Lectionary 7 (Seventh Sunday after Epiphany)
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.
Last week’s Confirmation Class began with a thud. I told the class,
“Alright, open up your Bibles to the book of Ruth. It might be hard to find –
it’s a small book, buried in the Old Testament somewhere.
Use the table of contents if you like.”
“Pastor Chris,” one of them said, “We know where it is. We read from Ruth last week.”
Oh, crud, I thought to myself.
I had prepared the wrong lesson, the one that Randy Correll,
one of our wonderful Confirmation Ministry teachers, had taught the week before.
So, while my brain was spinning about what to do,
I showed the class a video on YouTube of a Doritos commercial from the Super Bowl,
something I had planned to do anyway.
The commercial dealt with Doritos, yes, but also with resurrection,
and I thought it would be a good way to start our class.
In the commercial we meet a guy who is watching his friend’s apartment for week,
but having neglected his duties to feed the fish and water the plant,
both the fish and the plant have died.
When he sprinkles crumbs of Doritos on the fish, to his surprise the fish comes back to life.
Then, he drops some Doritos crumbs on the plant, and it springs back to life, too.
Toward the end of the commercial, as he is cleaning up the apartment,
the guy accidently spills over an urn
containing the cremated ashes of his friend’s grandfather.
Having brought the fish and the plant from death to life with a few crumbs of Doritos,
he then applies the Doritos crumbs to the ashes … and Grandpa comes back to life.
So I asked the class … is this how resurrection works?
What does the Bible, what does the church say about life, death, and resurrection?
We had a fascinating conversation, one that I was truly privileged to be part of
and which showed me that these kids think deeply about faith,
even if they don’t think about it using the precise language that we find
in our worship books or ancient creeds,
but rather use more contemporary images and idioms to describe their faith.
Speaking about death, resurrection, and what happens after death,
it was no surprise that we quickly moved to the topic of heaven and hell,
and specifically to what one has to do to get to heaven.
Then, one of the students cited an episode of That 70s Show,
the popular comedy that aired from 1998 through 2006.
In this episode the family is arguing about going to church:
the kids don’t want to go because it is boring, or because the church is hypocritical,
or because they had already met a guy on a bus who claimed to be God –
this was the 70s, after all.
Dad doesn’t go to church because he claims that he had a heart-to-heart with God
during his military days as his ship was sinking,
and that granted him a life-time waiver from church.
After a Sunday morning argument about church, Kitty,
who is the mother of this loving yet dysfunctional family,
stands at the door and says,
“I’m going out to the car, and I’m sure that you will make the right decision
and I won’t be sitting alone at church.”
In the next scene, Kitty is sitting alone in the church, while the rest of her family is at home,
and sitting in the church Kitty daydreams, imagining what heaven is like.
People are lined up on a cloud to get into heaven,
with Saint Peter standing at the pearly gates, wearing a white robe.
Kitty and her whole family are there, and she approaches Saint Peter.
Looking directly at Kitty with a disappointed expression, Saint Peter says, laying on the guilt,
“If you had only gone to church with your family.”
Kitty’s face looks struck with horror,
and Saint Peter immediately lunges back toward a big lever and shouts, “Down you go!”
as if he’s about to open a trap door that leads to hell.
The family gasps and they try to hold on to something.
Saint Peter then lets out a huge laugh and then says, “I love that gag!”
“If only you had gone to church,” Saint Peter said.
“So,” one of my students said, “this show said going to church helps you get to heaven.”
So I wrote on the board, under the heading of “heaven,” “Go to church.”
But then one of the students said, “But, what if you go to church and you’re completely selfish?
I don’t think that person would go to heaven.”
“And what if you’re completely selfless, like Jesus, caring for others,
but you don’t go to church? I think that person goes to heaven.”
“Heaven’s not really about going to church,” they said. “It’s about being selfless and caring.”
“Yeah, it’s about following the Ten Commandments,” another one said.
Ah, I thought to myself. This kid has been to Confirmation Class.
He knows that the Ten Commandments are largely about
how we live in relationship to one another, that being selfless, caring for others thing.
But, I told them, even the Ten Commandments contain three laws
that are explicitly about our relationship with God,
and that would suggest at least some sort of commitment to church,
to nurturing our relationship with God through prayer,
worship and the community of the faithful.
Still, though, they were unsatisfied. “Church is boring a lot of the time,” some of them said.
“Church doesn’t make sense. Church doesn’t relate to our lives.”
We who are a wee bit older might bicker with their characterization of church,
even if we also hate to admit that we actually see their point, to some extent.
But bickering would get us about as far as it got Kitty, the mother,
in that episode of That 70s Show I described earlier – sitting alone in church.
For what it is worth, this is the church that we’ve given to many of our children –
one they see as hypocritical, irrelevant,
and more concerned with old stuff or Bible stuff or ritual stuff
than with real life, than with the stuff they deal with on a daily basis:
friendships, family, goals, hopes, dreams, dating, sexuality, money,
pain, suffering, sadness … and the list goes on.
The church we’ve given to our children is one that they see
as being divorced from their lives.
And when I say “we,” I say “we” as a parent,
but also as a member of this congregation and the broader Lutheran church,
as a church leader, as a pastor.
It is no secret that kids drop out of church at a fairly high rate following Confirmation,
they drop out in part because they fail to see the point of church,
they fail to see its relevance.
By and large, our kids – and in general, kids in this “Millennial” generation –
don’t feel that church is speaking to their questions,
their concerns, their experiences, their lives.
