Below is my sermon for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.
The Collect: O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- Deuteronomy 30:15-20
- 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
- Matthew 5:21-37
- Psalm 119:1-8
We are in the Epiphany season, the stretch of time in the church calendar between the twelve days of Christmas and Lent, which begins in about a week and a half. During Advent, we await the Lord’s coming and then we celebrate his arrival at Christmas. During Epiphany, we celebrate the reality that God has made himself known to us and to the world. Epiphany, of course, means “to show” or “to reveal”—“making known.”
This time of year focuses on the mission of the church to show or reveal Jesus to the world in light of his having come. There is an emphasis on the cultivation of Christian community and fellowship, especially in healing the divisions of prejudice and bigotry that affect and afflict the church and the world. The tenor of Epiphany is one of celebration, newness, and hope.
But just how do we do this? How is God made known through the church? How does the church “show” God to the world?
The prayer for today first focuses our attention on keeping God’s commands with our entire selves—both in will and in deed—with God’s help in order to please God.
This is also the intent of the passage from Deuteronomy and the psalm. In Deuteronomy, God promises life and blessing to Israel if they would walk in his ways and do all that he had commanded them, without turning to the worship of other gods. God had liberated Israel, a slave nation, from their oppression in Egypt, and had brought them into the land of blessing. He called them to be a nation unlike any other, caring for the land, doing justice to one another, and looking after the poor, the orphan and the widow. Whereas other tribes and nations organize themselves into hierarchies and fall into various patterns of economic exploitation and injustice, Israel was supposed to be different. They were to be a nation of siblings, where everyone was cared for and honored. The God of Israel was completely unlike the gods of the nations. He was the one true God, the Most High God, highly exalted above all gods. But he was not a God who showed any deference or partiality to the rich and powerful. As the psalmist says, he bends low to look into the face of the humble. He is the God who hears Hannah’s prayer. The one true God is the God of the outcast, who attends to the oppressed cry of the foreigner.
Because God is absolutely unique, Israel was called to embody his very character in their national patterns of life. They were to observe a Sabbath rest. In a time when it was normal to have to work for one’s sustenance and survival every day, they were to take one day a week to cease from labor and experience God’s order of plenty and flourishing, enjoying God’s world as the gift that it is. Instead of needing to look after themselves on that day, God would provide for them. They were to receive one another as gifts and enjoy God’s world as a gift. And this is astonishing: every seventh year, they were to take one whole year to cease from the labor whereby they sustained themselves, and to do anything else that embodied the reality that God is a God of plenty, of blessing and of refreshment. This is a truly scandalous and utterly irresponsible national policy of enjoyment.
Keeping the commandments of the one true God meant rest and renewal, an experience of God’s world as an arena of plenty. Service to the gods of other nations was enslavement and oppression. An experience of the world as hardness, alienation, hostility, dryness, scarcity, lack.
God promises his people through Moses life and blessing if they would walk in his ways, keeping his commandments. And this is the happiness that the psalmist celebrates for the nation that does what God says. Enjoying God’s reign as one of irresponsible joy and delight was the manner in which Israel would show to the world the gracious and gift-giving character of the one true God.
This is not how we typically conceive of keeping God’s commandments, is it? When we hear of “pleasing God” and “doing good” or “keeping his commands,” we often imagine a course of life characterized by strict moral codes that constrain and constrict. We think of high expectations and conforming to difficult standards. We think of what we can’t do, or aren’t supposed to do. Our heads are bowed in shame as our minds run to all the ways we have fallen short—our many missteps.
We are all too aware of our faults and failings. Unfortunately, we are like Israel, and all other humans, who construct an image of God from our fears and anxieties, our distorted vision of a world of scarcity and lack. We imagine a god who is distant, an emotionally constipated parent who can’t be bothered, or perhaps one who is always angry and needs to be placated.
Our corrupted conception of how we regard God is reflected in how we think about passages like Deuteronomy. It is part of the Mosaic Law. The law delivered through Moses to Israel. What do we think of when we think of “law?” The law handed down from God on Sinai. We imagine God “laying down the law,” delivering a series of impossible commands that are designed to reveal our shortcomings.
