Sunday, Sunday, February 20, 2011

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-30
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I took Zachary to Texas Tech last weekend for a college visit. Lubbock is about seven hours away, and the drive takes us through miles of seeming nothingness. The reality is that it is not nothingness. The vast acres of farmland may have been empty in mid-February, but I am sure that they’ll be green and full of life in just a few weeks. We could tell that some of the fields were dedicated to cotton. The trunks of the bushes were still sticking out of the ground and some cotton bolls were left on the stems. We also saw areas in the fields where cotton had fallen and was not picked up. It looked almost like snow, and we might have thought it was snow after the weather last week, but the temperatures were much too warm. Besides, snow would not appear on the tips of branches the way the cotton balls looked.

I was amazed with the amount of cotton left in the fields. I suppose the places that were not harvested were hard to get to, and the cotton on the ground may have gotten too dirty to be used. I was thinking it would be fun to stop the car and go pick some of the cotton, just to see what it feels like fresh from the bush, but I decided against it. After all, you never know how a farmer will respond to trespassers on their fields.

I was thinking, though, as I passed by those fields, about the ancient practice of leaving some of the fruit behind for the widow and the alien. Imagine my surprise when I read this week’s scriptures and found it in the passage from Leviticus. I wondered what might happen if I did go and try to pick that cotton. Would the farmer be upset, or did he still live according to that ancient law? Is that cotton left behind on purpose? Given to God for the sake of others? Quite frankly, I doubt it. And I doubt that it was ever intended to be used by a person like myself. I couldn’t possibly use that cotton to make myself clothing or even sell for food.

I can’t imagine ever going into a field of sweet corn to pick a few ears for myself or picking grapes off a grapevine. I know that the farmer’s livelihood depends on consumers purchasing their food. I also know that I can afford to buy those items for myself. But what if I were a widow or orphan or foreigner? Would modern farmers allow me to pick from their crops? Do modern farmers keep this law today? Should modern farmer continue to keep this law? That is one of many questions that could be asked when dealing with some of the issues we face today.

But for today, we are going to look at this passage as a whole. Leviticus is filled with rules for living, but I like this particular chapter because the various laws listed seem so down to earth. We might not understand some of the dietary or hygiene rules. We certainly don’t understand some of the sacrificial and ritualistic rules. But we do know what it is like to lie, steal and cheat our neighbor. We do know that we are called to do what is right for our family and our friends. These laws are very practical, and they help us to know how to live in this world.

As we consider the laws in the Old Testament lesson, let us remember, however, the words of Christ in our Gospel lesson. “Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are reminded that Christ calls us to be more than the Law. He calls us to be like Him, Christ-like. As Paul says, you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God, so live like it. We aren’t just flesh and blood, we are spiritual beings, God’s temple.

But, 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 Old Testament lesson, knowing that Christ came to grant us forgiveness from our failure to live up to that Law, but we learned 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. In Christ we have been given a new identity and Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel to grow up.

At least that’s how this passage has been translated in “The Message.” “In a word, what I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matthew 5:48) It seems like those rules found in Leviticus are a good place to start.

Despite these rules 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 these things, or avoiding doing those things that are 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. It may be that the day once was when these rules were the foundation for reward or punishment, but in Christ we live differently. We are God’s Temple, and we are called to be holy like He is. We don’t live within these rules because we expect reward or punishment, but because it is what God wants us to do. 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.

So, what are the rules in this passage. God starts at the beginning: be holy because God is holy. That verse lays down the authority in our life. The next continues the hierarchy: honor your mother and father. And we are reminded to keep God’s Sabbath. Don’t revere idols or make graven images of ourselves. We are then reminded, again, that He is the Lord our God. That phrase is repeated over and over again in this passage. For all the earthbound rules we are expected to follow, our reason is because He is our God. We should not lie, cheat or steal because He is our God. We should not make promises we won’t keep or swear falsely because He is our God.

Most of the laws are quite familiar. We know what it means to lie, cheat and steal, although I’m sure we could get into lengthy debates about how far we can go with those actions before they are really wrong. Some believe that certain lies are good. Biblical characters, like Jacob, were blessed by their cheating. And is it stealing if we find that twenty dollar bill on the floor and do not ask to see if it belongs to someone? Yet, we live in a society that has been founded upon laws that establish the parameters of these actions and we are generally capable of living accordingly.

