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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

God Makes the Way For Us to Do What's Hard - 02/16/2020

Welcome back my fellow followers of Jesus – you disciples in ministry to those who are poor, and companions to our friends who mourn, and voices for the ones who are soft-spoken or voiceless; you who have been called into the Way of being God’s salt and light for the world – welcome back and buckle up, because our Good Teacher has taken off the gloves in this week’s installment of the Sermon on the Mount.

We have moved through the Beatitudes and their poetic God-promise of love and abundance, especially for people and all parts of creation that are somehow enslaved by something else. Then we made our way through the teaching of what it means to be God’s Salt and Light; that we become willing and thankful vehicles for God’s work of enhancing human life and shining a light on the story of salvation in Jesus Christ, our brother and Redeemer.

And this week we come to another important piece of what it means to be a salty and illuminating disciple of Jesus in the vocations and ministries of our daily lives. And the bar is set high.

Before I get into that, however, I’d like to share with you a little of how I started my week. Last Sunday, when worship was done, and cookies and hugs had been delivered to the residents of Harbourview (thanks, WELCA!), I headed over to Marquette for some continuing education at the synod’s Professional Leaders Retreat. It was called “Life in the Spirit,” and was led by Prof. Lois Malcom from Luther Seminary in St. Paul. It was a very good conference. We listened, thought and talked about how we discern the call of the Holy Spirit as individuals, as communities of faith, and as the wider communities we all live, work and play within. What is the Spirit calling us to do? What is it calling us to shed?

It’s a topic that would not have been brought before a group of Lutheran pastors and lay ministers 20 years ago. But many of us in that room were pretty hungry for this kind of discussion … because pastors are also coming to understand just how much the church has changed and that we are all being called into being church in new ways.  So there is this wonderful and authentic movement of tuning ourselves much more intentionally to how God is stirring us and convicting us and forming us for a future that God has already prepared for us.

As I said, it was a really good conference, and I think you might all be hearing more of this in days to come.

Another reason I typically like to go to these synod events is because we worship and commune together too, and so that means I also get to hear a sermon and it was truly a gift to us when Pastor Sarah Semmler Smith, who is the newly installed campus ministry pastor at Finlandia, read scriptures we have before us today. She did this knowing that this is not easy scripture to bring forward in our churches. She knew we would all likely need the whole week to let the Holy Spirit rumble around in our hearts and minds as we considered how to unpack this part of the Sermon on the Mount.

And she did a beautiful job of preaching on it herself, ultimately coming to an important point that has been repeating like a chorus inside me all week long.

This is hard, but you know what? We can do hard!

We can do hard because we are not in it alone. God has our backs, and in reality – in the midst of our lovely and sometimes completely messed up lives – God so badly wants us to know this …

… that God chose to walk the human experience, to become a poor brown-skinned kid, to feel what is it to love and lose, to be a lowly Jew in a Roman empire – God so badly wants us to know this …

… that God subjected God’s self to the degradation and horror of the cross – God so badly wants us to know we are not in this alone …

… that God overcame that despicable death, defeated the powers of hell and sin over us and then burst from the tomb as Jesus Christ, the Messiah of the World, proclaiming there is nothing left with the power to get between us and the reality we enjoy on this side of the cross.

Jesus told us about this reality at the beginning of his ministry:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned …
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matt 2:15-17 para).

So we can do hard.

We can bravely submit ourselves to this intensification of God’s Law our Good Teacher has presented to us today because God has made the Way for us to do what is hard.

And so as salty and illuminating believers and disciples … we know God commands we do not murder, we do not extinguish the life of another. And, as followers of Jesus, we also see that we do not let our anger become like a thousand little deaths either.

Our angry words and attitudes may not have the power to murder, but they can cause harm and suffering that has an extinguishing, cumulative consequence on another.

