Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 16, 2020 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Deuteronomy 30:15-20+Psalm 119:1-8+I Corinthians 3:1-9+Matthew 5:21-37

If you came to church today looking to have yourself affirmed, you’ve come to the wrong place.

If you came here this morning seeking a soothing message about God loving you no matter what, you’re going to be seriously disappointed.

If you came to church expecting to be able to leave here and carry on as you were with God’s blessings, I have bad news for you.

Today’s gospel is hard. It doesn’t sound much like Good News. It actually sounds a little ridiculous. Tear out an eye? Cut off a hand? Jesus has to be joking. Doesn’t he?

Let’s remember where we are in Matthew’s gospel. This is still the Sermon on the Mount. Whereas in Luke, Jesus’s inaugural address took place in the synagogue, here it happens on a mountainside. He’s just called his disciples and done some healing and teaching around Galilee, and then he takes his disciples up a hillside, gathers them around, and gives them their marching orders.

He calls them blessed.

He tells them to be salt and light.

And then he goes back to Jewish law and amplifies it. Last week, he told us that he did not come to abolish the law. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. And just obeying the letter of the law, he is saying, is not sufficient. There is a spirit behind the law, and that’s the standard he is talking about. He’s telling them what their little community will be like, setting up the norms, because he knows that what lies ahead will be difficult, and they’re going to need to know who and whose they are and what that means for them.

On Thursday this week, the Church commemorated Blessed Absalom Jones, who died 202 years ago in Philadelphia. Born into slavery in 1746 in Delaware, Jones was to become the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church in 1802. He and Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church had both attended St. George’s Methodist Church, a congregation that welcomed all races and in which Allen and Jones were licensed to preach. Their preaching brought in many more blacks, and when a gallery was completed in the late 1780’s, Jones and his companions, kneeling in prayer, were asked to move upstairs. They moved, but it was not upstairs. It was out the door, never to return.

In 1787, Jones and Allen founded the Free African Society to serve the free blacks in the city and newly freed African Americans arriving from the South. The Free African Society membership was by subscription, the payment of dues, and those dues, according to its charter, were for the care of the needy and widows. There was a severe yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793, and believing that people of color were somehow immune, local physician Benjamin Rush prevailed upon the Society to nurse the sick and remove the dead. More than 5,000 Philadelphians, out of a population of 50,000, died.

Having left St. George’s Church, Jones began holding services among the Free African Society and petitioned the Episcopal Diocese for a charter to start a new Episcopal Church. Thus, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, still a thriving parish in Philadelphia, was born. Throughout his life, Absalom Jones advocated for the needy, promoted education for African Americans, and lobbied against the Fugitive Slave Act and slavery itself.

I tell you all of this because Absalom Jones, as I told the Evening Prayer gathering on Wednesday, is a hero of mine. He bought his wife’s freedom so that their children could be free even as his owner refused to let him buy his own freedom. It took him seven years to be ordained a priest after his ordination as a deacon. Given that most people are priested within six months today, that seems a long time for him to be kept waiting. Everything from the Free African Society to the founding of St. Thomas was about the community that surrounded him. I’m sure he had his moments of selfishness and making it all about himself – don’t we all? – but the arc of his life and ministry were about creating a community of cooperation and service to others when that community would be under threat and hardship as free African Americans at the turn of the 19th century.

At the outset of his ministry, Jesus is trying to form strong bonds of community with his closest followers because he knows just how hard it’s going to be. They are going to be reviled and persecuted. They are going to be traipsing around Palestine together getting on each other’s nerves. Living in community is hard. It’s also life-giving and lifesaving.

When you go out these doors each week, the world that awaits you may be great right now or it might be filled with challenges, but at some point, what’s out there is going to threaten to undo you. And that’s why you need a community where you are loved and safe, where reconciliation is the norm, and where we are all held accountable to love one another as Jesus has loved us.

This is really what Jesus is talking about today. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that our thoughts and actions have no consequences to those around us. To call someone a name, to lash out in anger, cause a rift in relationship. To commit adultery destroys relationships. Jimmy Carter was famously, or infamously, ridiculed for saying he had lusted in his heart in a Playboy interview back in 1976. People were shocked a) that this squeaky clean Southern Baptist would admit to such a thing or b) that anyone would think there was anything wrong with that. But if we are lusting after someone, especially someone committed to someone else, we are in the business of destroying relationships. And Jesus is not here for that.

There may not be much that we can, in this moment, do in here about the conflicts and difficulties you face out there, but each week after hearing the forgiveness of our sins, we share the Peace with our neighbors. This is in response to Jesus’s instruction

when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

This is the hard part. You cannot come to this table, you cannot offer the fruit of your life and labor and your very self to God, if you are in conflict with your neighbor. And note that Jesus doesn’t say that you have an issue with someone. He says if someone has something against you. Yes, that’s right folks, whether you did something wrong or not, it’s up to you to make peace with the one who is offended. And that is hard. I will use every self-justifying excuse I can muster to put myself in the right, but Jesus is saying that it doesn’t matter whether I did something wrong or not. It’s still my responsibility to fix it. To seek reconciliation.

I hasten to add that Jesus would never wish for someone to take responsibility for abuse or violence against them that is caused by an aggressor or perpetrator. That’s not what he is saying. What he’s saying is that it is in our nature to blame, to deflect culpability for things we’ve done to hurt others, and the jig is up.

You see, Jesus is all about relationship and community and keeping that community together and healthy. Everything we do is supposed to build that community, not tear it down.

Absalom Jones knew, like Jesus did, that the road ahead would be difficult, and his people needed to know who and whose they were. We need to know that, too, because the world will also revile us and persecute us for standing on the side of love, the side of Gospel, the side of reconciliation. We come here each week to be reminded of who and whose we are.

So maybe there is Good News here, because the world can be a hard place. Right here is where we learn how to counteract that, to build community, so that when we go into the world to work or serve or be with our friends and families, we know what, in God’s reign, that ought to look like. And maybe we can do our part to make it so.

ASEPSermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 16, 2020 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas