St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Ian T. Douglas
Sermon: Year A, Epiphany 7
(Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23;
St. Paul's Episcopal Church - Wallingford, CT
23 February, 2014
In the name of the one, holy and Triune God, Amen
God tells Moses to say to the people of Israel: "You shall be Holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." Note how God is not saying to the people of Israel: "You shall be Holy, because I demand it." Or "You shall be holy, because I want you to be good and perfect." No. God is saying: "You shall be Holy, because I, your God, am holy." God is saying here that God and the people of Israel are in intimate and connected relationship. And because God is holy, the people of Israel, God's treasured ones, are also holy. It's all about relationship, right-relationship. What God wants for the people of Israel, what God wants for all people, what God wants for you and me, is to be in right-relationship, right-relationship with God, with each other, and with all creation. Being holy is not about doing good things, it's about being in right-relationship.
Now why does God want us to be in right-relationship, to be connected to God and one another in holy, life-giving, ways? It's because if we are left to our own devices and desires, we will not live in right-relationship; instead we will choose to live unto ourselves, our own selfish, and life-denying ways. Our "Outline of the Faith" also known as the Catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer has a pretty good definition of sin. It says (p. 848) "Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation." "Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation." Sin is about distorted relationships, alienation, isolation, and separation.
But God does not want us to live in distorted relationships with God, with each other, and with all creation. That's why God sought a new relationship with the people of Israel. Through the covenants God made with Abraham and Sarah, with Noah, and with Moses, God sought to establish a new relationship by which the people of Israel could be a "light to the nations," a means by which all people could come into right-relationship with God and each other.
And so this morning we hear God saying to the people of Israel through Moses: "You shall be Holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." These words mark the beginning what is known as the Holiness Code in the book of Leviticus. Whereas the first sixteen chapters of the Book of Leviticus instruct the people of Israel about how to worship, chapters 17-26 focus on how God's people are to live in everyday life. Our lesson thus tells us about how the people of Israel should leave gleanings of grain for those who do not have, how stealing, lying, defrauding, injustice, slander, hatred, and vengeance all turn the people from God and one another.
God thus sums up the call to be Holy, to be in right-relations by saying: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." This, of course, is the great commandment that Jesus affirms in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." (Matthew 22: 37-39.) Holiness is all about right-relationship: right-relationship with God, right-relationship with other people, right-relationship with all creation.
Jesus continues this theme of living in right-relationship in his Sermon on the Mount, that we have been reading as the Gospel lessons this Epiphany season. In this morning's Gospel we have Jesus' vision for how to live in right-relationship, relationships based on restorative rather than retributive justice. In three particular examples, Jesus turns received practice on its head by challenging his followers to seek his way, God's restoring, reconciling way. In each case, the person who is being wronged is invited to claim her/his full stature as a child of God, and thus live a holy and life affirming reality in the face of insult, usury, subjugation.
To begin with Jesus calls his followers to turn the other cheek. This injunction is not an act of passivity, or helplessness in the face of an attack. And it should never be used to justify any kind of abuse or staying in some oppressive relationship. We need to understand the context in order to appreciate what Jesus is calling for here. In Jesus' day when a person struck another on the right cheek; it was done as a put down, an insult by a superior, a power-over action. But when the person who had been struck presents their left cheek, that person is asserting her/his dignity, is saying you cannot deny my person-hood, you cannot put me down. Presenting the left cheek is seen as an act of resistance, and act of claiming one's full God-given self. Presenting the left cheek says that the two are equals, and of equal stature in the eyes of God.
Context is equally important in understanding the injunction to give one's cloak. In Jesus' time, Jewish men wore two garments, a coat of linen wool worn close to the body and over it a heavier cloak. The outer garment, the cloak, was a bare essential and by Jewish law could not be used in any kind of barter. So when a person loses his undergarment, his coat, in a suit Jesus says give your cloak as well. In doing so the person would become naked. And because it was shameful to look upon a naked person, the one who had claim on the one giving the coat and cloak would have brought shame on himself. The creditor would thus reconsider the collecting of his debt and the possibility of equality, right relationship, would be engendered.
And finally Jesus says, "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also another." In occupied Palestine, Roman soldiers had the right to require any Jewish person to carry his backpack or weapons for one mile, and one mile only. The colonized Jew had little choice here. He/she could either refuse and be imprisoned or beaten, or give in and carry the solder's burden for the one mile. But by going a second mile, the subjugated person was choosing a third way. He/she was saying, I am not going to give you reason to beat me, nor will I be a pack animal for you. Rather, I will demonstrate my authority, my personhood, my equality by going a second mile and thus not allowing you to subjugate me.
In all these circumstances Jesus is saying that insult, usury, subjugation, are not the way of God. No. Jesus says that each and every one of us, created in the image of God has innate dignity, worth, and power. And it is from this place of dignity, worth and power, that we are called to love God, to love others, and even love one's enemies. In so doing, right-relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation can be realized. And as we claim our God-given dignity, worth and power, we will become the temple of God that St. Paul talks about in our Epistle reading from his first letter to the Corinthians. For through the foundation of Jesus, God incarnate, and through the power of the Holy Spirit we are invited to be that temple through which right-relation can be made real in the world. In our baptism, we are commissioned, co-missioned in that mission of God that is to restore all people to God and each other in Christ.
And so this morning, each and every one of us, is invited to claim our place as the holy temple of God as we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant and recommit to joining in God's mission. After we all reaffirm our baptismal promises, David, Janette, Cassandra, Katelyn, Alicia, Adam, and Stephanie will come forward and be confirmed in their vocations to be the temple of God in the world. They will be saying, as adults, that they want to be about the work of right-relation, right-relation with God, right-relation with each other, and right-relation with all creation. What can be more worthwhile, more exciting, more meaningful, than to join with God in this holy work of restoration and reconciliation? Thanks be to God.