First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
[Moses said to the people:] 15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I 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, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Psalm: Psalm 119:1-8
1Happy are they whose way is blameless,
who follow the teaching of the Lord!
2Happy are they who observe your decrees
and seek you with all their hearts,
3who never do any wrong,
but always walk in your ways.
4You laid down your commandments,
that we should fully keep them.
5Oh, that my ways were made so direct
that I might keep your statutes!
6Then I should not be put to shame,
when I regard all your commandments.
7I will thank you with a true heart,
when I have learned your righteous judgments.
8I will keep your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me.
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
1Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 21“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, and then come and offer your gift. 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.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But 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.
33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Children’s Sermon: Belling the Cat by Aesop: Allow me to return to one of my favorite Aesop Fables to set the tone today.
The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the Cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. They lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day. Many plans were discussed until at last a very young Mouse got up and said: “I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful. All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat’s neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming.”
All the Mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old Mouse arose and said: “I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?”
Let us pray. Lord may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Today is the sixth Sunday after Epiphany and our last text from the Sermon on the Mount. Next Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday when Jesus climbs another mountain and we all turn our attention to Lent and the journey to Mount Calvary. Today’s Gospel text continues on in the Sermon of Mount reported by Matthew.
We started Epiphany with the baptism of Jesus and the Father’s voice speaking from heaven, “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased.” The disciples living in a Roman dominated world had heard stories of gods intermarrying with humans. Today in our culture, our grandchildren are likely to think of Jesus as another Super Hero, just a human with super powers. The Jews were expecting a Messiah but was this Jesus the one? The people gathered on the mountain to check Jesus out. Jesus opens with the Sermon on the Mount, his State of the Union Address laying out the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven and just how life works when we choose to believe in Him. The Kingdom of Heaven is not like the Kingdom of this World!
John the Baptist then told his disciples, “This is the lamb of God!” so they too turn to check out Jesus. Jesus asked them and us, “Whom are you seeking?” Jesus’ question comes down through the ages and confronts us in Epiphany, what kind of God are we seeking. Are we chasing after the gods of this world that offer health, wealth, and prosperity or are we seeking the God that Jesus incarnate reveals?
The disciples of John responded to Jesus, “Where can we find you?” Where do you stay? And so as the crowds gather to hear Jesus preach, Jesus climbs a mountain and teaches his disciples. We have turned to The Sermon on the Mount during Epiphany. It is still the best description of the God we seek and where to find him.
The beatitudes confirmed that there is a cat in the house that makes life miserable for us mice. In the face of all the promises of culture we still live with poorness of spirit, mourning, injustice, deceit, hate, vengeance, and persecution. Jesus says “blessed” are the people who do not follow the false gods who promise a way out of the problems of life. Blessed are his people when we find ourselves immersed in these problems! It is there we find God!
The mice in our fable do not decide to kill the cat but to bell the cat! Jesus tackles three problems that the cat uses to destroy our world today: murder, adultery and deceit. The law given by Moses is very clear. Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not bear false witness or swear falsely about your neighbor. Law has been defeated to eliminate these big three, though. Our courts are still full of people arguing their cases and seeking justice. So what is the bell that allows us to know that the cat is coming and wanting to devour us?
Jesus proposes that when we become angry and are tempted to hate our brother or sister, we are starting down the path to murder. Anger is the bell of murder. Hate is a strong emotion that most of us would deny. But I think the text still challenges us. Perhaps we do not murder with a knife. We are more sophisticated. We can murder with a word or a raised eyebrow or a question where we call the other’s person’s credibility into doubt. We might say in our meetings that we need to pray for that person because they are not living life the way we think is right, errrr healthy.
The bell for the cat of murder is anger. Jesus says the solution is not the law but forgiveness. Jesus is ushering in a Kingdom that does not work in the courts of law but in the courts of the heart. We are familiar with the Lord’s Prayer that we pray and ask God to forgive us as we forgive others but Jesus goes one step further here and suggests that we go to the other if we know there is a problem and we humble ourselves and start the conversation. Forgiveness is relational and affects the whole fabric of society. Forgiveness is not just what we do in the privacy of our closet. When the bell of anger rings, the cat threatens the whole community of mice. The cat of anger and hate, throws us into an emotional jail until we turn to God and find forgiveness for the other and ourselves.
