Worship

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

In the movie Groundhog Day, the main character is Phil, an unpleasant, egotistical, cynical weatherman in Pittsburgh who is forced to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in the hamlet of Punxsutawney. Together with a cameraman and his cheerful, charming new (female) producer named Rita, he travels to the home of the Groundhog festival and does his report, with a big helping of sarcasm to his coworkers.

Forced by a winter storm to spend another night in a place he dislikes, he wakes up to find that he is reliving the same day– Groundhog Day– over and over. Every day the same wake-up music and deejays on his alarm clock radio, every day people dancing to same strange polka at the village square, called, strangely, Gobbler’s Knob, every day having to report about what the groundhog (a critter who is also named Phil) supposedly does, and every day unable to leave town and go home.

At one point, after he has already relived the same day multiple times without finding a way to escape, he glares into the camera and says, “You want a prediction about the weather, you’re asking the wrong Phil. I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.” Which pretty much describes Midwestern winter thus far, as we are on the 352nd day of February.

Yet as he relives this same day, over and over, Phil discovers that he DOES have some choice in each day. At first, he uses his time for mischief—messing with people’s heads, observing a security truck so he can steal money from it and buy a Mercedes—and remember, everything resets the next morning, so there are no lasting consequences. The problem is, the more he does things to waste time or to reinforce his own flaws, the more he focuses on his own misery while ignoring what’s going on in the lives of those around him, the unhappier he gets.

The change comes when he starts focusing, however imperfectly, on someone other than himself. He gets to know Rita, his producer, and finds himself attracted to her, and in order to win her over, he begins remaking himself. He learns French, because she studied French poetry in college. He learns how to play the piano, because that’s one of the things she is looking for in a mate. He learns her likes and dislikes (1).

But it is only when he stops doing these things for his OWN selfishness, and starts trying to make himself a better person in order to be worthy of her, his attitude toward these endless repeated Groundhog Days begins to change. Eventually, the final thing that sets him free is when he seeks to become a better person for the sake of everyone around him—when he uses the days he has to let go of all that has made him a bitter, self-centered person and to learn to live as a compassionate, outwardly focused human being—that Phil is truly transformed.

Once Phil stops seeing himself as a hostage on the wheel of life and embraces his own agency for kindness and generosity, he is completely changed and redeemed.

In other words, Phil is transformed once he sees grace everywhere in that everyday town among those everyday people at whom he used to sneer. He sees this replaying of the same day as a gift rather than a curse. Phil comes to realize he has the ability to either waste his time or use it to see his connection with others, and to try to make life better for those around him. Once Phil realizes that, instead of shutting people out, the truly full life is one that invites people in, he is transformed. Once Phil stops trying to erect barriers to deny other people’s claims upon his compassion and generosity, he truly comes to life.

And that’s a message we find in the gospels as well—perhaps even THE message as we seek to determine how to live a truly good life—a truly reverent and abundant life. In our gospel, Jesus likewise is trying to teach us how to transform our own lives by living into the spirit of the covenant we live by in our lives as disciples of Jesus. This is week three of a four week course in Matthew’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we heard comparisons between ourselves and salt and light. We are reminded that Jesus is acting as the new Moses, teaching from a mountain just as Moses did, not CHANGING the commandments handed down on Sinai but expanding and clarifying them. “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill,” Jesus reminded us last week. That’s why the teaching we receive from Jesus in today’s section of the Sermon on the Mount uses a repeated pattern: “You have heard it said x, but I tell you x-plus.”

At the root, these teachings in our gospel today—about anger, adultery, divorce and upholding your oaths– are all about relationships, either relationships with God or with each other (just as the Ten Commandments were). Most of the oaths we make—for it is THAT kind of swearing that Jesus is speaking about, not the cussing kind of swearing—are about regulating relationships and expectations. They are also about intentions, not merely the actions themselves, but what we are trying to accomplish by our actions. That emphasis is carried over from last week’s readings.

Jesus’s teaching regarding anger is a word that speaks especially to us today. We live in a world that is awash with anger and contempt, especially toward people we regard as the “other,” as “them,” as people different from us. It’s one thing to recognize our differences—but it’s holy to celebrate those differences while maintaining the form conviction that ALL people are reflections of Jesus’s incarnation, which is itself a reminder that we are all created in God’s image, without exceptions. The anger that Jesus is talking about here is the anger that treats others as enemies, as less-than, as not fully human and worthy of respect.

And it’s here that a distinction needs to be made before going forward. We all get angry—especially when we have been hurt by someone—and often that anger gets multiplied the more intimately connected the one who hurts us is to us. And there are certainly people who may have hurt us before and who may hurt us again—and we are not being asked to keep opening the door to more abuse by someone who cannot be trusted with our hearts. But we can still love them—even if that means we love them from waaaaaaaaay over there while we stay over here. That’s perfectly fine.

That’s not wrong—it’s giving ourselves the gift of freedom. It’s giving ourselves the gift of not allowing those who have personally sought our harm to live in our heads and our hearts rent-free. But you can’t overcome your enemies by imitating them. That’s just self-destructive—and worse, it lets them win in tearing you down.

