February 12, 2017 Sermon
The Joy of Walking with God
We are starting today’s scriptural journey with another episode of Seinfeld. In this episode, Jerry is dating Abby, a beginner business woman who has a mentor. When Jerry can’t understand what a mentor would do, she explains that her mentor Cynthia is a successful business woman who guides her in her career path. When Jerry finds out that Abby’s mentor Cynthia is dating his comedian friend Kenny, whom he doesn’t respect, he almost loses his respect for Abby whose mentor is dating someone he doesn’t respect. After seeing Kenny’s act, Abby agrees with Jerry about how terrible Kenny is as a comedian, breaks up with her mentor Cynthia, feels disoriented without anyone to guide her, and George ends up taking her under his wing under false pretenses.
It is good to have a mentor in our fields who have more experience than us. They give us advice and guide us in our career path. I have also had several spiritual mentors since I was a seminarian. I learned different things from each of them, and they inspired me in different ways. Today’s scripture readings are about God’s teachings and commandments, in a way functioning as our guide and inspiration. God guides us to live a faithful and ethical lifestyle through commandments and teachings. In the reading from Deuteronomy, God tells the chosen people of Israel that in the promise land they are about to take, God will bless them if they are faithful to God’s commandments. Those of you who were a part of last fall’s study group learned that God’s promise of blessing is conditional in the theology of Deuteronomy. God will bless Israel only if Israel lives faithfully to God’s commandments. Fast forwarding their history and what we get is foreign invasions and exile. Then prophets were sent to preach repentance and healing for the nation.
Check out today’s Psalm reading. It proclaims who the blessed people are; those who follow God’s law. This is the theology of the ancient Israelites, which is black and white; if they obey God, God will bless them. If they don’t, they will be punished. Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Bible so we only read a small part of it; but this psalm is about God’s law; how sweet God’s law is, how blessed faithful people are, and how God saves them through their obedience. In the Old Testament, it is not uncommon to see verses praising God’s law or pointing out how important obeying God’s law is. In fact, we could say that it’s the simple most important thing for the ancient Israelites, living faithfully by God’s law.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus continues his teachings on the mountain; Matthew chapters 5-7 are called the Sermon on the Mount. After the lesson on salt and light comes an ethical teaching section. There are six parts in this section that takes a uniquely Jewish rhetoric. All six teachings start with “You have heard that it was said…” and end with “But I say to you that…”. Jesus summarizes the Jewish teachings they are familiar with, and then gives them his teachings on the same topics. But Jesus is not saying, “the teachings of our ancestors should be ignored and you should follow my teaching instead”. As I mentioned last Sunday, Jesus did not come to abolish the law and his followers are not to ignore the teachings they grew up learning. In a way, Jesus is improving the old teachings. A lot of Jewish leaders and scholars knew the law well enough to find loopholes and broke the spirit of the law while technically staying within the boundaries of the law. Jesus is saying that in obeying the law, their hearts should be sincere; that their obedience should not violate the essence, the spirit of the law, which is love, compassion, and justice. He requires from his followers a greater righteousness than that of the Jewish leaders. His teachings are not in contradiction with the Jewish Law; he’s just pointing out that merely observing the law is not enough if one’s heart doesn’t embrace the spirit of love and justice.
Not killing others is not enough if we have hatred in our heart. Not committing adultery is not enough if we are filled with lust for someone else other than our partner; it’s all about doing better than the Jewish leaders who found loopholes in the law and didn’t have a sincere heart for doing God’s will.
Let’s take a deep breath at this point and think of what Jesus is requiring of his followers in the Sermon of the Mount. Does anyone feel like it’s too much to ask? It may feel daunting because his standards are so high, but we should remember the essence of what he’s saying. A lot of Jews at the time were obsessed with obeying every single word of the law; they were enslaved by the law. They were nearsighted. What Jesus is asking is to be free from the law yet to live a life faithful to the law. Then what is important here is not literally that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery”, but that “he has committed adultery in his heart”. We should always check our hearts to see if our hearts honor the spirit of the law, as well as our body not violating the law. I mean who doesn’t have any experience looking at someone attractive and feeling something?
The followers of Jesus should be better than the Jews who are obsessed with the words of the law. We should embrace the spirit of love and justice instead of obsessing with the words. How can we achieve that? As I often say, our good deeds as Christians should be a lifestyle of living in communion with God and with other members of our community. Living according to God’s will should not feel like a burden as a lot of Jews and Christians have done over the years. If the Holy Spirit is with us, in everything we do and say, we receive guidance. Of course, that doesn’t mean we always listen to our mentor the Holy Spirit. But the important thing is that we can hear God talking to us and we do our best to listen and follow. God’s spirit also helps us to muster up the courage to do the right thing when something is humanly difficult, such as forgiving or reaching out to difficult people. We can be free from the enslavement of the law by gently and joyfully walking with God and let God’s spirit be our mentor. If we walk with God in our lives, we don’t hear God saying, “Do this and don’t do that, or else I’ll have to punish you”; instead, we hear God saying, “You are my child and this is how I want you to live, by loving, forgiving, and accepting each other; and by speaking out for justice. I will help you do it”.
Therefore, let us liberate ourselves from the enslavement of the law. Let us embrace the spirit of God as our mentor who walks with us in every step of our life, and let God guide our ways. When we free ourselves from the burden of the law, we can start enjoying God’s presence and guidance in our lives. Listen to God saying in Psalm 46; “Be still and know that I am God”.