Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Epiphany 7, 23 February 2014, Year A

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Preached by Rev. John Warner 

Imperfection Striving for Perfection 

           May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight oh my Lord and my Redeemer.
          During my tenure as the director of the local community mental health center, I established annual goals for each of my managers, which would be used as the foundation for each one’s performance appraisal. Each were to write similar goals for their respective managers and employees they supervised. Within the area of customer service, I required that each would have NO substantiated customer complaint. This goal was followed by much grumbling. “You expect me to be perfect. That’s impossible!” one after another would state. My responses to such statements would be to ask, “Would you feel comfortable going under a cardiac surgeon’s knife who bragged of only losing 20% of his patients on the operating table or to fly on a transcontinental flight with a pilot who proudly exclaimed only two crashes last year?” Although I didn’t expect perfection, I did set an achievable bar even if the employee had to stretch a bit.
          I believe that Jesus wants us also to stretch a bit. Okay, a lot! Today’s reading from Matthew continues Jesus’s inauguration of the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of God future but the kingdom of God present as displayed within the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount addressed to the disciples is an expectation of greater righteousness.   Radical words, many which I confess I find difficult to understand much less follow. Take, for example, the words spoken today. First, I am not to seek “an eye for an eye.” Does this mean that if someone I love is murdered that I should not seek justice for his or her death?” Second, if I am sued for $100,000, I should give the person who has taken me to court, a double amount or even greater amount. Finally, if I’m forced to perform some act of submission, I’m also to roll over and become a door mat.  Jesus summarizes the lesson by directing us to love both our friends and enemies.  Granted, I haven’t had many enemies in my life, but I have had a few who have persecuted me; who made it their mission in life to destroy mine. Love them! Are you kidding?
          To understand the relevance of this portion of the Sermon of the Mount in preparation for my sermon, I had to dig a bit deeper in these verses. If a Jews in ancient Israel was struck on the right cheek, it was generally done with the back of the hand—violence, for sure, but also an insult. Generally, there was also a power differential between the assailant and victim. One would have been inferior in social status to the other.  Jesus is saying that you can hit me again but you are going to do so with both of us being equals. All are equal in God’s kingdom.
          If an enemy takes you to court to sue you, probably for a large debt, you are not going to win. Therefore, you can at least show him what he is doing. In a world where most would own only a coat and cloak, you can at least shame the individual by your impoverished state. Could this be a metaphor that the rich and powerful may be reducing the poor to a state of shame?
          The third situation reflects the Roman occupation of Israel. As conquerors, a Roman soldier had every right to force a Jew to carry their equipment for one mile but no more. Jesus is telling his disciples to be as generous as God. Don’t complain and plot revenge, but go that extra mile. Show the soldier a different humanity, one that does not involve revenge and injustice.
          Although I understand the “good news” better, it doesn’t make following his teachings any easier. Jesus sets a high bar! But what would you expect for those who have Jesus Christ as their foundation? If, as Paul tells the church in Corinth, we are God’s temple sanctified by the Holy Spirit, what other rule of life should we aspire to?
          As much as I try, I haven’t fully moved into the kingdom of God. When I’m in my clericals, I have to keep reminding myself (or Marsha reminds me) that I am a wearing a collar and to watch my behavior. The collar tells me, “Don’t yell at that elderly man who just pulled out in front of you and is now driving like a tortoise down the road” or “Don’t ignore that woman who needs help.” I dream for the day when I don’t have to remember that I’m wearing a collar to remind me to be an example of God’s charity to others. I dream for the day when I internalize the collar within my heart. I hope eventually to be a light of Christ in the world. But for right now, I’m only on a journey of becoming.
           The Sermon of the Mount wasn’t just for us; it was also for Jesus. It was the blueprint for his life. He asked nothing of others that he wouldn’t do himself. Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus shows us what God is really like. The Sermon on the Mount isn’t just about how to behave. It’s about discovering God in the living, loving, and dying Jesus, and, with his help, in us reflecting that love into the world.

(Some of the information used in this sermon is a paraphrase of commentary found in the book Matthew for Everyone – Part One by Tom Wright.)