WASHINGTON CITY CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN
February 23, 2014
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 Matthew 5:38-48
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Don’t worry – I haven’t forgotten about the scripture readings. We’ll start getting to those in a minute. When I was thinking about the various scripture readings suggested for today, one verse jumped out at me. Matthew 5:48 – “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
What is Jesus talking about? One theme that comes up over and over and over again in the Bible is how we fall short, how we are not perfect. Starting from the very beginning, starting with Adam and Eve, people aren’t perfect. The inability of humans to be perfect, to keep the law, to live up to what God asks of us is the whole reason that Jesus came. It’s the whole point behind grace, behind mercy, behind forgiveness. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need to be forgiven. We wouldn’t need grace. We wouldn’t need Jesus.
There are people who claim to be without sin. One I remember from years ago was the evangelist Ernest Angley. Angley’s ministry is in Ohio, and I remember watching his TV program when I lived there. He claims that he personally has been without sin since he was saved at around age 18. Angley is now 92 years old. I don’t want to make light of his claims or his faith, but at the same time 74 years without sinning is a long time. Especially in light of Romans 3:23 – All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
What does it mean for us to be perfect? Let’s take a look at the way that goal may have changed over time in our scripture readings this morning.
Read Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18.
We start out with an echo of Jesus’s words about being perfect: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Then God, through Moses, gets into specifics.
I remember a 911 call that got played on the radio when I was at Bethany in the mid 1980’s. It was from a guy whose car had died as he was passing over a railroad crossing and he couldn’t get it started again. You could hear the train in the distance, and the guy asking the 911 call-taker what to do, and the car going “rrrr-rrrrr-rrrr” while he tried to start it. The call-taker keeps saying “Get out of the car. Leave the car behind and get a safe distance away” and the guy keeps saying “I don’t know what to do” and the train whistle getting closer and closer and the “rrrr-rrrr-rrrr” until finally the phone goes dead. The call-taker was giving good advice, but the guy was too panicked to process what he was being told. The caller did survive without serious injuries, by the way.
I deal with people like this often on the phone. You want to laugh except that it can be so serious. If you’re in a car and a train is coming and it is going to hit you and maybe kill you, do you really need to be told to get out of the car? You would think not, wouldn’t you, but apparently sometimes you do.
Do the people of Israel really need to be told not to make fun of deaf people? It might be tempting, since they couldn’t hear you doing it, but do they really need to be told not to do that? Do the people of Israel really need to be told not to intentionally put stuff in the way of blind people to make them fall? You would think not, wouldn’t you, but apparently sometimes they do.
If the question is “What does it mean to be perfect”, then the answer that this section of scripture gives is kind of “be a good person.” Don’t take everything from the fields and vineyards, but leave some for the poor. Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t defraud, pay what you owe. Don’t swear falsely, don’t be prejudiced by someone’s economic status, don’t mock deaf people, don’t trip blind people.
Don’t hate people, don’t lie about people, hold each other accountable. Don’t hold grudges. Don’t try and get revenge. Love each other the way you love yourselves.
Most of these are pretty straightforward, aren’t they? Most of these are what we would expect a decent person, a good person, to do most of the time. There’s some of it that is a little above and beyond – leaving some crops behind so that the poor can glean from the fields, loving your neighbor as you love yourself – but for the most part it makes sense.
This section is all about what we do, what we say, how we act, how we think, and it can be summed up pretty easily. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not always easy to do. It’s easy to understand. It’s easy to say and to name. But often it’s hard to be a good person. It’s hard sometimes to do the right thing.
Now let’s take a look at our Gospel reading.
Read Matthew 5:38-48.
This takes it up a notch, doesn’t it? This is more than just being a good person, just doing the right thing. We can all agree that you should be fair. We can all agree that you shouldn’t lie or cheat or steal. We can all agree that you shouldn’t re-arrange a blind person’s living room when they’re out.
This is different. This isn’t quite so obvious. Don’t resist someone doing evil. Turn the other cheek. Don’t fight lawsuits – in fact, give them more than they’re asking for. Presumably that would apply even to phony lawsuits, since you’re not supposed to resist evildoers. This is all a step up from don’t be prejudiced and don’t hold grudges, isn’t it.
