7th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2014

7th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A, 2014 (preached Feb. 23, 2014)

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm 119: 33-40

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Gospel Reading:  Matthew 5:38-48

On of the toys my two younger children have liked over the years are Legos.  I loved Legos as kid and I’m glad that my children like them too.  In fact, when we go to the mall, the Lego store is one of the places we MUST go.

I marvel at the elaborate sets Lego makes now.  When I was young Legos were mostly just blocks, and you supplied the imagination to build.  While they can still be that, there are some amazingly intricate and complicated sets you can buy for houses, trucks, police stations, and Star Wars and Harry Potter sets.  Neat stuff!

I don’t know about the huge models, but one of the things I like as a parent about the smaller sets is that they have good, simple directions.  And you don’t even have to deal with different languages, because all the directions are in pictures.

I was thinking about that when I read our passages for today.

Our readings provide us really wonderful directions on how to live in relationship with God and one another, especially in the Old Testament and Gospel.  They give us good pictures of how society and faith ideally work.

In Leviticus, the Lord is giving his people commands on how to go about their daily living so that their relationships with one another will please the Lord.

He tells the farmers to leave a bit of their harvest out in the fields so that the poor and strangers passing through may search and find sustenance.  Don’t steal or deal falsely, and do not lie to each other.  Don’t defraud your neighbor, don’t withhold wages from your workers.

Treat those with disabilities with integrity and respect.  Practice true justice, don’t slander, do not profit from your neighbor’s blood.  Do not hate, do not take vengeance.

To sum it all up, love your neighbor as yourself.  Be holy, as the Lord is holy.  The overwhelming message of HOW to be holy in this reading is to be concerned about the plight of our neighbors, the strangers in our midst – how we treat one another.  We learn that we please God when we are concerned about our neighbors’ well-being, and act on their behalf.

But leave it to Jesus to muddy the waters.  He raises the bar in our gospel reading.

I think we can pretty much agree that the Leviticus reading makes sense.  It could be argued that our gospel reading makes little or no sense.

Who among us here, if struck on the cheek, would willingly volunteer the other one?  Perhaps I could restrain myself from striking back, but unless I was being held down, I would certainly at least move out of the way before the person could get me again!

In the bitter cold and snow of this winter I hope we all looked through our closets for donations for those less fortunate.  But to give the coat off my back – to go so far to insure the warmth of a neighbor that I end up suffering from the cold – I’m not sure I can do that.

And loving my enemies?  That might be the hardest of all.  Like Jesus said, it’s easy to pray for those you love, or those who love you, but to pray for those who hate you, for those who actively work against you?  That’s A LOT to ask.

Does a kid being bullied at school have to pray for the bullies?  Does that person at work who constantly undermines us so they can get ahead deserve our prayers?  And we’re to pray for people who plot attacks against our country?

And just so you know, when Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, he DOESN’T mean for us to pray they go to hell – just the opposite.  He wants us to pray for their conversion to love and peace so that one day we may enjoy their presence, and that they may know God’s love.

A side note:  praying for our enemies doesn’t mean we don’t work to make sure they’re held accountable.  Perhaps the thing that will turn the bully’s life around is being confronted with their behavior, so they have an opportunity to change.

All this is hard, no denying it – Jesus KNOWS it.  He reminds us that it’s easy to love those who love us back.  But Jesus expects more of us than that, and as always shows us the way WITH HIS OWN LIFE.

For in Jesus we see one who loved those who not only persecuted him, but killed him.  From the cross, he begged the Father to forgive them – and to forgive us too.

But why does he ask all this of us?  He gives us the reason:  so that we may be like God, reflect the essential nature OF God, and to display our kinship WITH God.

Jesus also gives us another reason.  Later in the gospel of Matthew Jesus tells us as we “do” to the least of these, we do to him.  When we share our food with others, we are sharing it with Jesus.  When we treat the disadvantaged with respect, we treat Jesus with respect.  When we give away our coat, we’re giving it to Jesus.

And when we pray for our enemies, we are praying for us to recognize Jesus even in THEIR face, and for Jesus to be known to them.

In Leviticus we are told to be holy, as the Lord is holy.  In Matthew we are told to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.  And we learn that perfection and holiness are most demonstrated in how we regard others.

Now, NONE of us is perfect, but through Jesus’ forgiveness we are bold to try, because we don’t have to fear failure.

So may the salvation we have received through the forgiveness, love and sacrifice of Christ Jesus so move US in love, that we seek each day to treat our neighbors with the same honor we would give to the Lord himself.

AMEN.

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