A sermon by the Rev. Linda Harrison
Epiphany 7; 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Leviticus says: Be holy as I, your God, am holy.
Jesus tells us: Be perfect as your heavenly Parent is perfect.
Holiness and perfection. Following the Law.
Did you ever feel like you were being set up for failure?
“The Law” – it sounds so ominous, so confining and so very impossible.
And yet, the psalmist extols The Law. Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Psalter and every verse has a synonym for Torah – God’s Law, God’s Word, God’s Instruction. The psalmist praises God’s Law, thanks God for the Law, and thoroughly delights in the Law.
What if I were to tell you that most of us raised in Christian traditions have misunderstood “The Law” all these years?
“The Law” is actually a gift – God’s good gift. It is an instruction manual to guide the people so the people will get more from this life – more fulfillment, more love, more connection, a deeper meaning. And this little gift was given to Israel after God chose and declared them to be God’s people. The Law is not a means by which the people earn God’s love. God gave The Law because God loved the people and wanted the people to live blessed, meaningful, and contented lives, and to strengthen them for the work to which God called them. To “be holy” means to be set apart for the special tasks and responsibilities that God has set before the people. It is not a moral definition of “perfection” or being without sin. It does, however, have moral implications: following God’s Law means caring for others. As The Law commands, each individual has obligations within the community to care for one another in order to ensure the overall health, well-being, safety, and blessing of each person as parts of the whole and therefore ensuring that the whole is healthy, safe, and blessed.
God’s Law, according to the prevailing ethos of American life, is counter-cultural. Where the motto has become “each person out for themselves”, God’s Law is an antidote to this individualistic society. If it is “me” against the “world”, then the community is the enemy and the individual is in a continual adversarial relationship that does nothing to provide wholeness and blessing. The strength and goodness of the community can never be realized when the individual is constantly doing battle against the community.
God saw, in the beginning, that is was not good for the human being to be alone, and so God created community. It is in community that we live into our fulfillment – or as Jesus says in the gospel, our perfection. We look out for one another, care for one another, and then together face the hardships and challenges of life as well as reveling in the joys and opportunities the world offers. By orienting us to the needs of our neighbors, The Law actually strengthens community and in that strength, we are each better persons living into who God has called us to be.
That is the goal of the individual and corporate life: to live into the fullness for which God created us. That is the perfection to which Jesus calls us: reaching one’s intended outcome. The perfection of an apple tree is to produce apples. The perfection of parents is to raise healthy, well-adjusted children. The perfection of a Web designer is to develop a pleasing and informative Web page.
The intended outcome for the individual created in the image of God (and that is every human being on this planet) is to become the person God created each of us to be and to become the community God envisioned for humanity because we cannot reach our individual intended outcomes alone.
It takes persistence to live into one’s intended outcome. We are not called to live or be perfectly “sinless” – we are called to be perfectly persistent in living into who God has called us to be.
And we do that by embracing the gift of The Law.
Jesus’ call for us to be perfect (telos in Greek: to come to completion, maturity, reaching the intended outcome) is both an exhortation and a promise. We are exhorted to be persistent in the striving toward our perfection while at the same time we are promised that God sees our potential, and it is good. God promises to be with us as we persist in becoming who God has created us to be.
We strive to reach our intended outcome, knowing that we are fallible yet clinging to God’s promises and to the redemptive grace and new beginnings we are granted in Christ everyday.
We persist like so many before us, believing that God calls us to be community in relationship and mutual care. We persist like the Canaanite woman who knew healing was available to her child, outside the Jewish people. We persist like Mary at the tomb of Lazarus who knew death did not have the final word. We persist like the woman at the well who knew that there was something special here and that even she, a cast off Samaritan woman, could drink the living water.
We persist like Elizabeth Warren and Coretta Scott King and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor and Malala Yousafzai. We persist like Martin Luther King and Gandhi. We persist like Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.
We persist in calling for justice for the ones scapegoated and oppressed and beaten down and denied. We persist in our resistance against bullying and name-calling and xenophobia from all levels of society from the classroom to the boardroom to the White House. And as we persist in standing with our beleaguered, persecuted, used and abused sisters and brothers, we grow into our intended outcomes, shaping ourselves according to God’s Word – God’s Word – and thus shaping our community toward empathy and wholeness, living into the dominion of God, or what MLK called The Beloved Community.
We persist because of God’s gift of The Law and because of God’s promise to be with us in and through Christ. We persist, because that is who we are called to be and if we follow Jesus’ love ethic – which is our perfection – we will not fail. We will not fail.
Blessed be God forever.
As a postscript: Yes, we persist, but we must also rest. I had read many metaphors calling our current resistance against hate a marathon. And I liked that metaphor: hydrate, eat well, pace yourself, and keep on moving. Recently, I read a different metaphor that I like better. We should view this as more a relay race than a marathon. Even the most prepared marathoner can only run a limited distance before collapsing. In a relay, we carry the baton for our leg of the race, and then we hand it off to the next person. We rest, trusting the next leg of the race to someone else. When we are ready, we pick up the baton and let the other person take their turn to rest. In this way, we will have the endurance to persist and resist the current administration.