Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Highest Expectations

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
February 16, 2014

Year A: The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

The Highest Expectations
            Many of you know that before I became a priest I was a high school teacher.
            I taught for quite a while – for seventeen years, actually.
            And during that time I learned a few things – a few things about teaching, about kids, and about life.
            One thing I learned is something many of you have also probably learned in your lives.
            Generally, people rise or sink to the expectations that are set for them.
            When it’s clear that no one really expects us to succeed, we may try really hard to prove them wrong. But, more often, when no one really expects us to succeed we prove them right by sinking to the low expectations that have been set for us.
            On the other hand, when the people in our lives really believe in us – when the people in our lives – our parents, teachers, bosses – really expect us to succeed – when they set high expectations for us – we are more likely to meet those high expectations - or at least give it our best shot.
            Thinking back to my teaching years, one of the things I emphasized was geography.  As you probably know, it’s a subject that’s not really taught anymore. And, sure enough, Americans have very little geographical knowledge. Every once in a while the news will report some study how even our best and brightest – students at places like Harvard – can’t locate places like New York City or London on a map.
            Well, in my small way, I was determined to do something about that. (And, it seemed bizarre to be talking about all this history in class and the students had absolutely no idea where these places were.)
            So, in my freshman World Civilizations class we had a series of map quizzes. Continent by continent, the kids had to memorize and then identify all the countries of the world.
            You can imagine their faces and their groans when I first explained this to them.
            The one map that they dreaded more than the others was Africa.
            So many countries. So many countries that are hard to spell. (Yes, it was half off for misspellings!)
            They would pout and complain.
            “Mr. Murphy, there are too many countries.”
            “There’s no way that we can remember all of these.”
            “There are three countries named Guinea – how can we remember which is which?!)
            “This is impossible.” “This is unfair.” “You’re unfair.” “Other teachers don’t make their classes do this.”
            And I’m sure they said worse under their breath or when I wasn’t around.
            I sympathized with them. After all, it was a hard task. But, I was determined to hold the line.
            I would try to reassure them saying that I knew, if they tried, they could do it.
            High expectations.
            And, sure enough, when the day came for the dreaded Africa map quiz, most of the kids did just fine. I fact, there were always a few who got a perfect score.
            High expectations.
            Well, in today’s gospel lesson Jesus offers some very high expectations – the highest expectations of us, doesn’t he?
            Actually, to understand today’s passage we need to back up to what we heard last week. Remember, Jesus calls to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world?
            And then Jesus goes on to say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
            In today’s passage, Jesus explains what he means by fulfilling the law and the prophets.
            Jesus doesn’t abolish the law but instead he goes deeper – gets to the roots of the law – gets to the heart of the law.
            And, it turns out, the roots of the law – the heart of the law – is about what’s going on inside our hearts at least as much as it’s about our actions in the world.
            If you think about, this is nothing new. Even way back in the Ten Commandments, God commands us not only about our behavior but also about coveting our neighbor’s wife or our neighbor’s goods.
            From the start, God sets high expectations for us.
            So, Jesus continues that old tradition of high expectations, equating anger, equating saying, “You fool!” with murder.
            Jesus continues that old tradition of high expectations, equating lust with adultery, demanding that we practice absolute honesty.
            Jesus continues that old tradition of high expectations, demanding that we honor our marriage vows – offering the very tough teaching that divorcing a woman causes her to commit adultery and marrying a divorced woman is committing adultery.
            That’s probably the hardest one for us to hear since we may be divorced ourselves or we certainly know people who are divorced and remarried.
            It’s hard to talk about, but we have to admit that in our day, legal divorce is relatively easy – so easy that sometimes people choose divorce rather than even trying to work through their problems.
            But, we also know that unfortunately marriage can sometimes be physically and/or emotionally dangerous. I am certain that Jesus is not demanding stay in abusive relationships.
            But, keep in mind that for most of history – and in much of the world today – divorce was very bad news for women. For the most frivolous reasons, men would – and still often do – cruelly cast women off into a life of poverty and disgrace.
            So, the bottom line is that Jesus has the high expectation that we will work hard to keep our commitments – and that we certainly won’t throw away people when we grow tired of them or someone more attractive comes along.
            The highest expectations.
            Really, Jesus is calling us to perfection.
            Now, at this point, we might be feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, even depressed. We might be feeling like my students back in World Civ. class.
            Anger is just as bad as murder?
            Lust is just as bad as adultery?
            No divorce except in cases of unchastity?
            Absolute honesty, no matter what?
            Ridiculous. Unfair. Other people don’t have to do this. There’s no way we can do it. It’s impossible.
            And, we’d be right.
            It is ridiculously impossible to do any of this.
            Or, rather, it’s ridiculously impossible to do any of this on our own.
            You know, back in World Civ. class the kids who did best on the map quiz were the ones who worked together – who quizzed each other, who corrected each other’s spelling, who practiced and practiced and practiced.
            And the same is true in our lives. We can only take even tiny steps towards perfection when we work together – when we support and encourage each other – when we forgive and love each other.
            That’s really why we get together here each Sunday – to get the support we need to meet the highest expectations that Jesus has for us.
            That’s really why we get together here each Sunday, to receive forgiveness for the many, many – too many times to count or remember – times that we fail to meet Jesus’ highest expectations – that we fail to achieve perfection.
            That’s why we come to church, to receive the help of God’s grace, the help of God’s grace that we receive in and through the Scriptures, our prayers and songs, our fellowship, our service to one another and to the wider community, and most especially in the Body and Blood of Christ that we take into our bodies and into our hearts.
            We may wish otherwise, but Jesus has set the highest expectations for us, his disciples and followers.
            Jesus has set the highest expectations for us Christians.
            And, together, with God’s grace, we can begin to rise to Jesus’ highest expectations.
            Together, with God’s grace, we can take even just a few halting steps towards perfection.