“..in order for us to be holy, set apart, perfect, whole; in order to be a child of God and a disciple of Jesus, we must realize that the call to love others is not in response to being loved by others— we must realize that love does not find its source in its object.”
This past Sunday I gave the sermon at St. Paul’s here in Murfreesboro. Preaching is always a little nerve wracking for me–standing up there in front of lots of people trying to preach what I hear God saying to us through the readings. I can only hope I’ve gotten myself out of the way enough to get the message through. So here’s my sermon from Sunday, I hope you find it instructive, maybe a little entertaining, but most of all, I hope it moves you to show love to all of God’s children.
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7th Sunday After Epiphany
Feb 23, 2014
This morning we heard the Lord say in our Old Testament reading:
“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
And Jesus commands us in the Gospel:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I don’t know about the rest of you, but most of the time I feel pretty far from being holy OR perfect.
The Old Testament and Gospel readings today are two blueprints given to us by God to guide us in the ways of being God’s people. To the Israelites, who are establishing themselves as a new nation, he gives a very lengthy law. Leviticus is a kind of How To for the Israelites and the portion that we read this morning is part of the Holiness Code. It tells the Israelites what it means to be God’s People and how they are to be set apart, or holy, from the other nations of the time.
Jesus in our Gospel reading today gives his disciples similar guidelines. In his typical “You have heard it said… but I say…” style he takes the law a step further. Slapped on the cheek? Give the other. Made to walk a mile? Go another one. He outlines the ways his followers are to be different from the rest, how they are to be perfect. Not perfect in the Hellenistic sense of “without blemish”, but the word Jesus uses here is the Hebrew word “tamim”, which means “whole” or “complete.” The directions Jesus gives lead us to wholeness, to God’s completeness.
Many of you are familiar with the folktale of Stone Soup, but humor me for just a moment for those who are not. The story goes like this: a group of travelers come upon a village. All they carried with them was a big pot which they filled with water, and in it they deposited a large stone. One of the villagers observed this activity and came out to investigate. The travelers explained that they were making a delicious dish called Stone Soup and they would be happy to share it with the villagers—they just needed a few more ingredients. The villager decides he has a few carrots to spare and tosses them in. Another villager contributes some potatoes. This contributing continues until there is a wonderful soup that everyone enjoys together.
This story is a great illustration of the concept of gleaning that is introduced in versus 9 and 10 of Leviticus 19. “9When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” When everyone contributes a little there is enough for all. While the villagers in our story are kind of tricked into giving, they still did so of their own accord, and the soup would not have been made if they had locked their doors and turned away from the travelers—from the poor and the alien among them.
Jesus’ blueprints are a little tougher, I think. In verses 43 through 46 of our Gospel today he tells us “You have heard that it was 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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” It’s easy to give money or produce or share the wealth with others. It’s easy to love people who already love us. It’s much more difficult to let someone slap your other cheek when they’ve already slapped you once, or to give someone your coat when they’ve already taken your shirt. It’s even more difficult to love someone who just slapped you and took your coat. Jesus isn’t telling us to be martyrs, though, to resolutely stand there and take it because of some pride in bearing up against hurts. No; Jesus wants us to see God even in our enemies, to recognize and acknowledge that we are equally God’s children—the righteous and the unrighteous, the sinners and the saints. As Jesus’ disciples we have been set apart.
This passage makes me think of my favorite scene in the musical Les Miserables. It’s one of my favorite musicals of all time, and if you haven’t seen it I hope you will the next time it’s on stage. My favorite scene is right at the very beginning, when the criminal Jean Valjean (who was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister’s family) has been released from prison and is wandering, hungry and alone. As a former prisoner he is an outcast in the society he dwells in—he is a stranger, he is unwelcome, and he is bitter about it. The world has not been kind to Valjean. A kindly Bishop, however, invites him into his home, feeds him, and puts him up for the night. In a moment of weakness Valjean steals the silver and runs off into the night, only to be caught and brought back to the Bishop in the morning. The Bishop confirms Valjean’s story that the silver was indeed a gift, and by the way you left so early, you forgot to take the candlesticks too. The police leave and the Bishop turns to Valjean and tells him that there is a higher plan in this, that he must use the silver to become an honest man, and that this silver has claimed his life for God. Through this experience Valjean has been set apart for God and he experiences a transformation as he leaves the church that day. But it wasn’t the gift of silver that changed Valjean’s heart—it was the Bishop treating him as if he had a soul, as if he were still a beloved child of God despite his sins. It was the Bishop loving him without expecting anything in return.
This is the heart of the messages we hear today from Leviticus and our Gospel —in order for us to be holy, set apart, perfect, whole; in order to be a child of God and a disciple of Jesus, we must realize that the call to love others is not only in response to being loved by others— we must realize that love does not find its source in its object. This idea is quite different from what our culture tells us—most people are content to love only those who love them back. But we are different—we are set apart.
These ideas were pretty radical for the Jews in Jesus’ day. They are still pretty radical and it’s not any easier to live out this Gospel today than it was back then. But still we must try. Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship, and that means loving others, even those who wish us ill, or those who can do nothing for us in return. It means praying for our enemies and respecting the dignity of every human being, as we commit ourselves to doing in our Baptismal Covenant. Love is not, for us, a response, and our love does not find its source in its object. The source of love is God, and his love is abundant.
Loving those who can do nothing for us in return, like the poor or strangers, and loving people who actively seek to do us harm isn’t easy. Frederick Buechner, in his book, “Whistling in the Dark” gives us a starting place:
“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.”
For the past few weeks I have been privileged to be part of our campus ministry’s Listening Station on the MTSU Campus. For two hours in the student union building (12 to 2 on Fridays…) we give students a place where they are acknowledged as beloved children of God, whether we say that explicitly or not. We look them in the eye, greet them warmly, talk for a bit, maybe even share a piece of fruit. We provide a place of compassionate listening to whatever is happening in their lives. Most of you know how difficult the transition is from high school to college, from living at home to living in a dorm room, and how unbalancing it can be. Listening Station is a place where someone will look you in the eye, offer a smile and a snack, but most importantly—it is a place where you are welcomed, embraced, and loved. Witnessing the kindness and compassion of my fellow volunteers, watching them give their time, their smiles, and their love to these students has been such a blessing. The students, most of whom are on very limited incomes, can do nothing for us in return. But by showing them this love we set ourselves apart from other booths or tables in the foyer. You can tell something different is going on at the Listening Station, and it is something very special.
So this week I want to challenge you to take a look around you. Who are the “poor” in your life, the ones you can show love to who can’t do anything for you in return? Who are the enemies, the ones who have it out for you? Do an act of love for these people. Show them that your love is not a response but a discipline. Our model for this kind of love is, of course, Jesus Christ, who came to earth to show love to those who could offer no benefit in return; to show us how we are loved even when we hang him on a cross. Doing these acts of love for the poor, the enemy—loving not as a response but because that is what we have been called to do—this is how we show we are different. This is how we are set apart, how we become holy and perfect. Amen.