“Fire & Water”


February 12, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard.  Amen.

Now, you have heard it said, that if a sermon goes longer than 20 minutes, you are not in an Episcopal Church (or if you are, that preacher likely won’t last)…but, I say what about Jesus?  I mean, he is still preaching the Sermon on the Mount here, and we are already into it a few long paragraphs (or the past two weeks in lectionary land), and it would appear he is just getting warmed up!  He makes the Baptists look like Episcopalians by comparison, because this sermon goes for three solid chapters of Matthew…and believe it or not, we will hear a fourth week of it next Sunday.  Apparently, Mary Magdaline didn’t slip him a little note with the word KISS on it – Keep it short sweetie.  I sure hope they had some port-a-potties out there, and maybe a Keurig, like we have here for the 8am service, you know, just to get an occasional boost of caffeine. 

Now, for those who like to-do lists, and I am one (I mean, I even will add something I just did to my to-do list, if it wasn’t there before, just so I can check it off).  Anyway, for to-do list makers, you might like the part of this sermon we hear today and next week, because it seems Jesus is rattling off a list.  A list of what to do, or not do, in the world.  Sounds easy – follow the list and all will be great between us and God, right?  Well, if there is anything we have come to know about our fiercely radical Lord and Savior, is that he rarely makes what he says that easy – there is always a subtext that is the powerful point he is trying to make, leaving the actual words for those in power to digest, while his followers hopefully get his real meaning.

So, sorry to disappoint any list makers out there, but Jesus, in this part of his very long sermon, isn’t really talking about divorce (in fact, as you might note from the difference in the gospel book vs. what is printed in your bulletins, the church thought it best to just drop that whole thing).  No, he wasn’t talking about divorce, or adultery, swearing, or cutting off your hand.  So, if you are divorced, for crying out loud – don’t be worried about it.  There is a larger truth being made, and Jesus, as I have pointed out before, would not ask you to be in a relationship that diminishes you, or does not bring you and your spouse the fullness of joy in love.  He is, as he is wont to do, making a much more powerful statement about what it means to be a child of God, and it isn’t about following rules, because, as we all know, Jesus himself was a rule breaker.

No, it isn’t about following the rules, or indulging in self-abusive behavior to punish yourself for whatever sin you may or may not commit.  Jesus is telling us something much more profound, and much more life changing.  And, much more challenging to boot.

But let’s step back a moment, and look first at the reading from the book of Sirach, which is part of the Apocrypha, we heard this morning. “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. [God] has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.”

The wisdom we hear in this book is that God gives us a choice of how to live.  It is a choice that Jesus is talking about too.  It isn’t a to-do or not-to-do list, but a choice we must make if we are to live the life we were born to live.  A choice between fire and water – between life and death.  And Jesus is telling us something about how to choose – how to be in this world.  That just abiding by rules is not a life well lived – we are called to go deeper than that.  Jesus is saying that life is not about following the rules, but about being in relationship.

Because, as one commentator put it: “It’s not enough just to refrain from murder. We should also treat each other with respect and that means not speaking hateful words.

It is not enough to avoid physically committing adultery. We should also not objectify other persons by seeing them as a means to satisfy our physical desires by lusting after them.

It is not enough to follow the letter of the law regarding divorce. We should not treat people as disposable and should make sure that the most vulnerable — in this culture that often meant women and children — are provided for.

It is not enough to keep ourselves from swearing falsely or lying to others. We should speak and act truthfully in all of our dealings so that we don’t need to make oaths at all.”[1]

You see, Jesus is talking about living in a way that not only nourishes our own souls, but the lives of those we encounter too.  Living as a people of God is living in relationship to one another.  We cannot just think about our actions as being something inconsequential to the other, to God, acting as though we can move through life following rules, and laws of church and humanity, as if that were what we are born to do.  It is not!  Sometimes, we are called to do the opposite.

