Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Sermon February 16, 2014 Forgiveness Part 1

This is not the Gospel I would have chosen to use to preach my first sermon here at St. Stephen’s.  It would have been much easier to preach on last week’s Gospel lesson.  It spoke of us being the light of the world and not hiding our light under a bushel basket.  However, I don’t think that these things happen by chance.  I have to think that there is a reason why this Gospel lesson came up on the lectionary today.  I’m just not sure what it is. 
Do any of you feel hopeful after hearing the Gospel this morning?  Well I certainly don’t – or didn’t when I re-read this passage on Monday.  Jesus sets a very high standard for us as his followers.  I have certainly been angry with people in the past.  I don’t think I am angry with anyone at the moment but I’m certain that I will be in the future.  I think getting angry is part of being human.  You would have to be a saint not to get angry at times and from what I know of saints a lot of them got angry at times.  I must also admit that I have a wandering eye at times and appreciate a beautiful woman. 
I like to think of that as admiration for God’s creation but I’m not sure after reading this how Jesus would consider it.  He is setting a pretty high standard.  

In the passage before the Gospel reading he tells us,Therefore, whoever breaks* one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”  Now Jesus is talking about the Ten Commandments but it goes beyond that.  As a good Jew he was aware that there were 613 commandments in the Torah.  He was certainly referring to all of them because he tells us that we should not break the least of them and certainly you can’t consider any of the ten as less than any others.  However, there are some of the 613 that can be considered lesser.  How about the prohibition of eating blood?  I don’t follow Kosher laws.  The one a particularly like is the commandment to execute a disobedient child by stoning him or her to death.  I must admit that I have not followed that one.  

Of course it is easy to justify not fulfilling some of these laws.  However, a few verses later Jesus sums up what he expects of his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.”  How are we to live up to the standard that Jesus has set for us?  If we accept what Jesus is telling us at face value we might as well forget it.  We are doomed to failure and whatever punishment lies ahead for us when we meet our maker.  However, these commandments of Jesus cannot be taken out of context of his life and teachings.  Jesus spent a lot of time with outcasts and sinners.  I believe he did that because he knew that they were in need of him.  But I also in my imagination believe that it was because they were a lot more enjoyable to spend time with that the good pious people.  Jesus was also compassionate.  Remember the account of him saving the woman who was about to be stoned for adultery.  He stopped those preparing to stone her in their tracks by telling them that anyone who was without sin should cast the first stone.  Jesus knew that no one was perfect – no one was without sin.  So why would he require perfection of us?

If we investigate this at more depth we can discover that there are alternate ways of understanding what Jesus is saying.  We are reading this in English after various translations and after an oral tradition.  I have for some time struggled with the commandment of Jesus that tells us to be perfect.  That is certainly impossible for me and I do not know anyone who is perfect.  I also think it can be detrimental if we have expectations of ourselves and others that we will be perfect.  An alternate understanding of this passage is that the original language that Jesus was speaking in – Aramaic – a better translation of perfection is ‘all embracing’.  That is something which I can strive for.  It is still not something that is easy but it is a wonderful goal.  To embrace God’s creation in all its variety would be wonderful and I am striving more to do that in my life.  

However, I believe that the key to understanding the Gospel and much of his message for us can be contained in one word, ‘forgiveness’.  Jesus was and is well aware that we are not able to live the perfect life.  He told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more. However, if she didn’t – and I’m sure she sinned in different ways many times in her life as we all do.  However, if he had encountered her again he would have had the same message for her – he would not condemn her – her sins would be forgiven.   

For me the essence of this approach is summed up in our baptismal covenant.  One of the covenant statement says, ‘Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?’  Note it says not if you fall into sin but whenever you fall into sin.   We are to persevere in resisting evil.  But we will inevitably fail to do so.  We will miss the mark which is one meaning of sin.  As Christians we are called to repent of our sin – to acknowledge them to ourselves and to God and aim once more to hit the mark.  This may difficult and it is but it is not impossible for with God all things are possible.  Thanks be to God. 

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