But what about this law that says, “The wages of a hired servant shall not abide with thee all night until the morning.” How does that translate into our business practices? After all, how many of us actually get paid on a daily basis? In some cases, we get checks only once or twice a month. Are our employers being disobedient to God’s Law? We have to remember that for those laborers, that daily pay meant food for their family on that day. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not the laborer would get paid, but waiting until morning quite possibly could mean the difference between eating and starving.

In modern terms, I have seen many examples of people disobeying this law on those daytime court television shows. Take, for example, the landlord that refuses to return the security deposit when a tenant has done everything they should do? Or the father who refuses to give child support because he doesn’t like the ex-wife’s new boyfriend? Or the mechanic that won’t make it right when they’ve done a poor repair job? In these cases, the money might make a difference for the people from whom it has been withheld. The point of the law is to make sure that everyone gets what is rightly due so that they can live without worry and harm.

“Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumblingblock before the blind…” This law can be understood to protect others besides the deaf and the blind. If you curse a deaf person, they cannot hear your words. If you put a stumbling block in front of a blind person, they cannot see the stumbling block. The deaf and the blind cannot respond to the danger that has been placed before them. Who else might be destroyed by our actions if they are not aware of them?

The law talks about justice. What is justice? This is yet another topic that has been part of our debates in recent days. Many have insisted that our focus in ministry should be on the poor, but is there ever a time when justice might just fall in favor of the rich? The law says, “Don't pervert justice. Don't show favoritism to either the poor or the great. Judge on the basis of what is right.” (Leviticus 19:15, The Message) God does indeed love the poor and promises that they will experience God’s riches. But God also demands justice; He demands that we treat each other rightly. Justice is not about equality, but about what is right.

Through it all, we are reminded that the Lord is our God. He is the one who ensures justice. He brings to light all that is wrong and calls us to repent, to turn around, to do what is right. “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart.” God reveals all the secrets and gets everything out in the open. Don’t hate in your heart, deal with it. As Paul says, “Grow up.” We are children of God but we aren’t children. The Law in today’s passage is about living as adults in the kingdom of God. It is about being mature and respectful, honoring God with our actions. It is about doing what is right. When we do what is right, justice will be the result.

For many, justice demands reward and punishment. And they will do whatever is necessary to ensure the victimized are rewarded and the wicked are punished. But too many have created victims where there is none, and twisted the actions into something that is evil when it is not. So, as we consider the texts for this week, we are reminded that the Lord is our God and He will ensure that everything will be made right. So, it is not our duty to seek vengeance or hold grudges. We are called to love. The Lord is our God.

Jesus tells us not to be concerned about the ways we can be harmed, offended or humiliated. We are to be like God. We should not seek vengeance even though the law says we can demand a tooth for a tooth. We should not fight back when someone slaps us in the face, but instead turn the other cheek, even if it means being slapped again. We should not fight to keep our things if someone chooses to take us to court, but give them more than they ask. God will make it right. If they demand false justice, God will achieve true justice. We are to live generously and graciously toward others, even if they are not willing to live generously and graciously toward us. We are to love our enemies.

This is, indeed, the hard part. How can we possibly love our enemies? How can we allow injustice to rule when we are able to take matters into our own hands? The psalmist gives us a glimpse into how we can do this, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity, And quicken me in thy ways.” “The Message” translates this, “Divert my eyes from toys and trinkets.” NIV says, “Turn my eyes from worthless things.” We are earthbound people, living in a world with difficulties and decisions. But we are also spiritual people, the temple of God. We are called from the ways of the material world into a life following God’s ways, living as He intends us to live, doing what is right. Now is the time to “Grow up” and live in the identity He has created for you in and through Christ.

What is wisdom? Paul says, “Don't fool yourself. Don't think that you can be wise merely by being up-to-date with the times. Be God's fool—that's the path to true wisdom. What the world calls smart, God calls stupid.” (1 Corinthians 3:18-19a, The Message) It might seem smart to demand today’s version of justice, but is it right just because we say it is? Be God’s fool. Live in His ways. Love your enemy. Seek God’s counsel and live according to His Word. You belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God. He has made you a promise, that you will see His Kingdom in its glory. It might not be today or tomorrow, but it will happen. Until that day, live generously and graciously toward others and in His righteousness you’ll find true life. Obey His laws, not because you expect reward or punishment. Obey His laws because He is the Lord your God and He has called you to be like Him.

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