This past Wednesday, I stood with over 100 of my clergy colleagues in Newark as we walked with Catalino Guerrero, a sixty year old man and undocumented immigrant facing deportation.  “Catalino Guerrero has lived in the US for 25 years. His children and grandchildren all live here. Catalino was living here legally, under a visa, but his lawyer filed for a visa renewal, without Catalino’s knowledge, with a new request for “refugee status.” That request was denied, which meant Catalino’s previous visas were no longer in effect. He was ordered to self-deport. His family hired a lawyer and helped him get a “stay of deportation,” which expired after a year. 

In 2014, a network of advocacy groups and clergy helped him get his second stay by urging ICE (the federal agency charged with immigration and customs enforcement) to use the discretion afforded to them by law to give Catalino a reprieve. During this “stay of removal,” Catalino has reported to ICE as required for meetings every six months. Suddenly last week, Catalino received an order to report for an unscheduled ICE appointment on February 8th, even though he has a six month check-in already scheduled for Feb 23rd. Catalino’s family was very concerned that this new appointment could turn into a deportation, and they were right to be concerned.”[2] 

And so, I was there to pray for him, and walk with him to the federal building, joining with our bishop, and over 100 other clergy.  As we marched around the block shouting “Build Community, not a Wall!” and singing “We Will Not Give Up,” out walked Catalino, free…for now, and he joined us at the press conference in front of Grace Episcopal Church, next to the Federal Building, where leaders of faith communities from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions condemned the inhumanity of these actions and called all people of faith, and all elected leaders, to stand up and be counted.

That is what Jesus is calling us to do now.  To stand up and be counted.  It isn’t good enough for us to just follow the law, we must live as God intends.  It isn’t good enough for us to say we have not done anyone any harm ourselves, we must stand up for the rights of others to not be harmed, and fight any institution or any individual who seeks to harm our brothers, our sisters, or our earth.  Jesus is telling us to recognize that the law is limited, because we are limited – but God’s call is to live beyond the rules, and break them where necessary – because there are far too many people who hide behind them to justify what is unjust. 

After the action on Wednesday, there was an article on NJ.Com about it, and the comments were vile, even cruel.  One said to Catalino “Bye! Don’t let the wall hit you on the way out!”  Others called the clergy immoral for protesting.  Not to mention some on our Facebook page – one of which I had to delete, it was so hateful, and another didn’t pass muster with the Facebook filters because it was filled with the F-Word and things so horrible I won’t repeat them.  These are the ones who are caught up in human law, and fail to see the child of God in their midst, and we should pray for them. 

You see, God has no national borders – people do.  The man in Nogales, Mexico is as much a child of God as the man in Bloomfield. The woman in Dublin, Ireland is a much a child of God as the woman in Glen Ridge.  This child in the orphanage in Bamenda, Cameroon, is as much a child of God as the children in our Sunday School here at Christ Church.  We sometimes just fail to see it that way.  We think we are entitled to do or say whatever we want because it is “our” country – though I wonder how the Native Americans feel about that claim.

I am reminded of a story one pastor told about a childhood friend of his. He said, “My friend, Frank, was about eight years old at the time, when he started arguing with his sister. Before long, arguing turned to pushing and shoving, and, soon enough, Frank had his younger sister pinned to the ground with his fist raised in the air. At that moment, his mother came into the room and told him to stop it. In response, Frank – as he described – reared up as only an eight-year-old can and declared, fist still raised in the air, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At this point, Frank’s mom swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!””

Think of the story this way “It’s our country, and we can do anything we want to anyone in our borders who violates our laws!”  To which God says “That is my child – and no you can’t!”

Jesus doesn’t say that laws are not important, and neither am I, but he does make it clear we must move beyond them, to be rebellious, as he was, when love for our brother or sister is on the line.  We must do this, because it is never acceptable to claim this faith, but not live it out.  Jesus is telling us that life is not about laws, but about love.  He isn’t calling for lawlessness, but a sort of “trans-lawfulness,” [3] in which our lives move beyond the boundaries of what is permitted to the larger call of love, respect, decency, and fairness.