Once again, some of it is easy to say. It’s easy to say to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It’s not so easy to do, though. How do you love someone who you think of as an enemy? How do you pray for someone who is bullying you, or discriminating against you? In the abstract it’s easy enough, maybe. “God, I pray that my persecutor will turn to you, that your Spirit will fill his life so that he will stop doing the things he does to me.” That’s okay, I hope that too, but is that really praying for your persecutor, or is that praying for yourself in terms of what happens to and through him?
What are the things that you pray for when you pray for yourself? Good health? Happiness? Enough money? Happiness and health for friends and family? A rewarding job? If in the Leviticus reading we’re told to love our neighbor as ourselves, and here we’re told to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, it suggests to me that we’re to pray for them the same way we pray for ourselves. Wouldn’t praying for your persecutor involve asking God to grant her good health and an abundant life and a rewarding job and all of the things that you pray for when you pray for yourself and your friends and family? As Jesus said, if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?
This is a step up. This is more than just being a good guy, more than just doing what decent, honest people do. The first reading from Leviticus was about how we treat other people in general. This one from Matthew is more about how we treat specific, challenging, difficult people. It’s also about how we let people treat us.
And then it concludes with that sentence that caught my eye at the very beginning, that challenge that none of us really are up to, not even Ernest Angley. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I’m not up to that. I genuinely am not. I wish I was; I wish I could live up to that standard, but I can’t. And I don’t mean this unkindly, but neither can you. Sorry. So what do we do?
Read 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23.
Paul’s instructions are a little different than the ones we read earlier, aren’t they. There’s no list that you can check off. No “do this, don’t do that” stuff. Well, there is some “do this” stuff, but it’s not as concrete as in the earlier readings. “Become a fool” is a little different than “don’t cheat.”
There are a lot of different sermons in this passage from 1 Corinthians, and over the years I have preached a bunch of them. I’ve preached on how we are God’s temple. I’ve preached on how God’s Spirit lives in us and through us. I’ve preached on how the things that the world thinks are foolish, like praying for your enemies, are exactly the things that Christians need to do. I’ve preached on how the wisdom of the world, the goals of the world, the morals of the world do not reflect how Christians should live. I’ve preached on how God transcends human wisdom and human leadership. There’s five different sermon topics right there, and I have preached each of them more than once and I’m sure that you have heard each of them more than once.
But none of them tell us how to be perfect. They are all good and they are all true and they are all worthy of our attention and our thought and our effort. They all take the instructions from the first two readings and move them on to yet another level. But none of them tell us how to be perfect.
That’s probably because we can’t be perfect. The simple rules for the Israelites in Leviticus were too tough. The harder rules in Matthew’s gospel are too hard. The rules here in 1 Corinthians are too much for us – no one can always live their life with no regard for the rulers of the world. No one can be as holy and as perfect as God.
Being perfect is a work in progress. It’s a process. And it starts where Paul starts in our reading from 1 Corinthians, and it ends where Paul ends. In verse 10 Paul talks about how he is building a foundation and others will build upon it, and then in verse 11 he says the foundation that has already been laid is Jesus Christ. At the end of our reading starting at verse 21, Paul writes about how all things belong to believers, and how believers belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
Being perfect starts with building on the foundation of Jesus Christ. It ends with realizing that everything belongs to God. Everything and everyone belongs to God. The deaf guy we’re yelling at behind his back belongs to God. The poor person we’re leaving stuff in the fields for belongs to God. The enemy that we are to love belongs to God, and when we love him we’re doing nothing more than building on the foundation that Christ laid by loving us. The same with the one who persecutes us – when we pray for her, we’re doing just as Christ did when he prayed on the cross for those who persecuted him.
If we start by building on the foundation of Christ, and remember as we go that everything and everyone belongs to God, we still won’t be perfect. But we’ll be a lot closer than we would be otherwise. And God will take care of the rest, I promise. Amen.