February 12 Sermon

Discerning Priorities
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For February 12, 2017, the 6th Sunday of Epiphany
Based on Matthew 5:21-37

We continue with Matthew’s version of Jesus preaching to a large crowd, commonly known as the sermon on the mount. In this section we hear Jesus demanding a higher standard than previous religious law: it is not the specific outward behavior that makes us righteous but the life-giving relationships. Rules, laws, vows: these legalize our relationships rather than make them expressions of the spirit. Hear how Jesus’ words challenge us to live with integrity.

Thank you for the many kind words and prayerful expressions for me during the week. I’d prefer to not make my health or the event of passing a kidney stone the focus of worship. Besides, as many of you have already discovered, if I begin talking about kidney stones I will not be able to resist a stream of bad puns.

So instead I am going to talk about my father. This upcoming week my family will be marking the tenth anniversary of my father’s passing and celebrating what would have been his 75th birthday.

My father had a childhood accident that rendered him blind in his left eye. As a child I was fascinated by that reality. I wondered what it was like for him to see out of just one eye. I tried many different things to simulate his reality: walking around with a hand over one eye, or tying a bandana around my head so it covered an eye, and of course wearing a pirate’s eyepatch.

I went to church and heard the passage from Matthew that we read this morning and I wondered what sin my father had committed.

29 And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin,

tear it out and throw it away.

It’s better that you lose a part of your body

than that your whole body be thrown into hell.

Of course, I was confused: my father was blind, but he did not lose his eye. (In fact throughout his life physicians who examined his eye marveled at the initial surgery that allowed him to keep his eye.) And it was his left eye, not his right eye as the bible described.

As I grew a bit older, I learned of my father’s discomfort at being blind. It was not something he wanted others to know about. He did not want to be considered disabled. He had a lot of behaviors that disguised his blindness. I realized he had not gouged out his eye as an act of repenting from sin; rather, he regretted the accident that injured his eye – and spent a lifetime trying to make up for that injury and other mistakes.

We all review our lives and mark where we made mistakes. We all have decisions that we regret. We have all at some point been in situations where there were no good options, only choices between bad options. My father bore the consequences of bad decisions made by family members, and he lived with the consequences of decisions he wished he never had to make. I think he struggled with accepting forgiveness.

My father admitted to me that he did not understand church. He respected charity, but questioned the pursuit of justice in God’s name – “I mean after all” he would say “how can you truly know what God wants?” and then “Isn’t it rather presumptuous of you or anyone or any group to claim they understand even a little bit of what God has planned?” He did not know he was quoting several psalms – and that he stood in a great Christian tradition of humility before God.

He remained at arm’s length because of the hypocrisy of the church. My father was a very ethical and moral man, but he did not think he – or anyone – needed to have a priest or minister tell them what was right or wrong: he could figure that out for himself, thank you very much. And yet, before I was a teenager, he and my mother selected a church for us to attend based on a preacher who my father got to the “real fire and brimstone” of faith. And in response to this sort of congregational consensus to discern God’s will, he’d say “When do you get over your communal naval gazing and do something useful?”

When I graduated from seminary the first time, he made me a card. It read “When Mrs. Einstein was asked what she thought of her husband’s work, she said ‘Well, I don’t really understand it. But I know him, and I trust that what he does it good.’”

Shortly after I turned 30, my father developed cancer of the throat and mouth. The original tumors were addressed with radiation and bariatric treatments. He was declared cancer free.

My father changed; his priorities changed. Before cancer he was withdrawn, almost a hermit. After the cancer he was talkative. He had always been curious, but after the cancer, rather than going to the internet or a book for the answers, he spent more time in conversation. He was always good with his hands: he did most of the mechanical work on his fishing boats, and he remodeled almost every home he lived in. After the cancer he was more creative: his renovations moved from the purely practical to the whimsical and even artistic.

And he started going to church more regularly. That’s not saying he was in church every Sunday, nor did he join any congregation. But he and my mom went once in a while to various churches just to see what they were like. And he asked me questions about the churches I was serving and why they did certain things the way they did.

He also told me about his prayers.

Among cancer survivors there’s sort of a five-year goal: if you can remain cancer-free for five years then you’re clean, you have really beaten the cancer. Five years and two months after radiation, my father found new polyps on his tongue: the cancer had returned. Part of his tongue was removed, then rebuilt with muscles from his forearm.

30 And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin,

chop it off and throw it away.

It’s better that you lose a part of your body than

that your whole body go into hell.

Jesus did not live in a time when surgeons could harvest from one part of the body and transplant to another part. I’m not sure how our modern medical miracles might have changed the words of Jesus. I’m also not sure Jesus is speaking literally here. I think he is using hyperbole, exaggerating his example in order to make a point: your soul is more important than your physical pleasure. Having watched my father, I’m not sure why anyone would advocate removing parts of our body in pursuit of sinlessness.

As my father adjusted to new muscles and maintained physical therapy for the changes in his arm, the tumor grew further down his throat. He eventually required a tracheotomy and then a feeding tube. He lost the ability to speak, but my mother insisted they still knew how to communicate: after all, she knew what each finger meant.

37 Let your yes mean yes,

and your no mean no.

n the introduction to Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks “… if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand?”[1] The entire book is a meditation on the challenge to be a follower of Jesus in a nation that professes to be Christian – but does not uphold the demands of discipleship and sacrifice in Christ’s name. Bonhoeffer was challenging churches to be courageous in faith even when that means going against what our culture tells us is faithful: care for the sick even though we are not their family; care for the poor even though we have no financial relationship to them; care for anyone who has been the victim of twisted and distorted laws decreeing their humanity illegal; care for the prisoner even though the law has declared them unacceptable.

We are at a historic point in our culture as we wrestle with democratic values and what actions preserve our democratic heritage. Surprising decisions are being made as these values are acted upon. What should the role of the church be within these historic cultural discussions?

My father surprised us all when he chose chemotherapy. He had said throughout his life that he would never undergo what he called “deliberate poisoning.” But his priorities had changed. Because he could not speak, he carried a small erasable whiteboard with him everywhere. (To this day I cannot use dry erase markers without thinking of him.) When I asked him why he changed his mind, he wrote that he wanted to do all he could to have as much time as possible to take care of my mother. He hoped to complete the remodeling he had begun so she had a house to live in and sell. He wanted to get their finances in order. He wanted to clean up his workshop so it would either be easier for him to work in or be easier for us to make sense of after he died.

We don’t have to be dying in order to discern our priorities. We don’t have to wait until a critical illness to clarify our values. Congregations, like individuals, often wait until some sort of perceived loss before they deliberately talk about their priorities for ministry: a change in pastor; difficulty recruiting volunteers; decline in income or increase in bills; a change in the neighborhood so the congregation and community have some disconnect.

I don’t mean to suggest these kind of dilemmas are an illness. Rather, I am asking you “Within these realities, what’s Lyonsville’s plan to be healthy?” What kind of diet and exercise does this body of Christ require? What kind of rules have you used to keep you together as the body of Christ? What kind of practices hold you together as a congregation? Are those rules and practices still useful, or do they need to be amended? Is it time to do something surprising that you had not previously thought of doing? How will you discern as a congregation what your priorities are for continued health and ministry?

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, “translated form the German Nachfolge first published in 1937 by Chr. Kaiser Verlag Munchen by R. H. Fuller, with some revision by Irmgard Booth.” (New York: Touchstone (Simon & Shuster, 1995), 38.

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