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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Jesus and the Law

Epiphany 5A, 2011

Matthew 5:13-20


‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

For those of you who may not know, before I was appointed to Providence I was the Senior Pastor at Shady Grove church in Mechanicsville, and before that I was the Superintendent of the Ashland District, which includes both Shady Grove and Providence. Early in my tenure as Superintendent of the district’s sixty churches, I was asked by the leadership of one of the churches on the district – not this one – to meet with them because of issues they were having with their pastor. I went out to meet with the church leaders and the pastor. Now, the pastor was a very intelligent, creative, and hard-working person. He was a good preacher, a good administrator, he visited the sick and the shut-in faithfully, taught small groups, and did everything in the job description well. But the congregation did not like him, resisted his leadership, and wanted him to leave.

I couldn’t figure it out. Almost always when a congregation wants to divorce their pastor, it’s because there’s been a failure in one or more aspects of that ministry. The pastor can’t preach, doesn’t visit, won’t lead, or, in a few cases, there’s been a serious moral failure by the pastor. None of these were the case in this situation. But as I listened to the congregation more, it became clear that the congregation didn’t feel that the pastor loved them. He did all the things he was supposed to do, but because they were the things he was supposed to do. In fact, he thought they were a bunch of ignorant and stubborn rednecks, and he was doing his best to lead them, despite their supposed stupidity, into the light. The congregation was dead on target – their pastor didn’t love them.

That same year, another pastor came to me and told me he needed to move, because, he said, his congregation needed a better preacher. I went to hear him, and he was right. He was terrible. He had gone to preaching workshops and had coaching, but he was terrible in the pulpit. But his congregation adored him, and was terribly upset at the thought of him leaving. The difference between this second pastor and the first was that in the second case, even though there were several things, especially preaching, that the pastor didn’t do well, the congregation felt deeply loved by their pastor. And it was true. He loved them so much that he engaged an outside preacher to come in once a month so the congregation could here a good sermon monthly. And finally this pastor decided that wasn’t enough, and that he needed to leave so I could send them a competent preacher.

The first pastor kept all the rules, and did so with great competence, but it wasn’t enough. The second pastor couldn’t fulfill all the rules, but it was more than enough. The difference between the two was love.

That’s what Jesus is telling his listeners in today’s gospel lesson. All the rules still apply. But the rules – whether a job description or the commandments – are descriptions of what faithfulness looks like. The Pharisees, despite what you may have learned in Sunday School, were actually a group of liberal reformers who wanted Jews to get back to obeying the law, because they believed that if they were obedient, then the Messiah would return. They turned the law, which was meant to describe a community faithful to God and to each other, into a prescription for holiness. Holiness consists of doing these things.

My hero, the 16th century German reformer Martin Luther, had a very helpful way of understanding the relationship between faith and the law. Luther said the law does three things:

First, the law describes what God expects of us. God expects us to love God alone, to keep Sabbath, to honor the elders, to not murder or covet, to tell the truth. But if we’re honest – which, after all, is a commandment -- none of us keep all the rules. We have divided loyalties. We murder or lust after people in our hearts, we want other people’s stuff, we sass our parents, because, after all, they are the stupidest people who ever walked the face of the earth until we have children of our own and suddenly our parents look pretty smart. So, it turns out, God has impossible expectations of us. It’s not fair!

Which is the second use of the law: it kills us. We can’t keep it. So, there are two things we can do in response to this impossible command. We can throw a tantrum for the rest of our lives like some overgrown three year old and rebel against God and life and the universe, which is what most people do; or we can surrender, throw ourselves at God’s feet and beg for mercy because we can’t make it on our own, at which point God says, Well, it’s about time. Now, let me help you do what you can’t do on your own.

Now, third, the law describes what a life lived depending on God looks like. We trust in God alone, we live in harmony with each other, we keep Sabbath because the world doesn’t depend on us, we tell the truth, and we honor the wisdom of the elders.

Jesus’ problem with the scribes and the Pharisees was that they thought that if they just tried, really, really hard, then God would love them and answer their prayers for deliverance. They had it backwards: first, we throw ourselves on the grace of God and beg for help, and God answers because God already loves us. Then, with God’s help, and only with God’s help, we begin, out of love, to look like the picture painted by the rules.

Remember those two preachers I talked about? The second went to a little church that was unloved and dying, and now they feel adored because they are. Their pastor still can’t preach his way out of a wet paper bag, but they don’t care. The first pastor has moved in and out of the pastorate, and from one church to another. What he does he does very well, except he still doesn’t love his people. Which is why he keeps moving, and moving, and moving.

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