The Rev. Dr. Seth Weeldreyer
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Listening to our conversations, observing how we live, it’s clear. Personal faith gets fulfilled in how we share community life. We teach and tutor and volunteer all over town. We try to get people jobs and we care for employees. We work on bike trails and support myriad causes and arts organizations. We heal in body and spirit. We serve meals. We welcome refugees and care for friends or neighbors. We help others navigate the law and try to heal race relations. We celebrate and lament and work through news of our city, our nation, our world. And as we sat around last night sharing joys and concerns in events of our lives and our world, she said “I really want to know what I can do with the stress. Most troubling and transforming times come in wilderness places with no stable community. Think of the Exodus from Egyptian slavery through the desert to a land of promise. Or young David and later prophets hid in the hills fleeing the current king. Or Israelites conquered, enslaved again in Babylon, while a remnant at home lives amid rubble. In those wilderness places of the heart and physical struggle, vision for and commitment to this common life gets formed. That’s Moses and the Ten Commandments. That’s Isaiah’s beautiful vision of lion and lamb in the peaceable kingdom, and Micah’s inspiration to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
Think of Jesus’ birth under threat of Caesar and Herod, and calling disciples to walk with him. How he touched people with healing and a hopeful word, and always said: this is God’s reign within and among us. Then the consequence, hung on a cross. Think of Paul’s letters about how we live together in the risen Christ, continuing his ministry in the world as God wants. Finally, the ultimate Revelation of God’s reign, a vision of perfection—beauty, safety, abundance in a heavenly city of sanctuary in the very community we love. No question … in scripture communion with God entwines in community with others.
For me, friends, there is no question we get that commitment to wider community. We have a heart for others—all of us—in our love for this church and city, our desire for all people to share goodness, in a rich, meaningful, purposeful life. We want to proclaim God’s reign like Jesus in a broken and fearful world, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace, as our Statement of Faith affirms. The real question is: how do we realize that reign of God, how we do get to that common ground as we come with differences in experience, perspective, and plan? How do we trust all people belong to God, never separated from God’s love, and not give in to discord and division? How do we live faith together in this sanctuary, so that all life everywhere may know that beauty and security and inspiration we feel here at best, that fullness of peace?
In recent weeks we’ve explored a Rule for Living Faith. More than rules by which we prize or penalize, it’s all about regular routines, priorities, patterns that flow from the orientation of our hearts. I believe we need contemplative connection with God. We need accountable relations with others. We need ways to live with creativity, as we are all gifted. And finally today, we need to live and serve in ways that bring God’s order of grace and peace into our world.
Friends, it begins with our personal need for order and peace? How have we experienced it since our earliest days and memories? For me, in a family with seven sweet loving siblings who never said a mean word, did anything unkind, or took advantage of another, there was order every time we sat down to eat, or rotated chores, or came to settle some dispute in parental court. Dogs helped me understand neighborly relations. We loved two stray hound / lab puppies dropped at our driveway. Yet a few years later when they started snacking on a neighbor’s chickens, I saw that it was better for them to be on a farm chasing deer. In college as a Resident Assistant, I couldn’t get excited about bad cop routines around noise or alcohol or girls overnight, but I committed to ordering life for the good of all which meant limits to individual whims. And now, when my own son complains and explains how a test answer counted wrong could be right but the teacher wouldn’t agree, or he chafes under rules that don’t make sense, I remember where he gets it. In our adult world, it gets more complicated, but isn’t it essentially similar? As we move from personal to communal, how do we order life fairly so all live fully in grace and peace?
