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Recent Sermons

Be Perfect? Be Whole!

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
February 19, 2017

You thought last week’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount was hard! Then we talked about anger and adultery and divorce! We learned that Jesus was not adding additional legalism to       the 613 laws his people already knew. We saw that he was going beyond the rules to the heart of the matter, that love is the ultimate law and it forces us to see beyond all our comfortable assumptions about how life works. But now we hear what may be the most demanding and difficult teaching of all: Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? Is he kidding?

No. But he isn’t talking about rolling over and becoming a doormat, or giving up on our values or our demands for justice.  He is talking about non-violent protest in a time of Empire and learning these skills in our current context has never been more timely. Gandhi used his example. Martin Luther King used his example. Now we must learn to do the same.

But first let’s deconstruct our typical assumptions about these words.

         “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a          tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes       you on the right cheek, turn the other also;”
This is not about rolling over and taking it. In the shame based culture of 1st Century Palestine one hand was used for social interactions, the other for more private purposes (there was not such thing as toilet paper for instance). So if a powerful person slaps you with the acceptable hand and you turn to offer your other cheek, you are inviting him to humiliate himself by using the unacceptable hand. Your action reveals your integrity and refusal to give in.
        
         “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as    well;”
Poor folks in the first century typically wore only two garments: a coat for warmth and a cloak or sheath that was a simple all body covering – a linen caftan of sorts. If you give a man both your coat and your cloak you stand naked before him. And once again, in a shame based culture like 1st Century Palestine, you have humiliated your abuser. Your nakedness shows your courage and reveals their greed. 

         “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Roman soldiers could conscript any local person to carry          their heavy loads, but only for one mile. As soon as you started walking that second mile, they would be in trouble. It was the law. I see them begging you to give the load back! “No, no, it’s fine. I’m happy to serve!” And you undermine their power.

Then there is that simple throw-away line:
         “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who         wants to borrow from you.”
This statement has simplified my angst over which homeless person on the street I should deem worthy of my donations! Jesus said to just give to them all. It is not my job to judge whether they are worthy or will use it for a good cause. It is my job to remember that God loves them and I can look them in the eye with that love and offer them some small token of respect, along with remembering that what is mine is really a gift          from God meant to be shared. Okay, that one may be hard but I do believe Jesus said it!
                 
But now we turn to the hardest saying of all in this passage:
         “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      Creator in heaven; for she makes the sun rise on the evil and on the         good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if   you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even       the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers    and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the   Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Creator          is perfect.”
Usually we stop right there and tell ourselves, “Okay, Jesus is asking us to be perfect and none of us can do that, so let’s just skip this demand altogether!” But what does love look like if it is just a feeling we share with friends and family? If God is love, and all creation is filled with God’s creative essence, then everything and everybody is already filled with love. Our job is to recognize that and build our lives on that reality. It is not enough to feel comfortable in our us/them reality.
I love the challenge in the words of G.K. Chesterton in our Quiet Meditation this morning:
         “The Christian ideal has not been tried and   found wanting. It has      been found difficult; and left untried.”
He may be overstating it. Some of us keep trying. Some great leaders and their followers have worked at it. But now we really must face the challenge of living it. Our success and survival as a species may depend on it.
        
When Jesus said, “Be perfect,” he used an Aramaic word that is better translated “Be Whole.” There are large sections of the Hebrew Scriptures that talk about perfection in absolutist and narrow terms. The priestly class wanted to be sure they were set apart as superior to common folks. Many of the 613 Hebrew laws were based on dividing the world into perfect and imperfect things. Sacrifices on the altar had to be “perfect” by some external standard that meant most poor folks could never live up to the law.

It is ironic that Jesus’ more inclusive word for wholeness has been translated into English in the narrow way we have heard it for centuries. But that kept the hierarchy of the church in place. It allowed the church’s priestly class to remind us that we are just imperfect common folk who must confess our sins again and again and know that we need the powerful intersession of the priests to have any crumb of a relationship with God. All this is exactly the opposite of what Jesus was trying to teach. God’s rain falls on all of life. The messy unhappy failures and the fabulous flaunting        power hungry are all loved equally by God. Our challenge is to live up to God’s law of love by loving the impossible other and our own messy selves. (Repeat!)

This is the work! And it is work! If we hope to stand against indiscriminant hatred that judges our neighbors as unworthy either because of the color of their skin or their national origin or their religious faith, we must learn Jesus’ call to non-violence in every stand we take.

Mahatma Gandhi learned from studying Jesus’s teachings and he said:         “There are many causes I would die for. There is not a single cause I        would kill for.”
But he also knew this doesn’t come easy or naturally to us:                         “It seems to be a difficult concept for most of us that peace is a                      skill that can be learned. We know war can be learned, but we                    seem to think that one becomes a peacemaker by a mere change             of heart.”
Many of us took to the streets for the Women’s Marches on January 21. And many of us plan to do it again in the weeks and months ahead. But we know that one violent agitator can ruin the power of our collective stand for justice. We know that we must practice peace. But if we think this will come naturally to us we have never faced an angry person who wants to do us harm. And thankfully, of course, most of us haven’t.

Today is the “Day of Remembrance” of Japanese American Internment that occurred 75 years ago by Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, that resulted in the imprisonment of over 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry,       solely because of their race. We remember and we are determined to stand for justice so that our Muslim neighbors do not experience anything like this.

In 1942 members of the Congregational Church of San Mateo went to the round up at the Tanferan Train Station and offered to hold deeds and property for their fellow citizens so that they would have something to return to when it was over. They paid their property taxes and cared for homes. Those were the lucky few.

So now is the time to prepare our hearts and minds for the work ahead.

Practice when you drive your car, loving every unconscious speeding driver who cuts you off and endangers your safety.

Practice centering into your heart and loving the slow and unfocused customer in front of you in a long line at the grocery store.

Practice loving your immediate family in all their impossible diversity and demands.

Practice loving the television news anchor who seems oblivious to the concerns that haunt your life: Will your health care disappear? Will your friends be deported? Will your co-workers suffer?

Practice loving the leaders on both sides of the political isle who believe they speak for everyone when they don’t; and have too much power and money or not enough.

Practice loving the survivalist and the hate-group member who is collecting guns for fear of a race war.

We can do this. We already are perfect in God’s eyes. We already are whole human beings learning to be who we really are. As we wake up to the awareness that the Kingdom of God is within we can draw on the strength of the Spirit, and the combined support of that Spirit in community. We can practice the Christianity that Jesus calls us to! Can I get an Amen?!