Lent 1 Matthew 4.1-11 March 9, 2014
If you are a fan of Jimmy Buffett, you know that there is a woman to blame for his wasting away in Margaritaville In the midst of my singing along with Jimmy, I can’t help but think of the story of Adam and Eve.
For centuries, Eve has born the brunt of wrongdoing in this story. It’s time to clear that up along with some other misunderstandings. To begin with, God told Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil BEFORE he created Eve from Adam’s rib. And you may not have noticed that Adam was with Eve through the entire conversation with the serpent and subsequent transgression. When Eve handed him the fruit of the tree, he didn’t say, No, God told me not to eat that. In fact, Adam didn’t even own up to it when God asked them if they had eaten the forbidden fruit. She made me do it! It’s all the woman’s fault! he said. Eve, of course, is just as responsible and also guilty of blaming another. The serpent tricked me! she cried.
I’d like to clear up one other misunderstanding about this story. The serpent was a creature; that is what he was, a creature, not the devil. Evil represented as the devil or Satan came much later.
But the serpent is this story is crafty, we are told, and he engages Eve, saying, Did God really say, You shall not eat from any tree in the garden? Really? You can hear the serpent say this with great disbelief in his voice. The seeds of doubt about God are now sown. Eve responds that God said that they would die if they ate the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden. The serpent challenges God’s assertion, saying to Adam and Eve, You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. With that, Adam and Eve ate the fruit.
You are what you eat, people say. That doesn’t mean that if we eat corn on the cob, corn will sprout out of our ears. Eating high fat and sugary foods will show up in your blood, your teeth and your belly. So will fruits and vegetables. But putting cheese Danishes into your diet will encourage you to sit on the couch and watch TV a bit more. A diet of carrots and broccoli will keep your fat and cholesterol levels in check, and give you energy to do that Pilates class.
God’s first commandment was to Adam and Eve concerning what they ate, and what they didn’t eat. You may freely eat of every tree of the garden ; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.
This is more than a story about temptation. When Adam and Eve fed themselves with food that God did not want them to have, it forever changed how they saw themselves and their relationship with God. Although they didn’t physically die, they now defined themselves apart from God, and that seems like death to me. When is it ever a good idea to listen to a serpent?
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, our season to examine our relationship with God, to see what gets in the way and what is helpful. 40 days for us to look at what we do, and why we do it. Lent is our chance to intentionally develop faith practices that draw us closer to God. Many people give something up, like sugar or FaceBook. People add things as well. I know of someone who is handwriting a note everyday to someone who has impacted her life. Another is keeping a journal of gratitude. Someone else is doing random acts of kindness every day. Prayer, scripture reading, solitude, these are practices that will feed us with food from God.
I’m reminded of a story about an old Cherokee Indian. One evening, he sat down under the stars and next to the fire with his grandson. He spoke gently. There is a battle between two wolves inside all of us. One of the wolves is evil. It is a wolf of anger, jealousy, greed and lies. The other wolf is good. It is a wolf of love, hope, kindness and faith. After thinking for a minute about what his grandfather had said, the boy looked up into his grandfather’s eyes and asked, Which wolf wins? The grandfather answered, The one that you feed.
In Lutheran language, we would say sinner and saint. Which one are you feeding? What do you do to feed your spirit? Are you making space and engaging in practices that allow God to come into your life and fill you? Or is there emptiness? Sometimes we try to fill that emptiness with stuff, like work, or alcohol, a romantic encounter, mass quantities of shoes or freshly baked warm gooey chocolate chip cookies with walnuts, and maybe some coconut. Those things may satisfy us for a moment, but we will find ourselves soon hungry again. So we stuff more of whatever into our mouths, our body or our mind. When we finally realize that those things that we try to fill ourselves with leave us empty, we will find ourselves naked in the garden.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus was still dripping wet from his baptism by John in the Jordan when he was led into the wilderness. At the end of Jesus’ forty days and forty nights of fasting, the tempter tells him, If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. The devil subtly suggests that Jesus deserved better than God was giving him. Why should the Son of God be famished? Knowing God as the one, the only one who could fill him, he quotes from Deuteronomy: One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. By quoting this scripture, Jesus recounts God’s feeding of the Israelites when they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness [8.2-3]. God provided them with manna, or bread as we call it. Even as Jesus said those words, he knew that he would become bread for us. I am the bread of life, Jesus said. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty [John 6.35]. And Jesus gave us himself.
