Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon for the 6th Sunday After Epiphany: Being Disciples


This Sunday, there is no Super Bowl. There’s no football at all—unless you like soccer. We are in that terrible sports-doldrums where there’s no football AND no baseball, which may be part of the reason for my dislike of late winter.

But last Sunday, some of you may know, was the Super Bowl. Some of us avoid watching it if it registers at all, not being into brutal, violent, contact sports. Some of us watch only for the commercials. Some of us only watch the half-time show, because they are often quite spectacular, and this year’s show by Lady Gaga did not disappoint. Some of us watch the Puppy Bowl instead, which consists of, of course, bandana-wearing puppies who need to be adopted romping around on a miraculously clean plexiglass field, playing with toys and being generally adorable.

Some of us watch, and think of all the times we watched with our daddies, and remember playing catch in the front yard and being taught to punt by our moms—yes, our moms, because Oklahoma.

And some of us, especially those of us brought up in Texas or Oklahoma, ahem, watch avidly for the football, if only because we loathe one team as being a bunch of cheaters and want to see them go down in flames—I mean, because we have from childhood enjoyed the strategy and teamwork of the sport. It’s a game with rewards and penalties and referees, with strategies and goals. We revel in the rules, and the pageantry, and the message of competition, especially. Some watch because, as in life, in football there are winners, and there are losers, and what could be more American than that?

In the Oklahoma in which I grew up, in our “cultural worship life” on the weekends, there was football, and there was church. By the age of seven, I had both four dresses for church to rotate during the month, and the helmet and pads of the Dallas Cowboys to wear when we played tackle football in the neighborhood with my friends.

And in both football as well as in church, there were winners, and there were losers—that’s what we were taught. In church, the “losers” were the ones who broke the laws the church taught. In the particular churches we attended, that meant those who had not been “born again,” those who were “sinners,” those who did not accept Jesus as their “personal Lord and Savior.” They were people who drank, or smoked, or played cards, or danced to rock and roll or watch movies like Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. They were law-breakers. They belonged to other religions—or no religion at all.

Just like in football, we were taught very straightforward rules, and if we followed the good ones and went to church every Sunday, we would NOT be among the losers, and would receive our reward in being blessed during this life, and in spending eternity in heaven in the life to come. It was all very straightforward, and that appealed to many of us. In both football and in church, there were rules and expectations, and we were fans of that.

But for the last three weeks now, we have been being reminded by Jesus that the life of a true disciple is not so straightforward as that. This is the third of four Sundays we will spend this Epiphany season with Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. We are in the part where Jesus specifically addresses rules handed down for generations, rules that some people took great pride and comfort in living by. Jesus, being the rebel that he is, takes a lot of those rules that everyone knows and he turns them upside down. What Jesus says, especially on the surface, can be mighty hard to hear—then and now. But Jesus doesn’t want fans. Jesus calls us to be disciples. Jesus calls us from the comfort of thinking that the life of discipleship can be achieved just by following rules as individuals concerned only with our own salvation.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses the overall message of the Torah. After the beatitudes that we heard two weeks ago, Jesus then spends a good portion of his sermon using this pattern: You have heard it said in Torah, do x….. but I say to you, do x-PLUS. So let’s look at what Jesus talks about in today’s gospel.

Jesus takes the commandment against murder first, and, good grief, he connects anger and disdain for others with that. Ouch. He takes the prohibition against adultery, and points out that any time you treat another person as an object for your own needs rather than as an individual worthy of respect and autonomy, you have failed to avoid that sin. Regarding divorce and the taking and making of oaths-- he connects with being steadfast in your relationships and being a person of your word in all things.

Each one of the teachings he expands upon here are hard to hear for us now—and they were hard to hear then, too. Yet we can fall into the same trap if we miss that he is trying to turn us toward intention and community as the ends of the commandments. Anger and frustration happen. Relationships sometimes need to end, especially if there is physical or psychological harm involved. Some people have taken Jesus’s teachings here and done the same thing with them that he was trying to correct about the original rules—they have made them absolutes in individual cases, rather than a call to live in love and respect as a new community grounded in Christ. That’s the real point.

The problem is emphasis on the individual, rather than on the community. The point of the gospel was NOT to try to create a nation of individual rule-followers, but a beloved community of disciples who modeled fellowship and love in a new and radical way to the entire world.

All four of the teachings Jesus expands here this Sunday ultimately are trying to lead to helping us to live lives of integrity and honor with each other. We should hold ourselves accountable for our angry and contemptuous words—because they harm others, and seek to make them “less-than:” less holy, less worthy, less beloved of God. 

As disciples, we are called, as the Baptismal Covenant reminds us, to respect the dignity of every person and not treat them as objects to gratify our own selfish ends and desires. We should enter into relationships carefully and deliberately, seeking to honor our beloveds and remain steadfast and true to them as we have promised, and not enter into covenantal relationships lightly or rashly.

