Sunday, February 12, 2023
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
You have heard it said, but I say
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy, TX 77450
February 12, 2023
“You have heard it said, but I say.” What an interesting statement from Jesus. Jesus is presenting us with a new teaching or rather a new point of view from what had been in the past. We have in our gospel four of six antithetical statements Jesus said that show how he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Last week I preached about this being about how we live more than what we say and Jesus is building on that idea in this section of the Sermon on the Mount.
These statements are focused on the last six commandments. The first four all deal with our relationship with God. These six are the ones that deal with how we treat each other. Some of these seem very challenging including the passage about divorce. One person commented, these are hard, I don’t think I can really do these. I believe it is critical to look at these as vision statements and goals. Jesus is trying to stretch what the disciples believe is possible. To go beyond the simple letter of the law and set up what the kingdom will look like at some point in time.
You see this is about more than the law. This is about what is in our hearts, what is motivating us. For what is in our heart, our intent, our thoughts that can result in the real sin of an action. Remember that sin is not just doing something wrong, but it is any action, thought or decision that breaks relationship with God, creation or another person. This I believe is what Jesus is trying to get at in this series of teachings. How do we act in ways that build and strengthen our relationships with others?
Looking at the big picture in this passage is helpful. Realizing that Jesus is giving us stretch goals, a view of the kingdom while still dealing with this broken world is the important point. This is what Jesus teaches we must do to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. In the kingdom things like divorce, hatred, fighting will not exist, but they do in this world. Jesus Knows this and teaches what to do in the meantime.
Now let us return to those verses I mentioned a minute ago. Here is the Message version and once again this may help us understand what Jesus is talking about.
Matt. 5:23 “This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, 24 abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God. 25 “Or say you’re out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don’t lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you’re likely to end up in court, maybe even jail.
The root of Jesus’ concern and teaching is about broken relationships. When we are in a state of broken relationship with others, then we risk also being in a broken relationship with God and that once again is the very definition of sin. Notice in this statement where the focus of action is located. In all the translations it says if someone has something against you or there is a grudge a friend has against you make the first move. Even if it isn’t your fault, Jesus is telling you that it is your responsibility to begin the process of reconciliation. We are not allowed to sit back and wait for the other to realize they are a total fool, or uncaring or whatever we want to say about the other. Jesus is telling us to get going and start the reconciliation process.
Sometimes we have to step away and be willing to say, maybe I was in the wrong, maybe I did make a mistake. It takes a lot of inner ego strength to say I’m sorry, that I am wrong. How many people do you know who even when they know in their heart they are wrong, still will not admit it?
Forgiveness is also critical in all of this. This is at the heart of the instruction to make amends. We must first remember that first and foremost we are already forgiven by God. If we expect forgiveness from another, we then need to be equally ready to forgive the other. Forgiveness is so important to healing and reconciling relationships. I remember the advice I was given a long time ago. Holding a grudge, being unwilling to forgive is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. The danger is in what the damaged relationship does first to you and then to the other person. Sometimes people are angry or upset with another and the other person does not even know it. The real issue is when the broken relationship spirals out of control and does serious damage.
We live in a very fragmented world. A world where people retreat to their own silos, close their eyes, put their metaphorical fingers in their ears and claim they have all the answers and nobody else has the truth. I read an article the other day that showed how public opinion polls often no longer look like a bell curve but have two humps and a gap between them. There is no middle left in many of the debates over the issues we have. In another article about how to pull someone back from a fringe group or point of view, they said logical arguments do not work any longer. What does work is the hard work of listening to the other. Really listening even if what you hear is painful. Then asking questions and listening again.
Make no mistake Jesus is telling us what life in the kingdom is like. That is what his entire sermon is about and why the standards seem so impossibly high. They are above what we as humans can do until we enter into the kingdom. The good news is we can strive towards living and thinking this way.
With the understanding that we are expected to make the first move, what can we do to bring that kingdom a little closer? The first thing to remember is that you can only control your actions and your thoughts. You cannot control another so as Jesus says it is up to you to make the first step. We are fast approaching the season of Lent and there is a very special rite that can be done at any time, but is especially appropriate during Lent. Lent is time for reflection and in the early church time for repentance. As the words in the Ash Wednesday service say, a time when people who had been excluded from the church for notorious sins would seek reconciliation and return to the church.
In our prayer book is a service that is called the Rite of Reconciliation. Now it looks a great deal like a private confession and in fact it is an act of private confession, but it is also and primarily about reconciliation. There are two forms and I encourage people to use the second one because it not only asks forgiveness for what we have done but also asks us to forgive those who have hurt us. This can be a very hard thing, but I have found in my own experience and from doing this with many people that when they forgive one who has hurt them and do this consciously in the presence of God, a weight, a huge unbelievable weight lifts from your shoulders. You might consider this as part of your Lenten discipline. It is a powerful and life-giving rite.
There is an even simpler, but just as challenging thing you can do and that is to actually do what Jesus says. Go up to the person you are having a problem with and start the conversation! Nothing pains me more than to have someone come to me with an issue with another person and they will not make the first step. “Mark I want you to know about what so and so did. I don’t want you to do anything I just want you to know that I’m upset with and then fill in the blank.”
Our gospel and our letter to Corinth really are a first-rate manual in how to make the church and the world look more like the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is all about how to bring the kingdom into reality if you can cut through the hyperbole and metaphor. It is really that simple, love one another, talk to one another, stay in relationship even when the other person is acting like a jerk! Acknowledge that all of us have a piece of the big story, the universal story, but none of us by ourselves knows the whole story. That’s why we need each other. That’s why we must, even though it is hard, stay in relationship with each other and with God. That’s the only way God’s kingdom will come.