Posts Tagged ‘Matthew 5’

I am the Lord your God…(Leviticus 19 considered)

February 19, 2017

Leviticus gets a lot of bad press.  The book of restrictions; hundreds of rules covering food, fashion and all manner of human behaviour.  When someone of a very conservative opinion wants to tell you what’s wrong with society, a quick tour through Leviticus gives them all the ammunition they need.  “See how we’ve abandoned the commandments – the statues of God?”  Sure enough, many of these regulations have been set aside by modern believers – even some modern Jewish believers are less observant than Scripture says is desirable.  Times change, is the defence.  We no longer feel it is right to stone children for disobedience.  Women are not seen as property; our feelings on slavery and economics have changed, yet the law is the law, isn’t it?  I will happily confess that, where “biblical law” is concerned, I observe and obey selectively.  I search the law with intent to discern the way God calls us to live – and I claim biblical precedent for this approach; think of the challenge to Jesus about which was the “greatest” commandment…

The rules laid out for us this morning are rules for relationship – and we’d like to think that those still merit our consideration.  This particular section of Leviticus seems to focus on the same concerns that we see outlined in what we have come to call the Ten Commandments – expressing the holiness of God, the sanctity of the sabbath, and the need for integrity in our dealings with our fellow human beings.

Revere your parents.  honour God; leave a little for the poor and the alien; don’t cheat, steal or lie.  Be fair in your daily encounters and don’t bear a grudge.  Love your neighbour as yourself.  There are all good, sensible, honourable ways to live – and as followers of Jesus, we find that there is nothing here to disagree with.   Jesus offers us these same suggestions – in parable and in practice – throughout the gospels.  Jesus wasn’t making up new rules – he was calling attention to these ancient ideals in new and alarming ways.

We can rightly claim that we want to follow these principles because Jesus told us to – but Leviticus gives us even better motivation.  Over and over again – eight times by my count (in this morning’s reading) – those who recorded the law gave the only reason they needed for such behaviour: “I am the Lord (or the Lord your God)”  These instructions for good human relations come out of the character of God; they reflect God’s desire for the good of Creation.  Why should you honour your parents?  I am the Lord your God.  Leave some of your harvest for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.  Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.  The refrain is purposeful – not to inspire fear, but to draw attention to the one who stands at the centre of every promise, and draws people to the hope of something better.  I am – the one who met Moses in the wilderness – who led the people out of bondage; the one who created with a word all that is, was and every shall be – God claims a people by offering them a new way of being.  Compassionate; honest; loving; just.  Those who endeavour to live in this way will find they have a share in the redemption of Creation.  Their exodus from slavery to freedom is a metaphor for the process that will bring God’s reign to earth.

Now, the possession of these ‘holy rules’ did not guarantee anything.  And the notion that ‘if only we follow the rules’ we will be saved; well that didn’t help either.  We have a preferential option for poor behaviour it seems, and God knows it.  So it’s no surprise that Jesus comes emphasizing the law and even repackaging it for his ‘modern audience’.  “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…”; Jesus offers a litany (in Matthew’s gospel) of better behaviour – kingdom behaviour – and wraps it up with a troubling phrase “Be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven is perfect.”  And to think, only last week, I stood here and told you Jesus wasn’t calling us to perfection.  “What about it, preacher man?  Can you talk your way out of this one?

What if I tell you that the word generally translated as ‘perfect’ comes from a greek word that means “ultimate goal, object or aim.”  What if I tell you, based on that understanding of the word,  that this is a call to be ‘God-like’ – to remember that we have been made in God’s image.  What if the purpose of such instruction is to help us model ourselves after God, whose character is reflected in love of neighbour and tolerance of error and the subversive correction of injustice (rich are poor; foolish are wise; slaves triumph over established power of Egypt…).

Idealist nonsense, you say.  Careless interpretation too.  How can we presume to be ‘god-like’ without breaking the commandment and making gods of ourselves?  But rather than argue over interpretive principles, what if we asked ourselves how the world might be changed if we were to follow these relationship commandments?  We might remember that Jesus felt so strongly about  these behaviours that he build parables around them, and used the application of those rules to openly defy the power that eventually arrested and executed him.  We might be encouraged by the thought that the reign of God, promised and sought by the faithful of countless generations, is in our midst even now.  It has taken flesh and dwells among us – we have been called by name to an eternal task that plays out in the here and now.  And if what we say we believe about the majesty of God and the person and purpose of Jesus is even remotely true; if we believe that the Spirit of God is with us and working in and around us, then these are the rules we must live by – rules that repair and redefine human relationships; rules that honour integrity, justice, compassion and love.

