Sermon for 7th Epiphany
The Gospel of Second Chances
By Vicar Sharon Richter -
How many times in your life have you done something you regretted in hindsight? Suddenly, it’s done, and you don’t get a do-over. Your last chance was already your last chance. It’s past. It’s gone, and it’s not coming back.
About four years ago, when I was beginning seminary, my sister and I were discussing that breathless, speculative television show called Ancient Aliens that runs on the inaptly named “History Channel.” My husband and I had seen it a few times, and we were amused at how they take all kinds of archaeological, or scriptural, or hieroglyphic artifacts and decide that they “prove” that ancient alien astronauts visited this planet and planted us here. “Could it be . . . ?” they always ask. And they answer helpfully: “Ancient alien theorists say yes!”
My anthropology background and scripture led me to regard this show with amusement and scorn, as I’m doing right now. Then we got into a discussion of particular “evidence,” and I thought we were having a scholarly discussion about the past. But it turns out, my sister believes the ancient alien stuff just as firmly as I believe in Jesus Christ (Side note: she believes in ancient aliens way more than I believe in virgin births. There’s not a small irony there.)
What ended up happening is that she was, and is, offended, that I didn’t take what to her is a religion, seriously. I get no more chances. She hasn’t spoken to me since. This causes me enormous pain and regret.
Jesus’ teaching in Matthew Chapter 5, which I call the “Gospel of Second Chances,” helps me understand what happened. People often read Chapter 5 in bits, as we have done over the past 5 weeks. When they do that, they risk misunderstanding—of thinking Jesus is taking the law and making it an even stricter law. He’s not doing that.
In order to explain what he is doing, I have to recap the chapter for you. Jesus begins with the beatitudes—he invokes blessings on all sorts of unlikely people in his audience, ending with this: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” That’s important. We’ll come back to it.
Then he calls them the salt of the earth and the light of the world and urges them to not lose their saltiness or hide their light. That’s important too. What they are about to learn will help them shine their light before others.
Here comes the heart of this Gospel of Second Chances. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
Fulfilling and accomplishing mean making the law do what God always intended it to do, which is to protect God’s people in their relationships. Jesus shows us that strict and unthinking enforcement and punishment don’t fulfill the law. Only interpreting the law with justice, mercy, grace, and love can fulfill it. Law and grace are heads and tails of the same coin, or rather the same person. The person of Jesus Christ himself.
Next Jesus walks them through what laws he’s talking about. Every one of them is a law meant to protect relationships.
These are not dietary laws, or circumcision laws. Those laws Jesus, and later Paul, would break because they continued to separate God’s people when it was now important to unite them.
No, Jesus is instead talking about laws regarding murder, adultery, divorce, honesty, retaliation, and second chances—all in the context of Jesus’ time and culture.
To follow the law I don’t murder. It hurts everyone. But to fulfill this law, I go one step further, adding mercy, grace, and love. Then I will reconcile so that a grudge won’t lead to murder. This is the Gospel of Second Chances, and it is still true.
To follow the law, don’t commit adultery. It hurts two families. But remember, in Jesus’ day women accused of adultery were stoned. So to fulfill this law, add mercy, grace, and love and see that lusting could entice that woman to her death. We no longer stone women, at least not here, but we still need to fulfill this law for the sake of families. Think again. This is the Gospel of Second Chances.
To follow the law, don’t divorce frivolously, or without a formal certificate, because in Jesus’ day, a woman cast out would have little chance to remarry. But to fulfill this law, add mercy, grace, and love and see that most divorced women had to become prostitutes and beggars in order to live. So don’t divorce at all. The context for women is less difficult today (though far from perfect), so under the spirit of mercy at the heart of the law, we can feel free to modify it. The Gospel of Second Chances, for today.
To follow the law, don’t swear oaths by this or by that, because it implies that there are degrees of honesty. To fulfill this law, add mercy, grace, and love, and just always tell the truth. Try not to need a second chance. But if you do need one, give yourself the Gospel of Second Chances.
To follow the law, we don’t retaliate by more than an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. This limiting law meant you could not harm someone any more than they had harmed you. But to fulfill this law, we go one step further. We add mercy, grace, and love, and don’t retaliate at all. We give them the Gospel of Second Chances. And while we’re at it, we give to all those who beg or borrow.
To follow the law, we love our neighbors. But to fulfill this law, we also love our enemies. This means we respect, listen to, try to understand, and grant a little leeway to a person with whom we clash. It is in doing so that the mercy, grace, and love that is the fulfillment of this law, may succeed in making that person into a friend. The Gospel of Second Chances.
There are no limits on where the Gospel of Second Chances applies: It applies to any relational conflict. On a case by case basis, carefully and honestly consider the character of the other party, and unless it is harmful, give them, and yourself, the Gospel of Second Chances. What I mean by “unless it is harmful,” is that there is one important boundary, and that is the basic character boundary of the other person. If the other person is abusive in an ongoing way, you never have to be a doormat, or a cash machine, or a punching bag. Just find another place to go, and go there.
Consider that each of us is not only on the acting end of these graces—these mercies—this love.
Each of us is also on the receiving end. First from God, and then from others.
I continue to reach out to my sister, and have apologized many times. I give her the Gospel of Second Chances, and I pray that someday she will give it to me as well. Who, in your life, right now, is waiting to hear it from you? They need a second chance, and I think you might too.
Remember the last blessing of the beatitudes? “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” “Our reward in heaven” is that, by loving our enemies we not only follow the law, we also fulfill it. And so we are going one step farther than what is expected, moving always toward completion, wholeness, fulfillment—in other words, perfection—with and in God--even if we will never get there.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Vicar Sharon Richter
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
February 19th, 2017
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