The Rev. Helen Havlik
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 16, 2020
Matthew tells us that one day, while crowds listen in, Jesus speaks to his disciples about what it means to follow him. We’ve heard that those who follow Jesus are to be aware of their sins and to mourn for them; they’re to be humble, hungry for righteousness, merciful, focused on God and on peacemaking. They’re to challenge the status quo by word and action, risking criticism and even persecution. What my followers look like, Jesus says, is salt and light. And he’s just getting started. I’m reading from Matthew, Ch. 5, beginning with vs. 21. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I got my first senior citizen discount. It was 10 years ago at the McDonald’s at the Tecumseh exit on I-69. Catherine Martin and I were headed south for a preaching conference and we had stopped to pick up another clergy friend. We were also getting coffee—Catherine was waited on by a high school student while I gave my order to an older woman at another register. When I asked for a small coffee, I was surprised when she told me the price—I think it was 59 cents. “For a small?” I asked. “Yes, a senior,” she replied. “How old do you have to be for a senior?” I asked, not wanting to get a discount I wasn’t entitled to—and a little irritated she thought I was. “Fifty-five,” she responded. “Don’t you need my ID?” I asked. “No, you’re fine,” she said, handing me the coffee. “Oh, great, thanks,” I said, taking the cup. Did I really look old enough for a senior discount?? It was like she held up a mirror and I suddenly saw myself in a different way. But the discount was nice, right?
That’s kind of what the Law does. It reveals who we really are—suddenly the warts and blemishes and wrinkles are really visible—especially when we think of the holiness of the One who established the covenant with the people of Israel. Especially when Jesus interprets it for us as he does for the disciples that day. When Jesus speaks of “The Law,” he’s referring not just to the Ten Commandments but to the whole law, 613 mitzvot found mostly in Leviticus. Some of these laws are positive—do this—while the majority are negative—do not do this. That’s the law Jesus came not to change, though he interprets so we know it applies to us, too. Most of us who follow Jesus aren’t guilty of murder. But we sure get angry—even with people we love. We may not covet what our neighbors have and honor our marriage vows but Jesus points out where we can and do stray into dangerous territory in how we treat our partners, family and friends. And as for integrity—lying under oath is one thing we probably wouldn’t do, but what about gossip? What about keeping our word? Too often that mirror can be hard to look into.**
It was the early days of Jesus’ ministry and his disciples were still learning what he was about. He had become well-known for preaching—and his healing miracles were getting him the equivalent of a lot of press. Word traveled fast about him and the disciples knew about as much as anyone about what he was doing. That is, until he sat them down on a hillside to share with them what we call the Sermon on the Mount. He starts out with some blessings that have or will come to them. He calls them salt and light to help them know how crucial they are and will be to his work. But then he gets into the weeds. He goes deeper as he gets into more detail about what it means to follow him. He holds up the mirror and what he says was probably just as hard for them to swallow as it is for us. Who knows? Maybe they were thinking they were entitled to some special discounts because they were following him?
I know sometimes we 21st century Christians think we’re entitled to some perks because we’ve decided to follow Jesus. Like we should be given some extra respect, invited to the best places, not have to worry about the same things everyone else does. We expect others to accommodate us while we have permission to look down on them—like the people who used to go to Bill Knapp’s for dinner after church on Sunday, who lectured my brothers about working on the Sabbath and didn’t leave a tip. We’ve been taught that we’re no longer bound by the Law—fair enough—but too often we interpret that to mean we’re above the law and free to do whatever we want. Or we think somehow we deserve special recognition when we don’t commit murder or adultery or don’t lie and cheat to get what we want. We think of the Law mostly as the fence that keeps other people in line.
Last week we heard Jesus say that he didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He isn’t just about following the Law—he is the Law, all 613 mitzvot, which means he embodies the way of life the Law is intended to form in us. So it’s not just about seeing our sins in the mirror or keeping people in line—the law guides us to a change of heart and mind and soul as we let Jesus change us into the people God intends us to be. And the biggest, most important change he wants for us is in how we relate to the people around us. When Jesus says, “You have heard that you shall not murder, but I tell you if you are angry with a brother or sister,” he’s asking us to see our brother and sister as God sees them. Later in the sermon, when Jesus says, “You’ve heard that you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say, love your enemies,” he’s challenging us to match our heart to God’s heart. He’s saying that a mark of discipleship is our ability to see the people around us as God sees them and love them as God loves them. Janice Catton, writer of a study on the Sermon on the Mount, says, “Clearly God cares about how human beings treat one another on earth, and the divine heart opposes oppression, exploitation and injustice.” And that begins with the people we interact with every day.
There are so many circumstances in life where we just want someone to tell us the answer. We look to so-called experts to tell us the secret for how to lose weight and keep it off, invest wisely so that we’ll make money in the stock market, raise happy and successful kids. We crave guidance that will lead us to health, wealth and happiness—whatever that means to us—and sometimes we’re willing to pay good money for it. And we often end up disappointed, frustrated and heavier than ever. When Jesus called those first disciples and sat them down to listen to his “program,” he wasn’t just another self-help guru or prosperity preacher. He was and is the Son of God who knew the Law to be not just a mirror or a fence but the guiding light that leads to a life of faithfulness. Eventually, he boiled the Law down to loving God and loving neighbor—everything can be summed up by those two. We can fill in the blanks ourselves with the details of how that looks in our own lives. But can you imagine what it would be like if we could truly live like that? What the world would look like if loving God and loving neighbor were written in everyone’s heart? If we had more glimpses, more examples of that? “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life…” Day by day by day, we are given the chance to choose the life Jesus sets before us.
** Mirror, fence and guide metaphors, A Year with Matthew for a Matthew 25 Church, PC(USA) resource for 2/16/20, Office of Theology & Worship