Of course, our behaviour may not instantly change all that is troublesome and terrifying about the world we now live in; there are some problems that require more than just one or ten individual life-changes to solve.  But our willingness to live as God calls us to live – to live in understanding, empathy and mutual care and respect – these habits will change the way we see and understand the world, and that is the first step toward the kingdom long promised.

…I’m gonna let it shine.

February 4, 2017

Everyone I know is dying.  It’s one of the most disturbing facts of life that a person ever learns.  It’s true for me, and it’s true for everyone.  Not a complaint – not an exaggeration; just a fact.

Forget what you hear from insurance companies and health food devotees – forget the modern obsession with living long and well – the growing number of people living into their eighties and nineties notwithstanding – none of us, as the saying goes, will make it out alive.

This has been true since the beginning of time, and it is such an alarming thing that humanity has always been searching for something to offer comfort – to combat the certainty of our mortality.  We have, as a result, developed some very captivating ways to imagine what happens once we die.  Religious thought (in every form) is concerned with how the world works; what does it mean to live and to die?  What happened to bring us into being?  What happens when we cease to be?

The idea that there must be something that existed before us – that will exist after us – something to which we aspire; someone to whom we finally go – these are the driving forces behind ancient and modern religious thought.  A higher power; a supreme being; an eternal consciousness; a guiding principal – it’s God, to us, with a capital G.  A figure with a name so holy that our Jewish brethren don’t pronounce it – a word that some refuse to spell in English (printing instead G-d) out of respect and devotion.  God is the source of our existence.  God is our final destination.  And since death wins every battle, it is no surprise that religious folk conclude that- paradise / heaven / the eternal city / the highest heaven – their would-be reward is the focus of all faithful enterprise.

So every religion has a theory – and ours has developed into a comforting description of endless light and pearly gates and everywhere – EVERYWHERE – the glittering goodness of God’s love.  Constant worship; no thought of suffering or pain (that is reserved for our enemies and those who dismiss our holy ideals); nothing but glory awaits us, thanks to the love of Jesus and the great theological minds who have tried to helps us understand ‘what it all means’.

The problem, of course – other than the truth about our mortality – is that paradise sounds so much better than this present existence…so of course we are more likely to wait with certain longing for the trumpet to sound and the roll to be called up yonder.  Most of the hymns of the Reformed tradition – much of what we call prophecy – and a big chunk of the New Testament assure us that dead in faith is better than alive in any condition – and our traditions and habits develop accordingly.  When faith becomes just a path to glory – when salvation is only a ticket to heaven – one could easily presume redemption is an action reserved for God’s distant future.  But this morning we are blessed with Scripture that suggest otherwise, thank God.

Isaiah, presuming to speak with God’s authority, calls the people to account.  Their sins are limitless, yet they continue to act-out the rituals of faith.  They bow their heads and say their prayers.  They observes feats and fasts in their proper times.  But the nature of their devotion is self-serving.  The “delight to draw near to God” (Isaiah 58 end of v. 2) but do so only that they may be recognized as ‘faithful’.  They bow down and dress down – they do all the right things but for all the wrong reasons – and the prophet reminds them that the right things have less to do with assuring a place in the promise of God for themselves, and EVERYTHING to do with opening the promise to those who are burdened and oppressed.

“Is this not the fast I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them

and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7 NRSV)

The work of faith is very much concerned with the here and now – with politics and relationships and understanding and compassion.  It’s not enough to wish for a better world, God’s people are called to work for it – to act it into being.  Salt of the earth, Jesus calls us – not ornaments of heaven.  Light of the world, he says – bearers of the light that promises eternal joy to those whose joy is spent.  These are hard words because they force us to confront the world as it has become and live in it – love in it – seek change and growth in it “…that [others] may see your good works and give glory to your Father…”

In the midst of the horrific news this week around the senseless killings at the Centre Culturel Islamique in Quebec – we have also seen the best of those who are determined to act their faith into being.  In the gracious words of the Imam who named the shooter as a victim of the pressures of society.  In the actions of people from many faith backgrounds (and some who would claim no faith) who gathered and listened, and prayed together in the wake of the news of the shootings.  In the numerous acts of love that saw citizens surround Muslim worship centres, as they did in Halifax, as symbols of support and protection – signalling that they would not stand for anything but respect for the rights and beliefs of their neighbours.  “Do not put your light under a bushel…”, Jesus says – and these people have not – they refuse to hide.

