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Sunday, February 05, 2017

What does it mean to be 'righteous'?

Note: I had the privilege of preaching this morning at St. Martin in the Field Episcopal Church in Selbyville, DE. It's the first of four Sundays I'll be preaching there. I have lots of Hospice patients in that area. I drive around there a lot. And yet, I had never seen the church. It's actually a sweet little chapel. I was told there might be 10-15 people in attendance, ages 65-90. When I've previously driven through Selbyville, there have been a lot of pick up trucks with bumper stickers that boast their support for He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. So, I preached what I call a "Via Media" sermon. At least, that's where I was aiming. I did not use a manuscript. I thought, with 10-15 people in attendance, I'd best "preach from a prepared heart." So, they put my name out on the sign in front of the church. There were twenty-seven souls in the pews this morning. I guess they were curious about a woman preacher. That's what the Deacon and I figured. (Did I mention that I LOVE working with deacons?) At any event, here's what I preached, best as I can remember. 

St. Martin in the Field Episcopal Church, Selbyville, DE
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton  

So, as Blessed Joe Biden would say, "Here's the deal."

I don't know you, and you don't know me, but we profess to know and love and follow Jesus, so that makes us neighbors and friends with each other and, in fact, everyone else in the world. 

Here's what I propose: That we 'dwell in the word' together for the next 12 minutes or so. Because  this morning's lessons - and especially this morning's Gospel from Matthew (5:13-20) - present us with a serious challenge.  

I want us, in the words of St. Paul to the ancient church in Corinth, (I Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]
to have "the same mind in Christ." 

Jesus says,  "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

Did you hear THAT? Unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will NEVER enter the kingdom of heaven.

That sounds like a pretty serious challenge to me.

So, I'm going ask you "What does it mean to be 'righteous'?

Not 'self-righteous' but 'righteous'?

I'm not going to ask this as a 'test'. I'm not looking for a 'right or a wrong' answer. I'm not here to trip you up or stump you or embarrass you. 

I don't know you and you don't know me, but we're going to be together for the next four weeks, so it's good that we get to know each other as neighbors and friends in Christ. 

I want us to find "the same mind in Christ" so that we may be, as the prophet Isaiah said, "repairers of the breach"; that we "shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail..... the restorer of the streets to live in." In other words, to repair the things that separate us and make the world a better place.

So, before I ask you for you answer to that question, let me put this morning's Gospel in context for you. 

The first thing you need to know is that, when Jesus was saying these very words, Israel was an occupied country. Rome. It was Rome that occupied - and oppressed - ancient Israel.

The truth about Jesus and his disciples is that they were not poor. Well, at least, they shouldn't have been. They were businessmen. Small businessmen. Carpenters. Fishermen. Craftsmen. 

They were poor because they were oppressed by the Romans. They were taxed almost literally to death. There were taxes on everything. On the fish they caught. On the nets they used to catch the fish. On their boats. On the lakes and seas they fished in. 

Does that sound so very different than what we know today? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Some scholars say that the occupation and resulting oppression helped to shape and form four different strains of religion. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots.

Now, I could give a whole class on this but briefly - very briefly - it goes like this:

The Pharisees had a strict, inflexible adherence to the traditions of "the fathers". They were, if you will, what we call "the fundamentalists" of their day. On a positive note, they were not wed to "The Temple" and encouraged people to pray in their homes and to make prayer and ritual part of their everyday lives of faith.

The Sadducees were functionally like the Pharisees but they were more affluent and had a 'cozier' relationship with the State. And so, Rome. The oppressor. They were also all about the Torah and only the Torah - the first five books - and rejected all other books of scripture. 

The Essenes were a small group who focused more on how to live your life of faith rather than a strict adherence to 'the word'. Some scholars believe that it was the Essenes who were the primary first followers of Jesus, who were called "People of The Way." 

The Zealots were those who were most reactionary to The Roman Oppression. They felt the only way to achieve change was through violent revolt. Do you remember which one of the Disciples was a Zealot? Yes, that's right, Judas Iscariot. 

