Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

For February 19, 2017

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Not too many years ago, a mother of two young boys called me, laughing, to let me know that while her sons had listened carefully to my children’s sermon the previous Sunday, both of them had failed to completely grasp the concept I was attempting to explain.

The night before, her oldest had come running into the kitchen. He was crying, loudly, and was hopping on one foot while holding his shin. In between sobs, he complained, “Tommy kicked me, he kicked me and he wasn’t supposed to. The pastor said he wasn’t supposed to kick me.” Of course, he was followed by his brother, who said, “Pastor said ‘strike’ and ‘cheek,’ ‘turn the other cheek.’ He didn’t say nothing about not kicking your brother when he kicks you first.” Mom turned to Billy and said, “Did you kick Tommy first?” “Well yeah, but he wasn’t supposed to kick me back. Pastor said so.” All I could think to say was, “Well, this sort of thing has been going on since the first set of brothers – Cain and Abel – and at least no one died this time around.”

Even as adults, many of us are more like Tommy and Billy than we would like to admit. Though in the Ten Commandments God was very clear about what was expected of us in terms of our behavior toward one another, we persist in what appears to be self-serving misinterpretation, reading God’s commands with our own self-interest in mind. To put it bluntly, many of us are strict with others and lenient with ourselves. For example – today’s first lesson comes from Leviticus. The 18th chapter of Leviticus is often cited by people in debates about sexuality, usually with stern admonitions that we “must follow God’s law.” Recently I saw someone with “Leviticus 18:22” tattooed on his arm – a “you shall not” text about sex. Funny, he seems to have missed Leviticus 19:28 “you shall not . . . put tattoo marks on yourself.” Like I said, stern with others and lenient with ourselves.

The question is, “How do we sort through this business of hearing and obeying God’s laws without being either inappropriately lenient or self-righteously stern?” Leviticus 19 takes a stab at it by expanding some of the bare bones of the Ten Commandments into more specific regulations on how to treat one another. For example, “Thou shalt not steal” evolves into commands about not defrauding, not dealing falsely, not cheating your workers. “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is expanded with words about not slandering, not lying, not defrauding. “Thou shalt not kill” is explored in terms of not bearing hate in our hearts, not taking vengeance, not bearing grudges, etc. All this is summarized in verse 18 as “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Increased specificity helps, but as the story of the Good Samaritan makes clear, the human tendency to be strict with others and easy on ourselves persisted as people cleverly asked, “Well, yes, but who, after all, is my neighbor?”

Underneath the “Who is my neighbor?” question is the basic human quest to know the bottom line,

What must I do to be saved?” “What is required?” Questions which too often become “What’s the least I can get by with?” I have never forgotten my first finance committee meeting in my first church so many years ago. We were working on the new budget for the next year. I told them what the denominational “minimum salary” requirement was. The chair said, “Well let’s write that down. Reckon we can’t do no less than the minimum.” (And yes, I know, I shouldn’t bear a grudge, Leviticus 19:18, and I don’t. But nobody said I had to forget.)

Jesus directly addresses this minimalist, “what is required,” approach. An “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” was an attempt at being fair, at avoiding escalation in human relationships by limiting the amount of vengeance one could take on another. It is a law that limits unfair and “disproportionate justice.” Jesus raise the ante by advocating “disproportionate mercy.” Jesus changes the question from “How can I appropriately get even?” to “How can I show mercy and love in this situation?” Thus, he says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” Jesus reinterprets the rules, the laws, about how to treat your neighbor – using principles that run throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. There’s really nothing new here. Jesus is just underlining, and highlighting, and drawing attention to, principles that have been stated over, and over, and over again throughout God’s relationship with God’s people.

Now, back to that question about how to read and interpret the Bible without being either inappropriately lenient or harshly judgmental. The Bible a sprawling, messy, somewhat inconsistent, beautiful, occasionally frightening, complex compilation of history, prophecy, poetry, hymnody, biography, correspondence, and apocalyptic visions composed by hundreds of human writers over thousands of years. Is it any wonder that it lends itself to so many competing opinions and understandings? Both Leviticus and Jesus show us the key – the scriptures call us to do that which shows love to our neighbors – whomever that neighbor may be. We are called to do that without stopping to think about whether or not we’re required to, or how little we can get by with, or whether they deserve our help, or if they will be able to return the favor. None of that matters. God loves us, we are invited to love one another. Period.

And, just in case there’s a Billy or Tommy listening to this today; “strike” includes kicking. And “cheek” includes any possible part of your body you can think of. I’m just saying.

Amen and amen.

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