A sermon for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany; Leviticus 19:12,9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
We don’t read very much from Leviticus. We know, or think we know what Leviticus says, it is the book people cite when any question about human sexuality pops up, and it does speak to that issue, and many, many more. The book is divided into sections; first, there are the rules and regulations about the cultic sacrificial system, which are sort of like the prayer book’s calendar and rubrics. Then there all the rules about our bodies, that messy, uncomfortable stuff we don’t like to talk about (Howard). After that, the rituals that the priests are responsible for, and all their other duties. And then the Holiness Code part of which we read today (Sakenfeld). We know we are reading something different because of the phrase, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2).
For a while, it sounds like it is going to be something like the 10 Commandments, and then we get to verses 9 & 10
When 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. You 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. (Leviticus 19:9-10).
We know something has changed because it is not so much about us anymore as it is about the someone else, and how we treat them (Bratt). We suddenly find ourselves in the midst of an ethical primer. We’d rather go back the yucky bodily stuff; because it is easier than ethics. And the ethics is hard because it is grounded in God’s opening gambit; You are holy because I am holy.
To be clear God is not saying humans are holy the way God is Holy. God is holy because God is wholly other, separate from everything else in the cosmos. We are holy because we are God’s (Gaventa and Petersen). God is prompting us to order our social lives in ways that draw us closer to God (Howard), to be the kind of community “that takes seriously God’s gracious presence” in our midst (Bratt).
How can we know if we are responding to the divine prompt? Well there are some simple questions, and some will be familiar:
- what in your relationships with other people is getting between you and God?
- what in our community’, nation, state, local communities, and / or with other people, is getting between us God?
- what has become more important to us, individually and or corporately than loving God with all our hearts, minds and souls and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Howard)?
Also being honest about our behaviors is another source of clues. And remember this is not only our individual behavior but also includes the behavior of everyone, every business, and every government entity in all our communities.
- Do we provide generously for the poor and the aliens living in our community?
- Do we treat those with disabilities as equals or do we make fun of them or take advantage of their impairment?
- Are we honest? do we always speak the truth plainly without obfuscation?
- Do we use trickery and or complex structures to take money or property away from anyone?
- Do we pay those who work for us correctly and on time?
- Are we just in all our actions?
- Do we leave vengeance to the Lord?
Notice the emphasis on the poor and those with disabilities.
But also, notice there is equal emphasis on just treatment for the rich who are not to be slandered, tricked, or defrauded any more than the poor, the alien or disabled (Walter C. Kaiser)
In short, we are to see each other as the image of God as we are all made; and we are to be for each other the stewards God made us to be (Farr). It is perhaps easiest to think of this as common decency in everything we think, say or do as individuals or together.
A last thought on all this. Some years ago, Phyllis Tickle spoke to the Arkansas clergy, in which she mentioned the bits of scripture that condemn certain behaviors, of interpersonal relationship, to wearing blended cloth, to eating shellfish. She noted we cannot un-write those passages; they are there, and we must deal with them. She is right. However, I do think that the Holiness Code ethics blunts the default thinking of brunt enforcement by providing a different vantage point, and that is that everyone, rich, or poor, disabled or enabled, native son or alien, regular or of a different persuasion is made in the image of God and is holy because God is holy.
And so, we are done all this ethics stuff. Right? Well not exactly.
Jesus is up to God’s business in influencing our behaviors towards each other. As we have heard for the last couple of weeks, Jesus’ interpretation, of Old Testament laws, seem to be much harsher than the originals. The truth is Jesus is twisting them to expose how those laws were being misused to take advantage of someone else. As challenging as they are, one can make sense of Jesus’ reinterpretation. And then he goes and says Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48). Trying to be ethical is hard enough, to be compared to the divine as the standard is not fair.
Is Jesus serious? Well yes, he is; just not exactly like we think. The word for perfect here is better understood as completeness or having accomplished an intended goal, to achieved one’s intention (Lose, Lewis, Be Perfect, Pankey, A call to perfection). Just as God is holy in a way different than humans are holy, God is perfect in a way different than the way we are called to be perfect. God is the complete God. We are called to be a complete person, wholly committed to serving God (Walter C. Kaiser). We are to persist in proclaiming that the Kingdom of God right here, right now (Lewis, Be Perfect). We are to trust God enough to be able not to demand all our legal rights when we can empower someone else (Walter C. Kaiser). We are to act and live like we believe that Jesus is still actively bringing the Kingdom right here, right now (Lose). Jesus has taken ancient Jewish, ancient gentile and ancient pagan laws that define ethical behavior towards one’s neighbor and reinterpreted those ethical tenants as love and then makes love of neighbor, all of our neighbors, even those we don’t like, the basis on which everything else stands (Walter C. Kaiser).
And yes, I know that we immediately think Jesus lived in a much simpler time. There were no international terrorists there were no mass shootings there were none of the evil threats we face today. Really? Remember Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire, with oppressive taxes, and brutal local co-conspirators. Remember that Herod killed all the two-year boys in a vain effort to try to kill Jesus. And by the time Matthew was writing his Gospel, Jerusalem had been burned to the ground; the Temple had been totally destroyed, there was nothing left of Israel’s secular and religious life it was all gone. The Good News of Jesus emerges in a post-apocalyptic world (Lewis, Commentary on Matthew 5:3848). Little of what Jesus says makes sense in the face of such stark evil, until we realize Jesus takes evil seriously, only he proclaims that God, not evil, is ultimate. It is as the Psalmist says:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Psalms 18:2).
Today’s readings are well suited for today’s world. They remind us that we are holy because God loves us. They remind us we can persist because God in Jesus and the Spirt is already restoring the world to its created perfection. They remind us we are not alone. And perhaps most importantly they remind us we have a perfectly holy story to share, The Kingdom of God is right here, right now. So, relax, go do the righteousness that needs to be done that you can, and as for the rest trust God for you are the divine’s beloved.
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