Sunday, February 20, 2011

“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Today's sermon is based on Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18 and Matthew 5:38-48.

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It all sounds so passive: Turn the other cheek; give the clothes off your back; give your money to every beggar who asks you; love your enemies, do not resist evil.
At first glance, it sounds like “give up.”
I think many of us resist this formula not so much because of its impracticality, but because it sounds like we are supposed to give into evil. Should we really stand idly by as Hitler is at the gates? Should we not react when Osma bin Ladin sends airplanes into buildings killing innocent people? Should we sit by as the earth is polluted for greed, people starve, dictators kill their people and invade their neighbors?
Is Jesus really advocating that? And aren’t we better than that?
Even those who read the Bible with strict literalism tend skip right past this crystal-clear instruction from Jesus: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
And wait, there’s more this morning.
We also get a passage from Leviticus, the holiness law of the Old Testament – the third book of the Jewish Torah – that Christians especially love to ignore.
In our lectionary – the schedule of Sunday biblical readings – Leviticus appears only once every three years, on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany – and that would be today. You won’t hear anything from Leviticus again for another three years.
And if Epiphany ends short of the seventh Sunday of Epiphany, as it often does, then it will be another three years after that before Leviticus comes around again. That means you almost never hear Leviticus in church.
There are good reasons for avoiding Leviticus.
Leviticus contains rules for stoning wayward children, banning tattoos, avoiding witchcraft, and admonitions against shrimp, mixed fabrics and gay people. It also has a formula for how to compensate your friends for sex with their slaves.
It’s all there in Leviticus; go have a look when you get home, but I must warn you it is not light bedtime reading.
There are a few ways around Leviticus. One is to ignore the parts we don’t like. Even those with the with a strict literal bent to reading the Bible find ways to pick-and-chose among those rules.
Fair enough, we are all doing it. But isn’t that a dodge?
Saint Paul seems to take another tact, popular among modern liberal Protestants: Paul says that we no longer “live under the law” because we are saved by Jesus Christ. In other words, Christ gives us the ultimate loophole to get out of the laws we don’t like.

In truth, Paul’s argument is more subtle than that. What he says is that we can follow all of these laws to the letter but it won’t take us very far. We need to look for the underlying grace beneath the laws.
And that is exactly where Jesus goes. He says he came to “fulfill the law and the prophets.” He is not a liberal Protestant. He is a Jewish man teaching Torah.

I would submit that Leviticus holds the key for what Jesus is driving at in everything he says and does, and everything he calls us to do.
But to get it, we have to hear it the way he hears it. So listen to Leviticus again:

“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.”

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

When Jesus says, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek, Jesus is bringing us straight into the heart and soul of Leviticus.
If we can hear Leviticus the way Jesus hears it, we will find not curses, but blessings.
We will find not an oppressive rule book, but a radical guidebook for rendering justice to the poor, healing for the sick, comfort for the lonely.
And we will especially hear a call to be the holy people we are called to be.
Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela read the Bible this way.

They heard its discipline as a call for binding people into a courageous band of brothers and sisters who could meet all manner of hatred and violence with selfless love and miraculous fortitude.
To them, a life of faith wasn’t about following legalisms; it was about finding freedom based on the dignity of every human being as a reflection of God’s love.

I don’t know if the people of Egypt read Leviticus, but I do that they have given us a powerful example in recent weeks of what can happen when a people rise up and meet violence with non-violence, when they meet fear with courage, and set aside hatred and revenge.
These biblical readings today certainly have implications for human politics. How would we behave as a community and nation if we really did love our enemies and give generously to the poor? What would that look like? What would our social, political and economic structures look like? How would we be transformed as a people?

Yet, Jesus is taking us to an even deeper level than politics – Jesus is describing how God loves, and who God loves, and that makes the blessings of Leviticus even more radical yet.
Who is God in love with? Everyone, even the worst among us, even those who would do us harm. That is a difficult notion to comprehend – it is for me – and it takes time to get the full impact of that idea. No one is left behind.
God finds a way to bring wholeness and healing out of chaos and violence because that is especially where God dwells. God even loves you and I when we are at our worst, when we are less than we could be, when we mess up and harm others, or ourselves.
These readings today have something else in common: each is a call to discipleship, to breaking out of the idea that we are merely passive consumers of religious products.
We are called to spread God’s love by our own example in word and deed. We are called to be the workers in God’s field – we are that important. It’s not about following food laws to the letter; it is about loving our neighbors as ourselves to the letter. We can find God’s abundant love right here in this place.

Later this morning we will be commissioning and blessing three wonderful people as Stephen Ministry leaders: Ann Willms, Margaret Haupt and Anna Askounis. Stephen Ministry is a program of compassion for people in our midst who can use a little extra care and a sympathetic ear.
Ann, Margaret and Anna have undergown an intensive week of training, and now they will be training our Stephen Ministers.
I would invite you to ask them about Stephen Ministry. It is an incredible program, and I have seen it transform individual lives and entire congregations.
There are many other ways we as a congregation embody God’s love here in this place. This coming week, we are hosting PACEM, providing hot meals and a bed for women who are living on our streets. Many people in our parish are making that possible.
Later this week, on Thursday, we are joining thirty other faith congregations at a mass meeting of IMPACT to learn how we can make changes to public policies related to mental health services. The meeting is at 6 pm Thursday at Church of the Incarnation Catholic Church and I hope you will join me there.
These are just three ways we bring heaven to earth right now. And there are many others.
It is my prayer this day that each of us will hear the call of Christ to be the hands and heart of healing and salvation in our world and make real the words of the ancient Torah:
“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

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