As a seminarian, you get suspicious whenever you are invited to preach. I find great joy in coming home to St. Paul’s, in seeing friends and breaking bread with the community that walked with me at the start of a long process toward ordination. But as a seminarian, you have to be wary when they ask you to preach. I am very thankful to Dean Richardson for inviting me to preach while I am home, but when I saw the texts for today I had to wonder if he had other motives…
Jesus in this fragment of Matthews Gospel seems extreme. But before anyone goes and tears out an eyeball, let us ponder this text for a moment. The section of the Matthew’s Gospel we have today comes from the great Sermon on the Mount. We’ve been reading the sermon for the past two Sundays, and we’ll be reading the sermon for the rest of February. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is the great rabbinic teacher.
I want to sit with that image for a moment. Thousands of years of doctrinal development away, I think it can be important to remember how MOST people experienced Jesus. He was a preacher, apparently a very talented preacher. His words, his phrases shook people. His words, edited together by the Gospel writers, still shake people. And these weeks of Epiphany, we are spending time with the greatest sermon we have in the Gospels.
In a mosque, during the Friday gathering, the Imam climbs the minbar, the pulpit to deliver a sermon. He climbs several stairs to look out over the gathered crowd, but he stops one step short of the top of the pulpit. This reminds him, and the congregation, that every mosque’s primary preacher is not the person currently talking, but the prophet himself. So today, I want to offer a couple of comments on the sermon of our great preacher.
To do that, I want to start with our reading from the Old Testament, from the Hebrew Bible sort of sets up Jesus’ sermon today. Jesus is commenting on Jewish law. The repeated phrase in his sermon is “but I say to you.” As in, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder’, but I say to you ‘do not be angry.’” Again and again Jesus raises a point from the law, and says “but I say to you.” Our reading this morning from Deuteronomy explains the purpose of all of Jewish law: we learn that the keeping of the law brings life in abundance. Interestingly, the passage describes turning away from the law as idolatry, idolatry. The writer of Deuteronomy basically believes there are two possibilities for humans: an abundant life of following God’s law, or idolatry and the worship of false Gods.
Now idolatry may not seem like a problem in our world today. Last I checked, no one was worshiping down the street at a temple to Apollo. The priests of Baal are not offering a competing Sunday service. Today, the tension in the West would seem to be between believers in the Abrahamic God and atheism. I want to read a short paragraph by the writer David Foster Wallace, from a speech he gave for a college graduation a few years ago:
here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the
day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as
atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody
worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real
meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have
enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual
allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start
showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve
Foster Wallace goes on to list several other things that people in our day worship. Power, intellect, the list goes on. He finishes with this sentence:
the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
David Foster Wallace implicitly asks: What is our default setting? What do we give our attention? What do we give our life? What do we give our worship?
In the sermon on the mount, in the midst of all of these “but I say to yous,” Jesus also says something interesting about worship:
“When 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 and sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
The true God can only be worshipped in loving relationship with your brothers and sisters. If we are to approach God, we must be attentive to those around us. We must actively seek reconciliation with one another.
This is radical. If we are honest we all have something to leave at the altar. Some relationship that demands our attention, needs reconciliation.
Jesus is proposing that true worship, worship of the true God involves us in active work in our relationships with one another. If we pay attention to how Jesus is tweaking the commandments, the same thing is true. In a culture that worships the gods of individualism, this may seem a strange thing to say. Worship and morality require attention to relationship.
In a world accustomed to the gods of individualism, this is a strange thing to say. We expect to have our own personal actions in worship matter, but Christianity is a faith of incarnation. We believe that God takes on human flesh. It means we look for God in one another. Jesus’ demand that we pay attention to our human relationships continues throughout Matthew. Matthew 25 brings us Jesus’ words to the disciples that when they clothe the naked, feed the poor, visit the imprisoned, they minister to him. We encounter Christ in one another.
St. Paul’s is a place that practices that care of Christ in our fellow human beings. I was blessed to be a part of this congregation when we started our work with Dorcas House. I am so excited that St. Paul’s will soon, for the first time, host the Interfaith Shelter Network. Tomorrow all day the Mobile Health Clinic will be parked in our parking lot and Cassie Lewis, one of your chapter members will be admitting patients who have no other access to medical care for visits to the doctor. St. Paul’s takes this seriously.
Looking for Christ in one another does not stop at outreach and service. In a culture that worships self-sufficiency and individualism, it can be harder to reach out for help than to reach out in service. We can buy the message the world is selling us that with all the right purchases, we can make it alone. This is not the message of our preacher Jesus today.
Jesus tells us we need each another to worship God. We need one another to have life and to have it abundantly. We need each other to be Christ. I know from my time at St. Paul’s that you all practice this radical being Christ to one another. Canon Chris Harris can tell (and has told) you a great deal about how this community has been Christ to him through this year. I know that so many of you out there can name ways that this community has been Christ for you in times of sorrow and in times of joy.
The heart of Jesus’ sermon is that the true worship of God, the true following of the commandments involves paying attention to our relationships with one another. I am proud to be a part of this Cathedral community. I think we’ve got a good start on living the message of our preacher Jesus.