Do not imagine that the completion of the catechism as a teenager was the completion of your faith journey.  We cannot, even for a moment, be content with a faith that assures only us of eternal comfort while the world presents one challenge after another to all and sundry.  Our ‘status’ as members of the Christian faith is meaningless if it represents nothing more than a seat at the ‘heavenly banquet’.  There are many who are hungry – waiting t be fed; many who are suffering, longing to be freed; millions who need an advocate, and we are called to be – to do – all those things IN THIS WORLD; in Christ’s name – for God’s glory.

The opportunities are all around us.  The tools to accomplish the job are built into us – part of our humanity.  What are we waiting for?

What does the Lord require…?

January 29, 2017

There is no escape from our expectations.  Every public figure; every significant relationship; every organization and individual has goals to achieve – all of us have some hope that certain things will happen.  And each one of us has a unique understanding of how things should happen.  Our expectations keep us motivated and engaged; it’s how we hold one another accountable.  They are also serve to disappoint and discourage.

We expect politicians to work for the collective good and interest of the municipalities, regions and nations whom they represent.  Authority figures are expected to uphold the law – and citizens are expected to obey.  We expect teachers to serve the needs of their students – and students to be respectful of their teachers.  Schools expect loyalty (and money) from their graduates; We are asked to cheer harder for “the home team” – stand for the anthem, honour the flag, and defend the truth as it is told by our fellow citizens, our co-religionists, our neighbours, allies and friends.

Based on recent experience and the series of unfortunate events that have made the news recently, it would be easy to argue that we should lower our expectations where public figures are concerned – to save ourselves from constant disappointment…there is not much optimism in us lately, either politically, economically, or in matters of faith, and that is the fault of our expectations.

It is easy to believe that things will “always get better” – a little optimism is good for the soul – but to demand improvement; to expect limitless expansion; to imagine and endless cycle of wonderful is ours by divine right – that’s not optimism, that’s foolishness.  History tells a different tale – a cycle of success and failure of nations, markets and even the importance of religion in society is easy to discern – yet we have our expectations, don’t we.

The history of God’s people that is revealed by Scripture reveals a similar sort of cycle.  The nation prospers; faith falls away.  The nation suffers, and faith is renewed.  Always, more is hoped for – and always, the future holds the promise of perfection.

Early in Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus gathers his disciples on the beach, there is a feeling of expectation in the air once again.  Israel has been consumed by Roman expansion and occupation.  The stirrings of religious revival are there – in the wilderness, with characters like John Baptizing and preaching and stirring up the slumbering expectations of the people.  Jesus makes his entrance  under John’s leadership, but soon takes a spot in the front lines of this movement.  And his first act is to gather his disciples together, apart from the crowds (though the crowds seemed to find them eventually) and reset their expectations.

The secular and the sacred are never far removed in peoples minds.  Even in a culture as secular as ours, we hold ideas and habits that speak to our deep yearning for something holy – something “Spiritual” – and to begin their apprenticeship in this renewal movement with Jesus, those early disciples needed to ‘relearn’ some things.  Their expectations of how God works and who it is that God calls blessed, for example, must be reconsidered.

Thus the opening statements in what we know as the sermon on the mount help to realign those expectations in a world where “blessed” had come to mean “powerful” or “wealthy” or “successful”.  Jesus might have been offering them a pattern of behaviour, but I think he was also trying to remind them that the religious expectations that they had grown up with had been twisted by human habits.  Jesus, by his words and actions, will not just realign, but defy the expectations of  people – religious or secular – before his arrest and after his resurrection.  That’s what Jesus does.

So it is not really a surprise that, two thousand years on, we find our expectations bent out of shape again.  The church has endured corrective measures – division, reformation, renewal movements and the like – but still we are surprised by a lack of enthusiasm or a fall from public favour that is tied directly to the churches understanding of itself.

“What does the church require of you?” is the question that keeps curious people from further involvement – and the churches requirements, while simple enough (in our minds) are usually things that serve the churches interest; we require your devotion – your commitment – your energy – your money.  And, of course, this commitment should cross generations – bring your children and your children’s children.  Our future is only assured if people meet these expectations of membership, faithfulness, and exclusive devotion to the cause.

