The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Epiphany 6, Year A
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37
February 16, 2014
Listen while you read:
And there shall be great snow and ice…..and earthquakes that shake the land….thus says the Lord. Not really, but it seems like it, right?
So, my great idea this week was to use the time I had, while snowed and iced in, to reflect and meditate on my sermon for today. I planned on being in my living room, with my favorite chamomile tea with raw honey, with a cozy blanket and family gathered around. I would spend time writing, looking at the language, and seeing what images might come to mind as I put thoughts to paper. In my mind, it was going to be one of those wonderful—very “spiritual”—spaces.
But, then came the Gospel reading for today:
“You have heard that it was said of those in ancient times, ‘You shall not commit murder’…”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’…”
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away….”
“If your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away.”
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife…” but anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery.”
“You shall not swear falsely…”
With threats of “being liable to the hell of fire” and being thrown into prison “until we have paid the last penny.”
Not exactly a text that lends itself to cozy reflection. There I was, with my cozy blanket and chamomile tea, invited to reflect on murder, adultery, metaphors of ripping out eyes and cutting off hands, divorce, and lying.. Not exactly the peaceful, snow-blanketed spiritual reflection I had hoped for! Oh how I longed for a fluffier Jesus!
Today’s text is one of those that, when it comes up in our lectionary cycle, makes me want to go back to one of those sermon series on the Book of Romans that I heard as a child.
But, if we take the space the lectionary offers us seriously—which I do—we are invited to wonder just how the Spirit might be at work in catching us off guard by today’s text. Sometimes a difficult text just might be a great opportunity to gain an even deeper awareness of Grace in our midst.
Let’s hope so….
Today’s Gospel account comes immediately after the Beatitudes, immediately after last week’s lesson that Fr. Michael shared, with the question of “how are you the light of the world,” and “if you are the salt of the earth, how do we guard against losing our saltiness?”
As you’ll remember last week, the practice of faith asks a lot of us. It isn’t easy to be a Christian, at least not one who seeks to live into “Blessed are the Peacemakers” and “you are the light of the world.”
Over the past few weeks, we have orbited around several key aspects of our faith:
What language do we use to describe our spiritual journey?
How do we understand the space we are creating together in this parish?
How do we sense ourselves being called by God into a deeper practice of prayer?
How can we share together in a process of discernment, of listening to the Spirit’s call upon our lives?
These themes or metaphors are so vitally important for us as a parish to reflect on, because we come to understand that being a Christian, being a follower of Jesus, being—as we remember from a few weeks ago—someone on the Way, isn’t easy. We live in a fast food society, and we may often feel we are surrounded by a fast-food religious culture. But we come to see that, rather than being given spiritual fast food, God invites us to a grand feast that has course after course of delicious and interesting food that demands time to savor and properly digest. Our common meal takes time to enjoy.
One of the core principles of the Benedictine life—a life embodied in the monastic foundation that gives Anglicanism its flavor—is conversion of life. We see glimpses of this in our collects, even today’s collect:
Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you in will and deed… (Epiphany 6, BCP 216)
That is, how can we realize our dependence upon God’s grace and live into that awareness in a way that enables us to keep the commandments we have, the practice we are called to live?
How can our life, our existence, be converted from the shortcomings of our own pursuits into the realization of our connection with the Divine?
In other words, how can we be transformed?
Put in this light, suddenly the text from today’s Gospel becomes a bit less awkward and overwhelming. Maybe we can see an invitation there to delve more deeply into this transformational space.
“You have heard it said, you shall not murder…But I say to you if you are angry with a brother or sister…first be reconciled to your brother and sister…”
“You have heard it said you shall not commit adultery….But I say it is possible to sin with thoughts and desires as well…”
In other words, don’t rely only on the externals. Don’t think that, just because you may have succeeded in the outward signs or behaviors that makes you a “good Christian.” There is more to be aware of: namely, the inward disposition of one’s heart. “You have heard it said,” Jesus says, “but we can’t stop there…we have to lean in more…”
You may think “well, I didn’t choke the living life out of him, so I’m doing alright.” But, how has our anger toward crippled us and led us to feel isolated from our brothers and sisters?
Jesus is telling us that, only by delving into this inward disposition can a full inner transformation of life—a conversion of life—be realized.
Some may say “don’t just talk the talk, you must walk the walk.” It’s true: we are called to walk the walk, but we are also called to “know the flow” as it were—the flow of the Spirit, the Presence of God within our hearts. We are called to lean into this practice of spiritual integration, the deep calling of conversion…
A thousand years ago, there lived a man who was known as Symeon the New Theologian. I don’t know if there was a “Symeon the Old Theologian” or “Symeon Who We Used to Read and Like but Who Became Boring.” But Symeon the New Theologian offers us a reflection even today on how we are called to integrate our entire lives in Christ, to experience this conversion of life. He says,
We awaken in Christ’s Body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ. He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.
I wave my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly whole, seamless in his Godhood.)
I move my feet, and at once
he appears like a flash of lightening.
Do my words seems blasphemous?—Then
open your heart to Him.
and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body
Where all our body, all over
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and he makes us utterly real,
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light.
We awaken as the Beloved
In every part of our body.
(from The Enlightened Heart, ed. Stephen Mitchell, New York: Harpercollins, 1993).