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Matthew 5:21-37

The following sermon was preached by Brian Robison, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, February 17, 2011.


Matthew 5:21-37

This past New Year’s Eve, during a party that Melanie and I hosted at our home in St. Louis, I received some shocking, and actually quite disturbing news about myself.  I feel I need to share it with you not only because I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it, but also because it may in some way affect you as well.  You see, I found out that my… astrological sign had changed. 

 Apparently I should have known this years ago, but somehow I missed it in the headlines.  This may be old news to some of you, but I was just dumbfounded.  I mean, for 38 years I thought I was a Sagittarian.  Growing up I studied the sign of the archer and its attributes, placed a Sagittarius ornament on my Christmas tree, received a cross-stitch of the half-man, half-horse… I expectantly read my Sagittarian horoscope, consulted Linda Goodman’s “Love Signs” when encountering potential dates to see if they were good matches for Sagittarians… it’s probably best that doesn’t come out in the bishops’ meeting next week. 

As pagan as it sounds, being a Sagittarian became a part of who I am, who I understood myself to be, part of my identity.  And then… after a casual conversation and some subsequent Internet research, I discovered that because of the earth wobbling on its axis and our position relative to the constellations changing, not only was I no longer a Sagittarian, but my new sun sign was not just new to me but was new to the whole Zodiac chart.  I am, and apparently have always been, an “Ophiuchos” [Off-ee-YOU-koss]: in Greek, the “snake-bearer.”  

Suddenly, should someone resurrect the pick-up line from the ‘70’s - “what’s your sign?” - my answer just got really complicated.  This was seriously unsettling.  Something I thought was true for my whole life, and I found out it wasn’t.  This requires a shift in thinking.  Even if I don’t take the mechanics of astrology seriously, this still signifies a change in my identity. 

Identity is such an important part of understanding who we are and how we relate to the world.  A zodiac sign is something of a trivial example, but changes in identity can have real impact on us – psychologically, emotionally, spiritually.  Consider the changes in identity that many of us in this room are preparing to experience.  Not just that you Aquarians are now Capricorns…

Late February at LSTC reminds us that the stars are aligning for some of us to soon be titled, “chaplain;” for some of us to soon be christened, “intern” or “vicar;” for some of us to be declared, “doctor;” and for some of us, God willing, to soon be called “pastor.”  These aren’t just words to put in front of our names on a business card…  they change who we are - not in an ontological sense - but they change how we think about ourselves, they change how we relate to the world and how we think about others – how we witness to the kingdom of heaven come near. 

As we assume these roles and make them part of ourselves, we do so in concert with a host of other attributes: race, gender, family history, personal experiences, denominational background… the list is endless… and all of which combine to make us who we are, to comprise our identity. 

For Jews in Jesus’ day, in addition to the individual factors I just mentioned, their identity was encapsulated in their Scriptures and traditions.  Similar to ancient astrologers who looked to the stars for signs that told them how to order their lives, Jews looked to the Law and the Prophets as the vehicle to transmit their epic history, to pass down the requirements that governed human relationships, and to communicate stories to help them understand who their God was and how that God operated in the world – the result being a strong and reliable sense of identity that had sustained them as a people for centuries.   They were well-aware of who they were, where they came from, and what they stood for.  If you were to ask them, “what’s your sign?” – I’m guessing they would point to the scrolls of the Torah in the synagogue.

As we know from our Gospel readings of the past couple of weeks, into this climate of traditional self-assurance and religious confidence walks… Jesus.  In today’s reading, he’s all about changing the meaning of the signs.  He begins each of the short paragraphs by naming the commandments against murder and adultery, then the laws against divorce and swearing falsely – but he isn’t just reciting these regulations for his hearers; the scribes and Pharisees can do that.  No, he is doing something far more incredible and radical: he is expanding the definition and scope of the Law.  He is interpreting the Law in order to express what he sees as its true meaning.  He’s saying that just following the rules, just behaving rightly, isn’t enough. 

In last week’s Gospel he said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you won’t set foot in Heaven’s domain.”  The scribes and Pharisees follow the law; Jesus says, go beyond the letter of the law.  Orient your hearts towards love.  Jesus was calling his listeners to a whole new way of life, something they had never heard before: live your lives not only based on what is right or wrong on paper, not only based on what the tradition has declared… live your lives in love

The Law says, “You must not kill.”  Okay, what does this mean?  (This is Jesus’ version of the Small Catechism).  It means do not murder, but it also means… Show your love for others by not even getting angry with someone, by not disrespecting anyone’s humanity by cursing or insulting them.  And, be humble in legal matters: come to a settlement before you get to court.  It also says, “you are not to commit adultery.”  What does this mean?  In addition to the obvious, it means do not demean any person by seeing them as merely an object of lust.  Love and honor people for who they are as real people, as sisters and brothers of flesh and bone and spirit, as worthy of respect as yourself.  When it comes to marriage or covenanted relationships of any kind, treat them seriously.  Do not begin or end them wantonly, casually or trivially.  And swearing an oath -- means nothing.  What matters is your personal, simple, integrity. 

Take the law farther, past the point of obligation, past the point of following rules for rules’ sake.  Take it to where God intended it to be. Take it to where it becomes love.  Take it to where it becomes Gospel.  Here, as throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges those around him to change their identities, in effect to re-create the world, to reconstruct human life and relationships in a way that will reflect and embody the Ultimate Reality.  It’s shocking, disturbing, and redefining of who his listeners thought they were as Jews.  To live in God’s new reality is to re-imagine one’s identity, and indeed all of life on new terms. 

For Jesus’ listeners, their changed identity would mean acting upon the new ways of living out the Law – in love.  To those with eyes to see, these “signs” would be as clear those divined by an astrologer from the stars: this is how one knows and recognizes that God is with us and working in the world.

In the Gospel readings for this season of Epiphany, Jesus’ words continually challenge us to see the world with new eyes.  As we in this place prepare to live out our own new identities as leaders in his Church, Jesus especially calls us to witness to those in our lives whose vision is clouded by the norms and laws of this world… to testify to the changed identities in our midst that serve as reminders of the living God incarnate among us.     

And so, in the event should someone ask, “what’s your sign?” may we be bold to reply,

It is that water - whether it is running or not –

It is that bread and wine.

It is that cross.

It is even just outside these windows, where the warmth and yes even the drizzle are signs that proclaim the mystery of our faith: spring does follow winter… resurrection will overcome death.

May we, like modern day Magi – who some say were astrologers – be ever watchful for signs of the new and wondrous things that God continues to do around us, through us, and within us.  And by the grace of God, may we inspire others… to consider ordering their own lives according to the ultimate “Son” sign: the divine light of Jesus the Christ.  Thanks be to God.

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