~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin
Drawing Close to God
Ash Wednesday Matthew 1-6, 16-21 March 5, 2104
If you attend a Lutheran committal service you will hear these words: “…We commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” These words are the reality of life and death. They will be echoed in a moment. Pastor Ballentine and I will make the sign of the cross on your forehead with ashes, and we will say these words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This comes from the book of Genesis. After Adam and Eve ate from the tree from which God commanded them not to eat, God said, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return [3.19]. Today, we gather together as community to remember that. Birth and death are the same for all of us, whether we are male or female, Danish or African, a CEO or a carpenter, a baby with tender skin, or a senior mottled from years of sun. There is no partiality on Ash Wednesday; all of us are dust and to dust we all will return.
This is part of the reason that Ash Wednesday is in my top 5 favorite days of the liturgical year. Sure, it doesn’t rate a day off from work or school. There are cards for Christmas, and cards for Easter, but just try to find and the “Ash Wednesday” section of the Hallmark store.
Even though ashes remind us of the shortness of our earthly life, today is not a morose, depressing day of darkness. Among other things, ashes are a sign of cleansing and renewal. In ancient times, as crazy as it seems, ashes were used to clean things when soap was unavailable. On this Ash Wednesday, we ask God to cleanse us from our sins. We come to ask God for mercy, and to wash us through and through. We acknowledge our sin so that we may turn from it and turn toward God.
Martin Luther said that sin is more than immorality. Luther defines sin as being curved in on ourselves without a thought for God or our neighbor. Sin is missing the mark. It’s all the things we do to stuff that hole inside of us with something other than God, and all the ways that we put ourselves in the place of God. It can be that feeling of superiority when we are helping others. It can be alcoholism or passive aggression. It can be our judgment of others, whether we say it out loud or not. Sin is that which stands in the way of living a in a whole-hearted relationship with God.
To recognize sin in our lives, writes Barbara Brown Taylor, is: To measure the full distance between where we are and where God created us to be—to suffer that distance, to name it, to decide not to live quietly with it any long—that is the moment when we know we are dead and begin to decide who we will be tomorrow.
The season of Lent helps us with this process by encouraging us to look at our lives to discover what it is that gets in the way of our relationship with God, from whom all our other relationships flow. It’s a time to examine our practices that bring us to love God and to live in ways of truth and justice. The Lenten season is a time not only to review what we do, but also why we do it and assess if it is achieving what we want. Our readings tonight address this.
Isaiah speaks to a community returning to their land after a period of exile in Babylon. Now under the rule of a newly empowered Persian Empire, they are vulnerable and disoriented. It’s time for restoration, and Isaiah’s concern is for rebuilding lives with God as the foundation. The people think that they have been seeking God, but they have been chasing other things. Isaiah tells them that their practices such as fasting are ineffectual because their purpose is to cloak lives that are selfish, unjust and violent. Similarly, Jesus speaks to his community, telling them not to do things for show. There is often a stark difference between the appearance of faith and its reality, between idolatry disguised as religion and the charitable faith-fullness that comes from a radical reliance on God.
This Lenten season is our opportunity to, with God’s help, remove those things that stand in the way of living a whole-hearted relationship with God. Our Lenten practices should help to do that. If you have looked at the church’s FaceBook page, you will see there is an article suggesting things to give up for Lent, such as guilt. Giving up guilt will help you accept God’s forgiveness. If you give up a spirit of poverty, you will live out of God’s abundance. Giving up gossip and negativity will help you to treat others as God would have us do. Spending intentional prayer time will draw you closer to God. Giving up chocolate for Lent… uuummm…. I fail to see how that will benefit us in any way. Especially dark chocolate. Tonight begins our opportunity to develop practices that lead to life, practices that may become a life, not simply a six-week ritual.
This is why I love Ash Wednesday. To engage in Lenten practices, and to receive the cross made with ashes on our forehead is a confession of hope - hope that the way things are is not they way they will always be.
