Sunday, February 23, 2014

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

For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.

We live in such a different world than they did when the book of Leviticus was written. Do farmers still leave some of the harvest on the edges for the poor and the foreigner to use? Do they leave the gleanings? We know it is wrong to take something from our neighbor, and yet we steal and deal falsely with our neighbors in so many ways that are acceptable in this age. We lie. We even justify our lies as being for the sake of those to whom we have lied, even though the truly merciful thing is always to tell the truth. We know it is wrong to oppress our neighbor or rob him, and yet so many things we do have the same affect without our even realizing it. What employer pays his workers on a daily basis? We have to wait a week or two, sometimes a whole month, to receive payment for the work we do.

Most of us are concerned about the welfare of the handicapped, but modern television shows often create people who are deaf and blind and then curse them or make them stumble. Daytime talk shows put someone in a sound proof booth and then talk about them behind their backs, while game shows put on blindfolds and make people stumble through impossible obstacle courses. Justice has been skewed. We favor people for what they can do for us, but do not do what is right if it doesn’t fit our agenda. And we slander one another in so many ways, particularly when discussing the heated issues of our day.

And, well… 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.

Here is one example: Your friend loves to sing. She sings everywhere: in the car, in the shower, on the street as she walks from store to store. She performs at family gatherings and sings with the choir at church. The problem is that she can’t sing. You encourage her to make a joyful noise, but never tell her she has other, better, talents. You can’t tell her she’s awful because it will hurt her feelings. You can’t ask her not to sing at family gatherings or in the church choir because she’s convinced that she’s good. It doesn’t matter so much at family gatherings, and the choir director can bury her voice among the other singers, but continued encouragement can lead to humiliation.

We have all seen them. They are the people who end up on the audition programs of those singing reality shows. They obviously have no talent whatsoever, but the producers always let a few slip through for the laugh. These singers get in front of the judges and make complete fools of themselves, and then continue the foolishness with the after appearance interviews. “The judges are obviously wrong; everyone says I’m a good singer.” “They made a mistake, I’m better than all the others because my mom said so.”

This is a selfish thing to do, not on the part of the singer but on the part of the friend. You don’t say anything because you don’t want to hurt their feelings or lose their friendship, but ultimately their feelings are destroyed by the public humiliation and you might still lose the friendship. An honest answer doesn’t have to be mean; as a matter of fact, that friend might just have some gift for music, and an honest assessment of their singing might lead them to do what they need to do to do it right. A few lessons could make a world of difference. A change in musical type or instrument might be a good way to continue doing what the person loves to do, but in a better way.

What little white lies have you told that have backfired? In what ways have you harmed your neighbor by not being truthful? This may seem insignificant, and of course it is when it comes to these reality television shows. Whether or not someone gets a place in the top twenty in a singing competition does not make a difference in their eternal destiny, but the hurt and humiliation can cause them to sin.

We understand the reason for these rules from Leviticus, but they don’t always seem very practical to us. I have driven to Lubbock multiple times taking and retrieving my son from college. The route we drove was right through farmland, mostly cotton. As we drove along the route right after harvest time, I noticed there were usually some plants on the edges of the fields that were not cut. I often wondered if those farmers left those plants there because of the biblical charge to leave some for the poor and the foreigner. Yet, I doubt very much if those farmers would appreciate me picking their cotton for my own personal use. There are more than a few farmers not just in Texas, who would stop you from doing so with a shotgun. It is more likely that the leftovers, those bushes that are left and the ‘gleanings’ on the ground, are just the waste left behind by modern machinery, and it isn’t worth enough for the farmer to harvest by hand. Cotton is probably a bad example, since we don’t eat cotton, and I can’t imagine the amount I could pick would be usable. I’ve seen other fields like corn and wheat that are harvested to the very edge; modern machinery doesn’t leave behind any gleanings. Do those farmers sin for ignoring this charge? Or is this an impractical command from God for our day?

The thing to remember is that God does not make laws to burden us or to 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 free to be what we were created to be.

The rules might seem impractical to us today, and we certainly are not living by them, but it is our responsibility to look at the way we are living our lives and make sure that our choices and our actions will not harm others. In the example of the lie, our choice is selfish and ultimately harms our neighbor. We have to look at the world through God’s eyes. How will this affect others? It might on the surface 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. They might be willing to accept the consequences without a thought. But that sin still made an impact on someone else’s life in some way.

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 that type of 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. See, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” 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 equally.

We don’t know the circumstances of our neighbor’s lives. What causes someone to lie or cheat or steal? What causes them to hate and attack others? We can’t always see what is happening in a heart or behind closed doors. If we respond to our neighbor with vengeance, seeking that eye for the eye, we will just make matters worse. We will cause our neighbor to do more than slap us. We will cause something small to become something big. No one knows what started the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, but everyone agrees it was something ridiculous. We must think about how we respond to our enemies so that we will not cause one another to commit a greater sin.

