February 16, 2014 “ 6 Ephiphany, Year A
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
The date of Easter is determined by the moon. It falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox which is on March 21. Last year Easter was early, on March 31. This year it will be late, on April 20, a three week difference. After the date of Easter is determined, then the date of Ash Wednesday can be determined. This year that falls on March 5. Last year Ash Wednesday was on February 13. Next year it’s on February 18. So the Epiphany season, which falls between the Christmas Season and Lent, varies in length. This year it is extra long and so we have more Sundays in the Epiphany season this year than we usually do. And for those Sundays we read some lessons that we don’t often read. As you can tell by the gospel lesson just read, there are some real doozies that we don’t read all that often. This gospel lesson is a tough one and I certainly didn’t consider what the lessons were when I set the preaching schedule or else Candice or Daniel may well have drawn this straw.
In my first church the rector would periodically say, Well, this has been a lousy day. I think I’ll go call on all the people who hate me and get it all over with at once so that doesn’t mess up a good day. It does seem like maybe Jesus is having a really bad day and decides to
just get all the offensive stuff out there in one fell swoop while he’s at it. But really it’s a good lesson and it invites us into a deeper relationship with our Trinitarian God so let me tell you a few stories and see if I can get you to hear what I think Jesus is saying.
Harry Lawhon was a priest in Camden, SC, when I went to seminary. He was a crusty old fellow with a wry sense of humor and he was on the Commission on Ministry when I was interviewing with them to find out if they would let me go to seminary. Everybody else wanted to know what I thought about Jesus and the Trinity and things like that. Harry wanted to know something else about me. So, if we send you to seminary, Harry asked, will you get a damn haircut?. They did and I did. But what I remember most about Harry was something he told me a few years later. Any idiot can follow the rules, Harry said, but it takes somebody wise to know when to break them.
There are the rules. And then there is the figuring out of what the rules really mean. We are expected to do more than just follow the letter of the law. The spirit of the law is even more important. Sometimes the letter of the law is far too harsh. Sometimes the letter of the law is far too easy. The law helps us figure out what the Holy Spirit is saying to us but we’ve got to listen.
Second story. A husband came to see me. My wife is always nagging me, he said. Now I might not be the best husband in the world but I sure am better than most. She could do a lot worse. She’s never satisfied with anything I do. I don’t think I can take it anymore. What do you think I should do.? Well, I said, I think you should get your butt off the couch and quit watching so much tv and spend more time with your wife. Sounds like she got to your first, preacher. he said. No, but I’m husband too and all husbands get lazy so quit rationalizing your behavior and be a better husband. It was a short session.
Third story, an old joke. Two guys are walking out of the woods after a hunt and a bear jumps out in front of them, raises up on his haunches and starts growling and then starts charging them. They turn tail and run. One of them says, I don’t think we can outrun this bear. The other one says “ and you can say it with me “ I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you.
Now if I were Jim Walter I would just say amen and sit down and let you put all that together. But let me put it together for you just a little bit.
Rules are important. God gives us the law and he says that as we follow faithfully we will know blessing in our lives. Choose well, God tells us, and it will go well with you. Rules and God’s law are meant to protect us and guide us. You have heard it said, Look both ways before you cross the street. Pretty good rule. But I say to you, If your approach to life is just about following the rules, you might decide never to cross the street and base your life on the belief that you’re good because you don’t cross the street and everyone who does is bad. You’ve got to use your head and your heart to live faithfully.
Sometimes we use the rules not to be obedient and grow closer to God but to point out how bad others are in comparison with us. Rationalizing our behavior is dangerous. It’s a defensive lifestyle. There’s always some schmuck out there that you can use to make yourself feel better about who you are. But is that enough? Do you just want to be a little better than a schmuck? Or do you want to be full and whole and healthy and alive? Maybe I am better than murderers and adulterers and thieves and 99 percent of husbands and rectors, but so what? Honestly, outrunning them isn’t all that hard. But there’s always another bear.
Salvation isn’t about me being better than you. It’s about me realizing I am just like you and that the grace of God pours out abundantly on us all through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s about knowing that I need help, that I need a Savior. It’s about coming to listen to the saving grace of God, acknowledging that I too need to grow. It’s about looking more to the work God accomplishes on the cross for my soul than it is trying to convince God I am better than others.
You have heard it said that there are choices to make and that the better choices we make the better life will be. But I say to you the most important choice is choosing to know that God has chosen you for salvation.
We try to divide the world into them and us, into the good and the bad. We try to separate ourselves from others and try to make ourselves feel better about our lifestyles based on what we see others doing. But that just doesn’t wear well. We are all sinful and fall short of who we were created to be. We are all forgiven by the grace of God. The only separation is whether we know that gift and are living into it. Don’t get so focused on your outside actions and how they compare with others that you forget to focus on your insides, your own soul, and how Christ is inviting you to grow into grace. The law is important but it doesn’t save us. Christ crucified and resurrected, that is our salvation.