Homilies with Pastor Wanda: Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

This will be our 3rd week of studying the Sermon on the Mount.

Although it sounds like Jesus is creating a get-tough policy. “If you thought the 10 commandments were tough, wait to you hear this.” Jesus was really attacking a kind of loophole theology. He was addressing a situation where some religious folks used the letter of the law for their own purposes, with no regard for anyone else. The response to God’s laws had become distorted. Instead of care for each other, reach out to those around you, do what is right, love each other…the  point of the laws had become watch out for number one,  don’t take responsibility, take advantage of others.  They were looking for the loopholes and had lost the meaning, the whole point of the laws.

Gamers call them glitches. A glitch is a loophole, an unintended system flaw that a gamer can exploit to their advantage. When my kids started talking about the glitches they had found, I was clueless. What do you mean you found a glitch? Well, in SSX Tricky for example, a snowboarding game, you can go over a mountain & fall off the map!

The goal for a game designer is to create a game where there are no loopholes, but this is actually no easy task. Game-testers will play a game over and over before a game is released, searching for the loopholes. But in most digital games, the possibilities are so endless that no tester can find them all, so some gamers focus all their attention on finding the flaws. To these gamers, the challenge of finding the flaws is irresistible. It becomes a game in itself where the sport is to find the glitches and post them so that others can find them.    

I think our tax system has become just that same kind of game. Find the loophole. You can google loophole and find site after site for finding the loopholes. Loopholes for the rich, loopholes for the famous, loopholes for anyone looking!

In the beginning, tax was something everybody tried to avoid. The government was trying through various laws to tax everybody fairly. Some people simply broke the law and they were punished accordingly. Others got smart and found loopholes. When the loopholes were over-exploited, the laws were changed to overcome the loopholes. The game for the taxpayer became “to find a loophole” and the game for the government was to “close the loophole” with more taxation laws. There you have it, it’s like a Tom and Jerry cartoon – we are playing cat and mouse.

One summer a speaker at the Chautauqua institution where we often go for vacation, told about a investigative reporter from Philadelphia inquirer…His subject was How Congress Operates and he told about one loophole he had discovered that was designed to give a tax break for one specific company…The law read that all companies are subject of the new tax regulation with the exception of companies created between a certain day between 12 am to 12:01 am. Really?!

Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, which was to establish health and wholeness among God’s people. Take the Ten Commandments, for instance: the first table is about our relationship with God and the second with our relationships with each other. The whole law is actually a way of pointing us towards honoring others. But somehow we forget that, and so get caught up in keeping the law for the law’s sake for our advantage and not others.  

You know you shouldn’t kill, but you think nothing of how you express your anger.  You insult one another, demean your brother, belittle your sister but you say, “I haven’t killed anyone, I’m blameless before the law.” So Jesus says that insulting, hurting, using or ignoring your neighbor is just the beginning of killing him. 

In order to fully obey the Ten Commandments, the Pharisees came up with very specific rules to apply the Ten Commandments to every situation in life. In fact there was a group of Pharisees, known as Scribes, who spent their lives studying the Ten Commandments and applying them to every situation in life so the Pharisees could carry out the Commandments and please God. The Scribes compiled a very thick book, known as the Mishnah, that still exists today, that tells how to apply the Ten Commandments to life. For example, there are twenty-four chapters on not working on the Sabbath. Then they have another book, known as the Talmud, which is made up of commentaries on the Mishnah. There are one hundred fifty-six pages in the Talmud on keeping the Sabbath.

Knot tying was considered to be work, so a sailor could not tie a knot on the Sabbath, and a farmer could not tie up an animal on the Sabbath. But if tying a knot would somehow save a life, one could tie a knot. There were loopholes. It was permissible to tie a knot with one hand, and a woman could tie a knot to fasten a sash or scarf as a part of her clothing. One could not tie a rope to a bucket to draw water from a well on the Sabbath, but a person could tie a rope to a woman’s sash, and then tie the sash to a bucket to draw water from a well.

It’s true isn’t it? When we see a rule, we think exception. When we make a commitment, we think escape clause. When we think law, we think loopholes. When it comes to our faith, our human nature wants to reduce it to a set of rules and laws, effectively segregating our lives: our daily life separated from our spiritual life. That just doesn’t work.

Jesus calls us to keep our word, to love our spouse, to care for our neighbor.  As we struggle to do these, to follow the law to love, he continues to love and forgive us. Listen to his words, You have heard it said…but I say to you…love one another, as I have first loved you. 

On this day before St. Valentine’s Day, what a fitting word for us. Love each other – not with the kind of love that depends on chemistry, moods and romantic feelings – not even with the kind of love that depends on the way the other person behaves, but with the kind of love that Jesus refers, the love that enters into feeding others, into healing others, into showing grace to others, into giving peace to others, the love that value others, regardless of who or what they have or what they have not done.

Someone once caught W. C. Fields reading the Bible. “What are you doing?” asked the person.

“Looking for loopholes!” growled Fields.

The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to people used to compromising – to altering love’s demands as they are found in the Law of God so that those demands would be easier to fulfill.

There are no loopholes to be found in Jesus’ words. No compromises. No deals. No escape hatches.

Law understood primarily in legal terms, ends up being a moral self-justifying check list:

No murder today, check! No adultery, check! Jesus wants more from us. Actually, Jesus wants more for us. He wants us to regard each other as God regards us and thereby to treat each other accordingly.

Where do we stand here at St. Luke – where do you stand? Think about how you love others and ask yourself if your love is up to the standards set by Jesus…

…If you haven’t killed someone – whom have you called a fool or an idiot? What kind of emotion did you pour all over him or her when you got angry with them? You can pat ourselves on the back for not your words–we even call it “stabbing someone in the back.”

…If you haven’t committed adultery – and felt good about this – consider what you maybe wanted to do…..

…Or think about who could hold a grudge against you because of something you did – something for which you have not apologized?

…Or again – what promises and vows have you broken and then justified?

We greet those who greet us. We do good to those who do good to us. We lend to those who will pay us 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 do we need to aim for? Forget about excuses – they are only that. We are all equal in God’s.

David Lose reminds us that “there is, of course, a legal dimension to the law – it is what holds us accountable for our actions toward each other. But that is a by-product of the law, not its essential character. Law is given to guide us in the way God would have us honor, respect, and care for each other. If you want to play the legal angle of the law, you can and all-too-often do. You do so, however, at your peril, because before long your only resort is to count, accuse, litigate, and punish and before you know it we are all cutting off our hands and  plucking out our eyes to avoid the weight and fate of the law. In the world of “an eye for an eye,” as Ghandi said, “all become blind.”
We live in a highly litigious and insecure world, where it is so much easier to accuse and blame than to dialogue, love, and support. But if it’s hard work we’ve been given, it’s also good work, kingdom work, God’s work.

An old pilgrim was making his way to the Himalayan Mountains in the bitter cold of winter when it began to rain.

An innkeeper said to him, “How will you ever get there in this kind of weather my good man?”

The old man answered cheerfully – “My heart got there first, so it’s easy for the rest of me to follow.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that we can meet all the demands of love that are expressed in the law in one way – and only in one way – we can do so if our hearts go there first. And your heart goes there when you follow & serve the one who loves & forgives you – every minute of every day. 

Amen.

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