Reverend Philip Stringer Matthew 5:21-37
LET US PRAY: Enlighten our hearts, O God, through the hearing of your word and the meditations of our hearts, that we may be strengthened in faith and bear a bright witness to the world, through Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. Amen
Me— Crisis of purpose.
Mom— “I have no purpose.”
Empty nester— who am I if I am no longer parenting?
Retiree/laid off— how do I have value if I am no longer employed?
In the case of a divorce or upon the death of a spouse— Who am I without them.
At some time or other each of us has struggled with with finding purpose— times when we have questioned the direction of our lives. Perhaps times when we have struggled with a sense of self-worth. There are times when support structures we thought were strong have crumbled beneath us and we have felt lost.
Our scripture texts today are like a tether that anchors us to a truth at the foundation of our lives:
You do not need to find a purpose. Purpose is given to you by God. Your purpose— and OUR purpose is to glorify God. All that is left for you is to decide how you will do it. How will you glorify God?
You may look at the big picture if you like— but a simpler, more immediate question may be the better choice: How will you glorify God today, in this moment? That, really, is the only question with which we need to occupy ourselves.
You and I are created in the image of God. We are created in the image of Love. God creates out of love. God acts out of love. To be fully human as God intends is for our every thought, word and action to be rooted in love.
Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the exile of the Children of Israel ended. Believing that they would define themselves as a nation and derive value through religious practices, they set about constructing an elaborate system of rituals and rules that ultimately produced the religious hierarchy of Jesus’ day as seen in the scribes and Pharisees. People believed that actions and practices could make them holy. Value— stature in the eyes of God— could be earned through keeping oneself clean— and the best way to stay clean? Keep away from dirt. Dirty food. Dirty places, Dirty practices and above all— dirty people.
Jesus once told a story about this way of thinking, that depicted two men who went up to the Temple to pray. One was a man clearly “dirty” with sins and the other was a Pharisee. The Pharisee prayed, “I thank you, God, that I am not like this filthy sinner. Rather, I follow all of the rules and holy practices and stay away from people like that.”
And let’s be fair— it isn’t just the Pharisees, is it? It may not be strictly based on religion, but there are plenty of ways that degrees of value are assigned to people within our own time and culture. In our world, people are divided into categories— with varying degrees of access to resources— based on
Nationality and citizenship
Intelligence, and so forth.
To paraphrase George Orwell in his book, Animal Farm, “all (people) are equal, but some (people) are more equal than others.”
Returning to Isaiah and those early days of Israel’s return from exile, the prophet proclaimed that this was not the way of God.
God loves, and love acts. As an act of love God creates— God gathers together, establishes relationships and builds up. And one could say that the simplest definition of sin is that which divides and tears relationships and community apart. Sin divides what God intends to be together.
Isaiah, surrounded by a culture that was trying to define itself by separating itself from others— a people ascribing individual value based on perceived holiness— cried out, “No!” “Wrong!” Deciding who is in and who is out— and scratching and clawing oneself to the front of the line at the expense of others is not what pleases God and it is not what gives you value.
Isaiah, speaking the words of God, declares that what pleases God is when people work to heal what has been divided.
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free… to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.
When you see the naked…. cover them.
When you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
The Children of Israel had value, not because of what they did, but because of who they were: the Chosen Ones of God.
That is true for you and me, too.
Divided by the power of sin, we cannot hope to earn our way into heaven through religious adherence and by following the commandments. Indeed, if perfect living were the way into heaven, then nobody would get in.
Jesus pointed to the Pharisees who prided themselves on following the letter of the law and said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, forget it. Human strength and human will isn’t enough because the fulfillment of the law does not come from strictly following the rules; it comes from living a life of perfect love. And we do not love perfectly.
But Jesus does.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law,” he said, “… I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus does what we cannot do.
Jesus does for us what we cannot do ourselves.
We are the chosen ones of God. Because we receive forgiveness of sins through Jesus, we are free to do what we do out of the sheer joy of celebrating God’s love for us. When you and I live with faith in the power of God’s love to heal, then is when we truly shine as a light that reveals the glory of God.
You were created in love. You were redeemed in love. You were created in the image of God so that you, too, may express love.
Whatever you do, do it with love. That is your purpose.
What you do with your life is not nearly as important as why you do it. More directly, what you do in this moment— and each moment of your life— is not nearly as important as why you do it.
It is hard to drive the “pharisee” out of our hearts! We put so much weight on accomplishments—
Look at what she has accomplished— she built a business empire!
Look at what he has done— he has three PhDs!
Yeah— good for them— and “so what”— both at the same time!
Mission Jamaica— “we are wasting time”
It’s not the checklist of accomplishments that has piled up that matters in the end, so much as how it is that we accomplished what was done.
Mother Teresa— “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”
That’s great advise— because a lifetime, after all— is nothing more than a string of little moments.
When we listen to Johann Sebastian Bach we hear the work of a master composer.
When we see a sculpture by Michelangelo or a painting by Monet, we see the work of a master.
Jesus says to us: when people look at you living your life in response to God’s love, they will see the beauty of God.
It is hard, I know. We still struggle with a sinful nature. There are times we act selfishly. There are ways we do not love one another— some people, frankly, are hard to love!
And we live in a world filled with voices and systems that continually try to define us— or which hammer ideals into us— or valuations of others that are contrary to God’s will. There are times we are distracted by these things.
There are times in each of our lives when we feel weak or lost. And times when we may not know what to do next.
We do not and cannot live as perfect reflections of the One who made us.
Yet these realities make God’s grace all the more precious to us— and even these things might serve to glorify God, for when we have faith in God’s grace to overcome our failures we bear witness to the power of God’s love all the more.
Don’t worry about measuring the pile of your successes. Don’t worry about the last moment. Just live this moment with love. When life beats you down— remember who you are. And let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.