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Ice Skating vs. Slope Style
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on February 9, 2014

Christ Church Andover
Epiphany 5, Year A
February 9, 2014

Click for the readings for Epiphany 5.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be always acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.

A shift has happened for Chris and me over the past few months. Before Livvy was born, we loved playing and hanging out with the children of our friends—it was fairly entertaining to watch both parent and child stretch each other—we could be witnesses only, perhaps stirring the pot once in a while, getting to be the ‘fun’ one when we arrived. Bedtime screams did not apply to us; nor did we have to issue injunctions to eat peas, or to share. It was a magical time. Now that we have Olivia, our fun ‘auntie and uncle’ hands-off moments with these families have been replaced with a sense of horror that perhaps we should have been taking notes about what to do with children or babies or how to make peas or bedtime palatable. Recently, when visiting friends with children, I have been keeping a closer eye on just what happens at different ages. There is the ‘I like to put laptop cords in my mouth and stick my fingers in electrical sockets stage’; there is the ‘I only eat bread for dinner’ stage; and most interestingly for me, there is a slightly older stage where a certain legalistic mindset takes hold. The children will follow the letter of the law, but only to the letter. For example, on the pea theme, “Try your peas.” “I did.” “You only ate one pea.” “But you said to try, and one pea is trying.” Or, “Don’t poke your sister.” “I’m not.” “Your finger is still in her face.” “You didn’t say don’t poke AT her.” Or, “Can you pick up your toys?” “Yes.” (as the child picks up one toy and holds it in the air) “See, I’m picking a toy up.” They are not disobeying, nor ignoring the requests—they just simply aren’t doing anything more than exactly what they were told.

Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This morning’s gospel is taken from one of the five teaching discourses that Jesus offers his followers and disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus, here depicted as the learned rabbi, anchors himself fully in the Jewish tradition—he tells those listening that he is not here to undo the law, the commandments or the Torah teachings, as some accuse him of doing—but he is here to flesh them out, to go beyond them. Righteousness for righteousness’ sake is not the Word of life he brings with him; we are not measured against the letter of the law which has been upheld for centuries by the scribes and Pharisees who take the law as it is written as their standard for measurement. Instead, immediately following the beatitudes, Jesus invites us to think of ourselves as bearers of more than the literal word of the law—that that is what discipleship entails.

All of our readings this morning engage the essence of what it means to be a disciple. Isaiah, heralding a taste of what is to be proclaimed on Ash Wednesday, blasts those who fast for the sake of fasting. The warning is against legalistic piety, of doing for the sake of gaining God’s attention and personal blessing, and not as a means of engaging the injustices that surround and oppress God’s people. Isaiah reminds themus—over and over again that the fast that God asks of us rests not only in obeying God’s word, but in enacting the vision of God’s kingdom, which cannot be done through words alone.

Paul in his letter to the worldly and cosmopolitan church in Corinth, also presses this point. The people of Corinth are used to beautiful speakers, orators, philosophers who impress with their knowledge and ability to turn a phrase. Paul contends with this trend—“My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” It is not up to his words to convict or to engage, but the going forth and living out of them among the people. Brother Mark Brown of the Society of St John the Evangelist comments, “Words are notoriously provisional, contingent, fluid. What words mean depends on context; and meanings shift over time and from place to place. Words of text are not bedrock. The only bedrock of life is the Living Word himself.” And what we find is that the Living Word requires more than obedience to the law - instead it begs a certain creativity of Spirit to defy the limited understanding of what is right and what is wrong, and engage instead what might be and how to participate in that vision of holiness. Paul knows this. He was a student of the Law for his entire life until his conversion. Paul understands that the relative ease of the Law followed to the letter is enticing compared to the murkiness of following the Living Word, Jesus.

This being the first weekend of the Winter Olympics, one must add the ubiquitous winter-sport reference. An article came out a few days ago about Surya Bonaly, the French ice skater who competed in the Olympics in 1998. One of the few black athletes in the sport, Bonaly found herself skating similar routines as others, but was routinely and inexplicably marked down—even though she had hit all of the required elements necessary, just as the other skaters had. There was much written about and commented on that this was a passive form of race bias in a widely pale-skinned sport. In the 1998 Winter Olympics, Bonaly added an element to her free skate routine—a back flip. Back flips had been deemed illegal moves because of the danger they posed, but also because of the assumption that they required landing on two blades, whereas all legal jumps were required to land on one blade. Bonaly, in what would be her last professional competition, not only added a back flip to her routine, but landed on one blade, the only skater, female or male, ever to do so in competition. She not only followed the letter of the law (ice-skating-wise), but went beyond it demonstrating her power and skills in a bid to challenge those who would resist seeing her as more than a black athlete who didn’t have a place in the sport.

Jesus himself tells us that we already are able to hear and see and embody that creative Spirit that is required of us to not rest in that child-like legalistic mindset. We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. We enhance, reflect back, bring to life the law which would otherwise seem stale, tasteless, dark, limited. We do not need to *become* the salt of the earth or the light of the world—instead, Jesus himself proclaims that we already are those things—programmed by the Creator of the world to have an innate ability to add our own Spirit and gifts to the understanding and enacting of the Law. The Ten Commandments are good places to start in terms of our living into and out of faith, but to rest in those solely is to limit ourselves to keeping our pointer finger aimed, but not touching, our sister’s face when our parent has asked us not to poke her.

Sonya Bonaly did not medal that year at the Olympics and retired soon afterwards. Jesus died upon the cross, surrounded by criminals and abandoned by his disciples. It is not easy to go beyond the letter of the law and delve into the Spirit-filled life of faith without upsetting the waters of what is considered ‘right and wrong’. Perhaps the road of discipleship is more like the new Winter Olympic sport of Slope-Style, rather than the technical ice skating we are used tothat we know where we begin and where we hope to end, but that the journey in between those two points is one up to us to fill with our creative and Spirit-gifted beings.


Last Published: March 12, 2014 12:13 PM