Sunday, February 19, 2017

Seventh Sunday of Epiphany
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Turn my heart toward your statutes, not toward selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from looking at worthless things. Revive me in your ways.

Sadly, we hate our neighbors and justify our hate because they do not believe what we do or do what we think they should do. We take vengeance and bear grudges. We love ourselves, and we claim to love our neighbors, but in this day and age we do not realize that Jesus meant that we should not just treat them as we might want to be treated, but that we should put our neighbors before ourselves. We are human and we are far from perfect. We think of ourselves first and give to others our leftovers.

Think about this: your pastor just gave a sermon about repentance and encouraged you to make up with the person with whom you have a conflict. “Think about someone with whom you should reconcile and do it this week.” You might easily think of a broken relationship that should be fixed, but what is your next thought? “But he...” and we think of all the reasons why the other person should be the one to make the first move. We refuse to give forgiveness until we see some form of repentance.

Today’s scriptures do not allow us this attitude. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.”

How do you love the neighbor that gives you no peace? How do you love the co-worker who has done everything to make your job more difficult and steal your rewards? How do you love the sibling who took the treasures your parents promised to you after they died before you could even get to their house? Every reader of this devotion has some story they can tell of someone that is impossible to love and forgive.

We also find it difficult to aid those who are unwilling to aid themselves. We are willing to help the poor, but what about that lazy guy who takes advantage of the system? I don’t know how many times I’ve looked at the guy on the corner begging for change with that well worn sign saying, “Homeless” and wondered which car in the fast food parking lot belongs to them. We are willing to help the homeless, but how do we decide which ones are truly in need and which ones are scamming folks? These are the normal questions we all ask. We know we are supposed to love everyone, and most of us will say that we do, but is it enough to say it if we don’t accompany our words with action?

Christ calls us to be the kind of people who put others first. Everyone. Even our enemies.

It is so easy for us to look at the sins of others and think that we should get justice. We are bothered by the words of today’s Gospel lesson. Should we let someone who is harming us continue to harm us? Shouldn’t we stand up for ourselves? We can’t let a bully win because then he’ll go on hurting us and others. By taking a stand, we put a stop to their bad behavior. I don’t want to get slapped twice; I’d rather get a slap in, too. I certainly don’t want to give someone who is suing me my cloak as well as my tunic! It isn’t fair, we say, and so we take matters into our own hands. If they are sinning, don’t we have the right to return ‘an eye for an eye?’

Oh, I know: we do this and we become doormats. We get stepped on. They take advantage of us. I don’t think I have the grace to do what Jesus is asking. The text from Leviticus reminds us that we are to treat our neighbors with respect, doing to them only as we would want them to do to us. We are pretty good at living that way when others treat us with respect, when they love us first. But when we are hurt, we are quick to forget God’s Word. God does not want us to be doormats. He is calling us to look at our neighbors, whether they are friend or foe, through the eyes of God. He makes the sun rise and the rain fall on the good and the bad. We all get warm by the heat and wet by the drops, no matter who we are. We also all get burned by the UV rays and flooded by the deluge. In other words, the reality of life hits us all.

Who is your enemy? Most of us would say that we don’t really have any enemies. How often do we hear “Everyone loves that person”? That might be true, but even the best of us run up against people with whom we have disagreements. While we might not call them our enemy as if we are going to war, while we might not feel hatred toward them, we all have someone that we would be better off avoiding if possible. Is it a person at your workplace or neighborhood with whom you have butted heads? Do you get into tangles about politics or religion? Jesus tells us that the rain falls on us all. God, our Father, created us all and we should love everyone, including our enemy.

As if it is not hard enough for us to live up to this expectation of doing kindness to those who do not do kindness to us, God speaks through Moses saying, “You shall be holy; for I, Yahweh your God, am holy.” The rest of the passage is much easier for us to deal with. We know what it is means to lie, steal and cheat our neighbor. We know that we are called to do what is right for our family and our friends. These laws help us to rightly live in this world. And yet we don’t always live up to them. We do sometimes lie. Sadly, sometimes in ways we do not realize, we all steal and cheat our neighbors. I don’t think any of us get through a lifetime without profaning God’s name in one way or another. If we can’t even get through a lifetime without lying, stealing or cheating, how can we ever expect to be holy?

Jesus tells us the same thing but in slightly different words, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Being holy might be easier than being perfect, especially when we try to define holiness according to our own point of view. From my Concordia Study Bible, “When we contemplate the six authoritative teachings of Jesus in vv 21–48, we must agree with Luther’s verdict: ‘At this point you will discover how hard it is to do the good works God commands…. You will find out that you will be occupied with the practice of this work for the rest of your life’ (AE 44:109). Some people, when confronted with the strict demands of the Law, will whittle off a point here, another there. They suggest that we do the best we can, and God will be satisfied. But God demands perfection, which sinners cannot achieve (cf Rm 7:21–25; 1Tm 1:15). Our perfection is in Christ alone. As God’s redeemed people, Jesus declares that we are salt of the earth and light of the world.”

