The Very Rev. Tom Callard – February 16, 2020
Today’s passage from Matthew is about the law, so I want to confess to you this morning that sometimes I have a nebulous relationship with the law, and that most days when I’m driving to the Cathedral early in the morning, I turn right on red when the law tells me not to. And almost always I drive faster than 30 miles an hour, especially in the morning and there’s no one around. It feels good to say these things. I didn’t want to say anything about this last week when the Bishop was here, but I feel like I can tell you today.
One time years ago I was stopped by the police in Los Angeles because my car had expired plates. It was a new state, a new registration, and who thinks about things like expired plates? And so I got pulled over and I happened to be wearing my collar and they saw that I was a priest. And in the course of my conversation with the officer who pulled me over, I mentioned that I was a chaplain who worked with Captain Murphy- their captain. At that time there was a lot of gang violence in the neighborhood, and I worked closely with the police and victims of violence. And so the officer who pulled me over went back to his car with my license and he came back he told me I was free to go, expired plates and all.
So I think I took advantage of my privilege as a clergy and got off without even a warning. All the officer said was – have a good day, Father. I think I used whatever little privilege I have from being a priest to escape a ticket. Back in the old days, the clergy had more privilege. Bback in the old days if you had a collar you could just walk right into Fenway Park and see the Red Sox for free, without needing a ticket. Just by wearing a collar, just by being a clergy. Probably because the Red Sox needed all the prayers they could get.
But on a serious note, let’s think for a moment about the abuse of power. Let’s think for a moment about all those ways those who are privileged get away with breaking the law and doing bad things. Jesus’s ministry is filled with conflicts with the Scribes and Pharisees who are those in power in Jesus’s time. And again and again it comes down to how they abuse the law, or break the law, or fail to really follow what the law says.
In Matthew, chapter 23, there’s a passage where Jesus says to the people that they should observe what the scribes and Pharisees tell them, but do not do what the Scribes and Pharisees do, because they talk about the law and maybe they follow the letter of the law, but they don’t follow God. They preach these laws, but they do not practice them. Or they follow the details of the law, but they neglect to do the will of God. They do not practice justice and goodness.
Of course, it’s not just the scribes and Pharisees, but throughout history those in power, those in authority, those with the collars, those with the wealth, those with the fancy titles or with the white privilege or the straight privilege or with the male privilege, those with authority have broken the law and used the law to their advantage again and again.
Think of the ancient laws which allowed nobles in the Europe to take the land of the poor while poor people were jailed for taking a loaf of bread. Or think of voting laws in our country which allowed the whites to vote in the polls while the blacks were turned away. Or those immigration laws which today allow people from some countries to come in, you know the good ones, but immigrants from other countries are turned away.
Just like with the scribes and pharisees in the time of Jesus, throughout history the law is applied randomly, it is followed in some cases but not others, and it is neglected and ignored by those in authority. And they get away with it all the time.
And so today Jesus is telling his followers: look, you know what the laws are, you know what these laws say, and he mentions various laws: you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not bear false witness, these coming directly from the 10 commandments which are the laws of Moses, as well as one other which Jesus mentions today, that a man has a legal right to give a woman a divorce.
And he says: you know what these laws are, but let me tell how you should really live. Because the law is one thing, the letter of the law is one thing, the written word of the law is one thing. But you need to live by more. Jesus wants his followers not to be like the scribes and pharisees who may technically follow the letter and written word of the law. He asks of us more.
So the law says do not murder, but Jesus expands that to say you shouldn’t really do anything bad to other people. It’s not enough to just to not murder. And the law says do not commit adultery, but Jesus expands that to say that there are so many ways to be unfaithful to someone, and you shouldn’t really do any of them. And the law says you can legally divorce a woman. But Jesus expands that to say really you should think about what it does to a woman in this culture when you divorce her. How it affects her status in society. And the law says you should not swear falsely, but Jesus expands that to say you should think all the time about what your word means.
In other words, Jesus is saying – it’s not enough just to do these things in the law. I’m expecting from you more. If you’re going to be with me on this journey and follow me into the kingdom, I’m going to ask more than what the world asks. There is a greater standard for Christians than just to follow the law.
I’m sometimes not comfortable thinking about the fact that I am being held to a greater standard. Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair that as a Christian more is being asked of me. It reminds me of something that happened in Middle School when I wrote some essay for a teacher, and I thought it was pretty good. But when he handed it back to me I got a failing grade. And he wrote on it, Tom, I expect something more from you. And so I went to him and I said, I think you’ve got me all wrong. I’m not really that smart. And he told me that my teachers, if they are any good, will always ask of me something more. Because you can do more. You’re not living up to your potential. Has anyone else ever heard that?
In a way, Jesus is saying the same thing to us. There is this higher standard which is not about the laws used to measure things, but is about our potential and our calling as children of Christ. For as Christians we are called to be good, and to practice justice and mercy, and to make a difference and to change the world. It’s not a small thing.
Does that mean that Jesus is judging us when we break the law or fail to live up to this standard? No, I don’t believe Jesus is a harsh judge. And I don’t believe my relationship with him is based on him looking down at me to judge and condemn me. I believe he is asking more. He is asking more of us.
At some point in many people’s lives they have someone who is an authority figure, like a teacher or a coach or a mentor, or a family member, someone whose opinion we really value. And we want to do well for them. Do you have someone like that in your life, that you want to do well for that person? For example, I had my karate teacher, Mr. Mahar. And I wanted him to be proud of me.
I had my grandparents. And I would do anything for them and it was important for me to do my best for them. And so I tried. And I remember the first time I had a cigarette when I was 18, and I experimented with cigarettes. And one of my grandparents discovered I had been smoking, and I felt bad. I knew they would still love me, but I felt that I had not done my best.
In this way I want to do my best for God, for Jesus. Not because he won’t love me, or he’ll be disappointed in me, because he will always love me. But because he’s asking for my best. He’s placed in my life a moral code which lets me know what’s right – to love my neighbor, and love myself, and care for those around me and work for those who are in need. To work for the good. And at this point in my life it’s important for me to try and do my best. Not just to follow the law, but to follow this greater calling, even though I sometimes fail.
I don’t hate myself or despise myself for not following it. I’m not exceptionally disappointed in myself when I don’t do my best. And it does not make me fear that I am going to hell. But when I read about Jesus in the Bible, or when I come in here and see his picture, or when I find him in my prayers, I think about what he’s offering me, which is more. And what he’s asking from me, which is more.
Tom, from you I expect something more, I can hear Jesus saying, like that teacher in Middle School. Because of what you can do. Can you hear that voice? Do you ever hear that voice?
So I want us to think about that this week. And as we move into Lent in the next couple weeks, I pray we realize we can do whatever we want in this life. Those laws out there are yours to keep or to break or to fudge with or to blissfully ignore as you drive on your way to work. You can follow the examples of the world and even follow the examples of those who abuse their power and privilege. Or you can be one of those who watch what goes on and simply accept that these things happen, who say: Our politicians do it all the time, so it must be okay. But remember today that we’re capable of so much more. We have been given so much by our faith and our Lord, and he asks for that from us in return.