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Set Apart
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on February 23, 2014

Christ Church Andover
Year A, Epiphany 7
Sunday, February 23, 2014

Click for the readings for Epiphany 7.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together always be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.

Once in a while a reading comes up in our lectionary which once again reasserts to me how good Jesus was as a teacher. While some may imagine the sermon on the mount comprising the list of the blesseds in the gospel of Matthew—‘Blessed are the meek, they shall inherit the earth, blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’, the sermon itself actually extends into last week’s intentional hyperbole by Jesus over the current limited scope of justice and forgiveness, but also into today’s passage on hatred, anger, revenge and forgiveness, and THEN into our gospel for Ash Wednesday. Jesus is a great teacher, a great preacher—he pulls you in with his crafted and lofty theology with those Beatitudes, and by the time anyone can say that they “believe in the sermon on the mount”, he hits you with a truckload of less poetic and far more challenging action items. If I thought Jesus were tricky or a wordsmith, I would use this as my proof. However, as I read these portions of scripture again and again over the years, I find that Jesus isn’t being tricky, he’s being profoundly and bluntly honest about the nature of love and grace and our human resistance towards that.

And we are called out immediately in today’s gospel.

Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other cheek. Give your cloak as well as your coat. Give to all who ask, and do not refuse them. Love those who hate you. Understand that God’s mercy is free for all, even those who make me nuts and stand for all I abhor. Greet and share the peace with those I have nothing in common with and who live in ways that are beyond the pale for my sense of right and wrong. Be perfect, just like God.

This is the kind of passage that I read in the morning and immediately feel exhausted.

It’s not particularly the Christianity that I grew up with, that of wearing our good clothes to church on Sunday and minding my p’s and q’s at the table. I am sure that I heard this passage in Sunday school, but those I disagreed with at that time in my life weren’t so worrisome then - love seemed easier when it was hopefully espoused by my teachers all day long. And it all sounds nice on the surface - why wouldn’t we want love over revenge? Why wouldn’t we want to forgive instead of hold grudges? Why wouldn’t we want to have God love everyone equally?

Because we don’t. And I’ll even switch from the preachy ‘we’ to ‘I’ for this time, just in case you think I’m being overly idealistic.

I like to feel the power of a grudge. I like to think that I am more special than others. I am terrified that to forgive, to let go of anger, to ‘let someone off the hook’, is to possibly give the message of powerlessness over power and my own agency. I want people to learn from their mistakes, and when they do, I kind of want them to suffer the consequences. Some days an ‘eye for an eye’ feels rather good and holy to me, or rather, my own ego. Sometimes I don’t want to love those who are hard to love. I don’t want to take the time to understand them or listen to them, or believe that they, in all their misguided glory, will have the same glimpse of God’s love that I, in my obvious relative perfection, will experience. Some days I kind of think that giving my coat is overkill, nevermind giving my cloak as well. 

I won’t ask you if that inner conversation sounds familiar. The Beatitudes were so much easier to digest than these ‘you have heard it said’ teachings, which are commonly referred to as the ‘antitheses’—you have heard one thing, but I will tell you to do another. And to top it all off, we have the zinger in the room, which, if not an actual antithesis, presents itself to be one: be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. No pressure there.

Where is our good news? Where is the gospel today when we are presented with a litany of expectations and requests that go beyond what we, perhaps, as humans are even capable of doing? Where is the gospel today when all that Jesus says goes against what I want and like and prefer?

We go back to the ‘we’.

Very few pieces of scripture are addressed to individuals. None of our readings today are crafted towards individual people, but rather communities learning to live together as faithful followers of God. Leviticus, that favorite book of our Bible Challenge readers, presents a Holiness Code in the chapters which surround this morning’s first reading. It is a reissuing and explication, even an expansion, of the Ten Commandments handed down to Moses at Sinai. But it goes into even greater depth than those pithy ten sayings we seem to love to put up into courthouses and schools. Just as the Beatitudes tempt us to ignore the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, we seem to prefer the short and sassy version of what God asks of us, rather than looking into how we might incarnate, to bring to life and live into, the complications that these laws bring with them. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy”, it is written. Holy, not meaning perfect or pious, but set apart. To be holy, to be something sacred is to be set apart from the secular, to take on a new identity. And for every ‘commandment’ listed in this portion of the Holiness Code, it is followed by ‘I am the Lord your God.’ That might sound commanding or threatening, but perhaps, just perhaps, it is the reminder of why we are following this code, why we honor it in the first place. To be reminded that we do certain things - keep Sabbath, forgive, allocate for the poor and displaced, speak truthfully, love neighbor as self - because we are a people holy to God, set aside for God, given their identity because of their love for, and adherence and obedience to, God. We don’t do it just because God says it. We do it because it is what makes us ‘us’. It is what makes a community out of a bunch of rag tag Israelites, or fishermen, or crowds, or nice suburban folks living in Massachusetts.

When Jesus tells us to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect, it doesn’t mean getting ‘As’ or achieving or getting the raise or promotion or even being on time to church. It has nothing to do with the achievement or pressure that some places see as de rigeur in being a full and succuessful member of society. The word Jesus uses in Greek for ‘perfect’ is ‘telios’, meaning end, or conclusion, or fulfillment, or wholeness. Jesus doesn’t ask us to be perfect, as in ‘without blemish’. That would be too crazy, too impossible to take seriously, and in my humble opinion, render Jesus a false prophet of success-based and earned grace. He would be no more than a televangelist. No, Jesus asks us for wholeness, of process, of bringing something full circle. Be whole, inclusive, reflecting back the aspects of God’s being into the world, and then back again to God. And those aspects include all of those antitheses that make us so grumpy, that divide God’s people, that help us feel comfortable, confident even, in denying God’s reflection in others.

Leviticus was written for a wandering tribe of Israelites trying to find some common ground to organize and work together as a community. Paul writes to the community in Corinth, made up of people from all over the map, who were not unified by geography, ethnicity or language, and encourages them to find their grounding in Christ, rather than their particular prophet. Matthew writes to the young Christian community in Syria, who were trying to work out just how to *be* community when they weren’t quite sure how to do it - when they fought over decisions, when they compared themselves to each other, when they disagreed on how to worship, what to say, how to act, and what was important in their life together.

The impossible antitheses - the power of the ‘I’ - whether it be me, or you, or the guy down the street - when asked to love more than I feel capable of doing; to forgive more freely than I wish to do; to let go of the fear that encourages me to hoard God’s grace rather than share it - grounds us in the God who calls us holy, who repeatedly claims us as God’s own, and loves us despite our ‘I’s. It is the God to whom we pray in our collect today to send us more love than we can manufacture ourselves. It is the God who errs towards generosity. It is the God who calls us to be holy and different from others, from our ‘I’-based society. It is the God who tells us that our greatest achievement is found in reflecting this generosity. And it is the God who tells us that there will be a time when we are the ones who need forgiveness; when we are the ones asking others to go the extra mile with them; when we are the ones huddled in the cold, desperately needing a coat to cover us; when we are the ones who must ask of our friends and of strangers to help us through the times when we don’t have enough.

And I can love and worship a God like that. And I am grateful we do.


Last Published: March 12, 2014 11:44 AM