Sunday, February 16, 2020

It’s your move!

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Katy TX 77493

Matthew 5:21-37


There is so much to unpack in this week’s gospel including several verses that make us very uncomfortable. With all the conflict in the world and some of Bishop Doyle’s comments in his message to diocesan council last week I want to spend some time in particular with verses 23-25. If there is anything that is a problem above all problems in our world today it is the deep divisions between people. Bishop Doyle showed a slide that depicted the break between liberal and conservative opinion.  This was not a gentle bell shape curve that you would expect, but a double curve, one in the liberal camp and one in the conservative camp with a dip in what should be the middle where the most common ground used to be. So, what do we do about this? More importantly what does Jesus teach us to do?

The concept of reconciliation is at the heart of verse 23-25. In fact, the whole passage is about relationships and how individuals and the church are expected to behave towards one another and the world. The focus is on reconciliation and that is the key. I once heard a bishop say, “The problem is that we used to disagree while facing and moving towards each other. Today we disagree while walking away from each other.” Reconciliation is about a turning around to engage those with whom we have an issue.

We have in our gospel four of six antithetical statements. They are all focused on “You have heard it said, but I say.” Jesus has said 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 that deal with how we treat each other. Some of these seem so challenging including the passage about divorce. 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.

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 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 a grudge a friend has against you. 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.

The problem is nobody seems to realize we are all part of a bigger story. In Things Hidden by Richard Rohr, he speaks about his “cosmic egg[1].”

At the center is “my” personal story and everything is me centered. The ego is very personal, internal and leads to an I am right and you are wrong type of mindset. My story is the most important.

The second is the “our” story part. This is where the group is the primary identification and it is all about us and what we believe, think or do. The group is the center of the ego and defends our “story” against all others. This is exactly what is happening in Corinth when Paul takes them to task for claiming they belong to Apollos or Paul rather than the greater whole of the church. Again this type of focus causes separation and division along with a breaking of relationship with those outside of whatever group we are identifying with.

Finally, there is the sphere of “The Story.” The story that is made up of all of our stories and is in fact the real story of the world. This is the great story, what is always true. People who think in this realm can step out of their ego-centered world and live in a healthy relationship with each other and with God no matter how they understand God or how the other understands God. This is the world of relationship that Jesus functioned in and truly represents the world of the Kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming in this passage.

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 like in the divorce verse and other examples 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.

[1] Rohr, Richard: Things Hidden Scripture as Spirituality. (St. Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati OH 2008. Pg 22