Unfortunately, the English translation of Torah as “law” distorts our idea of what God actually gave to Israel. Torah means instruction. Instruction in the way of life and blessing. God had liberated Israel from bondage to Egypt and gave them instruction in how they could inhabit his liberating love, how they could fully enjoy the freedom and goodness into which he had delivered them.
Our twisted understanding of Torah as “law” goes hand in hand with our distorted vision of the God of the Old Testament as one of wrath and anger. This is partly a problem of translation, and partly a difficulty we have in truly coming to grips with a God who invites, who bends low, who serves, who loves with a radical and scandalous love, and who draws us into freedom and delight.
Our distorted vision leads us into forms of life oriented by fear, by competition. Our hearts shrink and our souls shrivel, and we do not experience community life as one of plenty. We do not inhabit God’s world as an order of flourishing. We do not enjoy life and blessing as God intended for us to do.
Sadly, the church often reveals to the world a God of finger-wagging judgment. A distant God, with a heart like that of the Grinch—two sizes too small.
Israel never obeyed God’s commandments and so did not experience the life and blessing he promised. They turned to the small-hearted gods of other nations and embodied the character of those gods by becoming an oppressed people that mistreated one another, exploited the poor, the orphan and the widow.
Our passage from 1 Corinthians reveals that the church in Corinth did exactly the same thing. Rather than sharing together in God’s economy of plenty, they organized themselves into groups that competed with one another for social status.
When the gospel arrived in Corinth, it created one new people, drawing both rich and poor out from the Corinthian social order of oppression and competition for status into God’s new creation order of plenty and flourishing. They were called to experience life and blessing, to receive one another as gifts by sharing their resources. Like God’s intentions for Israel, they were to care for each other, serve each other and to make sure that those with no social status were honored, loved and dignified.
Like Israel, however, they fell into the oppressive practices of their surrounding culture. They turned God’s servants—Paul and Apollos—into celebrities, and organized themselves into “the Apollos party” and “the Paul followers.” And they trumpeted the virtues of these apostles over-against one another in a social competition for honor and prestige. Rich Corinthians shamed the poor, shutting them out from the Lord’s Supper. Rather than revealing God to the world by becoming a completely unique social body, they fell into patterns of oppression and exploitation.
Paul calls them to embody a community dynamic of flourishing. Paul and Apollos are not in competition. They are not celebrities. They are both servants and gifts to the Corinthians, meant to be received as gifts to bring about their blessing. And their community flourishing is experienced by the church when they are a unified people, gathering as siblings in Christ without regard to social status.
These are the very same struggles we experience in our world. Just like Israel and just like the Corinthians, we break up into competitive groups. Church denominations that compete with one another. Political parties that seek to gain leverage over each other. We may identify with celebrity preachers and compare them to each other in our own bids for superiority and social honor.
Even here at Grace, we may be seduced into divisions by competing visions of how to make a way forward together as a community. We may forget that each of us are given to one another as God’s richest gifts.
Our passage from Matthew points us in the very same direction. It is an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, which begins by identifying a way of life that is blessed. The sermon begins with a familiar series of blessings. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “blessed are those who mourn,” and so on.
So Jesus’ instruction here in Matthew points us toward blessed community life. It is all very practical counsel on how to become a community of flourishing, drawing on the heart of Torah to give his instructions.
Don’t merely follow rules that guarantee some sort of adherence to a baseline morality. Rather, cultivate holistic lives oriented toward God and toward honoring others. Cultivate imaginations that are oriented toward loving and serving one another, and adopt postures and practices that embody such an orientation. In the words of the collect, seek to please God in will and in deed—inner and outer orientations toward God and toward others.
Each of these texts reveal that the way that the church reveals God to the world is by our cultivation of a community life of flourishing, of enjoying God’s goodness by receiving each other as the gifts that each of us are. We orient our imaginations toward richness and plenty. We do not look at this community—at each other—and see scarcity and lack. We do not see all that we are not, but all that we are.
God is seen in communities that gather in the name of Jesus Christ, that look after one another, that are careful to discern sources of division and that pursue unity.
Indeed, in the words of our collect, in our weakness we cannot become this sort of community without God’s help, so we stand in need of his grace. May we learn to keep his commandments so that we may please God in will and in deed. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.