Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
In today’s first reading, Moses is addressing the people of Israel shortly before they will enter the Promised Land. For forty years, he had been listening to them complain. I used to think it was all about the food. They were barely six weeks out of Egypt when they started: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex 16:3) God addressed their hunger by providing manna, a miraculous bread from heaven…and the people complained about the manna! “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Nu 11:4-6
But I’ve come to think that the problem for the people of Israel was not their food but rather their fear…their fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. God was calling them into a new land, a new relationship, where they would be led by God rather than a Pharaoh, where they would learn to follow God and build a healthy and holy society of God’s design. And what did the people of Israel do? They preferred the familiar pattern of idolatry and made a golden calf to worship. They selectively forgot the pain of life under Pharaoh’s rule and not too long after arriving in the promised land demanded God give them what they and their neighboring nations were familiar with: a king.
My seminary internship was in a rapidly growing affluent suburb of Houston, Texas. My supervisor, V. George Brookover, had a reputation for being a tyrannical taskmaster, a zealot for outreach evangelism. He would, I was told, expect me to walk the streets of the new subdivisions, with my feet on the ground, my eyes on the horizon, my heart on the Lord Jesus….and my thumb on the doorbell of every new house in the neighborhood. I ended up making fewer evangelism calls than I should have; and George ended up becoming a dear friend, colleague, and mentor, one of the great blessings in my life.
After many years serving the congregation he founded, he moved on to intentional interim ministry, and in retirement now does consulting work with congregations and their leaders. George recently wrote in an email: “I coach a lot of clergy abused or bullied by the nostalgia cohort! In church systems we refer to this 'creative or imagined memory' syndrome as: The 'back to Egypt' mindset that Moses had to wiggle around. The Hebrew slaves were trekking to the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey (without fees, taxes or mortgages!) and they whined about wanting to return to the certainty of slavery rather than the mystery of Israel !!” He then reflected on the tendency of some to reject change, but the willingness of most to embrace progress, and the need in the church to nurture vision about growing into God’s preferred future.
George’s passion then, as it has been for fifty years in ordained ministry, was getting the message out to those in that community that in the boom-bust Houston real estate cycles, in good times and bad, in happy times and sad, God was there for them with grace and love, and the community of faith was there to support and embrace them. As people moved into that planned community, those new subdivisions really seemed to be the Promised Land for those arriving from other parts of the country, climbing another rung higher on the corporate ladder of success. George was calling people away from false gods like social prestige and financial excess and striving instead to build bonds of community based on caring, compassion, and confidence in a loving God.
To those who were preparing to enter into the Land of God’s Promise; to people just like us, to people just like our new neighbors moving into those not-yet-built homes across the street from this church, Moses recalls the commandments of God and speaks words of exhortation: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him….” (De 30:19-20)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus picks up where Moses leaves off. This is the third week of reading from the Sermon on the Mount. Two weeks ago, we heard the familiar words of the Beatitudes; last week we heard about salt and light. Today, Jesus continues to paint in broad strokes a picture of what the Kingdom of God looks like, and calls us to enter into that promised kingdom. He mentions familiar, traditional ways of understanding commandments; and then instead calls us to embrace a much broader, wider vision of healthy relationships and holy living, not just for ourselves as individuals, but for our whole society. He gives four examples of this new way of seeing things with sections on murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing.
Consider, for example, what Jesus says about adultery. The words “with lust…in his heart” bring back memories of former president Jimmy Carter. In the fall of 1976, while Democratic candidate for president, Carter caused a scandal by agreeing to an interview with Playboy magazine in which, among many other things, he said, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Critics pounced. They ignored the theological nuances the Baptist Sunday School teacher was trying to convey; Carter’s references to Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich seemed to go over their heads. At the age of 90, Carter conceded he may not have done a good job explaining the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, when looking at his work in later years as peacemaker, promoter of human rights, leader in efforts to eradicate diseases like malaria and river fever, builder of Habitat houses: looking at decades of work in those areas suggests that Jimmy Carter has a profound understanding of the Sermon on the Mount.
Like Martin Luther in the Small Catechism, Jimmy Carter understands that the commandments are not just negative but also positive: they are not just a list of no-nos but also a powerful to-do list. When Jesus says, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” he is laying out the foundation for a new kingdom, a vision of healthy and holy relationships with our neighbor and with our God, a vision of a transformed society and transfigured humanity that eventually he would demonstrate in his own Person in the Resurrection.
And now we come to today. Today is the 43rd day of calendar year 2017--barely six weeks into the new year--yet I suspect many resolutions aimed at making us happier, healthier, or holier have fallen by the wayside as we’ve returned to more familiar patterns of behavior. This is where some more of Martin Luther’s insight in the Small Catechism can be of help. Luther reminds us that we begin every day by renewing our trust in God’s baptismal promise, and surrounding ourselves with that love and grace and mercy and forgiveness, we can cheerfully step out into a new day, confidently following as God leads us forward.
Most of my life, I have been severely nearsighted; the world without corrective lenses is blurred and unfocused. A good set of eyeglasses or contact lenses brings delight and joy, for suddenly things snap into focus and details are made clear. Our gathering each Sunday for worship is like a weekly vision adjustment. Or maybe a better analogy: a friend my age just had cataract surgery in both eyes. Like me, he wore glasses his entire life. With new lenses implanted during the procedures, he now has better vision than he has ever had before. He describes the world before surgery as appearing through a yellow filter; now colors are vibrant and bold. The downside, he admits, is that now he is acutely aware that his hair is actually much grayer than he thought!
Whether we think in terms of new glasses or lens implants, gathering for worship each Sunday helps adjust our vision. Sometimes we will see new things in familiar words from the Bible; sometimes we will get new insights from words of a hymn or inspiration from sounds of instruments or choirs; sometimes we see something new while pondering the cross above the altar, the flowers placed by loving hands, the flickering flame of the Presence lamp, the water, the bread, the wine. Through those aha! moments, those flashes of understanding, those epiphanies, God speaks to us. When we come with open mind and quiet heart, God can open our eyes, and we can see more and more clearly God’s vision for the future and the way God would have us go.
Jan Richardson is a writer, retreat leader, and United Methodist minister with a particular interest in writing blessings. Hear her words:
“The whole earth is full of his glory.” –Isaiah 6:3
Let these words
like a blessing
upon your head,
they could pass on
what you most need
for this day,
as if they could
not merely for
the path ahead
but for this ordinary moment
that opens itself
like another hand
that unfurls itself,
that reaches out
in the bowl
of its palm.
You may think
but I tell you
in the opening
and in the reaching;
in the ache
where this blessing
in the hollow
made by the place
where the hands
of this blessing
 Jimmy Carter, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), p. 117.
 Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons (Orlando: Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015). © Jan Richardson. Janrichardson.com.