Seventh Sunday after Epiphany 19 February 2017
(Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 Psalm 119 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 Matthew 5:38-48)
“Be the Change You Wish to See!”
Turn the other cheek. Hand over your cloak. Go for two miles. Do not turn your back on those who want to borrow. Don’t be a doormat. Stand up for yourself. Go the extra mile. Live mercifully. Share what you have with others.
Many people will say that this Gospel is one of the most difficult, counter-cultural, challenging and most ignored teachings of Jesus.
In the Gospel readings from the last few weeks, Jesus is on the mountain seemingly giving critique to the Jewish Law. Today’s O.T. text from Leviticus is part of that Law known as the Holiness Code. This code was given to Moses as a way to bring the wayward Israelites together into some communal entity where they could get along with each other as they wandered through the desert. However, by the time of Jesus, the very system created to take care of each person became the same system endangering those on the margins of society.
From the mountain, Jesus gives us a vision of the kingdom where we are made to be connected to one another; and when we forget that, we destroy part of ourselves.
From the mountain, Jesus dares us to find a way that counters the status quo and helps us to see, yet again, one another’s human dignity, to stand up for oneself, to stand up for others. Jesus dares us to dismantle the system of violence by recognizing the value of human dignity, one person at a time.
And here’s the thing. Jesus isn’t kidding. He is dead serious. In this entire Sermon on the Mount Jesus is giving us a vision of God’s Kingdom and issuing to all who will listen the invitation to be part of it.
Jesus isn’t trying simply to modify the rules of the world. He’s not, contrary to prosperity preachers, inviting us to figure out how to make the most of this world. Jesus isn’t even just inviting us to find a safe port amid the storms of this world. Rather, Jesus is starting a revolution by calling into question the rules of his world and ours, while at the very same time, redeeming this world that He loves and that will, in due time, put him to death.
Jesus is calling the powers of the day into question by describing an entirely different way to relate to each other. “An eye for an eye’ makes all people blind,” Gandhi said almost 2000 years after Christ.
Jesus would say that we were created not only for justice, but for love and life. Strength eventually fails. Power corrupts. And survival of the fittest leaves so many bodies on the ground. Love alone transforms, redeems, and creates new life. As Martin Luther King, Jr., a student of both Jesus and Gandhi, once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. And as he quoted Gandhi, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
The final verse in this Gospel text, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” causes the most confusion. Let’s go to the Greek to get a better understanding. The Greek word that is translated as “perfect” is telos. That’s not a wrong translation, but it usually means not so much something that is morally perfect, as it does something that has grown up and matured, and eventually reaches its perfect end.
I think a tree is a good example. A tree grows and matures to a point where it can then bear fruit. Maybe a better way to understand this verse “to be perfect” is not to attain some moral perfection, but to grow into the intended outcome that God want us to become.
On the Mountain of the Beatitudes, Jesus gives us a vision of the Kingdom, and He also gives us the grace to walk this journey toward becoming what God intends us to become—Kingdom people, living by standards that are most often different from the way the world might teach us to live.
I want to end by saying a few words about the Bible Study at the prison on Friday morning. Each Friday when I go to that Bible study, I feel as if I’m stepping into a totally different world. As I walk down the long hallways, deep in the cell blocks, with gates and doors, this is a world I don’t experience in my daily life. So on Friday, we are sitting with nine men, I have no idea why they are in prison, and we are looking at this Gospel text that says, “Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Don’t refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. Pray for those who persecute you. What good is it if you simply love those who love you?” These are men who admit that have made poor choices, men who realize they have done some pretty bad things, hurt people. I can hear anger, sometimes they feel they have been treated unfairly—but there they are wanting to study the Bible.
This past Friday, we talked a lot about forgiveness, how this “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth,” pertains to them. They struggle with how to make forgiveness real in their lives when they are in a cell, when they don’t know who to trust, when they feel they are sometimes handled roughly, when they don’t know when they might see their families. So we talked a lot about trusting God’s grace that we are Kingdom people, even when it is really difficult to recognize the Kingdom among us. That’s pretty much the message for us here today, whether in prison or simply going about our daily lives.
Finally, I hope you’ve been noticing the Stewardship blurbs on the screen in recent weeks, thanks to the Stewardship Committee and specifically Marty Stevens. Stewardship literature confirms that when a true change of heart occurs within individuals, it is the generosity of our giving that is one of the first signs of such a change.
Today we are given a radical model for a new and different way of being in the world. Each one of us here this morning has the God-given potential to, Be the change you wish to see in the world! I beg you not to take that responsibility lightly. Amen.