Have you seen Michael Moore’s movie about America learning from other nations? His satirical or sarcastic tone can be too much. And some caustic remarks seem unfair or too simplistic. More on that in a minute. Still, did you know? Students in Finland have no homework or standardized tests and perform better than anyone else. In German and Italy, some of the most productive workers in the world enjoy a 36 hour work week (with laws against email at night!), and 6-8 weeks of vacation. In Norway, violent felons get rehabilitated through low-security programs approximating everyday life (with the lowest recidivism rates); and a parent whose son was killed in a shooting worse than Sandy Hook and Columbine combined argues not for the death penalty or vengeance, but forgiveness and humane treatment. Moore goes on to interview about women’s rights in Tunisia and Iceland, anti-drug programs in Portugal, multi-course gourmet school lunches in France. And in every instance, people say it’s about sharing a truly good life with others beyond just myself. Big corporation owners are more concerned about a worker’s mother, than making more money for themselves. What would you do with it all, she asks; how much do you really need, anyway? Teachers stress the importance of poetry, arts, and play because it makes kids happy and whole people. i How do we live abundantly in the fullness of grace and peace as God intends?
Of course, these examples exist within wider webs of socialization and regulation that make each possible. And nothing translates exactly from one society to another. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had the Italian sun?! Still, if writers of scripture lived today, what do we think they would say?
You see, ancient Hebrews had laws for everything from misbehaving animals to workers’ rights and dietary restrictions. That’s Leviticus. As the story goes, on the wilderness, Exodus from Egypt, Moses chats with God and comes out with over 600 commandments (beyond the top ten). It’s like Social Security, Health and Human Services, Education, Labor Relations, Food and Drug Administration, and all other government agencies in one. It’s called the Holiness Code. And the part we read today is at the core of it all; the heart of it all; the central affirmation. You shall be holy, for I am holy, says the Lord. Out of God’s goodness and love we structure and nurture our everyday life. Verses Tim read today focus on neighborly relations between rich and poor, powerful and vulnerable, employers and workers, citizens and aliens, speaking truth, living generously, no stealing or exploitation rather fairness and integrity, no hate grudges or vengeance rather honor, respect, mercy and forgiveness. It culminates in what Jesus quotes us as the Greatest Commandment—loving neighbor as self. There’s more esoteric stuff about haircuts and tattoos that we’d have trouble with. Still, it sounds a lot like what the Europeans Moore interviewed and we Americans aspire to at our best. One phrase a few verses later in Leviticus is even inscribed upon our nation’s Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land …”
God is the Lord of all life. So, holy love should guide all our personal decisions. And it includes social regulation, because biblical people from ancient Hebrews, through Jesus and his disciples, to Christians in every age have accepted we humans won’t always choose wisely. We can be selfish, insensitive, unethical. Time after time the Bible commends what is Godly for the good of all in community. How do we bring the Holy Order of grace and peace more fully in our world?
You may have heard we Presbyterians like to do things decently and in order. Beyond screwing in light bulbs, we could joke about how many Presbyterians it takes to decide what light bulbs to buy, when to turn them on, and philosophically what is light anyway? We’re so concerned with order our constitution takes two volumes. And as one of my seminary professors declared “there’s blood on every page!” It’s not all rules. Most of it is orienting principles. One of my favorite lines reminds us, “we believe there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ.” So it is a “duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance …” You see, friends, as we try to bring God’s order for our world, the way we do things with fairness and respect, honor and humility, grace in and through all grievance, this character matters as much as any content of what we accomplish.