Maybe it’s not just the kids who feel this way.
Yet what I see in today’s Bible readings, particularly in Leviticus and in Matthew,
is that God cares quite a darn bit about the very questions, concerns,
and experiences of his people.
Leviticus makes for great reading,
but too often we pass it over thinking that it is filled with all kinds of laws
0; that were rendered irrelevant by Jesus or by the Reformation or by the Enlightenment
or by Post-Modernity or perhaps by something that Oprah said …
But Leviticus is rich because we see in it the pattern of life that God wills for his people,
a pattern of life calls us to live love in our everyday actions,
to love our neighbor and to care for the poor,
a love and care rooted in the love that God has for us,
the love that compels us to live Holy lives …
It all starts with God’s desire that his people be holy, that we be holy,
and that we witness through our lives to the Lord our God, who is holy.
And as we go through the laws laid out in today’s first reading,
many of which echo the Ten Commandments,
we see that holiness involves some rather mundane, everyday stuff:
how you harvest your field, intentionally leaving good fruit for the poor and alien;
how you are to pay your employees, so that they receive timely and just wages;
how you are to treat the deaf and the blind,
taking care that they are not abused or taken advantage of;
how you are to speak of and treat your neighbor,
so that love and justice would govern the ways we live and interact with one another.
All these dictates, and more, are commanded by God,
bookended by declarations of God’s holiness, in vs. 2 and in vs. 18,
and calling forth from us a holiness that is derivative of God’s,
a holiness that is lived in relationship to others.
This should not surprise us that holiness is lived not in some spiritual abstract
of prayer or theology or proper devotion,
but rather in how one lives their everyday life.
Indeed, what Leviticus here describes resonates quite nicely
with what our Confirmation Class described,
a way of life that is selfless and oriented toward caring for others.
In today’s Gospel text,
Jesus takes this orientation of care and selfless living to an even further degree.
I wish we had time to walk verse by verse through this Gospel,
because it is just so full of rich, counter-intuitive direction for our lives,
but we’d be here all day if I were to do that …
The whole “turn the other cheek” thing, for example, is not an invitation to abuse,
but rather a non-violent way to stand up to and heap shame on your attacker,
but 2000 years later we misread the cultural cues that are imbedded in this story,
and sadly we misread these verses as if they were an invitation to abuse …
which is not the case!
These words of “turning the other cheek” were spoken in love,
a nonviolent response to violence,
as a call to live in love, even toward our attackers, even toward our enemies,
even toward our persecutors.
Now, not many of us today have attackers, enemies, or persecutors,
and so it is hard for us to grasp the depth of what Jesus here is saying.
But the earliest of Christians who first heard Matthew’s Gospel
in the generations following Jesus’ death and resurrection,
were attacked and persecuted by the religious and civil authorities,
and for them these words came as a life or death challenge …
and many of them lived up to that challenge,
responding to the attacks of their enemies with love and prayer,
rather than seeking to use force or the structures of power to their advantage.
And so, love not only those who love you,
but also love those who don’t love you, those who might hate you,
and those who you don’t even know.
And greet not only those who greet you,
but greet with love also the stranger, the outsider, the other.
“Be perfect,” Jesus says, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
How do we be perfect? Jesus says it right here:
By caring for and loving others, despite what they do or fail to do for us.
And so, back to our Confirmation Class.
They understand that the good life, the Godly life, is about caring for others,
living selflessly, and loving our neighbors and enemies.
And in our Confirmation Class lessons, and in sermons such as this one today,
they’ll come to understand that such a way of life resonates with Scripture,
that such a life resonates with how the church calls us to live.
But still … they’ll say that church is boring and irrelevant,
and many of them will stop coming,
and I think that’s a shame.
The God about whom we read in the Bible
is a God that is deeply enmeshed in the lives of his people,
a God that so much wants to be in relationship with us that he sent his Son
into the world so that we might get reacquainted with the Father,
and be moved by the presence of the Holy Spirit,
that through this blessed Trinity we might know God and each other,
not just in a right-brained, bookish knowledge kind of way,
but to know God and each other
in a deeply flesh-and-blood, sweat and tears kind of way,
to be in relationship with each other,
to walk and share meals and to love and to be loved
and to die and live and live and die together ….
This kind of knowing, it seems to me, would be quite compelling to a Facebook generation,
a generation of kids growing up with many layers of relationships and realities,
a fact that is both filled with possibility but fraught too with complexity.
Entering into the possibility and complexity of our teenager’s lives is our Lord, Jesus Christ,
who comes bearing words of love and hope,
without being shy about the realities of sin and despair that these kids face every day.
Can the church bear witness to this Lord,
to the God who comes to us not just through ancient texts and sacred rituals,
but to the Living Word of God who comes to us in our daily deaths,
who stands alongside and turns his cheek with the kids who are bullied,
and reaches out with a defiant love to the bullies?
Can the church proclaim the Good News of a God whose design for the world is justice,
whose love for his people is endless,
whose hope for the young
and whose promise for the future is glorious?
Yes, it can, and yes, it must,
for proclaiming this Good News is far easier than loving our enemies.
For such proclamation requires simply that we love our own kids,
and that we believe that God does, too.
Be perfect, Jesus says, for your father in heaven is perfect.
Be holy, Leviticus commands, for the Lord your God is holy.
If we find perfection and holiness too daunting,
perhaps we can start with something more down-to-earth:
Love, for God is love.