Read and Hear Martha’s Sermon from February 16, 2014

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St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for 6A Epiphany
February 16, 2014

The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20; Ps. 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Mt. 5:21-37

So, picking up on a theme we touched on last week, take yourselves back to yourself as a 4-year old, in nursery school. It’s lunch. Your friend’s mother has made her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Welch’s grape jelly. Your mom has made you tunafish. Your friend’s sandwich looks so yummy you have to have it, so you grab it. You know what happens next. And so we all learn. Fast forward to … now. You and a friend are having dinner together. Your meals arrive. Her’s looks absolutely delicious. Ooh, what is that? You don’t grab it of course. You’ve learned manners. Could I have a bite? Mmmm. I wish I’d ordered that. You get home. How was dinner? Oh, fine. She ordered the most delicious swordfish, perfectly cooked, crispy on the outside. This kind with a kind of mango salsa … How is she? Oh, fine. I wonder if I have a recipe for that…? You know, come to think of it, she didn’t look well. Oh. I forgot to ask her about her son.

So we continue this morning with the Sermon on the Mount. I hope you had a chance to read the entire sermon, Matthew Chapters 5, 6 and 7. There’s still time! Today we get to what are referred to as “the antitheses.” The formula goes like this. “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …”

It is so easy to hear these familiar passages as simple moral precepts, rules to live by. But what’s going on with Jesus and the law? Last week we heard Jesus say “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (Mt 5:17-18). That sounds pretty definitive. And yet in today’s passage he seems to be qualifying the law, changing it, narrowing it. What’s going on?

Jesus is engaging in a dialogue with scripture, as he does many times. It is as powerful an argument against fundamentalism as I know. Jesus engages in a dialogue with scripture. Jesus doesn’t just repeat the law, he engages it. And in doing so he neither glosses over its tension nor avoids its demands. (1)

What I hear is an invitation, Jesus opening up a sense of larger community of interpreters of the law. What is the spirit of the law? What is the guiding principle that makes that law worth following? Jesus is inviting a contextual interpretation for life. Jesus is inviting the disciples to say there are other ways to interpret or think about the law. This is Jesus’ whole ministry, reinterpreting, reimagining who God is, what God is up to, and that includes the function of the law. (2)

We might say law has an unchanging, enduring heart and an evolving, contextual edge. (3) In doing so, Jesus invites us into dialogue with scripture. The faithful life is not about memorizing and blind obedience, but thoughtful engagement with the scripture in our own context. What is the spirit of this, and what does this mean in my life?

So we note that these familiar passages can be — should be — read on many levels, and that those levels evolve depending on who we are and where we are. We can read this as a level one moral code, about behaviors. Jesus, though, is flattening distinctions between thought and action, calling us to be conscious of and aware of our thoughts. How we view the other, literally and metaphorically. To look at a woman with lust is predatory and turns her into an object. If you need to swear as to the truth of what you are saying, it’s not credible enough in the first place. “I will be there. I swear I will!” versus “I’ll be there.” I will be there.”

These antitheses invite us to see beyond right behaviors, collapsing the distinction between thought and action and living into right relationship.

But there is more. We can move still more deeply into this passage. We can understand it as Jesus’ invitation to metanoia, to enter into the larger mind. We can understand it as an invitation to the transformation of consciousness that leads to mystical union with the divine and with all life. We are helped in this by Cynthia Bourgeault, and Paul.

When Paul makes a distinction between being people of the spirit and people of the flesh, as he does in today’s passage — and last week’s passage — from Corinthians, he’s not saying the body is sinful. To be people of the flesh is to be stuck in the ego, the small self, that makes itself its own project and attaches itself to small distinctions that give it identity, as in “I belong to Paul,” and “I belong to Apollos.” These are the kinds of identity markers, the many affinity groups that we find to align ourselves with, that are designed to separate people. Paul reminds the Corinthians that being identified as a community grounded in Christ’s forgiveness overrides all others. And when he says “let us put on the mind of Christ,” he invites the community to see that ultimately all differences are an illusion. To be people of the spirit is to inhabit the world giving ourselves fully to the divine presence that is shot through all of it.

Cynthia Bourgeault takes this idea of mystical union and develops it in the context of human suffering. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin famously asks: “are we human beings having a spiritual experience, or, are we spirit beings having a human experience?” Bourgeault suggests that when we as spirit beings come into this earthly life we enter a physical world that is constricted; it has a density that is heavy, difficult, and frustrating. We push ourselves against it; it has sharp, hard edges. We develop our dualistic thinking — yes/no, right /wrong, darkness/light, good/bad — to make sense out of this dense world. We see life as a series of choices: follow this career path and forego that, marry this person and not that one. “Our confused agendas clash both inwardly and outwardly and we cause each other pain. Our bodies age, we diminish physically, [we lose loved ones.]” She describes watching her baby granddaughter, who from the very moment of her arrival on the planet “experiencing a frustration bordering on fury at her inability to move.” What is this place?!” she seemed to be saying as she struggled to move her body across the floor. But Bourgeault goes on to say that, rather than seeing this constriction, this density with its sharp edges, as punishment, to see it rather as sacrament. Meaning that it not only symbolizes a spiritual reality, it also lives that reality into existence. (4).

Bourgeault asks: could it be that this earthly realm, because of its density and sharp edges, offers “precisely the conditions for the expression of certain aspects of divine love that could become real in no other way?” (5) That these conditions call forth in us qualities like steadfastness, tenderness, commitment, and forgiveness. “These mature and subtle flavors of love have no real context in a realm where there are no edges and boundaries, where it all just flows. But when you run up against the hard edge and have to stand true to love anyway, what emerges is a most precious taste of pure divine love. God has spoken his most intimate name.” (6).

This is not to say that God causes suffering in order for the divine love to be revealed. It is to say that where suffering exists and is accepted — that is to say, the isness of it — the divine love shines.

So these antitheses, then, in the Sermon on the Mount, would not be about instructing us in good behavior in preparation of final judgment. Instead, they point the way to live into life’s reality, navigating our way through the hard edges, all those times when we let ourselves or other people down, and they let us down, our dreams rise and fall, our bodies fail us, to live deeply and with open hearts. It becomes a process of expressing divine love incarnated in the sacrament of life.

So maybe you focused on your friend’s dinner because you were afraid to be fully present to your friend in her suffering. So you remember her in your prayers that night. You pray for God to open your heart. The next morning you call her. You meet for coffee. You breathe. You listen. You are fully present to her. In the midst of her suffering you become an expression of divine love.

Amen.

(1) William Brosend, The Preaching of Jesus: Gospel Proclamation, Then and Now (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 48.
(2) Sermon Brainwave, podcast commentary on the Lectionary for 6A Epiphany 2014, www.workingpreacher.org.
(3) Dr. Matt Skinner, Sermon Brainwave.
(4) Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2008), 91.
(5) Bourgeault, 99.
(6) Bourgeault, 100.