Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sermon for Epiphany V

Trinity, Lincoln--Matthew 5:13-20

On more than one occasion, I have had an adult candidate for baptism or confirmation or reception into the Anglican communion ask me, "Well, what are the rules?" 

What are the rules? 

Depending on the background of the person doing the asking, this question can be loaded in a variety of ways. In my own northern Baptist upbringing, it was quite clear that using tobacco or alcohol or engaging in social dancing were very much against the rules. In my early childhood, playing cards and going to movies were also on the list, but those rules were relaxed as we moved into the '60s. In my mother's Southern Baptist upbringing, it was not at all uncommon for men, at least, to light up a cigarette once outside the door of the church, but the very idea that boys and girls, or men and women, could swim in the same pool at the same time was too scandalous to even mention. 

Baptists, of course, have never had a monopoly on rules. Those of you whose background is in Roman Catholicism could no doubt cite several examples, ranging in application from the kitchen to the bedroom.  So when somebody asks me, "What are the rules?", I'm always a little bit uncomfortable, because I feel myself on the horns of a dilemma.  On one hand, I want to avoid defining Christian faith and practice in terms of rules, as if Christian maturity were simply a matter of mastering a list of "thou shalts” and "thou shalt nots.”  I, for one, and I don't think I'm alone, have an intuitive negative reaction to the notion of being bound by rules or laws. 
But on the other hand, I certainly don't want to imply that rules and laws don't matter and that it's not important to measure one's life against the standard of scripture and church teaching. When I was ordained—all three times—I solemnly promised to uphold, by word and example, a whole bunch of rules. And every time we renew our baptismal vows, we all commit ourselves to certain ways of believing and acting.

I would bet that most of you have similarly mixed feelings about rules and laws. 
We don't want to treat them as meaningless, matters of indifference. But neither do we want to define our lives of faith in terms of keeping rules. The Protestant strain in our Anglican heritage makes us prefer the language of grace and freedom to the language of law and discipline. Such being the case, what Jesus has to say today about the law—the Torah, contained in the first five books of the Old Testament—makes me a little bit squirmy!

                        Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or
                        the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to
                        fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth
                        pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter,
                        will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

This certainly throws a bucket of cold water on those who would ignore or attempt to undermine "the rules", doesn't it?  There is apparently no room for anarchy or libertarianism in the religion of Jesus or his followers. But Jesus doesn't just stop there. He goes on to impose an even stricter standard:

                        [U]nless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes
                        and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of
                        heaven.

The Pharisees, as we know, were zealously scrupulous about observing every fine point of the law—every letter and every stroke of a letter. But Jesus suggests that even they miss the mark, even they fall short of the standard which governs the kingdom of heaven. It seems to be a completely unattainable goal, not realistic, not taking into account the weakness of human nature. So what hope is there for us? 
What is there to stop us from throwing in the towel and saying, "I've had it, I quit, there's no way I can keep all these rules, no way I can meet God's standard so I'm not even going to try"?  What hope, indeed,  is there for us?

An experienced bow hunter knows that you can't aim at a moving animal—a running deer or a flying pheasant— the same way you would aim at the bull’s-eye of a stationary target. You have to compensate for the direction and speed of the wind, and the direction and speed of the target. If you're aiming directly at the spot where the animal is when you release the arrow, there will be nothing but thin air there to greet its arrival. In the same way, when rocket scientists want to send a spaceship to Mars, they don't just find Mars in the night sky, aim, and fire. By the time the rocket gets to the position they were aiming at, Mars will have been long gone. They have to factor in the orbit and the rotation of earth, and the orbit and rotation of Mars, and the speed at which the rocket travels, and then aim at the spot where Mars is going to be several months into the future. In the same way again, if a pitcher who knows he's got a mean curve ball wants to make a pitch that will come in low and inside to the batter, he's got to aim high and away. 

Well, it works the same way when it comes to abiding by the rules, exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. If we make that our aim, we'll only be disappointed. If we succeed in our effort, we will swell up with pride and an attitude of superiority, which will, in the end, be our spiritual downfall. And if, as is more likely, we fail in our efforts, we're in for another round of despair and self-loathing. 

But what if we don't aim at keeping the rules? What if, instead, we aim at God? 
What if we focus our energy and attention on simply adoring God, on enjoying him for who he is? What if we allow our hearts to overflow with gratitude at the wonder and beauty of the created universe, and the marvel of being ourselves made in the image and likeness of God, at the depth of such divine love as would become one of us in order to save us from the power of evil and death? What might happen if we simply aimed at God? 

What would happen, I believe, is that we would suddenly find ourselves observing the law, keeping the rules, without really being aware of when or how we started. 
We would find ourselves living out righteousness— justice, truthfulness, compassion, integrity. We would find ourselves faithful in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.  We would find ourselves seeking and serving Christ in every person, respecting the dignity and freedom of every human being.  We would find ourselves, in short, like Jesus, with our own wills perfectly attuned to the will of the Father. We would find ourselves obeying the law, but not because it's the law.

So does any of this abrogate the law? Does it make rules unnecessary? Should we simply abolish them? By no means! But it should alter our perception of rules and regulations and disciplines. They are no longer ends in themselves. The only end in itself is fellowship with God. Rather, the law is a test, an indicator, of the quality of that fellowship. When a physician wants to know whether we are infected with a particular virus, he or she orders the laboratory to examine a blood sample and look, not for the virus itself, but for the presence of antibodies that our immune system has produced to fight the virus. The presence, or absence, of antibodies is a test of one aspect of our health. 

In the same way, keeping the rules, or not keeping them, is important not for its own sake, but because it's a test of our spiritual health, our relationship with God. It is God who is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the one from whom we come and to whom we return. As we make him our aim, the good works which result will shine before others like a city on a hill, and people will see these good works and glorify our Father in heaven. Amen.

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