So as believers and disciples, Jesus invites us to actively seek reconciliation in all areas of our brokenness. There are, of course, instances where things like abuse and danger make reconciliation impossible and not the best course. In general, however, we are called into active lives of reconciliation. We do this because we are meant to be Salt and Light for one another.

And, active reconciliation is not only about our relationships with each other and this creation. Remember this other point from our Gospel today (I’m going to read this from The Message translation):

“This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.” (Matt. 5:23-24)

It is also about our relationship with God, our obedience to actively seek reconciliation wherever we can is intimately tied to our relationship with God.

The next focus of Jesus’ teaching can be even more problematic for us contemporary hearers of the Sermon on the Mount.

Divorce has left a fingerprint on many of us. While we don’t typically speak of it only in hush-hush tones any more, or feel compelled by society to shun the divorced, it remains a painful and emotionally-fraught topic for many. It can feel like failure or betrayal or sin or trauma and so it can also be hard to hear something like: “But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt 5:32)

In this case, it really helps us to be intentional about how we frame our reading of this. I find it helpful to think about this section in terms of “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5). By doing this instead of trying to understand it through the frame of contemporary marriage and divorce, I think we can better see what Jesus is getting at here.

We believers and disciples know God’s law not to commit adultery. Jesus intensifies that law by including the loophole of easy divorce being exploited by men who were abandoning wives for no other reason than to make a technically legal way to act out on their lust for another. In the process of this exploitation of the law, many women – who had no legal voice in whether or not they would divorce – were made destitute; they were forced into abject poverty, begging and degrading themselves to meet basic needs.

This is a command to lift up the meek.

And further Jesus says, not only are we believers and disciples called to reject adultery and the abuse of divorce, but we are not to objectify the bodies of those without voice or power, or those who are different than us.

It is an intensification of the law that can convict any of us … whether it is the ongoing reality of men who objectify women as the case in our reading, or any of us who objectify another for any reason.

And let’s just say out loud what it means to objectify another body – it is to see someone only as an object to serve our needs or ego – a body to satisfy our sexual desire or our sexual taboos; a brown or black body to prove our prejudices or bigotry; a tourist body to serve as a whipping post for our fears of economic dependence on them; a Jewish or Muslim body to satisfy our Christian self-righteousness.

It is hard to hear this word of Law from Jesus  – but God has made the Way for us in this too. Because when we begin to really dive into our identities as believers and disciples, we also begin to detect God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit in everyone and everything and it becomes harder and harder to objectify anyone and anything.

And finally, Jesus touches on the subject of oath-taking in the name of God or even the hair on one’s head.

This law also comes from those tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, which we reviewed last week. “No using the name of God, your God, in curses or silly banter; God won’t put up with the irreverent use of (God’s) name.” (Ex 20:7)

Jesus doesn’t really seem to intensify this law, it seems like he is abolishing it. Maybe he does want to abolish it because one thing he likelywitnessed in his human walk was that every oath powered only by human will is vulnerable to “the evil one.”

So if you make an oath in God’s name or even a hair on the head that God created for you, you’d better keep it. Better yet – don’t make oaths, Jesus suggests – leave the oath-making to God and simply let your “yes” be a trusted “yes,” and your “no” be a respected “no.”

Maybe the intensification of the Law here is really in the powerful simplification of being in Christ-centered community of trust and love and authenticity.

God’s law is hard. Being a believer and a disciple is hard.

And when we inevitably have those times when we have to remind ourselves every 15 minutes that, with God, we can do what is hard … that we have a God who has made a Way for us …  it may also serve us to seek out that God-promise that we are not in it alone and that God’s Law for us is Life.

Like we heard in our reading from Deuteronomy – which is Moses’ farewell letter to the people he has been leading through the wilderness to the Promised Land for 40 years – a Land he knows he will never step foot it, yet with God he knows he is able to do the hard work of passing the faith onto them …

“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 …, and holding fast to (God); for that means life to you …” (Deut 30:19-20a)

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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