Sermon 19 February 2017 – Epiphany 7 A

Todays readings for:
Seventh Sunday After Epiphany Year A 2017

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
Psalm 199:33-40
1Corinthians 3:10-17
Matthew 5:38-48

Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton

Over these past weeks we have been talking about righteousness which is a central part of the Kingdom of God. All the way through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching us about how to be righteous and it strikes me that how we relate to other people is the crucial part. And what Jesus is asking of us in today’s passage is radical love. It is also subversive, counter intuitive and counter cultural. Jesus’ call to us is that we should be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Now let me hasten to say that this is not a gospel of perfectionism, where we live in fear of failure, and beat ourselves up every time we fall short of the mark. What Jesus is calling us to is completeness or wholeness. And in order for us to be complete, or whole we have to be holy, just as our Lord is Holy.

Did you notice the refrain through the passage from Leviticus? He begins, “You shall be Holy, for I am holy” and then repeatedly, “I am the Lord”. Being holy is an essential part of who God is and as we grow into God’s likeness it is an essential part of us, too. When we are whole and holy we are like God. This is what characterizes the Kingdom of God, the holiness of its citizens, and the outworking of this, is what we call righteousness. The way righteousness is demonstrated is in the way that we treat each other. God, in God’s self is essentially relational, and love between each part leads to righteousness.

What this looks like is caring for the people around you, in this passage from Leviticus. We are to feed the poor, treat our neighbours well, look after the disabled. We are to love our neighbours as ourselves. We are to be people of justice and mercy who walk humbly before their God.

How do you feel about justice this week? How do you feel about the poor and the people in real need in our community? There has been talk in our media about the problem of homelessness on our streets, does that make us think about mercy? We have been thinking again about our treatment of refugees, with first of all the deal with the US and then the conversation with the new New Zealand Prime Minister. How does the treatment of our neighbours whose desperation leads them to us for succor, and for justice and for care, stand up against this passage in Leviticus? Are we, as a nation, found wanting? This is not just the law of the international community that we are flouting- this is God’s law that says we are to behave with love and mercy to our neighbours. It is hard for us, as ordinary citizens to change what is happening and I am aware that people feel frustrated as this particular situation goes on but we have to keep calling on our government to treat others with mercy and compassion, regardless of political expediency. And it strikes me that in the current political climate we need even more strongly, to make our voices heard, particularly those of us that live in blue ribbon electorates.

And it is Jesus’ voice that calls out to us across the centuries teaching us how to respond to things we don’t like, or that seem unfair in this world order. The passage we read today from Matthew begins with a quotation from the Torah. This law is about mitigating revenge and retribution however harsh it sounds to us today. And we only have to reflect on things that go on in societies around the world to know that it is necessary to mitigate the human impulse to revenge. If we think of the vendettas carried on by the mafia with, killing and reprisal killing, going on over years and generations, or of the reprisals that occur in conflicts, for example in Syria, or in the Jewish Palestinian conflict, we can see the need. And much closer to home the bikie gang killings that have been going on for years here in Melbourne. So much of this is related to either illegal activity or inhumanity most profoundly seen in war. But sadly it is an impulse in us all- we want revenge, we want a harsh custodial sentence for someone who has killed a family member, we want them to pay, and pay with every cent they have if something causes us grief, or pain or even a nuisance. And as the Burke Street tragedy begins to play out in the courts we are going to see this clearly.

And into this Jesus speaks. “Do not resist an evil doer,” he says, “but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take you coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” So what is Jesus getting at here? Is he telling you, in vile modern parlance, to “suck it up”? I don’t think so- I think he is preaching a radical love that changes the perpetrator as it changes the victim. And let’s not imagine that Jesus is saying that it’s good to be a victim- no, he is telling us how, when we are the victim, to do good to the perpetrator. No longer are we to exact an eye for an eye, we are called to the subversive act of caring for the perpetrator. I remember when I was a small child an elderly man telling me that the most effective thing I could do with the bullies that were persecuting me was to turn the other cheek and shame them. I don’t know what it did to the bullies, but it certainly empowered me. I was choosing to act rather than to react, and I was choosing to act in the way that Jesus called me to. This does not make bullying right, this does not make injustice right but Jesus is calling us to refuse the impulse towards revenge or retribution and choose instead restorative justice. He is asking us to love even the person who is our persecutor and find a way out of the dispute or whatever that gives dignity to ourselves and to the other even when they are not deserving of it. We have seen these principles in action, in the civil rights movement. Have you ever read the Letter from Birmingham Jail written by Martin Luther King? It is well worth reading. He seems to somehow embrace this tension between the wrong that is being done and the way Jesus calls us to react. Sadly, of course, he too was martyred for his cause. What Jesus is calling us to is radical stuff.

And just listen to the next bit, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Sounds easy to me, I haven’t got any enemies. But what about the people with whom I radically disagree- how do I behave towards them? Am I praying every day for the government that is doing what I consider to be an unjustice in my name? Am I loving the Christians from other places who preach against the ordination of women, or who persecute homosexuals? Jesus is calling us to really rethink how we function, and he is telling us something radical about God. Your Father in heaven makes his sun rise on the evil and the good and sends the rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. God treats us all the same, whether we are goodies, or baddies and he calls us to be like him. Our radical God loves us all, warts and all. And if we are grateful to him for his grace freely given to us we have to understand that it is equally poured out on the ones we consider unworthy. This is a very confronting thought as anyone who has lived with the pain of abuse knows. I remember reading through a book, “What’s so amazing about Grace?” by Philip Yancey, with a small group and we were talking about God’s amazing ability to forgive. One of the women in the group said that she didn’t want to go to heaven if God had forgiven the perpetrators of terrible crimes. I don’t know her history but for any of us who have suffered, the idea that God might forgive can be very confronting, we want God to forgive our own small lapses, but certainly not the large lapses of others. But God loves us all, regardless of the scale of our sin. And because others are loved by God, we must love them too.

And if we can love with God’s love, if we can find the compassion to see what God sees, we will be perfect, as our heavenly father is perfect. We will be whole people, complete because we are no longer diminished by hate or anger or indifference towards our brothers and sisters. And when we embrace the wholeness of loving with God’s love we will be empowered because we are free of anger, bitterness and the desire for revenge or retribution. When we think of three of the greatest figures of the Twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela we can see the incredible power of love and a refusal to behave in the way that the world expects. None of these three were perfect, in the sense of being either without faults or sinless, but they were whole because they chose the path of love.

This is what the kingdom of God will look like- this is the big picture. God calls us to be people of justice, mercy and compassion, not just for some but for everyone. Jesus himself embraced this right to the point of death and Jesus is the foundation of all that we are called to become. In Paul’s words, “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

This call to radical righteousness is the greatest challenge of the Christian life, but as I said last week, we who are the Baptised of Christ are baptized not just by water but with the Holy Spirit, and it is the Spirit of God dwelling in us that makes possible this transformation into people characterized by love. Jesus gives us, “a new commandment, that you love one another as [he] has loved you,” and he sends us out to love.