Sunday, February 19, 2017

You Can Do Impossible Things

A sermon preached at Meadow Woods Assisted Living, on the Martin Luther Campus, Bloomington MN, on February 19, 2017, the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany based on Leviticus 19 and Matthew 5

We’ve got tall orders today. Impossible ones, it seems.
“Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
“You also must be perfect, must be complete.”

In our bones, we know it is impossible.

Now, there are things I can do.
Don’t deceive. Don’t lie.
Don’t make promises you don’t mean to keep.
Don’t cheat people.
Pay your workers a fair wage,
and don’t tease them with it by holding back what you said you’d pay them.
Don’t insult someone with a disability
or make their life harder just for laughs.
How cruel is that? You think that’s holy?

I can go that far.
Of course, I don’t employ anybody,
so it’s pretty easy for me to say what I’d do if I did!
But I can still avoid lying. And teasing the blind.
False promises are harder for me
because I want people to like me,
so I admit I occasionally agree to something
I don’t have time or energy to do.
But it’s not impossible. I don’t have to overpromise.

One of the commands in Leviticus made me pause this week:
Leave some of the harvest for the poor and the immigrant.
Leave some grain there in the field,
leave the grapes that fall from the vine.

I notice at first that, much as I admire the sentiment,
after all I want to help the poor,
this commandment goes against the grain for me.
It sounds so … irresponsible. Don’t finish the job?
Leave the work incomplete?

And then I remembered.
Every time my mother put lunch or dinner on the table,
I simply knew that I would have to clean my plate.
(My wife grew up calling it the Clean Plate Club.)
And you know why:
“Because (and you can say it with me),
there are starving children in Africa.”
It’s true. You grew up with the Clean Plate Club, too!

The Clean Plate Club taught me
that leaving some of the harvest behind is just being sloppy,
careless, doing the job just part-way.
A perfect farmer, a complete farmer,
will harvest all the way to the edge,
get every last bit of produce from the land,
join the Clean Plate Club of harvesting.

But here’s the thing
God wants the Israelites to understand.
That grain you grew? Those grapes?
They’re not yours. They belong to God.
And those poor? Those immigrants and refugees?
They don’t have land to harvest,
and without it they’ll go hungry.
And even if they had land,
they might not have lived here long enough to plant it for themselves.
Remember Ruth and Naomi?
If you’re going to be holy, leave Ruth the Moabite refugee
and her impoverished Jewish mother-in-law Naomi
something from your land so they can come and get it.
You might even let them work the land,
but they don’t need to work it for you
to deserve food for themselves.

This is the thing.
What you’ve planted there,
it’s not yours, not all of it, not any of it.
You didn’t design the seed.
You didn’t make it grow.
You didn’t program its DNA.
You didn’t make the miracle of life happen.
“You planted what I’ve given you,” says God,
“on land that I’ve given you,
and watered it with water I’ve given you,
and I, God, get to decide what to do with it.

I’m letting you have most of it because I love you
and am grateful for your labor;
but the rest belongs to those I send your way.
Let them have it. I choose to give it to them.
And you will help me.
If you take what I’m giving them for yourself,
you’re stealing from them. You’re stealing from me.
You want to be holy? Don’t get in my way!
Remember that I am generous,
and I care about everyone,
and I’m using you to take care of these children of mine whom I love.
Don’t forget you were aliens, strangers, refugees yourselves.
Loving your neighbor isn’t one of your rights.
It’s one of your responsibilities.
You must love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the Lord.”

Jesus gets this.
He understands that we need to hear it again. And again.
When asked about the greatest commandment,
he says, “Love the Lord your God
with all your heart, mind, and strength.
And the second commandment is just like it.
Love your neighbor as yourself.”

He’s quoting Leviticus 19. That bit about leaving some of the harvest.
He’s quoting Leviticus 19. That bit about being holy.
He’s quoting Leviticus 19. That bit about love your neighbor.
We can’t live, says Jesus, by “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
That may have sounded like justice once,
a fair way for punishment to fit the crime.
But to live by “an eye for an eye” is short-sighted.
In Fiddler on the Roof, an angry villager calls his neighbors to arms
citing “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
“Very good,” says Tevye the milkman,
“That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.”

The Clean Plate Club, oddly enough, is eye for an eye thinking.
Sounds odd, I know. But it’s true. Stay with me for a moment.
The Clean Plate Club is rooted in the bad theology of scarcity
which inevitably gives us the even worse theology of vengeance.
“Clean your plate because there are hungry people in this world,”
is only one small step removed from protecting all we have
because someone else might kill us for it, so Annie, get your gun!

The fundamental debate going on in scripture
is between a theology of scarcity, of violence,
and a theology of abundant, overflowing justice for the displaced and marginalized,
a theology of wholeness and love.
We hear which side Jesus is on.
We know where he stands and with whom.
You want to be whole like God is whole?
Be complete like God is complete?
Be holy like God is holy?
Whether you want to or not, it’s your obligation.
It’s the only way fully to be human. It’s the only way fully to love God.
Treat the alien and enemy like your neighbor,
and your neighbor, well, you know this, your neighbor you must love.

That stranger you are tempted to cheat
is a beloved child of God;
cheat him and you cheat God.
That alien, and yes this means the immigrant and refugee—
this is spelled out explicitly in scripture—
that immigrant you are tempted not to welcome
was sent to you by God;
reject her, and you reject God.

If you love only those who love you—Jesus makes this crystal clear—  
that’s no different than an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Love for love. Hate for hate. Blow for blow.
It’s all the same. That’s how sinners think.

We’re called to do what would otherwise be impossible
if we didn’t truly trust in God:
love your neighbor not because she loves you,
but because she is your neighbor,
and she comes to you as a gift from God,
just as you are God’s gift to her.