When we were baptized, a cross was marked on our foreheads with oil. The ash cross is placed on top of the cross that was made on our foreheads when we were baptized. Which means that the promise of new life underlies this symbol of death. We are marked with the cross of Christ. It is a reminder that God claims us. Ash Wednesday makes visible God’s gracious giving of second and third and fourth…however many chances we need, to turn towards God again. There should be a card for that.
 Speaking of Sin. Barbara Brown Taylor. 62
Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9 Transfiguration Sunday March 2, 2014
The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again.”
I don’t think I’ve ever noticed how much waiting there is in this story! “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there,” God says to Moses. Moses says to the leaders of the people, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days – and for those six days, Moses waited. Then, for God to do what God is going to do, it takes forty days and forty nights!
Would all this waiting drive you crazy? But here’s the thing: when there has been a “hinge” in your life, when you’re feeling a sense of disquiet, a restlessness, a sense that something important is in the process of happening, have you ever been able to perceive immediately what God is up to? In my experience, I have to wait. I have to watch. I have to listen for God in my prayer and in my conversations with others who are my spiritual guides. (God uses several of you in this room, regularly, to offer me spiritual guidance, whether you know that or not!) Don’t you find that this waiting and watching and listening is necessary for your own faith formation and transformation? What is God up to?
Does anyone find this to be easy? Because most of us do not enjoy waiting, many of us are not used to waiting in God’s presence; waiting in openness to what God is going to do; listening, paying attention to what God is doing. And so it is difficult for many of us to get into the mystical passages we read this morning, from Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, and the gospel of Matthew in the New Testament.
We call today the Sunday of the Transfiguration, because, on the mountain top, Jesus’ appearance is “transfigured” in the sight of his three closest followers: Peter and James and John. Do you notice how that story in Matthew recalls the story of God and Moses in Exodus? Both take place on a mountain. In Exodus, once he climbs the mountain, Moses has to wait “for six days.” In Matthew, this story takes place “six days later” – six days after Peter’s confession of Jesus to be the Christ, and then Jesus’ rebuke of Peter because Peter doesn’t understand what he has said. At the climax of both stories, a cloud covers or overshadows the mountain and, in the cloud, somehow, there is God! The cloud conceals and reveals God. There is mystery and there is mercy in this.
In the story in Matthew, the holiness of God is terrifying! There’s the cloud. There’s the voice. Peter and James and John fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But God touches us with mercy, in the physical flesh and blood of Jesus the Christ: But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Moses is in both stories! In Exodus, Moses is the one who receives the holy law from God, the Torah. More than a bunch of laws specifying how to live, Torah is a way of life, even today, for Jews who have been formed in faith. Moses is in the story in Matthew. Elijah is there, too – Elijah, the great prophet who had never died, and whose return (some thought) would signal the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. So, now, with all of that, what do we read in the last verse of this morning’s gospel passage? And when [Peter, James and John] looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. Moses and Elijah are gone! You mean Jesus is greater than even Moses and Elijah?!
How does this vision of Jesus’ transfiguration work faith formation in the lives of Peter and James and John? How does it work transformation?
What about for you and me?
If you have the privilege of traveling to the Holy Land, and you enter into the region of Galilee, in the north of Israel, chances are a tour guide will point out “the Mount of Transfiguration.” (When I was there, the leader of the trip, a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, said, “That is the traditional Mount of Transfiguration.” Whenever he used the word, “traditional,” he meant, “the location where there is no historical basis, but it would be nice to think that it happened there.”)
I wonder: does it make any difference at all to know where something like the Transfiguration actually happened? What difference would the Transfiguration even make, if it was only a one-time event that can be limited to a particular place and time; something that once happened to a guy named Jesus who lived once upon a time? Instead, the transfigured (and resurrected!) Christ lives! Indeed, we are the body of the risen Christ! The Transfiguration of Jesus means nothing if it does not lead to our transformation as followers of the risen Christ.
Jesus takes Peter and Andrew and John up a high mountain. And we read this: Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah. [S]uddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice that said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
“Listen to him.” Listen to Jesus. Listen to the risen Christ.
How does faith formation happen? Transformation? Doesn’t it happen as we “listen to him?” As we listen to Jesus. As we listen to the risen Christ.
