the truth and deal honestly with one another at all times, we would have very little need for either remorse or regrets.  If you need to make peace with me, the song says, bring the “flowers” now – as in the flower service.  Don’t hold on to your grudge and then salve your conscience with a nice spray at my funeral.

That is the call of today’s text on all of us.  Do it now.  Live by kingdom values now.  Straighten out your life now.  Make peace with others now.  The kingdom of God is here, now.  The spirit of God is giving you strength for whatever changes you need to make, now. The love of Christ is forgiving you and inviting you to forgive others, now. Now. Now. Now.

Amen and amen.

8 thoughts on “Year A: The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 16, 2014)

  1. I like your thoughts on the subject. These are Scriptures that a lot of clergy will let the Deacon or new minister preach on today. Sometimes Holy Writ needs very little comment from the clergy. Jesus was always challenging people to go deeper into their being. As clergy we also are obligated to challenge others to do likewise.

  2. Week after week after some self reflection, the Bubba thoughts are the first I turn to for further nudges and tugs. And I am never disappointed, As I read, I often think, “dang — I wish I’d said that!” Frequently I smile…sometimes I squirm…always I’m given something to chew on. With hugs and gratitude,

  3. Pingback: “But I say to you…” – Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 | A pastor sings

  4. Pingback: Year A, Ordinary 6, 2017 – What’ll it Be? – More Than Hearing

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  6. Pingback: Above and Beyond – Sermon for Epiphany 6A on Matthew 5:21-37 | A pastor sings

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