Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A

* Deuteronomy 30:15-20
* Psalm 119:1-8
* 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
* Matthew 5:21-37

This week, our readings all point to a common theme - God's investment in human will, and the outcome of our choices. We have choices of how to live, and there are consequences to those choices.

In Deuteronomy, as the Hebrews are receiving the the commandments, they are warned - the choice is theirs...blesses or curses. This passage pretty specifically lays out what happens when we obey the commandments and what happens when we do not obey the commandments.

The psalmist sings praises for those who choose a right path. The opening phrase says it all: Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD.

And in Paul's letter to the church in Corinth, he sort of turns this theme around a corner...the choices don't matter as much as the fact that we are God's and therefore have those choices.

The real meat (sorry vegetarians) of this week's readings comes in the passage from Matthew.

For several weeks at this point in the church year, we are reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. It’s a long teaching offered to a large crowd of people. It twists and turns. Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus name those that were “blessed…” – the meek, the poor, the weak, those that hunger and thirst for righteousness. In last week’s readings, we heard Jesus proclaim all to be salt and light – essential elements of the well-rounded life – and then challenge all to share that salt and light boldly to the glory of God. It was all pretty comforting to that point.

And then in a quick turn, just about the time we’re feeling empowered – blessed, light, bright and salty - Jesus warns that unless our righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees (we’re talking people who would be seen as Uber Holy) we will NEVER see the kingdom of heaven.

And this week, believe it or not, it gets even tougher.

Jesus is unpacking Jewish law – the Torah that has ordered the civic, religious, spiritual and economic lives of the Jewish people for thousands of years. He’s speaking to a crowd that is watching the world change rapidly. Occupied by Rome, the tribes long-established in this land have lost so much. Surely their laws and customs and traditions cannot be far behind. And Jesus speaks in terms that make the law bigger, more encompassing, more comprehensive… He makes these laws not just prohibitions but imperatives. Not only should we not kill, but we must love ABUNDANTLY. Not only should we not be adulterous, we must not even have desire for another. Not only should we not swear falsely…we must not swear at all! In the midst of so much cultural change, Jesus takes the bedrock of the law and makes it even harder to be righteous.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister* has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,*25Come 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. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” and then come and offer your gift.

Whoa. We have to be more righteous than Scribes and Pharisees to see the Kingdom of Heaven, AND if we bear a grudge or act in anger or call people names, we will experience a Hell of Fire.

We're sort of losing sight of being salt and light. Are you? We're not feeling real hot about the state of our righteousness.

True confessions: We are not very nice people sometimes. We haven’t ever killed anyone…we don’t even think we’ve ever physically hurt someone, at least not intentionally, but we’ve said some pretty nasty things…and thought some pretty nasty things. And meant them. We get angry. We feel hurt and strike out with words or by withholding affection.

Recently Laura had a heated conversation with her ex-husband, the father of her children, about a matter of the children’s safety and well-being. She was “alone” in our bedroom. As she hung up the phone, she shouted out her grief and her anger and her hurt…and the kids heard. You must know that this passage has set heavily upon her since then. There is some reconciling to do. In their hurt, they said and did things that caused their father to know what Laura had done. In his hurt, there were more ugly things said.

Hell of fire.

As Laura's father was dying, they engaged in a deep written dialogue about God and Jesus and faith…he spoke these words: “I do not believe in a vengeful God, Laura. I believe in a very gentle handed God who allows us to create our own heaven and hell.”

Kingdom of Heaven, Hell of Fire – both products of our human choices.

During the last 3 miles of Laura's first half-marathon, a coach stood on the side of the road and yelled, “The next 5k is what you make it. It can be the best 5k you’ve ever run. Or it can be the absolute worst. Heaven or hell, what will it be?”

In a way, Jesus is like that coach standing on the side of the road, reminding us that we have choices…that we create our own Kingdom of Heaven or Hell of Fire right here.

Really. We choose.

You are blessed, light, bright and salty…. You have the power to be graceful, merciful, light-filled, and loving. And when you are not, you are forgiven.
It’s your race. You get choose: Kingdom of Heaven or Hell of Fire.

God, the world of intention is tricky.
Sometimes I say things I don't mean
(good and bad)
Sometimes I say things that are mean
(accurate and otherwise)
Sometimes I lust after things and people
(that are mine and that belong to others)
Sometimes I love others
And sometimes I don't.
It is hard to control this fantastic biologic
Spirit Container
You Created.
Guide me as I learn and relearn
The ways that bring me

© matt & laura norvell 2011 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world;
we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words.
May Grace & Peace be with you.

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