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.