Alice Cooper (do you all remember the rocker Alice Cooper?)  Anyway, he once said, “Drinking beer is easy.  Trashing your hotel room is easy.  But being a Christian, that’s a tough call.  That’s rebellion.”[4] Jesus is calling us to rebellion – no, not the wild beer drinking, smashing stuff up kind, but the kind that matters – the kind he did.  The Sermon on the Mount isn’t some heartwarming homily on keeping the law – what would be the point of that – they could hear that in the synagogue.  Jesus was giving a sermon on the radical life we were born to live – to go beyond the law – to love and to serve all of God’s creation.  This isn’t about breaking a law just to trash a hotel room, this is about moving beyond the law to fight for justice, speak out for peace, and stand with our sister and brother on the margins.

Today, the law says that a person crossing the human made border of one country into another country has committed a crime and must be deported.  There is no denying that is the law.  But Jesus says we called to move beyond that to compassion and respect.  If he were preaching it today, the Sermon on the Mount might sound like this: “You have heard it said, that you must not enter another country without proper authority, but I say treat all people with dignity.  Do not drag those who cross your borders into courtrooms in large groups bound hand and foot in shackles.  Do not, after living peacefully in the land for decades without harm to you, separate them from their children.  Do not discard their children who know no other country but the one into which they were born.  Do not do this under the cover that it is legal – for  being legal does not make it just.” 

No, we certainly only need look back at our history to know that last part is true – that because something is written in the law that it is just.

In this month in which we honor the history of people of color, let us not forget that in the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality, many laws had to be broken.  It was against the law for whites and blacks to use the same facilities, to be married, to share the same space.  People of faith took to the streets to protest, some dying in the process, because we are a people called to live beyond the laws of humanity.  Next month is women’s history month.  It was against the law for a woman to vote, a man could force his wife to have sex within the bounds of the law, and women were prevented from even holding a credit card without the permission of her husband.  People of faith rose up and fought.  June is Gay Pride month.  It was against the law for a person to be gay – the police would imprison gay men and women, they were blackmailed, beaten, and killed without legal recourse.  People of faith broke free from the bonds of their own institution’s heartless dogma to stand for the rights of all people to love freely.

Jesus is cautioning us that it is far too easy to stand behind what is legal.  We are called to a higher law – to love one another as He loved us.  Love does not humiliate, harm, or destroy.  Love does not bind others in chains of hate, bigotry, and fear.  Love does not stand by while others are marginalized for where they were born, what they believe, the gender they claim, and who they love.

We are in a dangerous time in this country and in the world.  All over there are people trying to instill fear, bigotry, and hatred as a means to justify violence against our brothers and sisters – our neighbors – the ones we are called to love.  And they will justify it all by saying it is within the bounds of the law. It will be up to each of us to recognize the choice we are being lulled into making – to open our eyes to see the wolf in the sheep’s clothing offering us fire masked as water.  And when we see it – when we see another human being treated as less-than, ignored, abused, marginalized – to stand up and go beyond the law of the land to the law of God. 

We must do this, because any other way of living is not being a follower of Jesus.  Alice Cooper was right, this Christianity – it isn’t easy – it is a life long journey that requires a whole lot of courage.  But thankfully, we are sustained by our faith, one another, and God’s love.  It doesn’t mean we will succeed in every battle.  Even in this effort to stand up for our brother Catalino, we have more to do – because we were told that day that, while he was allowed to return home last week, he must now return on March 10th…this time with his passport.  And I will return with him.

No, this life in Christ isn’t for the faint of heart, and we will face many challenges to live as we are being taught by him to live – indeed, the crucifixion of Jesus shows us what can happen to those who speak truth to power in an age of empire.  But the crucifixion also reminds us that life is stronger than death, light is stronger than darkness, and love will always defeat hate. 

We can choose to bind ourselves to the laws of humanity, or the laws of God.  Or put another way: “Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” 

Which do you choose – law or love, fire or water, life or death?  I implore you – choose wisely, because your life, and the lives of so many or your brothers and sisters on this earth, depend on it. 


For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:

[1] David Lose.  WorkingPreacher.org.  2014.

[2] Modified from a statement by PICO and Faith in NJ.

[3] Bob Eldan.  PreachingTips.org

[4] Source – Bob Eldan.  PreachingTips.org.


Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
February 12, 2017
The Sixth Sunday After The Epiphany
1st Reading – Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Gospel – Matthew 5:21-37