Flawless, Epiphany 7(A) – February 19, 2017

[RCL] Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48; Psalm 119:33-40

Most people are not as lucky as Beyoncé. Instead of waking up feeling “flawless,” most rise from bed a few minutes late, somewhat dehydrated, and in great need of a tissue. Certainly no one removes a sleep apnea mask to declare, “I woke up like this.” So why is it that we are willing to suspend reality for Queen Bey persona of perfection but find Jesus’ high expectations so impossible to grasp?

“Be perfect.”

While perfection might be achieved before breakfast for Beyoncé, it is a far cry from normal human capability. Jesus himself pushes against what we imagined perfection to be when he upsets the social order and religious customs. He touches those he shouldn’t, heals when he’s not supposed to, and dies without leading the violent takeover that many of his followers might have preferred. Jesus, in many ways, did not live up to expectations, but in his imperfect life and violent death he shows us a better meaning of perfection.

There is a temptation to characterize Jesus as one who completely dismissed the Jewish pursuit of piety, but as Sheldon W. Sorge points out in Feasting on the Word, “The Leviticus account of the moral law strikingly shapes the teaching of Jesus.” Rather than throwing out the law or the prophets, Jesus insists that he comes to fulfill them (Mt. 5:17). He does this not by following every rule but by calling his audience deeper into understanding the heart of the law.

When Jesus reads the commandment against murder, he sees beyond the rule and finds encouragement for people to work through their conflict in ways that respect each other’s life. Anger is, for Jesus (Mt. 5:22) and the author of Leviticus (19:17), an emotion that misguides us and causes us to act out violently instead of constructively. When Jesus reads Leviticus, he interprets God’s commandments to love as being all-inclusive. Jesus does not turn the law upside down at all. Instead, he persuasively argues that the law has always been there to turn us upside down.

When our personal finances and professional integrity rely on making profit from a good harvest, God says to gather the portion that will assist those who cannot afford to play in the economy on the same level (Lev. 19:9). When we want to define who is “in” and who is “out” of our local communities, God says to treat the alien as a citizen (Lev. 19:34). God tells us to live in a way that does not reinforce the gods of achievement, control, and popularity. God invites us to live in perfect, loving, unity.

And not only does God instruct that we should live in a different way than the world expects, God insists that someday we shall. We shall not have hate in our hearts or take vengeance and bear grudges (Lev. 19:17-18). We shall live together in perfect unity—this is God’s promise for our future.

If we reevaluate how we read the “you shalls” of Leviticus in this way, we might begin to imagine a future when God’s people refuse to steal, lie, or act unjustly just because they want to love one another fully. This is a future when our desire for equity surpasses our love of larger profit margins. This is a future when our unquenchable yearning to achieve is replaced by our deeper desire to be known by one another as children of God.

The holiness codes of Leviticus are not about setting God’s people up on a pedestal, out of reach of everyone else. Rather, God calls on her children to be set apart in their recognition that the world’s habit of turning people into commodities is no way to operate.

In the age of social media, treating each other as commodities is as easy as hitting “like” or swiping right (or left). Kevan Lee, a contributor for Buffer, writes that, “You’re a brand. I’m a brand. We’re all brands, whether we aim to be or not.” As soon as we decide to fill in your “about me” sections on Twitter, Instagram, Tinder, etc., we decide how we want the digital world to see us—we brand ourselves. With every picture, article, or video posting, we put out a product that we hope will be accepted by our audience. We participate in self-commodification, which, while not exclusive to social media, is made much easier in this era perhaps than ever before.

When we fall into the trap of online self-commodification, we might look in on the profiles of former lovers and feel jealousy for their “perfect” lives, “perfect” new beloveds, and their “perfect” children and puppies and kittens. It can be tempting, even for the most well-adjusted among us, to compete with others to enhance our sense of self-worth. In sensing a lack of self-worth, we might try to improve ourselves, striving for a misguided notion of perfection. In doing so, we separate ourselves from one another in some not-so-healthy ways.

These divisions lead to exclusion, to intolerance, and to the anger God in Jesus Christ calls us to replace with compassion. God calls us back together. God calls us to live in our diversity, seeking unity under the umbrella truth that each one of us is a beloved child of God.

As Jesus toured around from town to town, he embodied God’s call to come together. He reminded the people that holiness is not about achieving a standard of perfection but about all kinds of people embracing a perfect, unified love.

The meek, the hungry, the poor and oppressed—Jesus calls them “blessed.” He even calls on them to love their enemies. He practices what he preaches, and because Jesus is an effective teacher and the incarnate revelation of God, people still respond as only people do when they recognize Truth.

Jesus helps us realize that God’s kingdom is not an exclusive perfect people club with a privacy gate and a bouncer at the door; the kingdom of God is what we live when we choose to see each other as beloved children of God instead of as commodities to be bought, sold, judged, and discarded. Living in God’s kingdom is like awakening from what Thomas Merton called a “dream of separateness,” which is much more nightmare than dream.

We follow Jesus not only because he appeared to be an exceptional human, but because of his truly divine ability to birth the kingdom of God in every given moment. And we can participate in this kingdom, here and now.

