Reflections on Lessons for Epiphany 6

Reflections on Lessons
February 13, 2011
Six Epiphany Series A

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

The Lord speaks to Israel through Moses: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life…”

The foundational revelation of the Bible is that what God wants for us isn’t rocket science. It’s plain and simple, with no loopholes: God is our cosmic parent, who out of infinite and unconditional love for us gives us guidance. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden is really the Tree of what is good for us and what’s bad for us. It grows alongside the Tree of Life. If, and only if, we choose to trust in God’s guidance and follow it, will we thrive. Law and Gospel converge—life is a gift of God’s love, but we need guidance for making it real in our lives. And it is written into the fabric of reality so that the Creator God can call on heaven and earth as witnesses when we live in denial and say, “Oh, Dad really doesn’t want me to have a good time and so I must rebel to really live.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

The Apostle Paul has been criticized by those who say Apollos is much more clever and sophisticated in his preaching, but Paul gives us baby food. Paul says it’s because the Corinthians, in all their spiritual pride, have obviously not understood what Jesus or the Spirit mean. If they were genuinely as spiritual as they think they would (we are told by the end of the letter) be humble, loving and generous to one another. They would build up the body of Christ and not tear it apart in their petty political positioning.

I myself was baptized in the Wisconsin Synod of the Lutheran Church. I was confirmed and ordained in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. I served later in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There have been those in each of these denominations that would say, Pharisee-like, “I thank you God that I’m not like the Lutherans in that other synod. We are more spiritual than they.” People think they are more spiritual because they have jazzy songs and clap their hands or say, “praise the Lord,” or because they serve more soup in their soup kitchens or win more souls to Christ or memorize more Bible passages. Nonsense, says Paul. The Spirit of Christ discerns the Body of Christ as a diverse community of people all loved by the redeeming Lord. The Spirit gathers and builds up. All of these false spiritualities puff up and divide the body.

God gives the growth. Let us all pray we can be servants of that growth of the Body.

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37

“You have heard it was said to those of ancient times…but I say to you.”

Jesus thus trumps the method of the rabbis of his time whose style was to engage in endless arguments over the meanings of the “sayings of the fathers.” And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus urges us to “be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.” This perfection isn’t the Greek ideal—some hypothetical perfection, without flaw of any kind. But it is better understood as “alignment.”

Temple Grandin, the great interpreter of animal behavior, notes that we humans are great in living in denial. We can say one thing but do another. We can let things fall apart and swear everything is fine.

Jesus says that when we have to say more than yes or no, it comes from the evil one. That’s because we live lies so easily. We say think one thing, say another and do something completely different.

The demonstrators in Cairo are not rejecting Mubarak’s pledge to take care of the country and bow out after elections in September. They are saying they don’t trust him to do as he pledges. They know him.

So too, if we hear someone swear vehemently, we are all the more likely to wonder why he “protesteth too much.” We know that people who swear, who are always in the right, who go through divorces without accepting any responsibility for breakdowns in relationships, and whose lives are in many ways messed up, all because they live in such profound denial. They are not aligned. They have no integrity. They have no character.

When Jesus says, “Be perfect,” he says to be a genuine human being. Being human means we are limited and flawed. But to be genuine means we know and accept our human limitations and we go to the foot of the cross to confess and tremble before our Maker. This is a radical thing – like tearing out an eye or cutting off a hand – doing any- and everything that is necessary to be aligned in heart, soul and mind, and to bring all that we are before the throne of God.

Note also how the motive for truth telling (and, indeed for all of our ethics) is a rather mystical one: God is in charge. We live this way because God loves us and we love God. This way of thinking is dying under an onslaught of what Jurgen Habermas calls “instrumentalism.” This way of thinking, that has done away with “mystical” or mythical language – or any kind of god-talk, has worked well in math, science and industry. So now it has “colonized” our minds, as Habermas would say. Our President and every other public official now speaks far more about competing with the Chinese and being successful and being the best in the world than  they do about doing the right thing or doing what is in our national character. So, if your actions are motivated and shaped by the desire to come out on top, this whole discourse about marriage and forgiveness and honesty means very, very little.

But if our life and death and life after death is indeed in the hands of a God who loves, then everything changes.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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