Sixth Sunday after Epiphany 16 February 2020
(Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Psalm 119:1-8 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 Matthew 5:21-37)
“The Unfinished Work of Love!”
Several years ago when we were working on our Welcome Statement here at St. James, I had put some comments in writing as to how strongly I felt that all persons, without exception, are created beloved children of God. There was a person who read what I had written and called me. I’ll never forget his words to me that day. He said: “Pastor Mike, I thought we were friends.”
His words broke my heart because, obviously, I never intended to hurt him. The more I thought about it, I began to wonder if he was really asking me, “Am I a safe place where he can come to share who he is?” Isn’t that only what we all want: a safe place, a safe person where we feel free enough to share who we are and what we believe? I went to his house, and we sat together and talked and I think we became closer friends that day.
That incident was on my mind this past week. I was at the Healthy Leaders Retreat, a two-day event held each year by our Synod. The theme this year was, “How to Hold Civil Conversation around Difficult Topics.”
We were given some tools to use in such conversations, and then we were given several topics, separating in groups of individuals with opposing viewpoints, so we could practice talking with each other. Here were the topics we used as the basis of our conversation: Abortion, Co-Habitation, Sanctuary Designation by the ELCA. And then if that wasn’t enough, they added one more for good measure—the decision by Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback, unsigned by teams since 2017 after he protested police brutality against African Americans and other social injustices by kneeling during the national anthem as a member of the San Francisco 49ers.
These are the issues that came into our discussion: Abortion, Co-Habitation, Sanctuary, Colin Kaepernick. We were not debating moral “rightness” or “wrongness.” Our role was to practice holding a civil conversation with individuals who believed differently than did we on any one of those issues.
I will name a few “tools” we were given, things to bring into conversations around difficult topics.
• How do we speak to each other without being condescending?
• Maybe the “shelf life” of certain words has expired (certain words should not be used today, because language continues to change).
• When can our conversation be about wisdom and not always winning?
• How do we become fully invested in what the other person feels, and at the same time being fully engaged in what we feel?
• Maybe not even looking for agreement, but looking for connecting.
• Vulnerability today is too often seen as weakness.
• Realize how technology has changed our imagination. (everything from pictures of a fetus in the womb to the looks on players’ faces during the national anthem, and so much more). This all affects us in new and different ways.1
So we go to the Gospel text. We are hearing this Gospel in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus is in the midst of a difficult conversation; the question being, how does The Law, the Ten Commandments, fit into the lives of the faithful Jews at that time. And the issues named are some of the most contentious issues of his day. In today’s text: anger [vs. 21-26], adultery [vs. 27-30], divorce [vs. 31-32], the taking of oaths [vs. 33-37].
Jesus is asking the faithful Jews to reinterpret the very foundation of their faith—The Law! The whole purpose of the Ten Commandments, given to Moses on Sinai, was to form the Israelites into the People God called them to become. It was all about forming relationship with God and with each other.
But by the time we get to Jesus, the purpose has become so legalized that Jesus wants a new conversation. It is time to go deeper, to get below the surface in order to form deeper community. By now the original Ten Commandments had morphed into more than 613 rules they needed to obey in order to please God and be protected from the dangers of sin.
In all four of these issues mentioned in today’s text Jesus is intent on restoring relationship through reconciliation. Jesus is intent on reminding us that our sinful actions can be transformed by Jesus himself, entering into deeper relationship with Him.
As Pastor Andrew so eloquently put into words a few weeks ago in his sermon, “our commitment as a congregation is to live into a deeper understanding and practice of Jesus’ greatest commandment: to love one another as God has loved us.”
At the beginning of this young century, I believe we are awash with questions of meaning, of how we structure a common life, and who we are to each other. It seems as if it has become more difficult than ever to speak across our differences in order to create the world we want for ourselves and our children. We have to be nourishers of this discernment and fermenters of this healing.
I believe this calling is too life-giving to wait for politics and the media to fix it for us. As those who have been signed and sealed by the Cross of Jesus Christ and washed in the waters of Baptism, it is up to us to do this civil work because this is at its deepest center, spiritual work. This is not an exercise in niceness, but rather, in doing the hard work to create a safe place where others who believe differently than we might believe can share who they are.
One of the most courageous and radical statements I’ve ever encountered by Dr. Martin Luther King, came following the firebombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, in the city of Birmingham, where four little girls were killed in a most vicious and tragic crime against humanity. It was immediately following that horrific event when Dr. King said: “At times life is hard, as hard as crucible steel. In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not lose faith in our white brothers.” Wow! What an incredible example to us!
We (today) must not lose faith in our common humanity, in the work to create a safe place, most especially for those who differ and disagree with us. “Choose life,” says Moses before the Israelites cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. “Choose life so you and your descendants may live” [Dt. 30:19].
May we never tire of doing this unfinished work of love! Amen.
1. Civil Conversations Project: http://bit.ly/onbeing-ccp.