A Higher Calling
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC, February 16, 2014, the sixth Sunday after Epiphany.
Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
If any think that following Jesus is for the faint of heart, then the passages we have heard today should disavow such thoughts pretty quickly. However, my guess is that what we immediately think of as being so hard is only a fraction of the challenge; namely, my guess is that we hear these teachings of Jesus from the mountain and think some version of, “The ‘thou shalt nots’ just keep piling up! There’s no way I will be able to be good enough to get into the kingdom of heaven.” After all, just prior to the words we heard today, Jesus said that “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” And that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Lk. 5:19-20)
The first thing I want to point out is that Jesus says that even those who break the commandments will be in the kingdom of heaven—they may be “least” but they’re still enfolded into God’s people. And the second thing I want to point out is that to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is not an impossible task in any way—at least not according to the writer of Matthew. Throughout the book, the scribes and Pharisees are described primarily as hypocrites, as those who do not practice what they preach and who do things for the sake of appearances only. By these standards, exceeding their righteousness may not be easy, but is absolutely possible for you and for me.
But I do think we are right to be daunted by the teachings we hear today. Not because the rules are so hard to follow or the penalties so stiff, though both may be true. Rules we understand; right and wrong, “do this” and “don’t do that” are categories with which we are familiar. The law of God is more nuanced than that, and, though it is often used as such, it was never given as a merit-reward ticket that, if only you get all the holes punched, you’ll get God’s love or get into heaven. The law that Jesus came to fulfill (Mt. 5:17) is the law of God’s perfect love which is never earned, always freely given. And, while we don’t have time today to do a careful cultural critique of the difficult issues Jesus addresses today, I want to suggest that what Jesus is teaching is that God’s intention for us is not to check a box or manipulate a rulebook so that we can say that we follow the commandments. Instead, God’s intention for us—and the reason we are given commandments—is that we learn to love as God loves. As one commentator reflects on Jesus’ teachings today:
It’s not enough just to refrain from murder. We should also treat each other with respect and that means not speaking hateful words.
It is not enough to avoid physically committing adultery. We should also not objectify other persons by seeing them as a means to satisfy our physical desires by lusting after them.
It is not enough to follow the letter of the law regarding divorce. We should not treat people as disposable and should make sure that the most vulnerable—in this culture that often meant women and children—are provided for.
It is not enough to keep ourselves from swearing falsely or lying to others. We should speak and act truthfully in all of our dealings so that we don’t need to make oaths at all.
The real challenge, as I read the sermon on the mount, is that Jesus is asking us to change our hearts; Jesus is asking us to change our perspective; Jesus is asking us to stop making checklists of commandments and to internalize the spirit of the law in such a way that we live more fully in the love, peace, and justice of God, seeing others and treating others as Christ would.
When we think of other people in a certain way, it doesn’t take long before we find ourselves treating them in that way as well. If we think of others as stupid, as immoral, as objects to be used for our own pleasure, as disposable for no good reason, as unworthy of truthful speech, then it becomes much easier to act upon these attitudes and feelings. Concrete examples in the form of hate-crimes are too numerous to mention. Jesus is challenging us to change our hearts so that those things won’t happen. I’m reminded of the dialogue between African-American Butler, Cecil Gaines and President Kennedy in the recent film, “Lee Daniel’s The Butler,” in which, Kennedy acknowledges that Cecil’s son was a Freedom Rider and most likely “pretty beat up” since he was with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham jail. Referring to what he had witnessed happening in Birmingham, Kennedy says, “I never really understood what you all went through…until I saw that.” He goes on to say, “My brother says these kids have changed his heart,”—a statement that stops Cecil in his tracks. “They’ve changed mine, too,” he confesses. And in the next scene we see the president making the speech calling for legislation to assure full de-segregation of public facilities, a speech that led to his assassination. A changed heart leads to changed action, and a heart that is more like Christ will act in selfless, risky ways.
What we are being invited and challenged to do is to climb higher with Jesus, to see that God, in Jesus Christ, blazes a trail for us to live into the higher calling that has been God’s vision for humankind from the beginning. Namely, God wants us to have a more Christ-like heart. God desires—and believes—that we will learn to think and feel about others the way God does. THAT is the challenge of the day. We are called to see, to feel, to act, more fully like God. Of course we should refrain from killing people, from breaking trust through cheating on our beloved, and the rest, but Jesus insists that we recognize the ways that our intentions and motivations are simply other aspects of our behavior. If, in reflecting upon your life or upon a difficult situation, you see that you have done the right thing but have a heart full of anger, resentment, lust, greed, or falsehood, then you are challenged to take the next step, to continue the climb with Jesus, and to attend to the brokenness in your heart. If you’re wondering how to do that, I direct you to something Jesus says later in his sermon: “Ask God for what you need.” Pray! It is God’s desire for you to have a heart that is free of the things that destroy you and that lead to the destruction of others. (See Lk. 7:7-11)
As we reflect on our high calling today, a calling to love as God loves, to see as God sees, to serve and give as Christ in the world, let’s give thanks that the expansion of our heart and our vision isn’t, ultimately, up to us alone and it certainly isn’t up to one pastor. It is God who gives the growth. All we have to do is to use the law of God as a guide for our lives and to thoughtfully and faithfully respond to the love and life that God freely offers us. Love God back. Offer yourself and ask for help. Give thanks for the different gifts of all God’s servants who labor in the fields of the Lord. And then wonder at the freedom and joy that is your inheritance.