SERMON: 6 Epiphany A 2 16 19
In our Collect this morning we prayed to God as the strength of all who put their trust in God.
Let's think about this for a minute. When we've got a question on our mind, do we turn to God? Or is it only for a special kind of question? For example, if we were thinking about a political issue, would we turn to the internet or turn to God?
When we're deciding how to engage with the day before us, maybe as we sip a cup of tea or coffee and wake up a little slowly, are we more interested in catching up on the news or our emails? Or are we thinking about greeting God as our companion for the day to come?
And when we realize we are weary of or wearied by something, how do we set out to revive ourselves? More coffee? A brisk walk? Or do we ask for God's energy to revive us, energy within ourselves we can call upon at almost any moment, if we just stop and think, "That's what I need."
This statement in our collect that God is the strength of all who put their trust in God is a remarkable confession. It is also very powerful--if true for you and for me--because it means our big brains and our strong muscles and even our tools and devices that aid us in our regular lives are not nearly as important as our relationship with the Almighty.
We depend on God to guide our thinking and our actions, especially in making choices. Or perhaps I should say we are aware we are well advised to turn to God for such things. We do not always think of that option when we are living our everyday lives.
But clearly the theme of all the readings today is the difference of right and wrong and choosing correctly.
Did you notice in the Gospel, where Jesus is talking about right and wrong? Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire..." How do you feel about being judged for your anger? I know that makes me a little uncomfortable. Most of my insults take place between my ears, but still...yes, I think I am liable to the council. And since I do not insult people to their face I guess I'm not hell-bound, but perhaps I should scale back some of my more negative reflections...
Who would have thought that murder and anger are comparable on any scale? Who would have thought that an insult was tantamount to high crimes and misdemeanors? Who would have thought calling someone a fool would land a person in the hell of fire?
Jesus went on to suggest that our awareness of strained relations, of our own wrongs, of anything in our lives contrary to God's will, should be addressed before offering our gifts at the altar. He says:
"So when you are 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 or sister, and then come and offer your gift..."
Normally we take brother and sister as sibling references, but Jesus means simply other women and men, in this case, people with whom we have had difficulties and with whom we are not reconciled. This would be any one we know we have wronged. And it appears he means anyone we have wronged at all.
Effectively we are told that God is not interested in our offerings if we have not cleared the slate first, so to speak. Jesus says, "Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny."
Now this is an especially interesting paragraph. I don't know how many times I have sat with people who would be delighted to be on the way to court with their accuser, so convicted they are in their own sense of innocence. But not many actually get there in this life. The judge mentioned in the paragraph is our ultimate judge, the Almighty, and Jesus is warning us that it won't be a cake walk. The implication is we might as well take our lumps now rather than get into some exhausting and expensive battle.
Do you recognize these sentences I've taken from today's Gospel?
The reference I'm making is to the sentence, " "(If) you are 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 or sister, and then come and offer
It is one of the ten suggested offertory sentences in our Book of Common Prayer which are used to turn to the Holy Communion. In our church I recite one of the Offertory Sentences at the conclusion of the announcements.
This sentence and the other nine are important because they are intended to get our minds in a proper state before receiving the Holy Eucharist. By this time in the service we have heard the hymns, the Collect for Purity, the Collect of the day, the readings and the sermon. We have participated in the Prayers of the People and we have prayed the Confession and we have received absolution. We have shared the peace. Are we ready for communion?
This is a really important question and, to be very clear, the answer is always yes. More to the point, Communion is always ready for us. The real question is, are we as ready as we can be, as ready as we want to be, to receive the body and blood of Christ? Would we like to make peace with a few more estranged acquaintances? Would we like to have a more clear conscience as we received the bread and wine of Communion, taking unto our selves the essence of the Son of God?
I think the answer for most folks is yes, we would like it to be as spiritually fulfilling as possible. And that means we have some work to do. Some have more to do than others, but it is utterly your business and yours alone, my business and mine alone.
For some the answer is no. They aren't looking to advance their faith. They aren't concerned with the degree to which their actions and behaviors have limited their spiritual openness and potential. For some, perhaps many, the spiritual status quo is sufficient.
But for those who thrive on their faith, who depend on it lifting them when they are down and supporting them when they are stressed, there can be no half measures when it comes to thoughtful preparation for the sacrament. We want and we need to be ready to make the experience, each and every one of the experiences of Communion, a fulfillment of our covenant with Jesus to be faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.
So let me encourage you as we progress with this service and as you consider your life in faith from this point on: be mindful of the choices you make concerning your faith. Think about the words of the confession when we come to it. Weigh the different prayers of the Prayers of the People and include those whose concerns you share by name and by intercession.
Perhaps most of all, set aside all those hurts and minor grievances that gnaw at your conscience. Let them go.
God's blessings, as enumerated in all our readings, are immense and endless. We need to be clear minded and focused to recognize them, and we need to be free of emotional and spiritual clutter to receive them fully. The reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians today makes that clear: Paul wrote, "And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ." This is because he was mindful of their unchristian behavior as a congregation of Christians. He was encouraging them to grow up in faith and act like Jesus told us to, by loving God and our neighbor.
Now if after all this you are wondering, does anyone take this degree of spiritual attention seriously, let me in closing point out one passage many of us remember from the 1970s:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
Ring any bells? Yes, that was the scripture Jimmy Carter referred to when he admitted during the 1976 Presidential campaign he had lusted in his heart many times.
Jimmy Carter took a lot of grief for his admission, but I think we all can see that he knew his Bible and he knew himself. We all should be so self-aware. Perhaps not quite so candid, though.
These are the choices which will determine the quality of our lives as well as the degree of peace we enjoy as we live them out. Amen
A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY, on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany,
February 16, 2020, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector