Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The Church makes many claims about God – about who God is, and what God does, and what God is like. And the biggest of all—the one that is at the core of all of our claims—is that God is love. We sing songs about the God of love. We pray to the God of love. We offer the gift of ourselves to the God of love. And then, this morning, which happens to be the Sunday of Valentine’s Day weekend, we hear these readings, most of which have to do not with love, but with the Law. And the tendency is, at least for me, to be taken aback, especially by the gospel reading, which contains phrases like, “if you call your brother or sister a fool, you will be liable to the hell of fire, and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Alright then.

And we’re supposed to believe that these are words from the God of love? We’re supposed to accept that these are the sentiments of the heart of God made flesh in Jesus? That just does not make much sense to me.

And you know, this is not one of those “Well-if-you-read-it-in-the- original- Greek-text-it-sounds-very-different” kind of texts. There just isn’t a way to get around this reading. It says what it says and that’s it. So, what do we do? Well, we need to go through it, get to the heart of it, and hopefully, a glimpse of the heart of God in it. So, here we go.

First of all, I think today’s gospel says a lot about what we would hear if we listened to our hearts and if we listened to God’s heart.

We know how joyful it is to listen to the sounds of the heart. We’ve all felt, even heard the sound of, our own hearts beating in excitement. Some of us have heard the heartbeat of a baby not yet born. Some of us know what it feels like to have a healthy or an unhealthy heart. But we also know the heart is more than just a vital organ. “Heart” also means the very core of our being.

We talk about the human heart as the seat of loving, the home of compassion, the source of tenderness and courage. That’s why we say things like, “Take heart.” It will be okay.

If you have had a change of heart, you have had a shift of perspective, a shift of plans, a significant change in your outlook.

Heart is also metaphorically the place where our memory resides: to know something by heart is to know it perfectly.

Heart is the place where our yearning and desire reside: to seek your heart’s desire is to pursue or search for diligently, to strive for something with all the perseverance you can muster.

So now, let’s listen to the songs of our hearts and of God’s heart in today’s gospel reading.

Jesus is sitting with his disciples, teaching them what it means to follow in the path that he would have them walk. What he is doing, in essence, is putting words to the love song of God’s heart.

We hear a section of the Sermon on the Mount, a section that began a little earlier in the gospel with these statements of Jesus, “I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” And “if your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” So, what follows in today’s reading are the illustrations and implications of those statements.

You see, Jesus came not to abolish the law, but apparently to make it tougher. He makes that clear by listing some big commandments: You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not swear falsely. And were that all, the disciples would say, “we’ve heard that before.” “We know that’s what God wants from us.” But then Jesus goes on to bring new relevancy to, and new understanding into, these commandments by explaining what they mean in their fullness – by, you might say, going to the “heart” of the matter.  

What Jesus is doing here is he is explaining what these laws will truly mean if we strive to love as God loves. Since the law tells us what is in God’s heart, the Law exposes God’s greatest desires for how we would live with one another. But the Law also exposes the difference between our hearts and God’s heart.

Unfortunately, our hearts betray us. God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we keep the commandment not to kill, we still have the capacity to hate and despise. We may not kill the body, but we are willing to kill our relationships, to treat others as if they are as good as dead.

God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep a commandment not to commit adultery, we still can be disrespectful of others by treating them as less than fully human. We can turn a blind eye to what we have in common as children of God, and in so doing, we can, and do, turn a blind eye to the holy in every person.

God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we are still willing to manipulate others with our words — to lead others astray by what we say, to let our yes mean no and our no mean yes.

And so, in God’s mercy, God gives us the law – the law that will not let our hearts fall short of loving as God would have us love. It is the law that would have us love in a way that respects the dignity of every human being. And it is the law that ultimately convicts us, because what it demands of us, we ultimately cannot do without God’s grace.

That’s why the importance of the law is that it shows us God’s love. It shows us God’s love by showing us our failing and our reliance on God’s grace.  Because without God’s grace, we are lost since as hard as we try, we will inevitably fall short of God’s hopes and dreams for us.

St. Augustine put it this way: “The law was given for this purpose: to make you, being great, little; to show that you do not have in yourself the strength to attain righteousness, and for you, thus helpless, unworthy, and destitute, to flee to grace.”

The grace of God is there, offered for us. We need only take it.

Ask yourself, does all this talk of law and our failing to keep it make you sad? Does it make you feel hopeless? Good, says John Donne in a sermon, because then it is a holy sadness, it is a holy hopelessness, because a sense of our shortcomings is “god’s key to the door of his mercy.” God’s heart is a treasure house of mercy to which our sense of failure is the key. Let me say that again, because it takes a bit for that to sink in. God’s heart is a treasure house of mercy to which our sense of failure is the key. At first reading, that can sound harsh. But let that sit in your heart and your soul for a while and I think you’ll discover the beauty of that statement.

Because discovering our inability to love as God loves is neither a cause for self-hatred nor for despair. It is, instead, a call back to God. It is a call into the arms of God. It is a beckoning into a relationship with a God who loves and strengthens us, and who sends us out to love and strengthen others; a God who calls us to love more fully and more perfectly, because although showing perfect love is impossible for us, nothing is impossible with God.

The sound of our hearts and the sound of God’s heart are different now. But, they are meant to beat and sing in unison. So God has given us the law so we can know more completely how to love, and when we fail – because we will fail – to be given the key to God’s heart—that is, the humility to know that we ultimately have to rely on God’s grace to show us what true love can be and is.

So, this Valentine’s Day weekend, take heart. Because our God is a God of love. In fact, God is love. And in that, we can be assured. Amen.