That is the reason why we gather – for worship and for study and for prayer. It is to “listen to him.” It is the risen Christ who is speaking – his Word that is spoken through the words of preaching and teaching, and in the words of our conversations as members of the body of the risen Christ. It is the risen Christ we proclaim in the words we speak of law (describing the judgment that we feel acutely, every day, whenever we feel like we haven’t measured up); and also the words of gospel that we offer to each other, those words of grace and forgiveness that allow us to experience salvation, now! That Word of law and gospel, of judgment and grace, is spoken aloud (proclaimed) and studied and prayed among us. When we “listen to him” in this Word, God the Holy Spirit creates faith within and among us. We experience our salvation that God has accomplished in Christ! We experience faith formation, transformation! And then, doesn’t the Holy Spirit move us to respond? This is “the obedience [that] the word invites….‘Listen to him’ means ‘obey him.’”
We listen as members of the body of Christ. We listen in community with others who are following on the way of the risen Christ. The Word is addressed to the community of those who are on the journey of faith, whose faith is being formed. Dale Bruner writes this: “We need the company of the church to hear aright. We need fellow Christians. There is no dependable listening to him that is not at the same time listening with them.” “Then we obey him – deep listening – by faithful work and service in our callings at work, home, and in the community where we have been placed and with the gifts that have been placed within us….‘Listen to him’ starts in the church and ends in the world. ‘Wherever the church exists, its members are both gathered in corporate life and dispersed in society for the sake of mission in the world….The church disperses to serve God wherever its members are, at work, or play, in private or in the life of society.’”
This is faith formation. It is not just learning stuff about Jesus. It is living in the way of Jesus. Whenever we listen to the risen Christ – during Sunday morning faith formation, or Monday night faith formation, or the faith formation that takes place among those crocheting prayer quilts on Friday afternoons – we are transformed. And all of this shows up in how we act and how we speak: with grace, with salvation. We are the body of the risen Christ , alive in the world!
In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Andy Ballentine
 2 Kings 2:11
 Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary Vol.2 – The Churchbook, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), page 176.
 Ibid., page 177. (Here Bruner quotes from the Presbyterian Confession of 1967.)
Matthew 5:38-48 Epiphany 7 February 23, 2014
I’ve been checking in with the Olympics in Sochi. Canada beat the United States in men’s ice hockey. [I heard the loser has to keep Justin Bieber.] American Maddie Bouman won the gold for the half-pipe ski competition. The first in history to achieve perfect scores in the Olympics was gymnast Nadia Commaneci in 1976, and she set the record with 7. This year, Russia celebrated their gold medal earned with their perfect score in the team figure skating event. Thousands of athletes work a lifetime to be perfect, and few of them attain it.
What is perfect? You might think that having a 4.0 grade point average is perfect. Yet it has been said that the average student admitted to William and Mary has a grade point average exceeding 4.1. The pressure doesn’t abate once you get into college. In order to enter into a successful career path, you must maintain an above average GPA, get the best internship, be admitted to a top level school for graduate work.
Work brings with it the desire to be the most innovative, dedicated and hardest worker. Ten-hour days, and even more time put in when you count time networking, coming into work when you are sick are all attempts to be the best we can be at our job. For some, our current economy intensifies our need to be perfect for fear of losing our jobs.
We try to be the perfect son or daughter, even as adults. We struggle to be the ideal partner, looking to satisfy the needs of our other half. Parents strive to be the perfect mom or dad, with themed birthday parties, the best education beginning with pre-school, soccer teams and piano lessons, and all of it photographed and scrapbooked. Research shows that pressure to be flawless leads to some level of depression in 60% of parents.
Our need to be perfect has been cultivated throughout our lives. While others may give us slack, we are hardest on ourselves. Let me tell you about the stress of needing to write the perfect sermon! You all have been most gracious to me, but on this, my 21st day at St. Stephen, I chastise myself for not knowing everyone’s name, and not scheduling more visits. Pastor, mother, sister, wife, friend, and dog owner – all of these are roles in which I give my best, and yet am keenly aware that I can do more. And then I hear Jesus say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Really, Jesus?! Not even Pastor Ballentine, who confessed from the pulpit last week to being an impatient and sometimes angry driver, is perfect! Just what is it that Jesus expects of us?
Jesus tells us what he expects of us. He says if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, let that person have access to your left one, too. If anyone sues you for your coat, give all of your clothes. Go further than expected with others, and don’t refuse anyone who begs. Give without thought of gain or return. Even if we can manage to do all that, Jesus goes further, commanding that we love our enemies. To love your enemies does not mean that you let them abuse you; rather, it means that you invite them to join in something greater, something more wonderful, something that is of God.
