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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Epiphany 6, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
February 16, 2014

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37

‘But I say to you…’

Historian Jack Oruch has made the case that the traditions associated with Valentine’s Day, documented in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules (Birds) and set in the fictional context of an old tradition, had no such tradition before Chaucer (14th century). He argues that the explanation of sentimental customs, posing as historical fact, had their origins among 18th-century antiquaries. In short, there is very little on which to base a romantic tradition for Valentine, patron saint of lovers. There was (at least) one early Christian called Valentine, however, a bishop who aided imprisoned Christians and was executed for acts of solidarity, and a feast day established by Pope Gelasius I in 500 CE. The message of the martyred Valentine is “love one another” – not with a love that depends on chemistry, feelings or mood – nor even with a love that depends on the behaviour of others, but love one another with the kind of love that Jesus refers to in the Sermon on the Mount. God be with you ...

This is the love that goes beyond mere adherence to the letter of the law, and enters into the Spirit of Torah – what God wants for us – the blessed love that enters into feeding others, into healing others, into showing grace to others, into giving peace to others, the love that values others, regardless of who they are or what they have or have not done.

The words of Jesus we hear today are addressed to a people (now as then) prone to equivocating, prone to compromising – to altering love’s demands so that those demands might be easier to fulfill.

“You have heard it was said you shall not murder – but I say to you that if you are angry with your brother or sister – you will be liable to judgement.”

“You have heard that it was said, you shall not commit adultery, but I tell you that everyone who looks with lust at another has already committed adultery …”

And in a later verse: “You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbours, but I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you ...”

What Jesus does is crystallise the issues involved in loving God and others so that we can know where we stand, and know our true capacities for life. We are invited/urged to think about where we stand. We are invited/urged to think about how we love others.

If I haven’t killed someone, whom have I called a fool? What emotion did I pour out upon another when I became angry? What lies at the heart of my aggressive or destructive behaviour? Is it anger or something else? Fear? Pain? Insecurity? Superiority?

If I haven’t committed adultery as such (historically, the offence of a man against a married man), and felt righteous about this, I might consider what I have wanted to do. I might consider all the ways I have objectified others – sought to possess or manipulate them, or limit their infinite worth according to my own prejudices or preferences.

Or I might consider who holds a grudge against me because of something I have done, something for which I have not apologised?

Or again, what promises and vows have I broken – and then justified my breaking them?

I remember a lecture a few years back by Professor Gary Trompf (History of Ideas, Sydney University), arguing that the idea of loving one’s enemies had barely made an impact on human consciousness.

We greet those who greet us. We do good to those who do good to us. We lend to those who will pay back. We welcome those who welcome us. As for everyone else, well, if asked, most of us have a reason for what we do, and an excuse for what we do not do.

What we aim for as peacemakers, as Christians, Professor Trompf argued, is to break through the limitations of our excuses. We aim to destroy all reasons that we might offer to treat one person as less than another and to enter into relationships with each other that are based upon equality before God.

Another mountain sermon. An old pilgrim was making his way to the Himalayan Mountains in the bitter cold of winter when it began to rain. An inn keeper said to him, “How will you ever get there in this kind of weather?” The old man answered cheerfully, “My heart got there first, so it’s easy for the rest of me to follow.”

The gospel teaches that we can meet the demands of love expressed in Torah in one way – and only in one way – if our hearts go/get there first. Today's reading from the heart of the Sermon on the Mount concerns the heart. The heart enchanted, converted by God – again and again. Jesus gives illustrations of Torah fulfilled, of the heart open to creativity and conversion, discernment and wisdom. The "antitheses" and examples do not aim to be exhaustive (we may even take issue with certain points) so much as to inspire and sustain the heart. The Sermon on the Mount "enshrines a way of life open to reinterpretation and reapplication in the light of a living tradition, under the guidance of the risen Lord" (Brendan Byrne).

Let your hearts go. Love God and love each other as deeply as you can. When you do, you will find that no matter how many mistakes you make on the way, goodness and blessedness will blossom along your path.

We have, on the altar-table, a winding path and flowers to symbolise goodness and blessedness. The invitation is, as always, to do with love: When have you received a “deeper” or “other” truth in conversation with a “teacher”?

Before a time of silence – and then our completing the homily together – I’d like to conclude with this short quote from John Caputo. It underlines the words of Jesus: “But I say to you”. The “but” not so much a contradiction as an affirmation of the law of love, a fulfilment of Torah. Can we hear it also as an affirmation of goodness in creation and in different human cultures?

“The Scriptures ... do not relieve us of the responsibility of thinking for ourselves … or of rethinking ancient traditions, for the ultimate tradition that is handed down to us is not any particular creed, practice, or institutional structure, but the event of love that was astir in Jesus and then is handed on to the church. [A] genuine tradition is not constituted by any position or positivity but by a deeper affirmation. The task is not to reproduce literally what Jesus said and did ... but to repeat the love with which he said and did them, on the bet that those are the practices in which he would recognize himself today.”

When have you received a “deeper” or “other” truth in conversation with a “teacher”? ... Amen.

Draws on reflection by Richard Fairchild.