We should realize that in the teaching about divorce, Jesus is also talking about an institution in which power was not shared equally as is the ideal today, but one in which the man had all the power. We should realize that in that teaching about divorce, in particular, Jesus was admonishing husbands not to abandon their wives to shame and poverty by treating them as objects, which often happened in that very patriarchal society.

The last section deals with vows—a nice tie-in with our reading from Deuteronomy about covenant. There is a logical flow here- adultery is the only grounds for severing the vows that seal a couple into the covenantal relationship of marriage. In a society in which all are careful of their intentions, there is no need to swear outrageous oaths. One’s word is good enough, because one’s attitude is already aligned with fulfilling one’s promises. We should also say what we mean and stand by our word. If we did that, there would be no need to swear that we are telling the truth. There would be no need to preface our claims and testimony with “Believe me….”

In all four of the specific teachings in our gospel today, Jesus is trying to remind us that intention matters as much as actions. At the root, these teachings are all about relationships- either relationships with God or with each other (just as the Ten Commandments were). Most of the oaths we make—for it is THAT kind of swearing that Jesus is speaking about, not the cussing kind of swearing—are about regulating relationships and expectations. They are also about intentions, not merely the actions themselves, but what we are trying to accomplish by our actions. That emphasis is carried over from last week’s readings.

Jesus’s expansions on the Ten Commandments we see here upends the idea that just following rules is enough to be saved. Salvation—being saved—is not a solitary activity. Instead we are called to live in true relationship with each other, to see the divine imprint of creation in every person, even and ESPECIALLY those who are different than us. It’s easy to love your neighbor as yourself when your neighbor isn’t much different than yourself. It’s much more challenging to love your neighbor when your neighbor is different—from a different economic class, from a different region or country, from a different religion, a different sexual identity, a different ethnic background, even from a different political party. Oooh, that last one can be particularly hard in this day and age especially, and like all preachers, I’m preaching to myself here as much as anything.

Being a fan of Jesus is easy. Being a disciple is hard. Being a disciple calls for daily, even hourly conversion in our lives, so that we take what we hear on Sunday out into the world and try to testify to the gospel through our lives the rest of the week. It’s easier to be a fan. It’s easier to think we can just follow a set of rules and be a winner.

Eighty years ago, German pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an amazing book called The Cost of Discipleship that included his thoughts on Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount that we are hearing today, and he called out that tendency to think that we can be fans of Jesus without discipleship. He called that tendency “cheap grace.” He said,

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” [1]

We fool ourselves if we think grace is free. Bonhoeffer calls “costly grace” the only thing worth having. It is the way of discipleship. It is the way of forming community against the individualism of the world. It is being willing to live with integrity within ourselves and within the community without trying to build walls or barricades. It is a radical way of life—but remember, that the original meaning of “radical” means to be “rooted.” More specifically, Jesus’s message to us today is to convert ourselves toward living in true brotherhood and sisterhood with each other—no exceptions.

Bonhoeffer again makes this clear to both individual Christians and to the church as a whole: “Let the fellowship of Christ examine itself and see whether it has given any token of the love of Christ to victims of the world’s insults and contempt…  otherwise, however liturgically correct our services are, and however devout our prayer, however brave our testimony, they will profit us nothing, but rather they will testify against us that we have as a church ceased to follow our Lord. God will not be separated from our brother: God wants no honor for himself so long as our brother is dishonored.”[2]

Because God’s Son became human, Jesus is the brother of us all, and then Bonhoeffer brings it home: “the Incarnation is the ultimate reason why the service of God cannot be divorced from the service of man. He who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar.”[3]

Rather, Bonhoeffer says, we as Christians and we as the Church can’t let ourselves off so easily. When we claim grace and forgiveness for ourselves through our own efforts, yet turn against our brothers and sisters as being less deserving. As the hymn “Amazing Grace” reminds us, grace is unearned, given to us – all of us, no matter how sinful we are in the eyes of the world-- through the love of God, which is limitless. We cannot be disciples if we give in to the notion that in God’s kingdom there should be winners, and there should be losers. We cannot cry “scarcity” in the face of want, when we ourselves are comfortable.

Jesus’s teachings in our gospel today ARE radical, now as well as when he first uttered these words two millennia ago. The fact that we still struggle with living into Jesus’s call for radical love and care for all of God’s creation, for all of the members of our human family regardless of status, is proof of our continued need, all of us, to live into the Gospel of Jesus in radical opposition to the calculus of the world, the balance sheet that creates winners and losers, that lures us from living with integrity and trust in the promises of God to love us even as we all struggle and fall, again and again and again.

It is easier to live by rules rather than in real relationship with people who are just as flawed and yet just as beloved as we are. If we claim God’s grace and mercy for ourselves, we have to also be willing to acknowledge God’s grace and mercy working in the lives of others. We have to be willing to see those “others” not as “THEM” but as “us.” God’s mercy and love is wide, and, as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ, ours must be no less encompassing. Jesus is calling us to live into grace as a new community of hope and faith, as disciples, not just as fans. May we give thanks for that grace and help embody that grace, not just for ourselves but for all.


[1] Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 44-45.
[2] Ibid., 128-129.
[3] Ibid., 129.

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