When we wake up in the morning, we might say our prayers or just pause for a moment to watch the sun creep above the horizon. Whatever our spiritual practice might be, it ought to include God’s timeless affirmation that we are beloved.

We were born like this.

We woke up like this.

Written by The Reverend Curtis Farr. Farr is the Associate Rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut. Match strikes flint for Farr in the pulpit, where he approaches scripture playfully seeking to inspire greater participation in God’s mission of reconciliation. Farr is from the Pacific Northwest and loves hiking in the woods or kayaking on a secluded river. He can often be found impersonating Neil Diamond at your local karaoke bar.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 7A.

Stone soup, 7 Epiphany (A) – 2014

February 23, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-401 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Once upon a time, in a land much like ours, there were some weary travelers who came to a village with nothing but a cooking pot. They found a place to camp near some water, filled up their pot, and put it over a fire. Then they took a large stone and put it in the pot as it simmered.

A villager saw this, became curious, and asked what they were cooking. They explained that they were making a wonderful dish called stone soup that they would be happy to share with the village. They just needed a few small things to make it extra flavorful. The villager decides that he can part with a few carrots and adds them to the pot. Another villager sees them and contributes some potatoes, and so on and so forth until there is a wonderful, nourishing soup to be enjoyed by all.

This folk tale slyly illustrates what the concept of gleaning can look like in a community. By each contributing some, there is always enough for all. In the story, the villagers were sort of tricked into contributing, but they did contribute on their own accord because they believed that the end result would be something great. And it was. But it would not have been if they decided to keep their doors locked and never spoke to the strangers amongst them.

In the story, the stone was the base for the soup, with the villagers building upon that. Similarly, our foundation is Jesus Christ, as Paul reminds us in today’s epistle reading, and we must choose with care how we build on it – individually and as a community. We are the Body of Christ; we belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to God. All parts of us belong to God: all our hurt, all our joy, all our imperfections. If we believe that God’s Spirit dwells within us, that means that God’s Spirit dwells in others, too, whether we like it or not.

This should matter to us. This should change us.  It should transform us into being perfect as our “heavenly Father is perfect.” Not an ethical or moral perfection, but perfection in the Hebrew sense of the word “tamim,” which mean “wholeness.” To be perfect is to serve God wholeheartedly and to be single-minded in our devotion to God. That is what we are striving for in this lifelong journey with Jesus.

If we are striving for wholeness in God, then our lives as disciples will show it. Our love is not one of vengeful retaliation, as we see in our gospel story today. Instead, our love extends even to our enemies, because that is what God calls us to: actions of faith. The thoughts and feelings that are inside us are acted out with the vehicle of our bodies. Are we God’s dwelling place? If so, how does anyone know?

Jesus calls us to radical hospitality – for ourselves and for others. God loved us first so that we would know what love is, and because of our love of God, we are able to love ourselves and love others.

Jesus constantly challenges us with this. He said:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”

Tax collectors were despised in Jewish culture for being unpatriotic and were seen as unclean by coming into contact with gentiles.

Jesus continued: “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?” The gentiles were considered unclean and unbelievers in Jewish culture, and to be compared to them was insulting. Jesus calls the disciples – us – to a higher standard than this. God’s love is seen in the world when communities are concerned with compassion, justice, and care of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

Have you ever walked into a party or a conference where you know only one or two people? Or have you ever been the new person at school, at work, at church? You look around and everyone else is chatting and seems to know each other and you just stand there feeling awkward. It’s hard to know where to begin.

It’s always easier to love the person who already loves us or to talk with the person we already know who likes the same things we do. But Jesus doesn’t call us to the easy life – Jesus calls us to discipleship, and that means not just mingling with, but embracing the other. That means noticing the awkward person in the corner and inviting him or her into our conversations. That means praying for those who wish us ill and respecting the dignity of every human being, as we promise to do in our Baptismal Covenant.

Remember, there will be times when we are the awkward person or when we, believe it or not, are someone else’s enemy. The Christian life is not a passive life, but very active and intentional. It means seeing God in the other, as God sets no bounds in loving. If we stay inside the boundaries of where we feel comfortable, wars, racism, ageism, sexism, and prejudice of all kinds will continue.

Look around you in the pews today, or when you’re at work or school, or on the street. Catch someone’s eye. Hold eye contact for a moment and really look at them. See them as God sees them – precious and holy – a child of God. This may be difficult, especially if you feel someone is your enemy, but as Frederick Buechner wrote in his book “Whistling in the Dark”:

“Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. … You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction.”

How would it feel to be beheld like that? What is it like to know that you are loved by God with such utter completeness?

Hopefully, it is life changing. Hopefully, this love reminds us that we are all part of something greater – a community that is larger and more understanding than we know. Hopefully, we will know that we are cared for by a God who really see us and invites us to share what we have for the soup, no matter if we think it’s fitting or not.

This is what it means to be God’s dwelling place in the world – our hearts have changed and our actions of love for one another make the soup what it is: a dish that people want to gather around and be part of.

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the rector of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minnesota.