Jesus next brings up the cat of adultery. Most of us have seen this cat destroy either our lives or the lives of our children or friends. The court of law does not erase adultery and divorce tears families apart. Lust is the bell that warns us that the cat of adultery is stalking us. Let us not make the mistake of thinking Jesus was only speaking to “those people” either back in the day or “those” on the other side our fence, I would suggest that we might consider the bell to warn not only of lust but also extreme desires lust implies. For example we can lust for power. Lust speaks of our emotional appetites. When something other than God, like desire, rules our actions then we are in danger. I love that old commercial, “Bet you can’t eat just one!” They were right. I can’t.
Unlike the kingdom of this world that calls to our bodily desires, sexual, physical, and otherwise, the kingdom of heaven calls to our spiritual desires, our desire for God to reign supreme.
So if the cat of adultery has the bell of lust, what is the solution? Accountability partners, support groups like AA, prayer, and avoidance all help us to control the urge, the desire for physical pleasure. That dessert that tempted us in not the problem but the desire that drives us. Jesus is far more radical. He says to tear out the eye or cut off the hand. Ouch!! Is adultery, putting another god before Jehovah, that serious in God’s eyes? The text says yes.
As you know, I visit my husband in memory care daily. There are people there who cannot see, whose minds are garbled as well as their speech, and do not function properly according to this world. My pastor has a Downe’s Syndrome daughter who medaled in the Handicap Olympics. The congregation clapped for her as she proudly showed her medal. God’s love is not stopped by our desires that don’t honor him. God still loves us enough to go to Calvary. While we were yet sinners, he died for us. The sun still shines and he is still working like salt in our lives to bring out our best flavor but our experience of him is diminished by our distraction with our desires. Let us not take our desires to the courts of law in the kingdom of this world but let us turn to the courts of God who created our desires, sees us and rules the Kingdom of Heaven.
Bearing False Witness
I’m going to call this cat deceit. We like to think of this as the commercials that offer more than they can deliver. Or perhaps it is a grey area and we are just putting the best construction on our speech so as not to hurt the other’s feelings. It only becomes really wrong when we lie. The temptation to sugar coat our story by adding authorities to back us up or by skipping details or by just slanting the truth lets us know that the cat of false witness is stalking us.
Jesus is not so clear about this cat’s bell. Whenever we are tempted to support our story with some “authority” that agrees, we might be on a slippery slope. Bearing false witness seems to imply intent to deceive or cover up some truth we know or fear. Jesus tells us to just keep it simple. Let our yes be yes and our no be no. The solution is integrity. We are called to live a life that is congruent with the faith we profess. Walk our talk!
The Epistle of James asks us if we do not know what causes fights and quarrels among us. It comes from our desires that battle within us. The bell of hate rings when we demand justice in the courts of this world, either legally or in the court of public opinion. That bell of anger tells us the cat of murder is playing with our heart. The bell of lust rings when we demand the joys of our heart and not the joys of God’s heart. Adultery breaks a promise to another or ourselves. The cat of false witness is stalking us when we feel the need to sugar coat truth or lie. The bell rings to warn us that the cat of false witness is near. Murder, adultery and false witness break the Law. Hate, lust, and deceit are bells that warn us we are in danger.
The mice cannot kill the cat. The cat is serving a purpose only God knows. Perhaps it will kill the snake. So where is the gospel, the good news in our text today? May I suggest it comes in our opening phrase, “Jesus said to his disciples.” Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount lays out the Kingdom of Heaven and how it works. God is not far off and distant but he is here in the midst of the problems we face that would defeat us. As Aslan said to the children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “There is a deeper magic at work.” We are like salt and light that do not come to destroy but to bring out flavor and shed light into life. God is working even when we feel like the cat is about to pounce and destroy us. We are not strong enough in ourselves to bell the cats of this world. We need a God who comes to us to help us. Jesus gives us the warnings that act like a bell telling us to call to him. He will deal with the cat. When we are angry, when we are tempted by our desires, when we feel like we need to twist the truth to protect others, or ourselves we are not alone. We can turn to a God who cares enough to bell the Cat. These struggles are often long and exhausting. Jesus says,
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)
Let the people of God say, “AMEN!”