The following sermon was preached on February 12, 2017, being the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Septuagesima), at the 10:30am principal Eucharist at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Montevallo, Alabama.
Collect: O God, the strength of all who put their trust in You: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without You, give us the help of Your grace, that in keeping Your commandments we may please You both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Readings: Deuteronomy 30.15-20; Psalm 119.1-8; 1 Corinthians 3.1-9; Matthew 5.21-37
“Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”—Matthew 5.37
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I would like to express my appreciation to your Priest-in-Charge for his invitation to preach the Gospel and concelebrate the Eucharist with him here at Saint Andrew’s this post—College Night Sunday. While I always relish the opportunity to come back to Montevallo, this current visit has been particularly meaningful on two fronts. First, this year’s Homecoming marked my 10th anniversary as a graduate of the University and brought back wonderful memories from when I myself had the honor of presiding over College Night as Student Government Association president. It was also during my years at Montevallo that I attended Sunday services here at Saint Andrew’s and had the privilege of residing in the previous Canterbury House, which helped establish the bonds of affection that I share with many of you here.
Second, this visit has provided an opportunity for me to serve with your Priest-in-Charge—one of my first parishioners at Canterbury Chapel in Tuscaloosa when I was first ordained 4½ years ago—for the first time as an ordained colleague. I have great respect for him and Colleen and pray that their ministry among you, to use the words of the University’s alma mater, will be “years…rich and fruitful.”
This weekend has been a time during which many things have come “full circle.” It has brought to mind the words of the Psalmist, “Ecce quam bonum et quam iucundum habitare fratres in unum” (“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity”).
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“What’s it gonna be: life and good or death and evil?”: that is the question today’s lessons present us. We are being entreated to
Obey the commandments of the LORD…by loving the LORD your God, walking in His ways, and observing His commandments, decrees, and ordinances…Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.
We are urged to choose God because He Himself is life and good. “Hope in the LORD,” says the Psalmist, “for with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with Him is great power to redeem.”
The law, which comes from God, reflects His goodness.
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes…The ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
The law furthermore points us to Christ, God’s Word in the flesh. “The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” And Christ came “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Here, too, we see a full-circle effect: God’s law, Jesus Christ, and life and goodness bound together. They are meant to make life rich, full, and productive—as God intended.
Though the law is good because it comes from God, it is also hard because of the same reason. Saint Paul, in his letter to the Romans, talks about the struggle
I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members…So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
And Jesus, in today’s Gospel, does not let up. Instead of toning things down, He ratchets things up. “You have heard in the past, ‘Do not commit murder.’ But now I tell you: do not be angry. You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But now I tell you: do not lust. You have also heard in the past, ‘Do not break your promise.’ But now I tell you: do not swear at all.” What we get today is Jesus not meek and mild, but heavy hitting. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law,” Jesus said. He was not kidding!
If Jesus’ words come across as extreme and severe, then you are right. Today’s Gospel is a real pounding, Jesus bringing down the hammer again and again and again. It’s as if Jesus is attacking us with merciless mandates. It makes you think, “If this is the way it is going to be, then why am I still here? Why should I stick around? Jesus, you are killing me here! It is just too hard!”
But think about it, though. Consider, again, what Jesus is saying. “Do not be angry. Do not lust. Do not swear.” If all of that were to actually be practiced, how lovely would it be? How lovely would it be if communities like Montevallo, Alabama, Lafayette, Louisiana, and all others became places whose people were all seriously committed to reconciliation? There would not be the need for “fronts”: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven…Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we always pray. How lovely would it be if it was more so?
Louis Armstrong, one of the most pivotal and influential figures of American jazz, in 1966, recorded the now universally known hit song “What a Wonderful World.” While introducing the song at a concert in 1970, he said this
Some of you young folks been saying to me, “Hey Pops, what you mean, ‘What a wonderful world?’ How about all them wars all over the place? You call them wonderful? And how about hunger and pollution? That ain’t so wonderful, either.”
Well, how about listening to old Pops for a minute. Seems to me, it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it. And all I’m saying is, see, what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That’s the secret, yeah. If lots more of us loved each other, we’d solve lots more problems. And then this world would be better. That’s wha’ ol’ Pops keeps saying.
This is what Jesus is inviting us into. With Jesus today imploring us to not be angry, lustful, and swear, we are being invited into life and good, not evil and certain death. We “have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with His blood.” That is the Good News we are today being given.
The more time we spend with Jesus, the more we’ll view Him and His mandates not as harsh, extreme, or inconceivable, but beautiful, inviting, and life-giving. The more we see Jesus’ mandates for what they truly are, the more our desire will be to strive to live them out. In Jesus’ mandates is “the truth, and the truth will make you free.” In Jesus Christ is life and He Himself is the Light of all people. For me, I cannot have it any other way. Give me Jesus!
“What if I fail?” you may ask. I’ll let the Good News speak for itself.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Have no fear! “With the LORD there is steadfast love, and with Him is great power to redeem.” That truly is good news!
So, what’s it gonna be: life and good or death and evil? Choose life that you may live. Choose Jesus! That is the best victory anybody can ever receive.
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
 Virginia Powell Figh and Lucy Lynn Underwood, Alma Mater of the University of Montevallo (Montevallo, Alabama)
 Psalm 132.1 (133.1) (Latin Vulgate)
 Deuteronomy 30.16, 19
 Psalm 130.7
 Psalm 19.7-8, 9b
 Galatians 3.24
 John 10.10b
 Footnote on Deuteronomy 30.20, The NIV Study Bible (Zondervan, 2011), 299.
 Romans 7.21-23, 25b
 Matthew 5.17
 1 Peter 1.2
 John 8.32
 John 1.4
 Matthew 11.28
 John 3.16
 1 Timothy 1.15
 1 John 2.1-2
 Psalm 130.7