Preacher: The Reverend Dr. Cathy S. Gilliard
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
We are a people and a culture of choices, aren’t we? Paper or plastic, cash or credit, credit or debit, short or tall, grande, venti, or trenta. Public school or private, Upper East Side, Chelsea, Washington Heights. We make many choices every day for all kinds of reasons based on a certain set of variables, values, interests, and peculiarities – a gazillion of them – so much so that sometimes, they are almost automatic. We don’t have to give much thought to them at all. We make choices about relationships; who we will love and if we are lucky the people we choose to love are also the people who choose to love us – to walk with us and share the give and take of life – even when disagreements occur and life is hard. We choose our God or what God we will serve; or we choose to accept the God who chose us. We all made a choice about whether to come here this morning and I’m so glad you did. Believe me, I never take anyone’s presence for granted, including my own. So much to do on a Sunday morning but you chose to come here.
We have chosen this path of Christian faith perhaps after many years of searching. One day something awakened on the inside; perhaps out of the blue or some circumstance or tragedy drew us here. For some of us, this has always been the way as long as we can remember.
At the end of the day, life really is about the choices we make.
In our Old Testament passage, Moses nears the end of his life. The children of Israel are about to cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. They have been wandering around the wilderness for forty years – a distance that could have taken just a very short amount of time and yet, they wandered.
This nation of people had been wandering to and fro and Moses is now at the end of his journey. Remember how God had given them the commandments – the thou shalt nots – all designed for them to live beautifully and harmoniously in fellowship with one another and others? Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie/bear false witness, don’t commit adultery; don’t follow after other gods.
Now, Moses gives this farewell speech: when you get to the land of promise, this is how you are to be together. I have set before you life and what is good versus death and what is wrong. If you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I am commanding you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in God’s ways, and by keeping God’s commandments, then you will live and thrive, and the Lord your God will bless you. If you do not obey God’s commandments, you will be cursed. There are blessings and curses. You choose. You decide.
Moses speaks to the masses not just individuals: there is life in your relationship with one another. If you as a body want God to be present with you, choose life, choose God, choose one another, choose love.
And then, Jesus comes along in the Sermon on the Mount and pushes it just a little further – as always seems to have been his way. These passages included in the Gospel are a continuation of the past two Sundays beginning with the beatitudes, declarations of light and salt, and now clarification on the commandments of old.
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.1
Most of us, I think, are not capable of getting a gun or committing an act of murder. We would never do such a thing unless we just can’t help ourselves; it is a matter of self-defense or to protect someone we love – at least that’s what we tell ourselves. Even then, it’s just not our way. That disparity is easy enough to clarify. But Jesus offers another paradigm and reminds us that we are very capable of murder of a different sort and in God’s economy, it matters just the same: if we are angry; if we insult; if we swear against our brother or sister; if we send such murderous emails – oh God, help us with those emails that can be sent any and everywhere without any affect at all.
Who among us can live up to this? Was Jesus saying that anger is not part of the human experience? Hardly. That we should never be angry under any circumstances or that we pretend that sometimes people don’t get on our very last nerve; or that our differences of opinions and ideas and ideologies don’t matter or that we should always go along to get along? No, I don’t think so. It does occur to me that there are times that we ought have appropriate anger; we ought to get fired up about some things. It ought to make us angry – in my opinion – when systems of oppression and injustice occur in our midst; when there is exploitation of the weak and vulnerable; when some few have so much while others starve and are homeless – literally – and have little to nothing . It ought to make us angry; angry enough to do something. How we use our anger can make a world of difference for good if it’s channeled in the right way.
It seems clear to me that how we engage one another is perhaps more important than we care to admit – and there is life and death in the process. How we use our words and thoughts, how we are quick to judge and reluctant to forgive, how we refuse to muster the courage to be reconciled does matter – not only to those inflicted but also to the inflictor.
You see, sometimes we think that it’s all about having our say and getting the other person but make no mistake – all that anger and pain inside our own selves hurts us just as well. It hurts us. Dragging around all those wounds and excess weight over and over kills our spirit if we are guilty of such things. Spending all that time and all those words defending our case, justifying our side, looking back and missing all those opportunities to be made whole – takes away the sunshine of the present moment. What can we do? How can we forgive? How can we bridge the gaps so that we – not only them – but we too can be freed up to live our own good life, whole, and restored? I’m not a physician and I don’t know this for sure although there are studies pointing to scientific evidence that unresolved anger and stress are but breeding grounds for hypertension, ulcers, cancer cells, and sleepless nights. I mean really – is it worth all that?
We are still in the season of Epiphany in which God offers those aha moments; those bright lights of wisdom deep, rich, and wide. We are still in that season in the liturgical year where we are invited to let the presence of God shine in on us in a new way; into every nook and cranny; every hidden place. It is as if Jesus is the craftsman’s chisel chipping away at the hard and rough pieces forcing us out of denial and into those places where we would rather not go, making us pay attention to ourselves if we would only see. Listen.
If you think your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. For the greater gift is how you are together.
Thou shalt not commit adultery. But those secret thoughts, those ways that put the relationship at risk – and we know that sometimes the secret lover is not always another human being – it can be all that work that we tell ourselves we just must to do, golf, or sports, or anything that puts the relationship at risk.
I’m thinking that this lesson is not so much about the moral laws; that’s why Jesus came in the first place because we could not keep the law. It’s not about checking the box – the “thou shall nots” because we are all guilty. I think it’s more about God’s radical grace being poured out on all sides; and God’s amazing hope that we might truly love him and one another; that we might choose the common life as if our very lives depended on it – because of course it does.
My friends, this is the danger of coming to the Church: eventually we will hear a word that cuts to the core – a word so true that it hits us where we live and breathe – a word that reminds us that yes, God judges but God’s love has the final say over us all. This is the place where we do our own inventory; where the texts speak so clearly the way we are to go and how we are to be; where we stand shoulder to shoulder – all hearing the good same word.
It is a place where we no longer have to pretend that we don’t have certain thoughts and feelings; that they do not exist because they do. They are our constant companions and reality – and they are more than that. We have to work to do, I think – all of us. Hard work but Jesus reminds us that this is work is not only possible, it is also necessary. And so, we keep plugging along and plugging away because we must. We keep working at it because to do otherwise puts us all at risk – the other but also our own selves. We begin to imagine a different life – a new life; a better life. We begin to say yes, I want to live. I want to be free. It is not enough to simply have breath inflating my lungs – I want to live – whole and wholesome; meaningful and purposeful. From this day forward – real life. Here we stand at the crossroad: Choose life. Live.
 Matthew 5:21-24