Talking about recent events in our nation he shared concern that varying voices be heard. He mentioned Parker Palmer’s book Healing the Heart of Democracy. I remember doing a study of it years ago with some of you. So I pulled it off the shelf again. Palmer expresses gratitude for how religious traditions like ours have shaped American culture and politics, and the commonwealth created. “The God who gave us all life wants us to do the same for each other,” he urges. Beyond specific words in our sacred texts, the deeper, more demanding question is how do we create relationships that bring those words to life, and exemplify what we teach and preach? This witness, he stresses, becomes far more powerful than any particular doctrine. Long before doctrines ever began, in a culture of distrust and fear, strangers would feel compelled by first-century Christians, because they would “see how they love one another.” ii
Friends, we shouldn’t minimize our differences, nor avoid all conversation about such matters. Far from it. Jesus didn’t. He lived that conversation, even in confrontation. He embodied God’s love in new ways. You have heard, Jesus said, an eye for eye. Not justifying violence, ancient Hebrews tried to curb escalating revenge by limiting retaliation. Jesus takes that spirit one step further. As citizens of God’s heavenly reign more than Rome and religion, care for enemies and encourage nonviolent resistance. Turn the other cheek, give the cloak too, go the extra mile. It’s about empowering victims to live by God’s order of grace more than acquiesce to unjust laws. Refuse to play the game. Reorder assumptions and reorient hostility to hospitality; aggression to affection. For Jesus, this love is no abstract idea. It’s real relationship beyond boundaries of hurt, hate, insiders and outsiders. When all people become “neighbors” then we live the divine nature Leviticus decrees. “Be perfect.” It really means be complete as God is complete. In other gospels, it’s be compassionate as God is compassionate. One scholar explains, “Perfection does not mean always choosing the right fork at the dinner table … It means loving as God loves, with every breath God gives us. Impossible? Too much?” iii That’s when we ultimately see the best we can do is pray: make me a humble imperfect channel of God’s peace, power, and purposes among us. That’s when we trust that even amid less than perfect situations in our lives and world, we can still share a complete rich, relationship with God and others.
That’s what I like about Anne Lamott. In her wilderness of drug addiction, family dysfunction, and fears about our world, she found Jesus in a Presbyterian Church. Her language is also a bit more salty and caustic than I try to be. Still, I appreciate the way Lamott receives Sacred Grace amid the disorder of her life, and then tries to make a fumbling faltering difference in response. In the spirit of what Leviticus outlines and Jesus urges in all of us, this week I remembered her efforts years ago to love a president she didn’t like very much. In the beginning of her book Lamott laments all that’s going wrong. It seems a sort of literary temper tantrum. She moves on to her mother’s ashes, her dog, her adolescent son, and a host of other issues in her community. Eventually she returns to her president … by way of Jesus’ Resurrection. Finding a way to rise above the antagonism in her own heart. She promises to pray for her president, in part, because she realizes resentment and hatred she feels can literally kill her. And she writes, “to change the way you feel about people, you have to change the way you treat them. … it is so much easier to believe that God hates or disapproves of or punishes the same people [we] do …” But then Jesus ate with even sinners. And “his love and mercy fall equally upon us all,” she says. “… Jesus kept harping on forgiveness and loving one’s enemies, so I decided to try. Why couldn’t Jesus command us to obsess about everything, to try to control and manipulate people, … stomp away and brood when people annoy us, and then eat a big bag of Hershey’s Kisses in bed?”iv
Dear friends, if we want to find and make peace in our society and world, like Anne Lamott we need to begin with ourselves. Surely we all have concerns with our most beloved families and friends, even within ourselves. Some of those concerns arise precisely because we all care deeply for this fullness of life, and yet we differ in particulars. No, Jesus doesn’t call us to throw tantrums, manipulate, or stomp away and brood. Jesus calls us to love all, even enemies and to resist evil and to rise again by not accepting contentious rules of relationship as the only way to engage one another. Let us speak up about the way we see the world and what we trust God wants for us in Christ. And let us not do so by demonizing and demeaning for even if we win an argument, we lose ourselves, who we really are, our truest nature of love and compassion. Even when news from all the around can seem overwhelming, Jesus empowers us to structure and nurture life as God intends, trusting God’s love will transform us all in ways of grace and peace beyond our imagination. And so even as we wonder what we can do to make a difference, we go and serve in little ways everyday—we teach and tutor and volunteer. We connect people with jobs and care for our employees. We care for friends, neighbors, and refugees. We heal and serve meals and work on bike trails. Be perfect, be compassionate, be complete, Jesus said, as God is perfect. Personal faith gets fulfilled in how we share community life. Listening to our conversations, observing how we live, it’s clear.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
i Where to Invade Next, 2016.
ii Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 138.
iii Ronald J. Allen, “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 381, 383, 385.
iv Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 143, 222, 224.