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The Law and God's Call to Reconciliation

After hearing the gospel this morning on the LAW, I would like you to think back to your childhood to the various LAWS your parents set for you: most of the time we did not understand the rules. We just knew that we had to obey them!

Rules like:

Don’t touch the stove … it’s hot

Don’t talk to strangers… unless it is your strange aunt Sue…. Or some other family member

Never pet a strange dog… you might get bitten

Never answer the door unless someone is home

Don’t run with the scissors in your hand… you might lose an eye

Don’t jump on the bed

Don’t stay out past midnight… nothing good ever happens after midnight.

Never tell someone on the phone your parents aren’t home

I remember once when I ran to the grocery store about a mile from our house. My son was in the third grade and I certainly trusted him to be alone for 30 minutes, but I warned him never tell anyone that I am not at home. To test his ability to follow this rule, I called him on my cell after I left disguising my voice, and asked to speak to his mother. He told me that his mother was in the shower and could not come to the phone, an interesting improvisation! My response was that I would hold on and wait for her to get out. He answered that it might be a long time because she is very dirty!

Rules. Our parents had lots of them. And then when we had young or heck, even older children, we had lots of them too. And most if not all of these rules set down by parents were typically followed by their threatening punishment, maybe time out, or being grounded from going out, or a big one for teens: being grounded from using the car.

These rules had a purpose. Some may be for our benefit. Mainly though, they were given to keep our children safe from hurting themselves and safe from being hurt by others.

I think that is what Jesus is doing with the Laws he outlines in our gospel today: teaching us how to adjust our internal feelings and behaviors so that we treat our neighbors with the love and respect that God expects. The righteousness of this new way of thinking of the kingdom of God is more than following rules. It reflects God’s love for us and asks that we grow in our own faith to reflect this love to others. Moving us to more of a Kingdom righteousness instead of self-righteousness.

This week’s reading follows the Beatitudes to form the Sermon on the Mount (5:1 – 7:29). It contains no parables or miracle narratives, only straightforward teaching: do this. We find here, as throughout Matthew, strong ties to the Mosaic law. The laws that Moses gave to his people. The opening verses of Chapter 5 that we read the last two weeks tell us that Jesus has left the crowds and is teaching his disciples. Jesus is the teacher, bridging familiar lessons from Jewish teachings to his own ministry as he instructs his disciples in the demands of a Jesus-following life.

Last week we heard Jesus say, “I did not come to replace the law but to fulfill the law." This week he goes further speaking not just about the Law but about the higher righteousness associated with it. This reading is a very rabbinical exercise of antitheses used as a teaching model to those who are listening. He begins, “You have heard it said”, going back to the Law that Moses taught, “You have heard it said”. He continues with “But I say to you”, and then he goes deeper into the meaning behind it.

We often read Jesus' statements in this discourse –“You have heard that it was said…” followed by “But I say to you…” — as contrasting, or even replacing, prior Jewish teachings with his own. We must take care in such contrasts, for Jesus neither erases nor discounts the teachings of the law. He uses the traditional teachings on murder, adultery, and prayer as essential grounds for building his case for righteousness. Using familiar, perhaps even too familiar, teachings, Jesus intensifies and radicalizes them for his listeners, extending these teachings into almost every area of life.

In this way, Jesus does “not abolish but fulfill[s]” the law (verse 17). No longer do the teachings on murder and adultery apply strictly to acts of murder and adultery. Instead, now they become doorways into the examination of many internal dynamics as well as external behaviors of our lives: anger, derision, slander, false generosity, litigiousness, arrogance, lust, temptation, alienation, divorce, and religious speech.

Jesus connects the dots for his disciples and for us…. from outward acts like murder and adultery to internal thinking like anger and lust. It is one thing to behave rightly in our daily activities. It is another thing entirely for our hearts to be oriented toward love.

Jesus offers a more radical way to live, one already hinted at in the list given during the beatitudes which we read during the Bishop’s visit. The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the pure in heart, all of these are blessed not because they are examples of the law, but because of their inward orientations of our hearts. The righteousness of this new way of thinking of the kingdom of God is more than following rules. It requires and empowers a life surrendered to God and to neighbor.

Jesus’ reframing of this idea of righteousness exposes the easy truces we make within ourselves. We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing murder while we ruin the reputation of a coworker through our words, we even call it “stabbing someone in the back.” The notion that we must reconcile with anyone who has something against us before we can give our gifts to God, stops us in our tracks. There is no easy, private relationship to God in these words. Resentment, alienation, and estrangement from others, prevent us from even giving our gifts to God.

We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing adultery, and yet we easily create time-consuming relationships with work, sports, or even the internet, rather than our spouse. Jesus shifts our attention from particular behaviors we must avoid to particular internal orientations we must cultivate.

Jesus tells us in the first few sentences of our gospel reading that reconciliation is an important part of our spiritual growth. It means that we recognize that we have made a mistake, that we have missed the mark, and that we are sorry for our actions.

Making amends means admitting that we are wrong. An act that takes great spiritual and personal strength. This admittance is the first step in reconciliation. Following then is forgiveness. Forgiveness from the person you hurt and forgiveness of self. Both are difficult. But both are imperative to our righteous life as children of God.

A friend of mine told me a story about reconciliation in connection with his father’s funeral. One of his father’s requests when he died was to have two of his relatives play the piano and sing at his funeral the song “Don’t Bring me Flowers at my Funeral.” He said it was a bit awkward hearing this song sung as everyone sat there in this old Baptist church in the mountains of North Carolina while looking at the flowers displayed at the front of the church surrounding his father’s coffin, flowers given in his honor.

He told me that the song is rooted in an old mountain Baptist tradition of giving flowers. Everyone in the spring during flower season, would bring flowers from his or her garden and lay them on the table in the front of the church. There was no altar in these old Baptist churches. Just a table at the front. And after all the flowers were in place and everyone took a seat in a pew, they would have some prayer time. After prayers, they would come forward to gather their flowers and then go to everyone in the room giving them a flower and make peace. These were sacred moments that made room for reconciliation. They would hand out flowers to members of their church community and ask, “Do you have anything against me?” “Do we have anything we need to discuss or work out between us?” If there was, he said we would take this time to talk it out. It was a time to make peace. And then exchange peace. Everyone left that day with a flower from everyone else in the church. With whom you were at peace. That bouquet of mixed flowers was a powerful reminder of that time of reconciliation. The importance of doing it before the relationship is too damaged, or the people involved are gone. Time is too precious to waste.

God gave us these parameters in order to know what it takes to live a good life as a community of people in one place. If you do this, then life will be good and if you do not, then life is much more difficult. The law is not a threat but outlines a way of life that will lead to good things. Obey the law, establish the covenant, and ask for forgiveness when we fall short.

Today, and every Sunday, we have built into our liturgy an opportunity to reconcile with our neighbors. You know when that is. I have mentioned it before. We have this same opportunity when we pass the peace, we turn to each other and say, “Peace be with you” before we come to the altar to break bread together. To share the mystery of our faith together. To kneel together in prayer, extending our hands to receive the bread and the wine, the one thing that brings us all together as sacrament of unity that overcome even the deepest estrangements between human beings. Sharing our brokenness and our hope of salvation, and Jesus shows up. Always. Amen.

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