This is difficult, 7 Epiphany (A) – 2011

February 20, 2011

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Have you ever asked yourself: “What was Jesus thinking with this ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff? Are we supposed to be doormats for the sake of our faith? Is Jesus recommending that our calling card be ‘Mistreat me. I won’t retaliate’”?

A quick, simplistic reading of Jesus’ words might seem to indicate the “doormat approach” and yet, we see Jesus not as a wimpy, retiring, shadow of the Almighty, but as God with Us – the very Image of the Living God. We see Jesus as the defender of the poor, the downtrodden, the maligned and mistreated. We see Jesus as Savior and Lord. None of these attributes equate to “doormat.” So how are we to interpret these words of our Savior?

Another relevant question might be, do we take Jesus seriously or is there some nifty interpretation that helps to explain away Jesus’ words or at least provide some general guidance in terms of when to turn the other cheek and love our enemies? The words that Jesus utters are not easy ones to follow, regardless of how conflict-averse we might be. We are created with a “fight or flight response,” nestled comfortably in that primitive area of our brains that is not always adequately governed by the reason of our cerebral cortexes.

Those primitive responses are pre-programmed to help ensure the survival of the individual, and thereby the species. We fight or flee, because our point and purpose is to “live to fight another day,” to preserve our well-being. But our job as followers of Christ is to stay close in confrontation and conflict – not fighting or fleeing – in order to follow the example of our Lord and to show the Power of God’s Love to overcome all things: bodily assault; legal prosecution; even kidnapping, which is mentioned in verse 41.

And while it is often easier and more pleasant to stay close to those whom we already know and for whom we already care, Jesus addresses that as well. As difficult as it might be to remain in relationship with those whom we already know and love, Jesus essentially says that we don’t get credit for working at those relationships; it’s the ones with the strangers, the relationships with those who we do not know or maybe don’t like – or who don’t like us – that count.

None of this makes any sense whatsoever without the gift of God’s Love. As the collect for today states:

“O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.”

It is only by this most amazing gift, delivered by the Holy Spirit, that we can hope to overcome our preprogrammed response to fight or flee and bear witness to the God that we serve.

But isn’t it possible to horribly twist this sort of logic? Isn’t it conceivable that we put ourselves directly in harm’s way and risk embarrassment, impoverishment, injury, or death? Isn’t it quite possible that we could become the doormats of the world, be considered weak and ineffective in our promulgation of the gospel? Yes, of course all those things are possible, even quite probable; but that is exactly the risk our God took in sending Jesus for us. That is exactly what Jesus did when he allowed himself to be beaten, accused, and crucified. We have the gift of access to relationship with a God who desires that relationship so much that even the only child of the Almighty is not withheld. We are given the opportunity to bask in the glow of a love so powerful, that even death cannot contain it.

But this is not an easy reading today, my friends. It is also not an excuse to do nothing, for Jesus is speaking about our actions on behalf of ourselves, in our own self-interest. Our agency, our defense, our protection is not for ourselves, but for the sake of others. If we are to follow our Lord’s path, we are to use our personal power, influence, reputation, gifts, and wealth on behalf of those who have no power, influence, wealth, or reputation. Being “perfect” is treating the “evil and the good” and “the righteous and the unrighteous” as God treats them, providing them with the same opportunity to live as everyone else. Again, our witness is not true and authentic if we portray to the world actions that preserve only ourselves. Our witness is to be given in actions that show our desire to see that all know the benefits of the love of God.

This is difficult, because it forces us to move ourselves out of the center of the relationship; our center is focused on another. We are asked to submit – not told, coerced or commanded – to the love of God so that love can show us the way. That love is the way that we are ultimately made safe. We are only ever truly safe in the love of God.

Many questions might be forming and noisily calling for attention and answers, but the specific questions and situations have already been answered in the life and witness of Jesus Christ. We speak the truth that God loves all people, that God makes the necessities of life available to all – both evil and good, righteous and unrighteous – that retribution is not the way to show the justice of God.

When we are out there alone as Jesus was, in a community governed by power that seeks to preserve its own hold on others, we are subject to the persecution, betrayal, and death that Jesus endured. But we, as Christ’s followers, can be working to create systems and communities where we will not be out there alone. We have the benefit of the gospel and the knowledge of God’s overwhelming grace and love that is able to sustain us and protect us, and even overcome the power of death. We have the chance to work to nurture children and young adults that understand that their well-being is only secure in the securing of the well-being of others, all others. We are the people to whom God is looking to make the effort to see that all are treated even as God treats all.

So, are we to be doormats? Are we to meekly submit to the persecution of this world and our enemies? To borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, “By no means!”

What we are to be is those people who do not seek to simply protect what they have or what is their own, but who seek to protect others. This profound lack of self-interest and self-protection is rooted in the desire of a community of believers to protect one another, to make sure that all people in all communities, both enemies and friends, have access to the means of life and know the benefit of God’s awesome and amazing love.

 

— The Rev. Lawrence Womack currently serves as associate rector at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, in Charlotte, N.C., and has served parishes in Baltimore, Md.; and Buffalo, N.Y. (as a seminarian). He is active in HIV-AIDS ministry and advocacy and proudly serves as a husband and father of three children.