Allowing ourselves to come to the other side of anger is a gift God calls us to embrace. Coming to the other side of anger is also about coming to the compassionate understanding that people who act out of malice, out of selfishness, out of fear and anger as a way of life have themselves been hurt in some way. As the saying goes, most people we encounter are carrying burdens about which we have no idea. We have the power to choose to step out of that cycle of suffering and free ourselves from it, or we can perpetuate it. But all people– even people who are angry, hateful, lost– are nonetheless as much God’s beloveds as we are. And through Jesus’s words about anger, God honors us by making us partners in attempting the reconciliation of the whole world that is the foundation of the kingdom of heaven.

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose birth we celebrate on February 4 in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints wrote one of his greatest works on Matthew’s sermon on the Mount. In Chapters 9-11 of The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer addresses the gospel portion we read this week (remembering that Bonhoeffer consistently uses masculine language as a default, which I will be adapting as necessary, lest anyone think his points only apply to males. Regarding Jesus’s point concerning anger, Bonhoeffer says this:

For the Christian, worship cannot be divorced from the service of all of humanity as our kin, as it is with the rabbis. If we despise our brothers and sisters our worship is unreal, and it forfeits every divine promise. When we come before God with hearts full of contempt and unreconciled with our neighbors, we are, both individually and as a congregation, worshiping an idol. So long as we refused to love and serve our brothers and sisters and make them an object of contempt and let them harbor a grudge against me or the congregation, our worship and sacrifice will be acceptable to God. Not just the fact that I am angry, but the fact that there is somebody who is been hurt, damage and disgraced by me, who ‘has a cause against me’, erects a barrier between me and God. Let us therefore as a Church examine ourselves, and see whether we have not often enough wronged our  neighbors. Let us see whether we have tried to win popularity by falling in with the world’s hatred, its contempt and its [insulting treatment]. For if we do that we are murderers. Let the fellowship of Christ so examine itself today and ask whether, at the hour of prayer and worship, any accusing voices intervene and make its prayer vain. Let the fellowship of Christ examine itself and see whether it has given any token of the love of Christ to the victims of the world’s insulting treatment and contempt, any token of the love of Christ which seeks to preserve, support and protect life. Otherwise however liturgically correct our services are, and however devout our prayer, however brave our testimony, they will profit us nothing, nay rather, they must needs to testify against us that we have as a Church ceased to follow our Lord (2).

Bearing contempt for others cannot be made right just by offering a gift at the altar. No, that’s too easy, and avoids the very real work of reconciliation. The entire point of covenants and commandments is that we live in RELATIONSHIP with God and with each other. Relationships are holy things but also sacramental—for they help us evaluated how strong our commitment to living as God’s children really is. We show our commitment to God by how we treat others—even those to whom we are strangers, or those who are difficult to love. God knows sometimes WE can be difficult to love—but God loves us anyway. That’s called “grace,” and like the song says, it’s amazing.

It can never be repeated enough: one of the greatest blessings of Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian theology is our repeated emphasis on the importance of the concept of the incarnation—of how, in Jesus, God comes to take on our human nature and live as one of us, thereby hallowing our frail flesh and giving us the example of a truly enlightened, joy-filled, purposeful life.

Our incarnational theology, proclaimed, embraced, and celebrated in our weekly observance of the Eucharist, reinforces the sacredness of the image of God that resides within all humanity, and indeed is shot throughout all of creation (3). That’s why anger, fear, jealousy, or prejudice that leads us to discount anyone’s life—no matter how much we may disagree with them or their actions—as less sacred and worthy of protection than our own lives or the lives of our family and friends is equivalent to the breaking of our covenant with God, as discussed in our reading from Deuteronomy discusses.

When we choose contempt rather than seeing the holiness and sacredness of any of our kindred people, we are choosing to let death and destruction reign in our hearts, rather than choosing life and love. God calls us step back from hurting other people through our own anger—even those who have hurt us. Whether they are worthy or not is not our concern.

And that’s hard. But all real transformation—the choice of life over death—is of course not going to be easy. It WILL be worthwhile, and will bless US as much as it blesses those around us.

We can choose to do the same thing over and over again even if it makes us or those around us miserable, and try to fool ourselves that the collateral damage doesn’t matter—but it doesn’t really work, does it? Jesus came to reorient us away from surrendering to the death-dealing precepts of this world—so that WE could not only have life, but so that we could work for the liberation and flourishing and healing of the entire world from the ways of suffering, anxiety, and death. Jesus calls us to embrace abundant life given to us through God’s grace.

Jesus offers us the gift of freedom—and to lift up those we see along the way, especially those who may be hurting. That’s why the Great Commandment is this: to love God with that you have and all that you are, and to love your neighbor—no matter how distant—as much if they were a part of your very own body. Because they are. Let us seek the way of generosity, the way of reconciliation—for our life and the life of the world.

Amen.

Preached at the 505 on February 15, 2020, and at 8:00 and 10:30 am on February 16 at St. Martin’sEpiscopal Church, Ellisville.

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

Citations and Sources:
1) Groundhog Day, written by Danny Ruin and Harold Ramos, 1993.
2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, chapter 9 (“The Brother”), pp. 144-145
3) Ibid., p. 145.