7th Sunday after the Epiphany
RCL Yr. A: Leviticus 18:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5:38-48
February 23, 2014
The Rev. Gillian R. Barr
Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket, RI
In today’s readings from Matthew and Leviticus we are asked to do some very difficult things. To not resist or strike back when we are attacked, verbally or physically. To give to anyone who asks, regardless of their worthiness or what they plan to do with the money. To love our enemies.
These demands in Matthew go against all of our instincts of self-preservation, of self-defense, and of achievement. They don’t fit with what would seem to be the responsible way to handle our resources to provide for ourselves and our families. They challenge our physical safety and our financial security. And they fly in the face of our American culture, which emphasizes self-sufficiency, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, enjoying the fruits of our own hard work.
There is a huge chasm between norms of a biblical society as described in Leviticus and and our current culture. God requires that we leave some of what we have earned for the poor and for the illegal immigrant, that we take special care of the deaf and the blind and disabled, that we not profit from the deaths of others. Meanwhile our so-called “Christian” culture is busy cutting safety nets for children and the mentally ill and the working poor, police and immigration officials do sweeps of border neighborhoods to round up undocumented people and break apart families, and military contractors continue to grow rich while while our soldiers and sailors’ families live on food stamps and our war-scarred veterans sleep on the streets and kill themselves in record numbers.
It is very hard to live by the dictates of the Gospel. It’s hard to keep our mouth shut when we’re insulted or slandered [I have to insert a sidebar here: This passage does not mean we are to stay in an abusive relationship—that’s a whole other sermon, but it’s a caveat that always needs to be made with this and similar texts] It’s hard to hand a few dollars to the person on the street even though we suspect it will not be spent as we would wish. It’s hard to advocate for more humane social policies because they are what God would require, even if they go against the ideology of the day, or the platform of the political party that we’ve always supported.
If this is what it means to be a Christian, or this is what it takes to be right with God, it would seem to be impossible. Be perfect, as God is perfect? Sorry, can’t do it. That’s pie in the sky talk, thank you very much. Doesn’t work in the real world. I’ll just keep on as I was, thank you.
How are we to be expected to live up to such standards?
Think of the teacher or boss or coach who has gotten the best work out of you. Not necessarily the most in volume or number of hours, but the best. The person for whom you pushed yourself to a higher level than usual, without complaining. The person who drew achievements out of you that you wouldn’t have thought possible. Then think about a boss or teacher or coach for whom you really made no effort whatsoever. For whom you gave the bare minimum to get by? What was the difference between them?
The boss for whom you did very little? I bet they were someone who seemed focused on himself Someone you feared would stab you in the back, or just not support you. Someone whom you feared, who you thought was constantly evaluating and judging you, perhaps arbitrarily, or for their own benefit. Someone whose ethics and values seemed suspect. Who headed a “team” where everyone was actually out for him or herself, where if you fell down they were more likely to step on you than help you up.
The person who inspired you and led you to achievements you wouldn’t have thought possible? I bet it was someone you respected, and trusted, and felt they believed in you and had your back. You were sure they had your best interest and your success and well-being in mind. They went above and beyond the requirements of their job to support you, personally and professionally, at a real personal cost. Someone who, when you made the inevitable mistake, helped you learn from it, and realized that’s just what comes with taking risks and trying new things, and then supported you in front of higher-ups. And there were very probably also equality dedicated colleagues or teammates that you don’t want to let down.
It’s bosses like that of whom we say, “I would do anything for her.” I hope when I am a manager I remember to treat my employees the same way he did.” “We had such a great team—we really had each other’s backs—that was the year we broke all the records, even though we didn’t have any superstars.”
Often times when we think about the “hard demands” of the Christian life, under the surface we have some natural, but actually incorrect, assumptions. We can too easily look at things like today’s passages as just that—demands from an autocratic unrealistic superior, detached from the realities of our daily life. And not just demands, but prerequisites. IF you want to be a good person, IF you want to be a Christian, IF you want to have salvation, THEN this is what is required of you.
Actually that’s not it at all. If there is one thing to remember about the pattern of the Bible, it’s that Law always comes after liberation and salvation, not as prerequisite for it. God liberated the people of Israel from slavery and set them on a journey to the land of promise. Only then did God give them the Law. Not as a requirement for what it would take for God to notice them, but as a description of it would look like for them to live in gratitude and emulation of the God who had saved them. Liberation and salvation come first, only then the law to give us a structure for our gratitude, to spell out what it would look like to have a society with the same characteristics God has.
We don’t try to follow the dictates of the Sermon on the Mount in order to try to be Christians. We already are Christians. We have been saved, we are in a relationship with a loving God. It is in gratitude for that, and in trust in that God, that we then try to live a life shaped by God’s values.
Just as the employee or athlete who is motivated to incredible feats by the integrity and generosity and excellence of their leader, we are motivated to do things which at first glance go against all our instincts—because of our relationship with Christ.
Be perfect as your father is perfect. What if we started our reading of the Gospel passage and the Leviticus passage by focusing first on what they tells us about who God is, not on what it asks us to be?
We are to imitate God—but what sort of God do we believe in, what sort of a God are we to imitate?
A God who is judgmental, focused on self, dominating through fear?
Or , as depicted in today’s passages from Leviticus and Matthew, are we to imitate a God who is always looking out for the person on the margins, the one in need? Who is always open to the potential of the most unlikely characters? Who has a habit of using the least and the last and the lost as leaders? A God who is always more willing to forgive than we are to admit our failings? A God who would, who does, literally, die for us?
Once we have experienced the radical love of God reaching out to us and saving us and supporting us, then we are motivated to try to imitate God.
But we have to have experienced that love.
That is what the upcoming season of Lent is about, and really what the whole of the Christian spiritual life is about. During the announcements I will be describing a few different things you might consider as spiritual practices this Lent, which begins next Wednesday. Whether by these practices or some others, I invite you to spend time this Lent getting to know, or know better, the loving God who invites us to live in a life-giving way we never would have dreamed possible.
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(The last several paragraphs of this were preached ex tempore from notes, so the conclusion above is a reconstruction of what I remember saying, or at least what I intended to say!)