Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
Today, as we celebrate Scout Sunday, we welcome the boys of Troop and Pack 16, as well as their leaders and parents. Let me take a moment for a shout-out to a man who’s had to deal with two of the most demanding roles I can imagine: Dave Banks. One of those demanding roles has been serving as our Troop 16 Scoutmaster, a job of great sacrifice from which he is stepping down at the end of this month. The other, even more demanding, role has been getting stuck with following in Morgan Olander’s footsteps. Dave has given countless hours in his service to the Scouts of Troop 16, their families, and the family of St. Andrew’s – so please show him your appreciation.
So, as we mark Scout Sunday, I want to be clear in what it is we’re celebrating. We’re not honoring a community partner, some organization we allow to use the building each week. We’re raising up one of the primary youth and family ministries of our church. I draw that distinction because Scouting is about formation – from a Christian perspective, it’s about forming followers of Jesus in how they represent Jesus to the world. And the same could be said about the Girl Scouts, too. Scouting isn’t just campouts; it’s discipleship. And that journey of growing as a disciple, of growing more and more into “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13) – that’s a journey God asks every last one of us to be taking.
A bit later today, six of the boys of Troop 16 will become Eagle Scouts. As you know, it’s the pinnacle of Scouting achievement. But, as I’m sure we’ll hear in the remarks this afternoon, it’s also just the beginning for these boys. Their lives will change the world – certainly in small ways, maybe in big ways, too. So, although these Scouts will earn the fruit of their labors this afternoon, they’re definitely not finished with the work God has given them to do. And that illustrates what may be the best characteristic of Scouting, and certainly something Scouting shares with other ministries that form us as Jesus’ disciples: Scouting is aspirational. There’s always another merit badge to work on; there’s always a further rank to attain. As the grown-up Eagle Scouts among us demonstrate every day, there’s always a greater difference to be made, a greater benefit to bring to the world and the people around you.
Aspiration runs through the readings we heard this morning, too. In Deuteronomy, we hear Moses trying to explain to the people of Israel that, when it comes to God’s Law, the stakes are so much higher than they imagine. The Law is not simply a list of rules and regulations for people about to move into a new land. The Law is God’s path of blessing for a people set aside to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. Following the Law is the way wilderness wanderers become a great nation, how wayfaring strangers become a light to the world. As Moses tells his people, following the Law is the great choice God asks them to make, in that time and place. I have set before you two options, the Lord says through Moses – the way of life and prosperity or the way of death and adversity. It’s just that stark. This path of blessing, for yourselves and for the world, is not something you can simply sample as it suits you, a path of convenience. This path of blessing brings you life, and it brings the light of God’s life to the world. So, Moses cries to his people, choose this steeper path. “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him,” Moses says. Aspire to be the beloved community, living out nothing less than the reign and rule of God.
That kind of aspiration runs through the Gospel reading this morning, too. This is the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is teaching something that might make us good Christians stop short. We like to think about Christianity replacing the Jewish Law with the good news of grace – that God’s salvation can’t be earned, only gratefully received. True enough. So following the Law isn’t something we do – but that’s not because the Law’s intentions missed the mark. Actually, Jesus takes the Law of Moses and raises the bar even higher. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’” Jesus says. “But I say to you, that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’” Jesus says. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at [someone else] with lust has already committed adultery … in his heart.” (Matthew 5:21-22,27-28) To me, we miss the point if we focus on what Jesus means by the “hell of fire” (5:22), the consequences that come when we miss the mark. To me, the point is where the mark lies.
The kingdom of God, the beloved community, is about always aspiring to love more. For example, to name one of the elephants in the room that comes out of this reading – hear what Jesus is saying about divorce. Clearly, Jesus is not a fan of divorce, and you can find that in other Gospel accounts, too. But what he’s saying here isn’t about judgment for people who find themselves in the tragedy of relationships broken beyond repair. What he’s saying here is that the minimum requirement of the Law just isn’t enough. For that time and place, there was some love in that Law about divorce. It said a man couldn’t just abandon his wife if he didn’t like her anymore; he had to write a certificate of divorce, which relinquished his property claim on her and allowed her to remarry rather than wandering unprotected as a social outcast. But for Jesus, that’s not enough love. He’s looking to protect the woman, the powerless one in the relationship in that time and place, from being tossed aside on a man’s whim. My point is that Jesus looks at the Law, at the minimum requirement of love, and he says, “You know, that’s not enough.” Living faithfully isn’t about whether we check the boxes of legal requirements, whether we do just enough to pass the test, or what might happen to us when we fail, as we surely will. Living faithfully is about recognizing that God raises the bar because God wants for us as much love as we’re willing to choose. Each day, God sets before us the choice to be a blessing. So “choose life,” God says, “that you and your descendants may live.”
What does that look like for us, in our present moment? Well, here’s one way I believe God is calling us to aspire to love more and love better, to go beyond the minimum requirements of the law. It has to do with how we see our opponents, those who disagree with us; and the ways our small, daily actions bear that out. In a tweet the other day, the president called people who oppose him “haters.” Really? By the same token, on Facebook I saw posts from people on the other side that called people they disagree with “sexist fascists” and “thieves.” Anymore, we throw around demeaning language as if words don’t matter. But they do. And it’s not just the potential pain those words inflict on others. Throwing around demeaning language to describe other children of God forms us to see those other people as something less than children of God. And it forms us, as a nation, to live far below the heights where the “better angels of our nature” dwell, as Abraham Lincoln said. Whether you see it on a protest sign or in a presidential tweet, any message that denigrates those who disagree with you has no place in the kingdom of God. That’s not how we follow our baptismal promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Because every human being is a child of God. Every human being – maybe especially those with whom we most deeply disagree. As Paul writes in the reading from First Corinthians this morning, “As long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you … you are behaving according to human inclinations” (3:3), not aspiring to grow more and more into the measure of the full stature of Christ. Instead, choose a different path. For we “have a common purpose,” Paul says. “We are God’s servants working together” (3:8-9).
The six boys who will become Eagles today didn’t have to choose the path they chose. They didn’t have to work toward one merit badge after another. They didn’t have to freeze through winter campouts. They didn’t have to learn to lead their peers. But for them, the Scout Oath and Scout Law pointed them down a path of aspiration. If they were truly going to do their best to do their duty to God, and to their country, and to the other human beings around them, then they had to choose the steeper path, the path toward Eagle.
The call to us from God’s Word says very much the same thing: If we’re going to do our best to do our duty to love God and love neighbor, to live out the Baptismal Covenant, then we’ve got to take the steeper path, too. We’ve got to choose to be better than we have to be. We’ve got to choose be a blessing to the people we encounter. We’ve got to choose life, that we and our descendants may live.