Everything in today’s passages is impossible for us, but that doesn’t mean that we should strive to be any less than holy and perfect. God has done the work in and through Jesus Christ. We are salt and light. We are God’s people; this separates us from others. We are meant to be different, to be holy and perfect, and we do that by living the life God calls us to live which is upside down and inside out of what the world expects.

God does not make laws to burden or oppress us, but to help us to be the best we can be. As a Lutheran, I understand that the Law is meant to help me see how unable I am able to keep it, so that I’ll turn to Christ. That doesn’t mean that I have no responsibility to be the person God wants me to be. I am still expected to live a life that takes care of others. Jesus didn’t come and die so that we can be ‘free to be me’ but so that we can be free to be what we were created to be.

The rules we find in the Bible might seem impractical to us today, and we certainly are not living by them, but it is our responsibility to make sure that our choices and our actions will not harm others. We have to look at the world through God’s eyes. How will this affect my neighbor? It might seem harmless, but there is no such thing as a victimless sin. When we do something wrong, someone suffers. It might seem insignificant. They might not even know that they are victims. But that sin still made an impact on someone else’s life in some way.

We live in the world. And while we live in the world, God expects us to live generously and graciously toward others. We might prefer to ignore the rules, knowing that Christ came to grant us forgiveness from our failure to live up to the Law, but we heard several weeks ago that He did not come to do away with it. The words in Leviticus are as much a part of our life in Christ as it was for the Israelites who received them from Moses. We are still meant to be holy as God is holy, to live holy lives for the sake of others. Jesus calls us to be even more than holy; He calls us to be perfect. In Christ we have been given a new identity and Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel to grow up. He turns our world upside down and inside out, but in doing so He sets everything right.

Despite these rules in today’s texts being very down to earth and practical, we are constantly reminded about the authority of the One giving the Law. “I am the Lord your God.” That’s why we do what is right and avoid what is wrong. We do it because God is our Lord. We do it because He wants us to be holy like Him. We do it because He has told us that this is the way we should live. We are God’s Temple; we don’t live within these rules because we expect reward or punishment, but because God has created and redeemed us to be His children.

God told His people to leave crops at the edge of the fields for the poor and the foreigners. The story of Ruth showed us how necessary this can be for those who do not have resources for themselves. Boaz was extraordinarily generous to Ruth because she was helping Naomi, but he also allowed strangers to clean his fields because he was doing what was right and just. We don’t leave the crops at the edges of the field because we think that God will give us a greater harvest later, but because we know that it might make a difference for someone who does not have enough to eat.

Jesus reminds us that we don’t love our neighbors for what they can do for us, after all, that’s the way the world works. He turned it upside down and commands us to love those who would not do anything for us. He takes it a step further, calling us to love those who have done us harm. That’s what it means to be holy. That’s what it means to be perfect. That’s what it means to be like God. Faith turns us upside down and inside out; it sets us on a new path.

We learned last week that despite the inordinate number of “law” words, Psalm 119 is about more than the Law. In today’s stanza, the psalmist is calling for God to help with repentance. “Turn my heart and turn my eyes,” the psalmist cries. Jesus Christ says, “Look at me as your guide. I was perfect, but for your sake I allowed myself to be murdered on a cross. I forgave those who harmed me. I loved my enemies. My blood makes you holy and my righteousness makes you perfect. So, live like me.” We don’t have to resist evil because Jesus overcame it. We may become the world’s doormats, but it doesn’t really matter because we have been promised eternal life in Him. Obedience to the rules won’t get us to heaven, but they will help us bring a little heaven to earth.

I hope that when I stand before my Lord there will be enough there for Him to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” How I long to hear those words. But I know that whatever happens in that day I will be saved. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of my life, and to Him I owe everything. But Paul talks about the work we do in this world. “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another builds on it. But let each man be careful how he builds on it.” He says that some lay down gold and silver and others wood and straw. In the end, only that which has value will survive. He writes, “...each man’s work will be revealed. For the Day will declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself will test what sort of work each man’s work is.” The gold and the silver are those things we do that have a lasting impact on others. What are you building with your life?

You don’t need to worry if you have built too much with straw and too little with gold, because the foundation of your faith is Jesus Christ? Even if everything you have every done disappears from existence, our Father will still see the holiness and perfection of Jesus in your face. In Him you have eternal life. But haven’t we been blessed to be a blessing? Do we not want to honor our God with gold and silver, to build for Him a great and glorious Temple in this world?

It might seem impossible for us to be holy and perfect, to always be obedient to God’s Word. That’s true; it is impossible. However, we should strive to be grow in holiness and perfection. God has done the work in and through Jesus Christ. We are salt and light. We are God’s people separated from the world for a purpose. We are meant to be different, to live by faith in the upside down, inside out Kingdom of God. God has turned our hearts and our eyes, so let us do everything we can to glorify God by doing what is good and right for our neighbors no matter who they are.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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