Monday, February 20, 2017

Yesterday's Sermon@Highlands

“When loving your neighbor isn’t enough”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
February 19, 2017

This morning, the lectionary elves hath provided us with verses from the Book of Leviticus. More New year resolutions promising to read the entire bible cover to cover have been halted in their tracks when the reader stumbled onto Leviticus. So, it seems as though the elves are toying with preachers when they stick in verses from Leviticus.

But there it is, and not just Leviticus but the 19th chapter. Part of the “Holiness Code.” This is God’s rule book directing what Israel must do in order to maintain the holiness of the community. So, let’s dig in. Leviticus may just be more interesting than you thought.

The first thing you notice as you study Chapter 19 is that there is no distinction between what we might call “religious” concerns and “secular” concerns. All of life matters to God -- what we eat, how we do business, whether our sexual relationships are ethical, how we care for the land, our relationships with family, neighbors, and strangers -- all of it matters to God.
For those who think the Greatest Commandment was a Christian creation, Leviticus relieves us of that assumption. Remember this is the Bible Jesus read and there it is in chapter 19, verse 18, perhaps the most famous verse in the whole of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And then God spoke to Moses about a matter that was important to God from the earliest times and one that most surely troubles God today, that is how are we to treat the foreigners among us. “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner. The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.
Love your neighbor as yourself. Love the foreigner as yourself. Be holy, as God is holy. This book is more than a list of arcane rules and customs. It is a profound statement for all people.
And so, when Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Mount, he starts there and goes a step beyond. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ a law that meant justice should be measured. It meant that if someone pokes your eye out, he should not receive the death penalty but rather a consequence relatively equal to the offense. But Jesus taught us to handle injustice a bit differently. 
“But I say to you, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Did you hear that? Don’t resist evil? If someone hits you on one side of the face, let him hit you on the other? I don’t know Jesus. Maybe being able to eat ham and avoiding circumcision isn’t worth all of that. I mean really, it isn’t good enough that we love our neighbors, he expects us to love our enemies and even pray for those who wish us ill.
I am reminded of what I heard a writer say on NPR awhile back. I don’t recall his name but the gist of his words stayed with me and they seem handy this morning. QUOTE: “I don't intentionally obscure meaning but I am uneasy with clarity.”

I’m afraid I prefer it when Jesus’s saying and stories are more obscure with less clarity. I prefer God’s word when it is hidden away in Old Testament books that no one ever reads. But here it is in the Christian Gospels, a part of what may be the greatest sermon ever written…and it is handed down to us in the clearest of words.

Now, I am not especially worried that I will have to face the decision of whether to turn the other cheek after getting popped although my wife thinks that may well happen after one of my newspaper columns. And I’m not worried about anyone taking my cloak in a lawsuit…but it’s been a while since I prayed for my enemies…a long while.

Gotta tell you, right about now I’m feeling for the rich young man who made the mistake of asking Jesus how to get closer to God; you remember that? Jesus said, “Follow the law…maybe referring to what we heard from Leviticus…but then Jesus said there’s one more thing.  “Sell everything you own and give it to the poor.” That young fellow just couldn’t do it even though Jesus had told him that is what was required of him if he really wanted to be close to God.

Now, this morning we hear Jesus say that if we want to be the children of our Father in heaven, one of the things we must do is pray for our enemies and those who persecute us. Really?

Just maybe it’s a message I need to hear, one we all need to hear in these confusing and divisive days. Jesus’s message comes at a time when our nation is so divided that it may be impossible to achieve God’s hopes for us without some healing. We’re divided Democrat and Republican, progressive and conservative, bitterly divided by class and color and religious beliefs. As important as healing those divisions may be to God, no one wants to be the first to begin that process.

There are more reasons every day to dislike one another; seemingly fewer reasons to pray for one another. Couples divorce because one voted for Clinton, the other for Trump.  People walk away from friendships over political or religious differences. A dating site offers an app called “Hater” based on research says it’s more likely that two people will bond over what they hate than what they share. The editor of The Week Magazine says we have become a Darwinian culture.

But there it is…set forth in perfect clarity in the Gospels. The voice of Jesus. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

So, who will go first? Me or those who offend me? This week I received an email from Pastor Shaun Sells of Calvary Chapel Church. Pastor Sells is also a leader in the Wyoming Pastor’s Network, which lobbies for laws to permit discrimination against gays and transgender people, against a woman’s right to choose and against marriage equality. Those who persecute people I love.

But his email was an invitation to lunch. Said he’d buy! He’d read one of my recent columns and wrote, “My goal in meeting with you is to have good conversation, not to change your mind. I find that in all the discussions I have heard at the legislature no one is talking to the other side, so we see these gross mischaracterizations of the others views.”

There’s a LOUISE ERDRICH quote, “We do know that no one gets wise enough to really understand the heart of another, though it is the task of our life to try.” 

A week from tomorrow Pastor Sells and I will try. We’ll break bread together and I will spend the week praying that it will open a door to a relationship that probably won’t change anyone’s mind but may change both of our hearts. So…in ways I did not anticipate, the Spirit of God has given me an answer to my question…if we are going to heal the divisions, who will go first? This week it was not me who chose to go first I confess, but instead it was my evangelical colleague, which said to me that as difficult as it may be…that anyone who follows Jesus should be the first.  AMEN