How foreign this is to a culture that calls revenge sweet and says “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Jesus reminds us that we are children of God, who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good. Those neighbors you haven’t talked to in years? God sends rain to water their lawn the same as God does yours. God treats everyone the same, and Jesus says so should we.
I think it would be easier to be a perfect wife than a perfect Christian. Surely, Jesus was exaggerating. Or maybe he means we should do what we can, and not worry about the rest. Maybe we can explain this away by noting that Jesus’ purpose in this speech was to empower the marginalized, and so don’t apply to us. But the problem with all of these is that they minimize Jesus’ teachings.
Overall in the Gospel of Matthew, and in the Sermon on the Mount in particular, Jesus means exactly what he says. Following Jesus is not merely an obligation. It is the goal of discipleship. “Jesus is outlining his vision of God’s kingdom and issuing a summons to those who desire to be a part of it.” He is speaking to the community. He is speaking to we who are gathered here today. He wants us to be a part of the Christian community that reveals love to the world and even changes the hearts of those oppressors.
Scholars are quick to point out that the Greek word that is translated as “perfect” is better translated as “perfectly mature.” “It isn’t about doing everything right, or being morally perfect, but something that has grown up, matured and now reached its perfect end. It is the goal or desired outcome…. A fruit tree’s [perfection]…is to grow mature and tall so that it can bear fruit,” one commentator explains.
This process of growing into our perfect discipleship is called sanctification. It is the process of living into our baptismal vows. Although Lutheran’s don’t speak much about it, we become sanctified through the freedom of God’s grace that empowers us to move from ourselves towards the other. You could say it is coming to grips with living out our new identity we have in and through Christ.
It isn’t easy to be a disciple. Hearing Jesus’ command, we think about the driver we cursed, retribution we plotted, the angry words we spoke, and our ego that we fiercely protect. But in the midst of our doubts, still Jesus bids us. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” While we seriously question how we are going to be the people God commands us to be, we somehow miss or dismiss that contained in this mandate is the reminder that our God is perfect. It is God’s perfection that makes our imperfection perfect. It is God’s perfection that makes our enemies and us worthy of love, dignity and respect. We are redeemed by God’s perfect love.
~ Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin
We Cannot even Begin to Understand these Teachings Unless We are Part of the Baptized Community of Sinners and Saints.
Matthew 5:21-37 Epiphany 6 February 16, 2014
On many occasions I’ve been at a red light behind a doofus who’s been staring down into the screen of a hand-held device. On two of those occasions, the light has turned green, the fool in front of me hasn’t noticed until it was turning yellow, and s/he accelerated quickly through the intersection to get through just in time, and I had to sit there for another light cycle. I have resolved on a course of action for the future. From now on, when a light turns green, I’m going to count to three and then I’m going to lean on the horn. (I apologize in advance for this decrease of civility.)
Now I read from this morning’s gospel passage. Jesus said to those listening to him: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But 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.” Hmmm … Looks like I have to reconsider my proposed course of action when I’m behind some doofus at a red light …
Do you recognize this section from the gospel of Matthew? We are into what’s called “the Sermon on the Mount” – chapters five through seven in Matthew. It’s a collection of Jesus’ sayings and teachings that the gospel writer of Matthew has grouped together, expressing God’s desires for how followers of Jesus are to act: that we are to spice things up, just like salt does (“You are the salt of the earth.”); that we are to invite others to Christ, just as a light illumines a path in the darkness (“You are the light of the world.”). Now we’re into Jesus’ teachings of how we are to treat other people, because we are followers of Jesus way and truth and light.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But 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.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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.”
Are these difficult teachings? Well, yes! Indeed, they need a great deal of interpretation. For instance, anger is a gift from God when we’re talking about a woman who’s being beaten up by the man she’s living with. And attention needs to be given to what adultery means. In the cultures that produced the Bible, adultery was a property offense by one man against another man. There is a great deal of possibility for Bible study here!
So, perhaps there is a more important question to ask. Are these teachings even possible for us to perform?
I declare this to be true: We cannot even begin to understand these teachings unless we are part of the baptized community of sinners and saints.
