This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at St. Luke’s in the Meadow, Fort Worth, on Sunday, February, the 6th Sunday after The Epiphany.
Listen to the podcast of the sermon and/or read the text below.
St Luke’s in the Meadow FW 2020 6 Epiphany – Year A February 16
There are stories, and parables, and passages in the Bible that so express the Gospel – the Good News of God’s grace, mercy, and love – that we might call them “the Gospel within the Gospel.”
The famous story of the compassionate father in the parable known as the Prodigal Son comes to mind. Or another, John 3:16-17 says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Many Christians would consider that passage to represent “the Gospel within the Gospel.” There are many, many more examples.
Perhaps you noticed that today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew does not fit in that category, for at a glance, there is not much “good news” in this passage – especially if we stop reading where we stopped today. It is important to keep reading.
I remember as an early-teenager, I received a new paperback New Testament written in plain easy-to-understand English, and I decided to read it. Of course, the New Testament begins with Matthew’s Gospel. After some boring introductory passages about the genealogy of Jesus, the first four chapters of Matthew were pretty interesting.
And then I arrived at the fifth chapter. After reading the incomprehensible Beatitudes (incomprehensible to this teenager), I encountered today’s passage: “… if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; … if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will liable to the hell of fire.” And then, regarding lust, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” and so forth.
Five chapters into the New Testament, and I am doomed already. What happened to “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so?” What happened to that Jesus? I think now of a quotation from Mark Twain regarding the Bible. Mark Twain remarked: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Well, according to my paperback New Testament written in plain English, I understood that I was doomed. And what was I going to do? Ask my mother?
I hope it’s obvious that I have since sorted this out, but it does make me grateful for a particular passage in the Acts of the Apostles. As the story goes, an Ethiopian eunuch is sitting in his chariot, reading from the prophet Isaiah. One of the apostles, Philip, is moved by the Spirit to go to the chariot and ask this new seeker: “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the Ethiopian eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
I’m not a big fan of just passing out Bibles – without guidance. I’m not going to take a scholarly deep dive into this passage this morning, but I would like to make a couple of observations. If you’re about to throw your paperback New Testament into your night stand, maybe this will help you keep reading.
In today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus addresses murder, adultery, and swearing oaths. If we keep reading, he addresses retaliation: “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say [in essence] turn the other cheek.” Then he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say, Love your enemies.”
And then we get to some “gospel.” Jesus says, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Anyone can love those who love them. Jesus loves everyone, whether we love him back, or not. The love of Jesus is unconditional. That is Gospel.
It sounds to me like Jesus is addressing a bunch of people who are satisfied that they are following all the religious rules, and they believe following rules keeps them out of trouble with God.
The rules say, “You shall not murder.” Check. I can do that. I haven’t murdered anybody literally. The rules say, “You shall not commit adultery.” Check. I haven’t committed adultery – literally. At a glance, it looks like Jesus is closing all the loopholes around the rules. It looks like he’s saying, “You’re not only doomed for murder; you’re doomed for anger. You’re not only doomed for adultery; you’re doomed for lust.” It looks like he’s tightening the rules, and closing all loopholes.
But I would submit that he’s actually saying there is something more important than rules, for anger and lust aren’t about rules. The kind of anger and lust expressed in this passage are about relationships which are less than loving. Jesus uses strong language to make a point that he’s more interested in relationships than rules. “Be reconciled to your brother or sister,” he says. That’s relationship, not rules.
One time Jesus was challenged about the most important commandment. A lawyer wanted to know the rules. Using the scriptures, Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” And then he said, “On these two commandments hang ALL the law and the prophets.”
That means everything flows from the Great Commandment to love. That means that doctrine and creeds are derived from and understood through love. That means everything we read in the Bible is read through the lens of God’s love. That means the mission of God to restore all people to union with God and one another is accomplished through love.
Our presiding bishop has been leading us to talk about love a lot – and to show love. I suspect there are those who believe we are preaching an easy way, and easy Gospel which lets us off the hook from following commandments and so-called biblical teachings.
And yet, I wonder how anyone who has ever shown love without conditions, or forgiven someone who didn’t deserve it or even ask for it, or shown grace to someone who didn’t earn it, could say that showing love is easier than following some rules. I’m glad that Jesus chose to love us, rather than following some rules like not healing on the Sabbath, or refraining from eating with tax collectors and sinners. “On these two commandments hang ALL the law and the prophets.”
Now, one more thing. In today’s Gospel we may notice that Jesus is not what we would call a strict biblical literalist. Jesus is a good Jew, and he loves the scriptures. He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law. But, he is not a literalist. He interprets the law around murder. He interprets the law around adultery. And there is something more there than the so-called “plain meaning of scripture” – something more than words on a page.
There is a Roman Catholic monk named Bruno Barnhart who writes about the interplay between the Scriptures and the Spirit. To me, he is like a modern day Philip who is helping seekers who are like the Ethiopian eunuch. Barnhart writes about the interplay between the Scriptures and the Spirit.
First, he likens the Spirit to Music. He compares the Spirit to Music, and reminds us that to read or listen to scripture is to listen for the Music.
He says: “The scriptures themselves are the score, not the music. The music happens when the words, the marks on the page, are actualized by the Spirit. … The goal of reading or listening is to hear the Music.” [Barnhart p 126]
The scriptures themselves are the score, not the music; marks on a page, not the music. The goal is to hear the music. The music happens when the words are made alive by the Spirit.
People, including me, and I bet you, are seeking the Music. I believe the world’s deepest desire is to hear the Music. And if we listen, we can hear it. For many of us it is the song of our earliest memories. It goes like this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
There was an influential 20th century theologian named Karl Barth. He was a prolific writer. I understand he wrote more than Thomas Aquinas, which makes him number one in terms of volume. Personally, I am more interested in other theologians of his era, but there is no questioning his brilliance, and goodness, and influence. So, this brilliant theologian was asked what all this work meant to him. And he replied: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
That’s what the Bible says. God loves you. God loves all. And, that’s what we are called to proclaim and embody in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.