The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
Epiphany 6 – February 12, 2017 – Year A
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20; Psalm 119: 1-8; 1Corinthians 3: 1-9; Matthew 5: 21-37
Let us pray: Dear Gracious and Loving God, we pray that we hear what you need for us to hear. Amen.
In the readings today from Deuteronomy and from Matthew, we heard a portion of two sermons. One by Moses, and one by Jesus.
Deuteronomy 30 is part of the farewell that Moses gave to the Israelites as they were to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land.
Moses reminds them of their covenant with God and presents to them two clear choices: They can choose life and prosperity in the land of milk and honey; or they can choose death and adversity.
He told them: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live…”
Several thousand years later, Jesus leads his disciples to the top of a hill, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, sits down, and begins to speak.
The gospel from the 5th chapter of Matthew that we heard today is part of that Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is preparing his disciples as they begin their ministry. He is teaching them, giving them instructions, on how to become disciples.
He tells them that obedience to the commandments means a lot more than fulfilling the outward forms of the law. He tells them that obedience to God’s teachings must come from the innermost part of our beings, from our moral fiber.
Our actions are to be rooted in justice and concerns for others, not just in doing some sacrificial, outward action. Attempting to live in accordance with the commandments will build our moral character. It will make us children of God.
What do these two sermons have in common?
In both sermons, God is calling his people to obey his commandments. Moses spells out what the consequences will be, when the commandments are obeyed… and when they are not.
Jesus warns about hypocrisy, about doing “it” because others are watching… because we will gather praise… and not because it is the right thing to do
Moses and Jesus both say “Choose Life!” God’s way is the path to a life that is joyful, real and eternal.
The Psalm reinforces this by saying:
Happy are they whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord!
Happy are they who observe his decrees
and seek him with all their hearts!
Obeying the commandments of God… and living by the spirit of his laws leads to life.
If we now fast forward three years, we hear Jesus final message to his disciples, in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prepares to fulfill his life on earth. Jesus is praying to His Father, when he says …”this is the real and eternal life… That they know you, the one and only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent”.
There is that word again: LIFE… real and eternal life.
What is eternal life? Is it immortality?
We seem to think of immortality whenever we hear someone talking about “eternal life”, but it seems that Moses and Jesus talked about “life” in a different manner… to them, “life” was “eternal life.”
To them, eternal life was not a gift of immortality, or of a future life in heaven. Of course all of us aspire to that and can attain it. But eternal life as defined by Jesus is a life shaped by the knowledge of God as revealed to us by his son.
Eternal life is what we are living right now. Eternal life is not to come but it is here and now.
Now that is a sobering thought…
If that is the case, then we can think of commandments in a new and different way.
The usual way of thinking about commandments is as moral rules which we must obey or face the wrath of God. ”Thou shall not bear false witness” is a rule against the deliberate telling of untruth. When Patti appears at home with a new hairdo and I tell her that I love it when I really hate it, am I lying? Am I affirming her in love to build her self-esteem? Are “white lies”, lies?
A new way of thinking about commandments is as moral guides in the formation of our moral character.
I will give you a personal example. After I got out of college, I went to work in the aircraft industry. After a few years I found myself working for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Atlanta, GA. I was in charge of a program to develop methods of testing the dynamic response of aircraft when subjected to air disturbances. The program required the purchase of expensive equipment that could measure the dynamics of the response, so we published a request for a quote.
Several companies responded. I had to evaluate their bids and award a sizeable contract.
It turns out that someone that I knew peripherally, through some of my friends, worked for one of the responders and that that company had presented what I thought was the best proposal.
Several weeks earlier, a few of us had decided to eat at a very nice and new restaurant in Atlanta, and by coincidence, the date chosen was a week or so before I was to announce the winner. Usually when we went to downtown Atlanta, we car poled to minimize the search for parking places, and this fellow with the responder that I thought was best had volunteered to drive me and another common friend to the restaurant.
He came to my house first, at the appointed time, and then proceeded to show me in his trunk a new and very expensive hi-fi record player with all of the gadgets. I of course admired it. He asked me if I had anything like that and I said “No, but I sure wished I did”. He then said “Can I help you bring it in? It is yours, if you want it.”
Now here was my quandary. His company had the best proposal. I had already decided to award the program to his company. Our lawyers were working on the contract. I really wanted to have something like what he had in his trunk. Nobody was around to see whether I took it or not.
But it was illegal. It was immoral of me to accept it. He was obviously trying to bribe me. He thought that a bribe could get his company a contract and he thought so little of me that he thought that I would accept it.
What did I do? I closed his trunk. I got in my car and met my friends at dinner. I never again had much to do with him. I awarded the contract as was best for the FAA. I must admit that I had remorse from time to time about closing that trunk. But the commandments inculcated in me by my parents and my church gave me the moral compass I needed to act appropriately, at least, on that day.
The commandments given to us in the Holy Scriptures are a guide, a moral compass, pointing to real, joyful and “eternal” life. A life we are to live here and now to prepare us for the life yet to come. A life we are to inculcate on our children. A life we are to live by continuously striving to grow our character; by continuously striving to polish those imperfections that we all have.
Jesus said that it is not enough to not commit murder. Most of us will not do that. It is important that we overcome anger, especially when justified. Anger is a slippery slope that leads away from God… the murder of life or of someone’s perceived character.
It is hard not to act in anger when someone has done us wrong. It builds character, Jesus would say.
Jesus said that if we owe someone a debt, we must seek reconciliation. There are many ways to owe a debt by what we have said or done or not said or not done. We cannot come to God when we devalue another person whom God has created. It is hard to seek reconciliation from someone that has hurt us, or harder yet, that we have hurt. It builds character, Jesus would say.
Jesus said that if you look at someone with lust you have already committed adultery. If I were to look at that new very expensive hi-fi record player with all of the gadgets with lust, I was already in a slippery slope. I did look at it that way. I just had to close that trunk and walk away. It was hard. It builds character, Jesus would say.
I am not perfect. Neither are you. All of us need to build our character. I don‘t know of a better place, or a better institution to help me and you do that, other than a church, a temple, a mosque … a religious organization.
This country was built on a guarantee that I would be free to worship in any manner that I chose. This country was built on the premise that every citizen would protect the rights of every other citizen to seek life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
There is that word again: LIFE, and now we know that it is eternal life.
Our baptismal covenant says that we are to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
To be faithful to these commandments… to guarantee the freedom to worship… to protect the right of other human beings… to respect the dignity of all human beings… and in my mind, these are commandments just as much as the ten that Moses gave us and that Jesus amplified… to be faithful to these commandments is to seek life, eternal life. And we are to do so not because of who others are, but because of who we are”. 
It builds character, Jesus would say.