Churches / denomination have been struggling to repackage these expectations – to make them palatable for those who have no history with the institution – it’s not working, in case you hadn’t noticed.  Our expectations hinder us, because they can’t help but pull us away from the vision that Jesus offered as the baseline for those who would follow him in seeking God’s rule in their lives and in the wider world; the lost – the lonely – the curious – the kind; these are the people who are on ‘the right track’…they shall see God, receive mercy, be called Blessed.

Our expectations are not evil – but they are not pushing us forward.  They leave aside notions of justice and mercy – they abandon love in favour of security, and in time we forget that not only has God asked us to seek mercy and justice, but  God has promised us the security that we so eagerly seek.  It won’t be found in our particular success, whether as a nation, or a culture, nor even as a branch of the Christian Church – the security offered by God is found in the humble submission to the expectation of God.  To do justice, and love kindness and walk humbly with God.  This was the path that Jesus chose – these are the expectations Jesus outlines for those who would follow him – in these simple instructions, we might find all our expectations fully met, and all for God’s glory.

Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect…

February 19, 2011

There are certain words – phrases too – that are capable of drowning out all else.

In the gospel this morning I have encountered one of those phrases.

Jesus, you see, is offering up some of his best stuff here – really helpful direction for a pattern of life that will lead us toward that promised kingdom –

the one that he says is so close to us; coming very near and all that –

this is advice we might even be willing to try, though it sounds difficult –

love your enemy – pray for those who persecute you.

The bit about turning the other cheek and going the extra mile

even have a revolutionary feel to them…

So after stressing about the law, and being told we need to be salt and light

finally we are getting some concrete advice – and then, for me, that dreadful phrase;

“be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect”

in an instant, all that good advice fades to background noise

and my only thought is how this has become impossible.

Perfection is not for me – not for us – haven’t we proven that?

Father in heaven – perfect – that we can allow,

but can we aspire to perfection? Should we?

I wallowed in the notion of impossible perfection for a good long while this week.

I wondered about the expectations that come with a life of faith,

and how we never seem able to live up to them.

I considered the distance between what we desire as the people of God

and what we achieve – and I suspected that this innocent phrase

has had something to do with our continual frustration – our high expectations –

and our inability to see the beautiful truth.

What truth, you ask?

Well, lets back up for a moment.

Remember, Jesus is still trying to draw us into the beauty and simplicity of the law;

a law that comes from the compassionate, merciful, loving heart of God.

No murder – no anger – no coveting – no wrangling – those were last week’s lessons.

But know we are called to put that behaviour to the test

in a way that will challenge our ideas of how the world should work.

Friends and neighbours are one thing – it’s easy to like those who are like us – but Jesus says that the law asks more of us than that

GOD asks more of us than that.

This treatment is for enemies – for those who do us violence – for those who…wait for it…

don’t share our values – our faith – our understanding of the universe.

This was earthshaking then – and,

although we claim to be enlightened, compassionate, fair thinking people, it is still a radical suggestion.

Our prejudice runs deep. Old wounds leave heavy scars

we are not naturally able to act in a way that is just and fair

when we have not been treated fairly, or have had justice denied us.

Jesus knows this as a natural fact.

God knows it as One who created us capable of exerting our own will.

And yet, we are urged to divine perfection…it might pay to ask here,

how is our father in heaven perfect

with regard to justice and mercy and exercise of will?

Well, as it happens, God is perfectly neutral – treating friend and enemy alike

causing the rain to fall on the just and the unjust,

accepting praise and prayer – providing comfort and strength –

regardless of colour, creed, language race, gender, sexuality,

denomination, age, ability, hair colour…well, you get the idea.

Jesus came to fulfil the law – Matthew has already reminded us of that

but fulfill doesn’t mean narrow the field.

And I don’t for a moment believe “perfect” means (identical to me in every way)

We are here called by Jesus to remember that God’s call to us is to unity in God through Christ.

That our differences – the ones we build up and fight over – the things that drive us to sin and to the edge of destruction – in God’s eyes (and in God’s kingdom) those differences do not exist.

God’s perfection can be ours, if we can learn to erase those distinctions

to see past differences and celebrate our connection in God’s creative act.

Be perfect, not in our keeping of the law, but in our imitation of the spirit of the law.

A spirit that calls enemies brothers – that does not dwell on past hurts and imagined distinctions.

That is the perfection we should desperately seek –

a harmony that is within our grasp,

if only we let God’s spirit of gentleness and peace lead us.

It is the perfection we seek in this sacrament –

a perfection we find at the bitter cross; at the empty tomb.

So come, let us lay our differences aside and seek the perfect peace of God that is God’s free gift to us at this table.

Amen