In this way you and I will, for we must, accomplish the impossible.
We must be holy.
By God’s grace we can.
We must be complete.
By God’s grace we will.
We must love our neighbor as ourselves.
By God’s grace we will do the impossible.
Remembering this: I am the Lord your God.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Courage to Know Who You Are

September 13, 2015

Last year’s 8th graders are now Freshmen. We’re blessed with a Senior in the house now, and we see the signs of the empty nest that’s coming fast. The harvest of last spring’s Kindergarten classes are just beginning their 12-year journey of discovery that we hope every child will take toward adulthood. Even if you spend almost no time on Facebook, you’ve seen the back to school pictures. The pride of parents, the excitement of a new start, meeting new friends, falling in and out of love, and the constant care and attention of adults whose calling is among the highest: to equip the younger human beings in our care for life.

When Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is, it’s not an academic question. It’s not a question to be addressed with doctrine, although doctrine has its place.

As Mark relates the stories of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ question is a pivotal point for them all. Until now, everyone’s been asking him questions. Spirits ask what he has to do with them. Beggars ask for healing. Religious leaders ask what authority he has and why he eats with sinners. On the sea, the disciples ask if he doesn’t care they are perishing. His neighbors at home ask just who Jesus thinks he is, this kid they’ve watched grow up. When confronted with a challenge, his followers again ask Jesus what to do, and he tells them to feed them, and they ask how.

It takes tremendous courage, I believe, to ask the disciples the question Jesus asked. Who do people say that I am? Because not many of us really want to know the answer to a question ke that. We think we want to know. Does he think I’m foolish? Will she like this tie? What if I ask him out and he says no?

Most of us at work grow accustomed to being evaluated on our performance. Each year when review time comes around, that meeting with the supervisor or boss shouldn’t contain any surprises, not if they’ve been managing the company well. But it still takes some courage to walk into the room and hear what someone else thinks of how you’re doing.

In school it happens all the time. Tests, quizzes, and for teachers course evaluations and online teacher rating sites. We live in a culture where we measure the formation by what we learn, how we perform, the results we attain. SAT, ACT, PSAT. the MInnesota Test of Academic Skills, the football team’s winning or losing record.

It takes courage to ask someone else, especially the people who are closest to you, who others say you are.

It also takes a willingness to let others be wrong. “John the Baptist raised from the dead, Elijah or one of the prophets.” Heady stuff. Counter-culture heroes. And keep in mind that he's asking this question in foreign land, the city of Caesarea Philippi, a Roman city.

But it takes even more courage to ask, “Who you say that I am?” No hiding behind the anonymous mask of “Well, you know some people are saying…” or “It’s not my opinion, but here’s what I’ve heard in the parking lot…”

Jesus won’t let his disciples get away with what others say. he has the strength of heart to look them in the eyes and ask, “Who do YOU say that I AM?”

I suspect he’s looking for an honest response. One that digs down deep. One that gets past the educational, occupational and geographic. Go to a party and the surface questions have to do with where you’re from, who’s your family, where’d you go to school, what do you do for a living? What brought you here?

But Jesus doesn’t ask us a surface question. He confronts us with the question of identity. His and by extension ours.

What would we discover if we asked our neighbors who we are as a church? What would our Lakeville neighbors say? Our Burnsville neighbors? Not our own self-definitions, not the mission statement we tell ourselves. But who do they say we are?

Would some say, “Oh, you’re the ones who do the oil change?” You’re the ones who… what? Would they answer by describing the things they see us do? Would they know us by our welcome, by our love?

But JEsus didn’t ask his disciples what they saw him doing. He asked who they said he was. Who he is. Can we do that? Can we say, by our words and actions alike, who Jesus is? And if we believe that he is the human face of God, what can we say or do to reflect what we believe?

Because what we say or do will reflect who we believe Jesus to be.

When I was in Tanzania for a meeting of the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Plenary Commission, I’d been working as part of a group on something called the Apostolic Faith Project. It was the culmination of 70 years of intentional work by Christian theologians from every tradition around the world to answer Jesus’ dying prayer that his followers would all be one.

The document I had helped prepare earlier the previous year in Bucharest, was a study guide on Sharing the One Faith. In Tanzania, representatives from the global church community debated and discussed the central affirmations and concerns that had to be addressed to overcome our divisions while maintaining and honoring the best of our individual and church identities. As a Disciple, I was able to bring the confidence that the one thing we all have in common is that we see what Peter saw: Jesus is the Christ. We don’t always agree on what that means, but it's the distinctive vision that Christians share.

The president of Tanzania addressed our meeting. And he introduced us to the African concept of Utu (human nature, humanity). It’s a word for extended family. It is a profound understanding of the shared bonds we have as human beings, and the shared responsibilities we have for each other. If you are my brother, if you are my sister, we are responsible for each other. That responsibility for each other is at the essence of who we are.

We find our identity in a relationship we didn’t originally choose, and have the privilege to honor each moment of every day as those who are made in the image of a God who in the essence of God’s own being is relational. Utu means we are one mutual sharing, a fellowship, a family. And how we treat each other, even our enemies, if we are to be authentically followers of Jesus Christ, reflects Utu.

In a world where forces of greed and selfishness lead us into smaller and smaller circles, Utu reminds us to stretch the circle wide enough to include not only neighbors, not only enemies, not only the whole human race, but all of creation as well.

The biblical word for this is koinonia. And I believe it takes courage. To answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” by saying, “You are the Messiah,” the anointed, the Christ, the human face of God, we are led to ask the question of ourselves. Who do our neighbors say we are? Will they see in us the oneness, the compassion, the love of God working through us to reform unjust social structures and respect each person’s dignity?

Courage, by the way, is rooted in the word cor, heart. May our hearts be one.