Leave your gift at the altar: A Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, 2019

In a few minutes, after the prayers of the people, the confession of sin and absolution, we will share the peace of the Lord with each other. For many of us, that is a moment of fellowship time, to greet our friends and neighbors in the pews near us, to introduce ourselves to newcomers, to engage in a moment of conversation. But I wonder how many of you know what is really supposed to be going on in that moment, what in fact is taking place liturgically.

Think about it. In the confession of sin and absolution we have reconciled ourselves to God. When we share the peace, we are reconciling with our neighbors. Like the confession of sin, it’s part of our preparation to receive communion.

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

We don’t often think about the importance of reconciliation, even though it is at the heart of the church’s mission. If you look in the catechism, on page 854 of the BCP, you’ll find this:

Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to
unity with God and each other in Christ.

 

Our tendency is to think of worship as being about us and God—about our individual relationship with Jesus Christ, but just as we are called to be reconcilers in the world, to work for justice and peace, so too, when we gather at the altar, we are called to reconcile and be reconciled, with our fellow human beings.

In fact, it may be that our call to be a reconciling community is what is especially important and crucial in these unsettled and difficult times. When our civic conversation is debased, when rhetoric of violence, hatred, ridicule, and mockery dominate both the news and our common culture, Jesus’ words here in the sermon on the Mount may be especially relevant.

But it may be difficult to see beyond Jesus’ own rhetoric, and the gospel writer’s perspective to see these larger points. On its surface, today’s gospel seems anything but reconciling. It’s challenging, in your face stuff. The statements Jesus makes seem harsh, over-exaggerated, impossible to attain.

Today’s gospel is a continuation of our reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last week’s reading ended with the ominous statement, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Today we are presented with a series of antitheses. Jesus seems to be quoting Torah as he says, “You have heard it said of old…” and then he offers his own interpretation, “But I say to you…”

These antitheses—you have heard it say of do not murder, but I say to you… show Jesus working with Torah (the Jewish law). There’s a common assumption among Christians, going back centuries, that Jesus put an end to the Jewish law—that the Jewish community of Jesus’ day struggled to live by the hundreds of narrow prescriptions in the law laid down in the Pentateuch, were oppressed by its demands, and sought freedom from it—a freedom preached by Jesus Christ, Paul, and early Christianity.

Well, it’s not quite so simple as that. In fact, that common understanding is wrong on two counts. It’s wrong concerning first-century Judaism, and it’s wrong concerning Jesus. We know from first-century sources as well as from earlier biblical texts that that the Mosaic law was perceived by Jews as a good thing. Our psalm today expresses that idea:

“Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the laws of the Lord.”

Throughout the Psalms, there’s a consistent sense of joy for the law and that continued down through Jesus’ day. There is ongoing development in the understanding of the law in Judaism and by the first century, the Pharisees were seeking to broaden the law’s influence and range. They were applying the Torah to everyone, not just to the priests. While we may think of that as increasing legalization, it was also in a very real sense, a democratization of the law. It applied to everyone.

In addition, the Pharisees’ sought to provide guidance concerning the law to every aspect of life. What is murder, for example? The Pharisees provided ways for people to understand the connection between every day activity and the central precepts of the law, in order to preserve the law’s integrity. The Pharisees, and the rabbis after them, called this effort “building a wall around Torah.”

Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus doing very much the same thing. “You have heard it said of old, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Like the Pharisees, Jesus is offering instruction to his listeners about how to interpret Torah. He’s answering the questions, What is murder? What is adultery?

And think about the way we generally approach such questions. Both in the legal arena and in our own personal moral reflections, we’re likely to try to find ways to interpret actions so that they aren’t judged the more serious offense—thus, instead of murder, people are charged with reckless homicide or manslaughter.

Jesus is doing just the opposite: What is murder? Jesus says, it’s not just the act of killing someone, it’s being angry, or hating, or ridiculing someone. Jesus is intensifying the law, sharpening it, and internalizing it. It’s not just our outward actions that matter, it’s our inward dispositions and inclinations as well.

Last week, we heard Jesus express his complete commitment to Jewish law: “Do not think that I come to abolish the Law. Truly, I tell you, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” The point is not that Jesus was opposed to Jewish law and custom. Like the Pharisees and in conversation or debate them, he was interpreting the law and seeking ways of making it applicable and meaningful to everyday life.

Jesus is pointing to the deeper significance of the commandments, and the relationships, the communities that lie beneath them. Sure, murder is wrong, but isn’t hate that leads us to deride fellow human beings as “fools” equally problematic? If our relationships with our fellow human beings are broken, is not our relationship with God also broken? If we are called to reconcile ourselves to God, how can we not want to reconcile with fellow humans? To think about reconciliation, being at peace and harmony with our friends, neighbors, coworkers, before coming to the altar, may have us thinking in new ways about justice.

Our criminal justice system is organized around punishment. It often continues to punish people long after they have completed their time in prison. Wisconsin is notorious both for the high percentage of African-Americans in the criminal justice system as well as for its broken and punitive pardon and parole system.

It profoundly reflects our values that we view certain people as less than human, as threats to the social order. We would rather have them spend their lives in prison than explore ways of helping them flourish. We would rather punish them for minor offenses and police their behavior than do the hard work of creating a society in which their lives have value and to which they can contribute their gifts and skills.

To be honest, it’s easy for us to allow our views on punishment and retribution in larger society affect the way we think about our personal relationships, our relationships in the church, and our relationship with God. When we are in conflict with another person, we may rather want to see them punished or suffer than do the hard work of talking through the conflict, seeking resolution and reconciliation. We may rather see God as the punitive judge who is likely to punish us for our sins, and who we hope will punish those who have wronged us, than as the merciful, loving One who embraces the penitent sinner.

The vision that Jesus is beginning to describe in these verses is of a beloved and loving community, in which individuals can flourish and where trust underlies all relationships. It is the vision of a community, reconciled to God, that does the work of reconciliation in the world. It is the vision of a community bound together by love, not united by fear of common enemies, or by the power exerted by authority. It is the vision of a community that witnesses to God’s love and mercy, and works to restore all human beings to relationship with each other and God. It is the vision of such a community to which we are called. Drawn to that vision, may we make it our own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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