The text of the message I preached at Lake Tyers Beach Uniting Church on Sunday 19th February 2017, Seventh (A) Sunday of Epiphany
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Several weeks ago, I suggested that the paths Christians follow towards God are unique; and that within that difference they are potentially opposite in direction to the paths of others. I also said that no-matter how different your path is to another’s ultimately all paths lead to Jesus if each pilgrim has had Jesus as his or her source and goal. We each start from the place where God found us, but we all end at the place where God is, we start separated by the width of the world but we end together within the presence of God.
This week as I began reading the passages for study for today, and looking at the commentaries and different interpretations presented by the scholars I listen to, that thought returned to me. By coincidence I have spoken with several people this week as part of my pastoral care role, I have visited several members of this parish in their homes and I have caught up with others at the Op Shop, by telephone, and for coffee on the esplanade. I heard different perspectives on the recent history of the Uniting Church in this part of Gippsland. These stories were not so different that they were contradictory regarding facts, but as a sociolinguist I was interested to hear the different ways of reporting and the different conclusions drawn by those who had reflected upon common events. More than one of your previous ministers have received praise and happy memories, others of your previous ministers are, shall I say “less missed” than the others, but each showed talents and strengths in places. I am confident that after I leave my stay here will be remembered and evaluated in several different reports by you, and that is fair enough.
What I have heard is that each minister you have had has performed valuable work, but as each had his or her own preferred way of doing things, so each of you has your own preferred way of doing things. Ways in which things are to be done, and the setting of priorities for which things must be done first and which might be left for later, was the substance of what was volunteered in conversation. I didn’t ask, but you told me. I hasten to add it’s not just the conversations I have had this week which has raised these points, but it was this week when I remembered previous conversations alongside today’s set of lectionary readings.
As an example of what I’m saying, let me read a paraphrase of today’s Psalm, and once again it’s from James Taylor’s Everyday Psalms (Kelowna, BC: Wood Lake Books, 2006). Each week I promise myself that I will not use it again but every week his emphasis seems to meet the ancient text right where God is pointing me. So, here’s today’s lectionary reading, Psalm 119:33-40, in a poem entitled “Clear Instructions”.
(Poem read here)
I’m not going to ask you if that sounds like anyone you know, or if you think it sounds like you. I’m also not going to ask if you think it sounds like me. But I’m sure it sounds like someone you know, and I’m sure it also sounds the complete opposite to another person you know. So, whether you are a t-crosser and an i-dotter, or you are an eye-crosser at such precision in activity, you will recognise that some people are like the one described by Taylor and some people are not.
Listen, and contrast, the same passage paraphrased by a different poet:
Oh God, let me know what you want done; teach me Torah then let me loose to fulfil your purposes in the way you created me to do.
My LORD I know you know everything, and I know that I do not; but only let me in on the secret and I will utilise the fullest portion of my unique talents, skills, love and opportunities to bring your plans into being.
Show me the way you want me to go, because that is the only direction I wish to choose.
Draw me to you and the things you love; attract me away from anything that might distract me, but remind me where you are and of the place from which you call.
You chose me to fill a unique plan in this world, and then you liberated and released me to run my own race toward the prize which is you. You gave me a bearing, but not a lane. You gave me a road, but not a railroad. As I move about on the track you gave me, the track of an athlete but not the track of a tram, continue to call me on so that I may finish well and that in seeing me finish the world may cheer for you.
I don’t need a leash or reins LORD, I am neither a toddle, a pet dog, nor or carthorse, but sometimes I need a compass. When I am lost only call to me and I shall return.
I love your way LORD, that your road is straight and safe, but that it is more than two feet wide. I want to walk in your footprints, not in the ruts of the wheels of others, because it is you alone I follow.
Whichever translation you like to read, whichever poetic interpretation you prefer, (or none if you aren’t the arty type), what I hope you find clear in the Psalm is the cry of the individual for God’s help. “May God help me focus on God alone”, might be the Psalmist’s theme. Whether you are the columns and double-entry type, or the one who prefers to think like a hiker rather than a tram, this passage is a prayer for divine guidance along the path of faithfulness. If I were praying this, and I have prayed words like this without ever reciting Psalm 119), I would say “My God, I promise heartful, desperate devotion to you but only if you’ll lead me closely and make the way of righteousness plain to me. Those ‘vain things that charm me most’ are tempting, especially when I am alone or lonely, but my God please hold my gaze (and my hand), and please don’t let me go so far as to require yours or the community’s rebuke. I want to be a man of good reputation. My God, it matters to me what others think of me because what they think of me as a Christian reflects upon what they think of you LORD, and I do so want them to think well of you.”
