Year A: The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (February 23, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Sometimes, we may feel the the “commandments” of God are so lofty and ideal that we can’t really hope to keep them. This section from Leviticus is a version of the more famous Ten Commandments listed in Exodus 20 — but seem to be a bit more focused and “down to earth.” You might say they are kind of a practical guide to holy living.

The word holy means, “something set aside” — the idea here is that, as people of God, we live in a different kind of way because of our relationship to God. We are set apart by the distinction of who God is, not necessarily because we are special in and of ourselves. As you read through the listing of ways that God wants God’s people to act, can you think of any ways that we can and should live out these commands in our day and time? (For example, what does it mean to leave something from our own “harvest” for those who are poor?)

Psalm 119:33-40
This famous psalm contains 22 8-verse stanzas, of which this is the fifth. Each succeeding stanza, besides forming an acrostic based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, has something of a mini-theme that relates to the overall theme of the dependability and necessity of God’s word (Torah, to the Jews.) What would you suggest as the “theme” for this passage?

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Speaking of themes, the last several readings in Corinthians have followed a similar idea: God has sent Jesus Christ to be the beginning, source, and wisdom of our lives of faith. Today, we see Jesus as the foundation upon which our lives are built. Interestingly, the verses that are not included in the reading (vv. 12-15) offer additional explanation as to the materials we use during our lifetimes to construct our “houses.” We can build on the foundation Christ has laid by using things that will last, or things that will be consumed by the fire of trial.

What kind of life are you building on the foundation of your faith in Christ? Is your life one that makes Christ — who holds your life, and is in turn held by God — proud?

Matthew 5:38-48
This section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount compares quite closely to the reading from Leviticus for today (see above.) It is very much along the same kind of theme; the way you live your life as a follower of Christ, and a child of God, matters!

The word translated as perfect in v. 48 has given some people cause for consternation; if, after all, God wants us never to mess up and to always perfectly accomplish God’s will — then we’re all pretty much toast! It actually has more of the connotation of “getting [eventually] to the goal God has set for you.” Living for Christ is something of an ongoing process.

Looking over Jesus’ statements here, what are some ways that living these ideas out can help move us along the way of progressing, or growing, in our “real-life” faith?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

  • “On a scale of one to ten, how good is the pizza at the Mellow Mushroom?”
  • “On a scale of one to ten, how good is the movie “Philomena?”
  • “On a scale of one to ten, how good-looking is your brother’s girl-friend?”

I was trying to remember when the whole “scale of one to ten,” with ten being perfection, came into our normal public conversation.  The best I can do is the romantic comedy “10,” starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek.  I’m sure the scale was popular in some places before that, but it has been universal ever since.

And when we hear the end of today’s gospel lesson, with Jesus telling us to, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” most of us think “morality.”  And then we measure ourselves on a score of one to ten with ten being perfection and think, “No way I’m a ten.  I’m a six or seven at best, especially if I have to measure it the way Jesus does here in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Because Jesus sure has ramped up the goodness requirement, hasn’t he?  All this “you have heard it said but I say to you,” has put being good almost out of reach.  Last week he told us it was no longer good enough not to kill or beat up people who make you angry; now you can’t even get mad at them.

Well, today he has taken that even further and says that you can’t take revenge on people who do you wrong.  As I read this, you’re supposed to let people just walk all over you.  Turn the other cheek, give them your coat and cloak, so the second mile.  Give to just anybody who begs, with no regard for their need or their honesty or what they intend to do with the money.  Seriously?

Well, it will come as no surprise to you that we 21st century Christians are not the first people to wonder is Jesus was serious about this level of moral perfection.  Over the years a number of proposals have been put forth as to what Jesus “really” meant here.

One idea is that he intended to propose an impossible ethic. This is usually tied to the thinking of Saint Paul about how we cannot please God through obeying the “law,” and must be saved only through grace.  According to this theory, Jesus wanted us to try and fail to achieve this level of perfection so that we would recognize our inability to be good on our own and turn to the grace shown to us in the Christ.

Another idea is that the pursuit of perfection pushes us to do our best.  Something along the lines of Robert Browning’s line “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”  Pushing for perfection, so it is thought, keeps us from settling for “good enough,” keeps us pushing ourselves to the limits of our abilities.

Others point to the way the Hebrew Scriptures frequently refer to both Abraham and Noah as “perfect,” and we know they were not.  Genesis is pretty blunt in exposing their various moral failures.  Their perfection was a perfection of obedience it is said.  Abraham believed God’s promise of a son through all those years of Sarah’s barrenness and even after the child was born, obeyed God in taking him to the mountain to sacrifice him.  Noah believed God about the flood and obeyed God in building the ark while others laughed and jeered. Their perfection was a perfection of obedience.

The best answer comes directly from the scripture itself, from the word itself.  The Greek word here translated as “perfect” is telios.  Its definition is “end” as in the phrase “as a means to an end.”  It refers to the ultimate and final purpose of a thing or a person.  Being “perfect” is being about the purpose for which God created you.  To be “perfect” is to be completely focused on one’s role in God’s kingdom.

This last line of the Gospel lesson about being perfect is related to the second line of our First Lesson about being “Holy as the Lord your God is holy.”  The Hebrew word here is kadash and it connotes being separated out.  It is the root of the practice of kosher, keeping the holy things separate from the profane or ordinary things.  Though “separateness” can degenerate into an unhealthy and unholy judgmental-ism, at root it is about recognizing the holiness of the ordinary, including your own ordinary life – and treating that ordinary life with extraordinary care.

Both Leviticus’ promise of holiness and Matthew’s call for perfection are rooted in grace; they are anchored deep in our relationship with God and are lived out in our relationships with each other.  Over and over in Leviticus, God says, “I am your God.”  You will do this because “I am your God.”  Not “If you do this, I will be your God.” But, “because I am your God, you will do this.”  The text says “You shall be holy.”  That’s a promise, not a threat.  That’s grace, not demand.  And it results in kind and gracious treatment of others in the real world of food and money and relationships.

In the Gospel lesson, in verse 45 – we read “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  Our treatment of others, at a level that seems so demanding as to be impossible, is simply a mirror image, a reflection of how God has treated us.  For, if the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous, surely we are honest and humble to admit that the category of the unrighteous often includes most of us.  It’s the same idea as when the Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive the trespasses of others.”  This text calls us to treat others the way God has treated us.

If you listened carefully to the readings today, you noticed that in Leviticus we are told to love our neighbors.  You will have also noticed that in the Gospel we are enjoined to love our enemies.  GK Chesterton observed that we are asked to love both our enemies and our neighbors because, generally speaking, they are the same people.

Indeed they are.  And God calls us to love them and treat them all like 10s on any scale we can devise.  Because all of us are 10s in God’s eyes and in God’s love.

Amen and amen.

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