Who is your enemy? 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. Though you may disagree with someone, always treat him or her with kindness and respect, calmly sharing the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. It may seem impossible for us to be perfect in love, yet we can grow each day in Christ Jesus so that His love will be made perfect in us.

The text Leviticus is filled with rules for living, and 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. We are reminded in the Gospel text that Christ calls us to be more than the Law. He calls us to be like Him, Christ-like. This means considering the needs of our neighbors above our own. This means considering our neighbor first, before our egos, before our desires, before our dreams.

God could have given up on human beings a long time ago. He certainly didn’t need to send His Son to pay for our sins. Jesus could have done so much without going to the cross. As we’ve heard so recently, the message of the cross is foolishness anyway, couldn’t He have done it a better way? Yet, Jesus was obedient to God’s plan of redemption. He put us first. He turned the other cheek. He died so that we might live. He calls us to do the same.

We won’t be hung on a cross, and even if we are there is no way we could save the whole of creation. We don’t need to, because Jesus already finished that work. But now, as we live in this world, in this time and place, we continue His work with our neighbors, sacrificing ourselves for their sake. We don’t do this so that they will be converted. We don’t do this for some reward. We do this because God has called us to be perfect like He is perfect.

Sadly, no matter how hard we try, we won’t be perfect. We’ll still choose to tell that little white lie. We’ll laugh at the people who are stumbling over obstacles on that game show. We will slap that person who slaps us first. We’ll seek our own brand of justice. We will sin those sins that seem to be victimless and ignore the consequences that affect others. We will even justify them, insisting that we lie for their sake and that we have a right to vengeance.

Paul writes, “The Lord knoweth the reasonings of the wise that they are vain.” Our justification and vengeance is foolishness because we can neither see in the hearts of our enemies or know the future consequences. God knows and He guarantees that He will take care of His people. He will pay back the eye for the eye, in His way and in His time. We might never be witness to it, but we can trust that God will be righteous and faithful.

So, we are encouraged to stand on the foundation, which is Christ.

Paul writes, “Wherefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts; and then shall each man have his praise from God.” The context of this statement is about the work we do for Christ in this world. We have been given a commission, and that is to make disciples of all nations and teach them how to live their faith in this world. It says nothing about judging their hearts, about deciding who is going to hell and who is going to be in heaven. The scriptures are very clear that it is God’s job to bring to light that which is hidden. We are simply to be the vessels through which God shines. We wear the righteousness of Christ, and as Christians we are meant to be like Him in this world.

We are very quick to assume many things about the people we meet. When their response to the Gospel is different than ours, we assume that they are unsaved or even hypocritical. If their Christian life looks different than we expect, we judge them to be false believers or even evil. We must remember that each person is at a different place in his or her journey of faith, some only believe superficially and others have a deep and abiding faith. Though we can see the fruit that is produced in the life of a Christian, it is impossible for any human to know what is in the hearts of men. We can only share the Gospel of Christ, pray that seeds are planted and that God will make them grow. Condemnation will not bring faith; only the Word of God can do so.

The Gospel will lay a solid foundation of faith in God or it will build upon that which is already laid. God knows the right time to judge the hearts of men, and He will do just fine without us. Until that day we should be concerned with the building of our own lives with prayer, Bible study, Christian fellowship and faithful sharing of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the end, that which is built on Him will survive and all else will be destroyed. It isn’t up to us to burn the buildings others build, but to share Christ in word in deed so that the foundation of our neighbors’ faith is strong and true.

Over the years we build our lives with relationships, experiences and knowledge. Some of it is good: the time we shared the Gospel with someone who was hurting, the time we gave food to the beggar on the street, the times when we prayed and studied the scriptures so that we could know Jesus better. Some of it isn’t so good – those times when we did things just for our own benefit, the offerings we gave out of a sense of duty rather than in the joy of giving. If we work our entire lives thinking that our good works will save us, we will be surprised in the day how little we have done will remain. However, no matter what we build, whether it is out of gold or straw, if the foundation is Jesus Christ then we will be saved.

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. What are you building with your life? Do you know without a doubt that the foundation is Jesus Christ? Even if everything you have every done disappears from existence like the ancient ruins of England, with Jesus as your Savior our Father will still see Him in your face. In Him you have eternal life. Everything else is a blessing and a joy, but of little importance in the scheme of things. For eternity in the presence of our Father is more than we ever deserve and the most incredible blessing we can receive.

Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously. We think we know it all, or at the very least we think we know more than our neighbor. We can't take a joke and we can't laugh at ourselves. We think we are wise, but we are not. We are insulted when people consider our faith ridiculous even though it is. After all, we believe in a story that is beyond belief. However, it is beyond belief because God made it that way. He made it impossible for human flesh to believe the Gospel. It is only by His power that we can believe that Jesus died for our sins. It is only by His grace that we can be Christlike, to be perfect as He is perfect. Only God can make us holy. In Christ we know the grace of God that allows us to laugh at ourselves and be true to that which we are, children of the Most High God today, tomorrow and always.

Now, there are those in this world who believe in karma. Properly defined, karma is a force generated by a person’s actions which will affect the future life of the believer. They might say that though you’ll get slapped by turning the other cheek, the force of karma will guarantee something good will happen to you and something bad will happen to the slapper. For those who believe in reincarnation, karma is the force that will decide the kind of existence they will have in the next life.

For many people, the idea of karma is used very loosely in their daily life. You hear about it on the sitcoms and other television shows, often in a joking manner. When someone does something wrong, the action is met with a threat that “it will come back to bite you one day.” Then, later in the show when something bad happens the person is met with “I told you so.” They are supposed to learn something from this experience: mostly that you should never do something wrong because it will hurt you in the end. Good karma comes to those who do good things. They are rewarded for doing kindnesses or paid back more than they gave. A person who gives a ten dollar bill should expect to be rewarded with an even greater gift somewhere in the future. Ultimately, the person who lives the good life will be reincarnated into a wonderful life, a life of comfort and peace.

I have this habit of offering to take a shopping cart from a person in the parking lot so that they don’t have to walk it to the cart coral. I always hope that there’ll be someone ready to take mine when I am done at my car. There never is. My good deed is never returned. I grumble, “Where’s the karma?” especially when the weather is too hot or cold or wet. Of course I’m kidding; karma is not a Christian concept.

Unfortunately karma is often discussed in the context of church meetings. Listen in on the stewardship sermon and you will often hear the pastor promise some sort of windfall for the believer. One ministry claims that if you send them a certain amount of money in faith, God will return that amount tenfold. It is interesting, however, that most Christians would never teach the idea of negative karma, the punishment for bad behavior. Why would God provide us with tenfold reward for a donation to a church and not also require recompense for the things we do wrong? What about the karma for those who are hurt? If they get through suffering, should they not be given some sort of reward? If we are at fault, shouldn’t we experience the consequences of our sin against that person?

Karma is not a Christian teaching because it puts the power of God into the hands of human beings. In other words, we can control our destiny by doing good works. It makes righteousness a work of man and everything that happens a reward or consequence of his or her actions. Yet, we all know that our experiences are not caused by some previous action. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes good things happen to bad people. Sometimes we can’t explain why these things occur. As Christians, we can only expect God to be just, merciful and faithful. As Christians, we are expected to live Christ-like in the world: just, merciful and faithful. This does not mean we will always receive justice, mercy or faithfulness.

We like the idea of karma because it makes the world a fair place. Everyone is treated ‘equally’ according to their actions. Yet, we know that it just is not true. Sometimes people get away with things they should not do and sometimes people never get the recognition they deserve. All too often, we try to make karma happen by being the ones to bring the consequences or rewards to those who have crossed our path. Karma is not Christian, however. Jesus taught us not to repay others for their actions, but rather to treat them with mercy and grace. In today’s Gospel, Jesus even tells us to give the cloak off our back to someone who would steal it from us.

If karma were really part of our Christian thought, since karma ultimately leads to our next life, then every one of us should be very afraid of our future. None of us are good enough to deserve anything wonderful in our next. We don’t live up to our God-given potential or gifts. We often treat others poorly, hurting them with our thoughts, words and deeds. We would not only fight for what we consider ours, but we would take more as payment for what our enemy intended to do. Jesus teaches us to live differently. We aren’t to live today as if it will make a difference in our tomorrow. Instead we are to live in Christ who has already assured us of our future.

We don’t know how to be perfect. We don’t know how to love our enemies. Sometimes we have difficulty even being kind to lose we love. We tell lies that seem good at first, but ultimately harm others. We do what seems right without considering the consequences. We build houses of straw and twigs without really ensuring that the foundation is Christ. There are lots of laws we can obey, laws from the past and from our present. There are lots of interpretations of what it means to live by those laws. What matters most, however, is that we remember we are God’s temple, and as such we are created and redeemed to be like Him in this world. We might not know the hearts of our neighbors or the future, but we can stop and think about how our actions will affect others. We will find that the best course of action is always to love by putting them first, whether a friend or an enemy. In the end, the sun will shine and the rain will fall and God’s people will be loved into eternity by His grace.

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