Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Scripture for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Here begins the second of two sermons exploring one sermon, Jesus’s quintessential Sermon on the Mount, found in the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. And what a package it is! In it, Jesus teaches us to pray the Our Father. The Beatitudes? They’re included. Famous metaphors for the Kingdom of God—the city built on a hill, disciples as salt and light—you’ll find them there. And our focus last Sunday and this: the greater righteousness to which Jesus calls his disciples in every generation. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Today we hit the mother-lode in Jesus’s sermon—or is it a better metaphor that we hit the live nerve in the tooth?—“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? And if you greet only your own family and friends, what more are you doing than others? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

To appreciate Jesus’s teaching and Matthew’s reporting of it requires remembering that they both announce life-changing news: the Kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, who calls us to an obedience that he calls perfection, wholeness: not getting it all right, but taking it all in, embracing all, loving all. Once, a lawyer asked Jesus, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest? He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Hence our collect today: Without love, whatever we do is worth nothing…without love, we aren’t really living.

But how? How to love? This same Jesus who calls us to the wholeness of the Kingdom of God also stands with us in our struggles with How. The kingdom of God has come, but the old age continues, we live in the tension between the pure standards of the kingdom that has come and the conflicting demands of obedient love here and now.

Last week, we heard Jesus do an astonishing thing. Way beyond announcing a new improved interpretation of the Law of Moses, Jesus relocates authority from the written text to himself—not arrogantly self-aggrandizing, but simply because of God’s presence in his life, his teaching, his death and resurrection. He is where God’s action is, and he is ready to be the ground we need to stand on, the ground of our being, the mount we climb.

Many centuries before, Moses had been the action-bearer of God, the location of meeting between humanity and God. Matthew tells his Gospel in ways that show Jesus to be the new Moses, yet far more than Moses.

So Jesus in Matthew (and only Matthew, among the four Gospels) uses this radical approach in teaching the ethics of the Kingdom of God. Jesus cites an old law, time-honored in Torah, introducing it by saying, “You have heard it said, of old…” Then he radicalizes that law, reveals its arterial connection to the human heart and the heart of God: “You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy…” “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain (we can think snow) on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Jesus goes—and calls us to go—beyond the law’s limit. Again, his teaching pattern is to reaffirm the old law… then radicalize it, revealing its roots… then offer an application of the unlimited law, here and now. In the current example (love your enemies) he asks us to raise our sights on what it means to love in a costly way. Love only those who love you? That serves to advance the evolution of the human race? That easy love extends the kingdom of God in this brutal world? Hardly. Reward, gain, progress come as we love beyond our comfort zone.

Rehearsing that stretching of our safety range lies at the heart of discipleship. In an entry-level sort of way, this ought to shape how—and to whom—we pay attention at coffee hour, in our passing the peace, in our discovery that each of us here is a host to one another (whether a visitor or a veteran, adult or child), and as we seek out opportunities to grow our faith and practice in what we volunteer to learn and try and grow into.

It’s not as if our very own families don’t give us cause to stretch beyond easy love into truly challenging love. Right? We describe families as nuclear to suggest how they hold together—but the word might also suggest their capacity to blow apart.

Yet the point Jesus makes is that our domestic family and our voluntary fellowship as disciples are on one side of an equation. They bring resources to bear, sturdy (even if sometimes shaky) experiences of loving and being loved that God can and will use to transform a brutal world—if we will take our part in the stretching of old limits, if, that is, we are willing to become more perfect.

Believe me, I know I have to build this case carefully. I thought by adding that little word “more” in front of “perfect”, I could buy some credits. But I notice Jesus does not call us to more perfection, but to be perfect.

So let’s be clear what this does not mean. “Perfect” does not mean to Jesus what it did to the ancient Greeks, being untarnished by concrete involvement in the material world. No, Jesus does not mean an abstract ideal of keeping one’s hands and nose clean.

And “perfect” was not understood by Jesus to mean what it did to ancient Israel, the keeping of all the laws of their religious community at the expense of caring about the wellbeing of their neighbors, local and national, who were not members of their religious community. No, Jesus does not have in mind a legalism that still leaves plenty of room for one’s own selfish will.

“Perfect” is translated from the Hebrew word “tamim”, meaning “wholeness”. “You shall be perfect before the LORD your God,” a phrase Jesus knew from the Book of Deutronomy, meant “to serve God wholeheartedly, to be single-minded in devotion.”

Ask Jesus or Matthew to consider the perfection that keeps psychotherapists busy, or the kind of thousandths-of-a-second perfection it takes to win Olympic gold in the bobsled run, and I’ll guess they’d both say, No, not that perfection—it isn’t about “getting it all right”, it’s about “taking it all in”, embracing all, loving all. The practice of wholeness, fulfilling the divine call to love.

We heard St. Paul put it in his own way, today: the corollary to the stunningly goodnews that we belong to Christ is the awesome opportunity to behave as though all belong to us, and we to them, in that shared universe described by Jesus as being lit by the sun that shines on all, and wet with that rain that falls on all.

In those sun-drenched rain-washed fields, the gleaning of your harvest is never to strip the vineyard bare: leave some, at least the fallen grapes, for the poor and the refugees. Whether or not the law permits you to wait til morning to pay your day laborers, pay them the very day they’ve earned it. Include the hearing-impaired and vision-impaired, for you and they belong to one community.

This reading from the lawbook Leviticus gives us much to admire about how the Torah expanded from ten commandments to a much larger body of law and custom. We may be more familiar with the Torah’s less admirable laws, the kind that get lampooned and rightly omitted from the church’s lectionary. It’s important that we appreciate how the Torah also stretches to raise the bar of social responsibility, and lower the bar to the flow of lovingkindness.

Our Torah reading today segues perfectly to the Sermon on the Mount. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people… You shall not hate anyone of your kin…you shall love (and, notice, reprove) your neighbor as yourself.”

There is the old law, straining forward to something finer than vengeance and grudge and hatred, but not yet a love that embraces the enemy. The old law is preaching to the choir, urging forbearance towards one’s own people (granted, hard enough on many days), reaching as far as the neighbor, but with no clear signal that this includes unrelated strangers who aren’t in the circle of kith and kin.

Then Jesus gets his hands on the scrolls. Retributive justice—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth—is not enough to change the world, he says.

PBS Evening News featured recently a piece on a Restorative Justice program at Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colorado. Rather than reacting to student fights by suspending students, the school decided to respond by creating circles of conversation that bring together the involved fighting students and their parents, facilitated by a social worker skilled at helping people speak truth to one another respectfully, leveraging mutual apologies . Since starting this program, physical altercations annually dropped from 263 in 2007-8 to 31 last year, with a 48% drop in suspensions.

Restorative justice is a good way to describe the African tribe whose way of dealing with an offender who violates the peace and order of the community is to call a village meeting with the offender present within the circle. Their task is to remember aloud whatever good the offender has done, whatever they have admired about him or been grateful for. They intervene to recall him to his better self.

Is restorative justice enough to change the world? Jesus urges a yet more radical justice based, as one commentator says, not on a doctrine of human rights, or a strategy to win over the enemy, but is based simply on the nature of God who loves all impartially, and on the belief that love has the power to change a brutal world.

Are you dissatisfied with that? I fully expect that it’s my sermon, not Jesus’s, that doesn’t do justice to this vision that love extends to the enemy. Put your dissatisfaction to work and keep wrestling with this vision Jesus has, because we have been baptized into it.

Keep wrestling with this vision. For the sake of the peoples of Ukraine, of Syria, of South Sudan, and so many more who are divided and locked in mortal resistance until a greater love is learned and embraced.