Sunday, February 23, 2014

Epiphany 7, 2014: Be holy. Be perfect.

Lectionary: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Our readings today present us with a pretty tall order: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Lev 19:2) “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt 5:48) Piece of cake, right?

Most modern-day hearers of this would walk (no, run!) away from God, religion, and the church, certain that they can’t, and really don’t want to, live up to that kind of unreachable, impossible standard. It’s certain failure.

Or is it?

To be holy is to be set apart for God's purposes. This isn’t something we become by being rigorously obedient or super-pious. It’s something we already are. We are holy because God is holy and we are one with God whose spirit lives in us through our baptism.

When Episcopalians baptize a person, we pour water over them, symbolizing God’s bestowal of forgiveness and grace on them. The one who is baptized is dying to sin and rising to a new life of grace.

Please turn to BCP, 308 and let’s say this prayer together: “Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.

Living a new life of grace requires us to ask from God what we should know, where we should go, and how we should bring the light of God’s love that we bear into the world. It means giving up our judgments and connecting instead with divine discernment so that we can come to understand who and what we see, and respond as God would have us respond.

That often means not responding as the world would have us do. And this is what Jesus is teaching in the gospel lesson from Matthew. The four examples Jesus uses illustrate the triggers that set off our retaliatory responses: humiliation, vulnerability, subjugation, and fairness.

The first example: turn the other cheek.

In that culture to strike someone on the right cheek was to humiliate and denigrate them because it meant using your left hand (the one used for bathroom purposes. The assault in this case was nothing compared with the insult.

Jesus is teaching the holy ones of God to ignore our impulse to defend ourselves and our honor and respond instead with divine humility, as Jesus did on the cross, trusting that the redeeming love of God is at work in a divine plan which includes reconciling the one who struck us and remembering that God’s love and care for us is sufficient in the face of any earthly assault.

The second example: if a person takes your coat, give them your cloak as well.

In Jesus’ day a person could be forced to surrender their coat as collateral on a debt. “Coat” refers to the inner garment, a lightweight robe worn under the cloak. In order to give up their coat, a person would first have to remove their cloak, then their coat, leaving them standing there naked – the universal image of vulnerability and humiliation.

Jesus’ teaching reminds us that it is in our weakness that the almighty power of God is revealed. Being stripped of his cloak and his coat at his crucifixion, Jesus stood naked before the world. Looking back on it now, we can see that in that humiliating and vulnerable moment, God was glorified and God’s plan of salvation was being fulfilled in Jesus’ faithfulness and perseverance.

The third example: going the second mile.

Roman occupation of Israel enabled soldiers to go up to anyone at any time and force them to carry a burden for a distance of about a mile, but no more. A person could be on their way to a meeting, or to church, or maybe they just picked up food at the market, and suddenly they’re forced to drop everything and carry a 20 pound load for a mile. The indignity suffered here is the lack of freedom and subjugation to another’s will.

Jesus is teaching the holy ones of God that true freedom is found in our relationship with God who is almighty. Our response therefore, must reflect divine generosity.

For example, at the end of that mile, two things could happen. The soldier could give your burden to someone else to carry, or… another soldier could come up and force you to carry the burden for another mile (a technicality in the law that allowed the oppression to become cruelty).

Offering to go the second mile could be a gift to the next person who would have carried the load. It could also be a shocking display of humanity that connects you, if only for a moment, to the one who had depersonalized you in order to oppress you. The seed of compassion would have been planted, however, and left to God for watering and blooming.

The fourth example: to give or not to give to the beggar.

The current cultural climate is one in which the poor are consistently being blamed and demonized for their poverty. Doing this relieves those who ‘have’ from the responsibility of tending to those who ‘have not.’

But Jesus’ teaching is clear: ‘give to the one who asks you and don’t turn away the one who desires to borrow from you.’ This pushes our “it isn’t fair” button. ‘It’s mine. I worked for it. They’re just lazy… or stupid… or bad. If they want good things they should work for them like I do. Why should they get what’s mine?’

In this teaching Jesus is showing the holy ones what the love of God really looks like. To love as God loves is to be concerned about the welfare of the other. Jesus gave his life so that we could live eternally in him. What if Jesus had said, ‘Why should they get what’s mine?’ We’d all be sunk, wouldn’t we?

The love that Jesus is teaching us about, is called agape love. This is the Greek word used in our Scripture. Agape is the kind of love God has for us, the love Jesus demonstrated by his own life, death, and resurrection.

One commentator says that agape “is more an action word than a feeling word” [And agape love is] "the divine, selfless love which will go to any length to attain the well-being of its object." (Source: re: Myers, 26)

Agape love knows that when someone attacks us, or tries to strip us, or oppress us, or exclude us it is their own wounding being revealed to us who have eyes to see. God’s holy ones must have inquiring and discerning hearts or we will miss seeing that and revert to protecting ourselves.

Agape love knows that we possess the abundance of God from which to give to any who ask. That same love will remind us, however, that one cannot restore a person’s soul to wholeness while their stomach is empty or their feet are cold. The reality is, food and clothing are needed as well and when we are set free from hoarding what is “mine” we discover there’s more than enough to go around.

Living in and sharing agape love is what leads us to our perfection. The Greek word being used here is teleios, which means being whole, complete, mature, fulfilled.

We are whole when we live as temples of God’s Holy Spirit, which we are, instead of as human bodies who have spiritual moments. We are complete when we remember how connected we are to God, to one another and to creation. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Each of us is like a piece in God’s big picture puzzle and we are complete when we fit our unique and wonderful piece into the whole, beautiful puzzle.

We are mature when we seek, discover and nurture our gifts, then share them with divine generosity, recognizing that ‘I am not OK’ until everyone else is OK too. We are fulfilled when every gift God has given us is being used for the purpose for which it was given – at least sometimes, and hopefully more and more as we grow in our continuing formation.

Jesus’ call to perfection isn’t about what we do, it’s about how we live – faithfully, as Michele said last Sunday. It’s about owning our identity as temples of God’s Holy Spirit. We are holy because God is holy and God’s Holy Spirit lives in us. Jesus is calling us to come to full awareness of that so we can live fully in the truth of it and fulfill our God-given purpose.

Medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart says it like this: “It is your destiny to see as God sees, to know as God knows, to feel as God feels… Divine love will be eternally true to its own being, and its being is giving all it can…” (Love Poems from God by Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin Compass, 120)

Be holy. Be perfect – for God who is holy and perfect – is in you. Amen.

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