Sermon, Year A Epiphany 7
Plymouth United Church of Christ , Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber, February 20, 2011
Focus Scripture: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Matthew 5:38-48 (http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=19)
A number of years ago I was watching a show on PBS with my friend, Carl. I don’t remember what the show was about, but it was filmed in China or Taiwan. One segment of it showed some Chinese men working on a roof of a large building – repairing or building it, I can’t remember. But they were having some kind of issue, and yelling at each other in Chinese. The show’s producers very kindly gave us viewers subtitles so we could follow their conversation. It went something like this:
“Gosh, Bill, you sure do work slow.”
“Be quiet, Steve. Don’t say mean things.”
“You need to work faster, slowpoke.”
(laughter, ha, ha, ha)
“Don’t insult me. You’re doing a very sloppy job, too.”
“I am not. It’s better than the lousy job you’re doing. Look at your numerous errors.”
“You work like an old woman.” And so on.
Carl began LOL-ing: laughing out loud. “What’s so funny, Carl?” I asked. Well, Carl grew up in Taiwan. His parents were missionaries, professors at a school there, and until he came to the states for college, that’s where Carl lived. He understood the language the carpenters were speaking. He kept laughing and reading the subtitles, saying, “Oh man, that’s not what they’re saying at all!”
The gist of it the translation was correct. They were arguing over each others’ work ethic, but the translators had entirely scrubbed the profanity and vulgar slang that gave it its meaning and everything that made the conversation interesting and gave it color. The producers watered down the men’s conversation until it was safe for consumption by sensitive ears. It got the point, but missed the drama, the truth, and the reality. Like a black and white photo of a fauvist painting – sure, you can see what it’s a painting of, but that’s not the point.
I think we too often do the same with Jesus’ words, especially in this part of the sermon on the mount, and especially when his words challenge our comfortable capitalist, militaristic, individualistic assumptions about how the world ought to work. We might say that Jesus didn’t really mean to turn the other cheek, to open ourselves to another attack without retaliation, and he didn’t really mean to give to everyone who begs or asks for a loan, or that we should give more than asked for whenever we’re sued. No, we find some way of reading and re-translating his words that waters them down for tender ears and weak hearts. We neuter his ethic’s power by letting our discomfort and our assumptions distort his words, instead of letting his words change our assumptions and challenge our comfort.
And what Jesus says here is really building on Leviticus – the book of the law, the central of the five books that made the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. It’s in the middle of those five because it is central and pivotal. It, too, sets a high standard to be holy. And holiness is the goal. Not just to be good or friendly, but to be holy. Because God is holy.
God gave the law not as a burden, or the blueprint about how to gain God’s favor, but because the Hebrew people, through Abraham, had already gained God’s favor as God’s specially chosen people. The law is God saying, “I choose you to be my people, my agents of blessing in this world, and this is what it means to carry the responsibility of being my people. I expect you to be holy like me. If you are to be my face to the world, then you need to be like me.” And so the law is set out, including the section of the holiness code we read from Leviticus 19.
Holiness is about how we live together: Don’t reap all your land. Leave some for the poor, AND for the alien; that is, the foreigners, whether there legally or not. Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t swear falsely by my name, don’t defraud, pay your workers when they are done working, don’t mistreat the deaf or the blind, don’t hate, and this interesting one – you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt. Part of our call to holiness is to also ensure your neighbor is living up to the ideal and not letting slide. But, reprove them justly. Don’t take vengeance, or even bear a grudge. Vengeance is God’s prerogative. In fact: love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus quoted that when he summarized the law and the prophets: love God, love your neighbor as yourself. Paul quotes it a number of times, the writer of the letter of James does it. That letter is basically a sermon on this text. James is the one who said, “Faith without works is dead.”
Watching the protests in Egypt this week, and then Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Iran, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Jordan, here in Wisconsin and Eau Claire, the things going on at Grace Lutheran, and then late last night a wire came out that China had cracked down on a call for protests in 13 cities... these events have resonated for me through these Leviticus and Gospel texts as neighbor goes against neighbor. The events going on around us bring alive the words about paying workers, and leaving some crops for the poor and alien, not defrauding, lying, or stealing, not taking vengeance, no eye for an eye, but an offer of the other cheek, and to love one’s neighbor, including one’s enemies, because as Jesus said even tax collectors and gentiles love those who love them, so don’t expect kudos for doing that. No, we are to love those who don’t love us.
Jesus calls us to renounce our right to retaliation and vengeance to embrace his way of radical love. We may reprove and judge our neighbor, but justly, honestly and in love. Well, if we don’t feel uncomfortable at that, we might be listening with our translators set to “I don’t want to be challenged.” Which is itself a deceptive translation of “I don’t want to be holy. Good enough is good enough.” But good enough is not good enough. Holiness is to be like God.
Paul said we are to have Christ as our foundation, but we don’t live on the foundation. We build on it the home we intend to live in. The foundation is not the house, but it is the base on which we build walls and windows and doors, the structure of the home. And holiness roofs it. Before we can put in the closets and the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedrooms, we must climb up to the dangerous top from which we might fall but which – if our foundation is sound – we won’t fall from wobbliness of the structure, only our own missteps. We go on the roof to build holiness. because holiness is built only in dangerous places, uncomfortable, potentially harmful places. But once the roof is done, the rest of the house is protected. The furniture can be moved in and the process of living can begin.
And life is what these commands are about. About living in God’s abundance. Leave some grain in the field for the poor and alien, there’s enough. Show justice, refuse to seek vengeance. “Be holy,” says God, “because I am holy.” Jesus said, “Be perfect.” Not as ‘without sin’, though we should try for that, but “perfect” as in complete. To have a solid foundation, a clutter-free home filled with love and hospitality, roofed with holiness, so that the Carls of the world look at your subtitles with satisfaction and say, “Aha! Now that life is a translation of Jesus that isn’t afraid to keep the color and drama!”
Let us pray:
God of holiness, we have heard your word to be holy, too, because we are your people. You give us challenging words and ask to do the impossible: to be like you. Help us, please, to see not the impossibility, but the possibility, to live into the possibility, and be bearers of blessings, trusting that you would not ask us to do anything without giving us what we need to do it: your Holy Spirit, your grace, and your unending love through Jesus Christ. Amen.Tweet
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