Monday, February 13, 2023

Your Choice


Matthew 5:21-37

Epiphany 6 / Year A

It happened without warning on Thursday afternoon.  I was driving my car and glanced down at the dashboard only to see the check engine warning light was on.  Ugh!  The car felt fine.  The engine was humming along.  It was not making a funny sound.  There was no strange odor.  What to do?

Every automobile comes with an Owner’s Manual.  It spells out in exacting detail how to operate and maintain your vehicle in order to get optimum performance and long life out of it.  Now, if you want, you can ignore some of the advice.  You can put off having the oil changed.  You can fail to properly inflate the tires.  And, in my case, you can wait to see if the check engine light will disappear – which it did yesterday – or deal with it once smoke starts wafting out from under the hood. 

Or, instead of being negligent, you can be downright rebellious.  You can put oil in the gas tank, gas in washer fluid container, and washer fluid in the oil case.  No one is stopping you.  After all, it is your car!  However, these decisions will have consequences; consequences which will affect your car’s performance and longevity.  It is up to you.  You get to choose.

In today’s first reading from Scripture we hear a portion of what is known as “Moses’ farewell speech.”  The Hebrew people are about to cross the Jordon River and enter the Promised Land after wandering forty years in the wilderness.  Moses himself will not go with them, so these are his final words as he reminds them of God’s commandments.  And just as the directions in your Owner’s Manual are far from arbitrary, so too God’s commands are not just directives selected willy-nilly by the All-Mighty.  They set out what to do and how to do it in order for human life and society to flourish.    

And just as you can choose to adhere to the Owner’s Manual or not, Moses says you can choose what to do with God’s commands.  What you choose, he says, has consequences.  One leads to life, the other to death.  And the death comes not because an angry, vengeful God is going to punish you for being disobedient.  It comes because you have ignored or rejected the principles which God has conveyed to optimize life.

Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew is another portion of Jesus’ teaching known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”  In it he offers a critique of the commandments revealed through Moses.  Jesus has already said he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them.  So, something about the life Moses offers is incomplete.  Jesus does not want to eliminate these laws.  He desires to deepen them.

Consider the commandment, “Thou shall not kill.”  It places a restraint on behavior, but not on thought.  You may be angry with your boss, you neighbor, or a family member, but if you don’t take their life then you have kept the commandment.  But Jesus says anger itself is a problem.  It is not enough simply to suppress your temper, your temper itself is a destructive force at work in your life.  If you seethe with hatred and bitterness you are not living at an optimum level.  In order to let go of your inner rage you must have a spiritual transformation of the heart.

St. Paul writes the Old Testament laws function something like a set of shackles.  They prevent you from doing things you may want to do, but shouldn’t.  Those who are in Christ, he says, are free from the law and have no need for it because, in their hearts, they live it to the fullest intention.  It is like the difference between my dog and my neighbor’s.  I have a fenced in backyard because without this restraint my dog would run off.  My neighbor’s dog sits on the front porch with no leash or gate.  It is free to roam off the property if it wants, but doesn’t.  It knows what its owners want it to do and not to do and complies willingly.  Paul says those who are in Christ are like this.  Even more, we know why Christ desires this for us.  We have a heart for the Lord.

I have invested, so far, more than six hours writing a memorial resolution for diocesan council for the Hon. Rev. Dr. Canon Joe Green who died in early January.  He truly was a remarkable person who combined faith with love of the church and leadership in the community.  He served for thirty years as Rector of Grace Church in Norfolk.  He was appointed to the Norfolk School Board and then elected to city council, the first person of color on it since Reconstruction.  For ten of his twenty years on the council, he served as Vice Mayor.

Back in the mid-sixties, Joe and his cousin enrolled at the School of Theology at the University of the South in Suwannee, TN.  There, as with much of his life, he encountered unimaginable racism in the era of Jim Crow.  Once, after all the white people had left, Joe and his cousin went for a swim in a pool.  The next day it was closed “for repairs” and never reopened the rest of the semester.  It makes me angry just to read about this episode and I’m sure it made Joe angry too.  I first met him in 2007.  Every time I was Joe he had a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.  He knew the secret to optimum performance and longevity.  Joe had Jesus and Jesus’ love deep in his heart.  This gave him the ability to endure and even to thrive in the midst of every indignity, every slight, every injustice, every slur, every insult.  It is possible only when you know Jesus’ love for you and for every human being is absolute and unfailing.

It is a secret I hope you know and it is a secret I hope you share.