You may also have heard the words "Sanhedrin" and "Scribes". The Sanhedrin was a sort of "Supreme Court" made up of 70 Jewish men, directly under the authority of the High Priest, who determined legal/religious trials. 

The Scribes that Jesus referred to in this morning's gospel functioned basically as religious lawyers who transcribed the Scriptures. They didn't just transcribe but were teachers of Scripture. 

So, Jesus says, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

I don't know for certain, but I think Jesus was being a bit sarcastic when he said this. Or, at least, the writer of Matthew's gospel was being sarcastic. 

Why do I say that? Well, if you have paid attention all these years of coming to church, Jesus wasn't all too keen on the Pharisees and the Sadducees, much less the Scribes. He held them even lower than the tax collectors. At least he sat down and ate with them - even invited Zacchaeus , a chief tax collector, to come down from his tree and eat supper with him and stay in his house. 

Whenever the Pharisees and Sadducees observed Jesus and his disciples eating with tax collectors and other ne'er-do-wells, all they offered was criticism because Jesus did not enforce the strict Levitical purity codes. 

Given what we know, then, or Jesus to say,  "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” can only be taken as a bit of a cheeky, sarcastic thing to say. 

So, what do you think Jesus meant by 'righteousness'? What does being a 'righteous' person mean to you?

(A quiet but pretty lively discussion ensued) So, we've' come to this as the 'mind of Christ' among us': Righteousness is being in right relationship with God. Well done.

Here's a bit of a clue about what Jesus was saying. At the beginning of this passage, he talked about not losing your 'saltness' or it would not be good for anything. Jesus also talked about not hiding your light under a bushel. 

The thing about the Pharisees and the Sadducees is that they hated each other. They were always fighting. Always squabbling. There were a few issues but the major one was the resurrection. The Pharisees believed in a future, full resurrection of the body. The Sadducees didn't. 

They argued so much about their differences that they lost sight of what was important: faith. They created a breach between what they professed to believe and how they lived their lives. 

Jesus called them to repair that breach, to be moral and ethical people, to let their authenticity show and their light shine.  He said that they could do this by keeping the commandments, but to do it even better than that Pharisees and Sadducees.

So, how do we do that? I want to leave you with a practical way to be repairers of the breach and be righteous people, in right relationship with God. 

I want you to reach for your Book of Common Prayer. It's the red book in your pew rack. I'd like you to turn to page 319. When you get there, I want you to look at the bottom of the page and find The Decalogue. 

The Decalogue, of course, are the Ten Commandments. 

Jesus said he "did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it". It's not about being a Pharisee and obeying the law, every jot and tittle. It's not about fighting with your fellow Christian about what the Scripture "really" means and imposing that - YOUR - interpretation on others. . 

It's about following the law by fulfilling the spirit of the law. To help it change YOUR behavior. To make YOU a better person. To set YOU in right relationship with God.

To keep your 'saltiness' - your authenticity.

To let your light shine and not be hidden under the bushel of self-righteousness and legalism. 

I want to end this sermon by having us read this litany of the Decalogue on page 319 of the BCP. 

I want you to linger over each one of these Ten Commandments. I want to suggest that you take one of them each week for the next ten weeks and 'dwell in the word'. See what it means for you in your life.

This response for this particular version is, "Lord, have mercy, and incline our hearts to keep this law." 

Incline our hearts. Not follow every jot and tittle. 

Let the word dwell in your heart and incline your heart to discern a way to deepen and improve your relationship with God. 

That you might be a 'righteous person' - not 'self-righteous - and be a repairer of the breach. 



Brother David said...

Revd Elizabeth, I’m hoping that you just got things turned around in your mind when you wrote this down. You have the Sadducees and the Pharisees turned around. It was the Saducees who didn’t believe in resurrection or a future reward in the afterlife. In fact there is a little nemonic to remember that. Because they didn’t believe in resurrection "that is why they are sad, you see?"

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks Brother David. And that's exactly what I preached. But, the Super Bowl was on when I was going over the sermon in my head and I must have been distracted. And, I read it a few times before I pressed 'publish'. I also picked up a few typos. I'm sure there are more. Hrumph. Well, thanks for pointing that out. I'm made the change. Thank you.