This leads me to ask how God would like to be thought of. In today’s reading from Leviticus God commands the people to be generous and considerate. I think God wants to be thought of like that. If the people of God, be they the Hebrews entering Canaan or the Christians going back to work on Monday in Lakes Entrance are requested by God to show generosity and consideration it is most likely that that is the image of God that God wants us to get across. We are to present the gospel by our God-likeness, which is to say our godliness. Not that we are godlike in our Herculean strength or Artemisian beauty, but that we are like God in our patience, compassion, perseverance. “People need less promotion of the gospel and more free samples”, says Steve Bell in his book Muslim Grace, which is a book about telling the followers of Islam about what Jesus is really like. When I was a teacher I used to use the phrase “less talk, more walk” when my class was in transit, I think it works the same here. Talk about Jesus if you must, but to live as Jesus did is a better witness.
The Hebrews to whom Moses is speaking are not to take revenge nor hold grudges, and since Leviticus 19:2 specifically says to tell this to all the congregation we know that God wants this followed by all the people and not only the Levites. Rabbinical sources well after Moses stipulated that one sixtieth (1.67%) of any harvest was be left for the poor, it is here we are reminded of last week’s message where the gospel according to your prosperity meets the gospel according to another person’s adversity. So, that’s the bit about not reaping right to the edges. In the same way robbery, (which is stealing by trickery and/or by force), and withholding rightfully earned wages (which amounts to the same thing in a power play), are named as wrong. As you behave so God’s reputation is shared: do not exploit the weak but rather support and encourage them (with that 2%). Demonstrate justice toward all, even the rich: do not show undue partiality even for the poor just because they are poor but treat all people justly. Do not slander and do not stand idly by when someone (anyone) needs help which you can provide. Do not hate, which is to say do not bear secret grudges nor engage in plotting. If you have a dispute bring it out into the open. In all things act with love, even when seeking to resolve a dispute. This is not only the word of the LORD (thanks be to God), it is also the way of the LORD (praise to you Lord Jesus Christ).
Christ is the foundation upon which God’s temple is built, says Paul. Traditionally the temple is the place where God dwells on Earth and it is a sacred place. Paul says that the temple is now you, you are the place where God dwells and because you are thereby made sacred God will protect you from danger and attack. That’s all well and good, but this week I followed the train of thought we’ve ridden this past month and I came to a new understanding. Christ is our foundation, I’ve got that. But I’ve always thought that that meant that belief in Christ is the foundation; like the fundamentals we heard about last week. Believe the scriptures, trust in the cross, that’s the rock.
I think that is true, but I think there is more to it than just that. Certainly, not less than that, in all this niceness I proclaim to you remember that we are Christians and that the cross and the empty tomb are what we are about. But the foundation which is Christ is that we act like Jesus, which is to say act as if God’s reputation is on our shoulders. If you are the temple of God then being a solitary house of belief and piety is not enough on its own. Act like God, with compassion and justice and fairness; let your temple be a house of hospitality.
In today’s reading from Matthew Jesus teaches his disciples to turn the other cheek, give the coat as well as the shirt, walk the second mile, and love their enemies. Act like God, indeed act like God acted toward you before you were Christian. Act like God acted toward you after you were saved but every time since then when you messed up through sin, stupidity, and clumsiness. How does Jesus act throughout his life? Like he did, oppose violent attack with non-violent resistance; to turn the other cheek or walk the second mile is not passivity or surrender but assertiveness with confidence of being vindicated by God. Confound the aggressor, maintain your dignity, disarm the attack with courage and implied shame. When the Romans or the Sadducees or the Herodians boast in their superiority act as if the insult you have received is a blessing – and thereby make them look foolish. In Aussie terms we might think of a situation where the question might be asked of a big tough man “seriously mate, would you really hit a woman with glasses? You may as well hit her again if you’re so big and tough.” Fine, Decurion, you can order me to carry your bag for a mile, I’ll carry it for two and shame you publicly, but ever so nicely, when you try to take your stuff back and I insist upon going further.
Torah doesn’t say anywhere to hate your enemies. “You have heard it said…” says Jesus, but it’s human wisdom that says it, and Jesus reminds the gathering crowd of what Torah says in Leviticus 19:18. Love like God loves: love with complete love by patience and grace for everyone, no one excluded. As the temple and ambassador of God, and follower of Jesus Christ and the way of Torah, what else could you possibly do? But remember to do it your way, whether you are an i-dotter or an eye-crosser when it comes to rules serve God in the way God uniquely created you to.