Saturday, February 11, 2017

Year A, Epiphany 6, Matthew 5.21-37 “My grace is sufficient for you.”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
So, it’s time for some confessions.
It doesn’t take much.  Not much at all.
Driving down the road during a winter storm, watching other drivers will do it.

The other morning, during one of those snow storms, most of the driver’s on the road had slowed to about 40 mph, and were doing our best not to slip and slide out of control.  Then I see a semi-truck coming up behind me, passing everyone.  I’d estimate he was doing 60 mph or better.  And all I could say, was, “You fool!”

Another day, same type of weather conditions, I was backed up behind a snow plow.  I’ve learned that in such circumstances you’ve just got to be patient.  Yes, they are only traveling at 30 mph, but passing is usually not safe.

In this circumstance, the plow was in the left hand lane, with the extended blade stretched out to clear the right hand lane as well.  There was no opportunity to pass.

And then again, a pickup truck raced up behind me, passing everyone along the way.  When he reached the snow plow he was undeterred and simply swung around to the right, through the discharge of snow coming off the plow’s blades and passed on the shoulder of the road.  Once again, all I could say was “You fool!”

Jimmy Carter was honest enough to admit it, even though he was criticized for being so honest.
And I have to confess that I’m with Jimmy on this one.

A strong craving or desire of a sexual nature.
The struggle is that we are sexual human beings.  We naturally experience sexual desires.  From a purely biological perspective, it’s that desire that keeps us engaged in sex and having kids, necessary for our survival.

All it takes is the mere sight of a man or a woman, and those desires can awaken.
I once joked with a friend, that the best thing about getting older was that with every passing year, more and more women were looking attractive.
He didn’t know how to take that.

In all seriousness, when I was 18, any woman over the age of, say 30, appeared to me to be just  plain old.  Now that I’m 60, there are a lot more women that are attractive.
It doesn’t take much.

And the thing about lust is that by the time you realize what’s happening, you’ve already experienced it. 

And according to Jesus, the sin has occurred. 

I have to tell you a quick story about something that happened this week.
I post articles on the Church’s Facebook page as a way of reaching out to the community.  On Friday, my comments were on this text.
Almost immediately it was ‘liked’ by a young woman.  As I often do, I clicked on her name to go to her Facebook page and find out a little about her.
What I got, was an eyeful.

My conclusion was that she was employed over in State Line, and if she wasn’t, she could be.

Jesus said, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

And then, if that is not enough, there is this matter of how we get along in Church.
“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.”
Who among us can say that we’ve never offered our gifts at the altar when there were people out there with whom we needed to be reconciled?
One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is that too often, things are said, or done, or not said or not done, that offend people.
I’ve had people refuse to receive communion from me for months because they found fault with one of my sermons.

What should I have done in those circumstances?

Stop everything until reconciliation was achieved?  How do I pastor a congregation if I am to ‘leave my gifts at the altar and go be reconciled with anyone who has something against me?
It’s pretty tough, especially because some people are not inclined to be reconciled.  They feel that they are right, and I am wrong, and there’s little that can be said or done to change that.

Oh Jesus, what are we to do?
And why did you make it so hard?
One of the things about Jesus’ teaching, is that whether we like it or not, (and most of the time we don’t like it) Jesus exposes our sinfulness. 
And here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks incredibly forceful words about the spirit of the law, not just the letter of the law.
According to the letter of the law, I’m not bad at all.

I’ve never killed anyone.
I’ve never committed adultery.
And I can even say that I’ve tried to seek reconciliation whenever I knew that something was wrong.

It doesn’t stop there.
According to the letter of the law, I’ve done pretty well keeping all the Ten Commandments.
Part of this is because I’m basically a good person.
And part of this is because what I lacked in righteousness, I made up for with timidity.
There’s something to be said for being shy.
I’m just not bold enough to do something wrong.
At least according to the letter of the Law.

But Jesus won’t let us off the hook there.
He lifts up the Spirit of the Law.
And there we all stand convicted, our sins exposed, and it becomes clear how weak we actually are.

As harsh as Jesus’ words are in the Sermon on the Mount, he doesn’t leave us there. 
He bids us come to the foot of the Cross, and there, on Golgotha, that other Mountain, he forgives us.

Every day when I come into Church, I see that wall hanging in our entry. 
First of all, because I knew Nancy.  Nancy was one of the first people I visited in the hospital when I was in seminary.  Nancy had a business and created those wall hangings with a scripture verse and woven ribbon.
But I also notice it because it is one of my favorite verses.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
When we are weak, God is strong.
When we have sinned, God’s grace and forgiveness are all the more powerful.
And that’s all we need.  It is sufficient. 

I’ve been thinking about our congregation a lot since I’ve been here.
One of the thoughts that I’ve had is that what is needed is for me to be a cheerleader of sorts, and encourage you to believe that though you are small, you have much going for you and you are a wonderful little congregation. 
Affirmation, recognizing that even though you are small, you can be faithful in doing God’s work, maybe this is what is needed.
This has been hard to believe at times, especially as our numbers have dwindled as one person after another has left for one reason or another.
And so I’ve been trying to affirm you, and reassure you, that your size is not something you should feel bad about.

But maybe that’s the wrong place to start.
 Where Jesus starts, is with these difficult words that we read this day.
Jesus starts by exposing our sin, and calling us to repent.
Jesus starts by showing us how we are weak, in order that we might see the power of God at work among us.

I wonder.
I wonder if what is needed is not affirmation, but confession. 
You are not alone.
Congregations all over the country are struggling with declining numbers, many of whom don’t know if they will be able to survive.

But is suggesting that such congregations need to confess their sinfulness and weakness only to add insult to injury?
It is like kicking someone while they are down?

One of the things I realize that I must confess is this. 
I have often tried too hard.
I have often tried too hard to be successful as a pastor, and to bring about growth in the congregations I’ve served.  And when I do that, I rely on my own abilities, not the power of God.  And I fail.

I fail because I am weak. 
But if I admit that I am weak, then I open the door for the power of God. 

Perhaps that is the confession that not only we at Peace need to make, but the whole Church.
That the harder we tried, the more we failed.
By our own efforts and understanding, we not only cannot bring the Gospel to all nations, but we cannot even believe ourselves.

But to make such a confession, is not to resign ourselves to defeat.  It is to open ourselves to the grace of God.
Jesus exposes our sin, our failure, our weakness, that we might experience the power of God active in our midst.

Perhaps what is needed is not for us to try harder, but to simply stand back, and watch what God can do.

You fool! We say.
                Child of God, Jesus says.
We are filled with lust,
                And Jesus calls us to love.
We harbor grudges against one another,
                And Jesus seeks reconciliation.
We fail.
                And Jesus prevails.

This is the Gospel of the Lord.

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