Have you heard that phrase: “sinners and saints”? It is a phrase from Luther, who wrote that we are simultaneously sinners and saints. Lutheran theology is that we cannot save ourselves. We are sinners. However – we have all been made to be saints, by God, through Jesus’ death and resurrection from the dead. In that way, we have been given salvation. However, we are still, at the same time, all the time, sinners. Both are true. We are sinners. And we are saints.
This unique Lutheran emphasis is of crucial importance, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it means that, as Lutherans, we know we cannot be judgmental – because we are all, each one of us, sinners! “We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
Since we are in the Sermon on the Mount, it is important to remember that the first and foundational teaching in this entire section of Matthew is this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are you and me who are “poor in spirit” – we who know that we fall short of what God desires in our actions (that we are sinners!); we who know that we are lacking in faith and that we do not have the ability to please God because we are captive to sin! It is only when we are rooted in that humility that we even begin to understand the rest of the teachings of Jesus in this section of Matthew.
You know what happens when that humility is absent, right? When humility is absent, judgmental “good Christians” use these teachings to beat others over the head. (Some of you might have been hurt like that in a judgmental church. Most who have been hurt like that don’t want anything else to do with church!) But let’s ask the question from a Lutheran perspective. What if we proceed as members of the community of sinners and saints? What if we approach these teachings, remembering that we have been rescued from death only through our baptisms, and so we need to practice the confession of our sins, and so we need to take to heart God’s words of forgiveness? What if we approach these teachings, practicing together a daily dying to our sinful selves so that the “new person [can] come forth and rise up to live before God” in each one of us? Then, I think, we can dare to read on in this dangerous section of the gospel of Matthew!
We are sinners, it is true. But here is something else that is true. We are called to obey the teachings of Jesus that we are reading today! We cannot resort to “cheap grace,” to say that, since we are saved through our baptisms, and these teachings are too hard for us anyway, that we can just ignore them.
We cannot even begin to understand these teachings unless we are part of the baptized community of sinners and saints, open to how the Spirit is moving, forming each other in faith and practice, beginning with humility. Otherwise, what sense does it make to pray for the discipline to not even become angry with a brother or a sister? Or not even to look with admiration at an attractive person? Or to remain faithful to one’s spouse? Isn’t it much easier just to go with the values of our culture: self-centered anger and engaging in self-centered pleasure that exploits and objectifies the person we find to be handsome or beautiful? It is only when we are part of the baptized community of sinners and saints, under the lordship of Jesus the Christ, responding to his call, holding each other accountable, that we can even see the value in seeking reconciliation with someone we’ve alienated through our anger, or putting all of our sexual energies into our relationship with our marriage partners.
We are called to obey Jesus. We are called to honor each other as members of the body of Christ. We are called to protect each other as members of the body of Christ. Do you know that our chief action as missionaries to those outside the church is how we treat each other? When others see that, they may be open to our invitations into this strange community where people treat each other so well!
But, over and over again, don’t we all fall short? Worse than getting angry (which is unavoidable) is the way we hurt others by saying and doing something out of that anger. (I have done that. How about you?) Worse than the lustful glance (which is unavoidable) is the stare that dehumanizes another person. Lust and anger are both rooted in self-centeredness, rather than God-centeredness. How often I am self-centered. (How about you?) My sins condemn me. (Do you know that about yourselves, too?)
In this community of sinners and saints, we remind each other that we have been rescued from death only because we have been baptized. We remind each other that we are called to return to our baptisms each day. We practice together a daily dying to our sinful selves, in that way receiving the joy of our salvation, our transformation! The significance of baptism, according to Luther, is “that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” We remind each other to practice the confession of our sins, and to take to heart God’s words of forgiveness, and to do the work of reconciliation with those we’ve hurt.
Joy comes from all of this! God the Holy Spirit works transformation! Joy comes from obeying the call of Jesus our Lord, practicing the faith with the help of others in this community of sinners and saints, along the journey of faith.
In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Andy Ballentine
 To quote words we said a few minutes earlier, in the liturgy for Confession and Forgiveness in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
 To quote Luther in the Small Catechism.
 See Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book, Discipleship.
(If you would like a copy of an earlier sermon, e-mail Pastor Ballentine or Pastor Griffin and s/he’ll send you a copy!)