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7th Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 19, 2017

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Ordinary 7A
Proper 2

You shall be holy. You are God’s temple. Be perfect. Any questions?

Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

All three texts this week tell us who we are to be because of who our God is. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You are God’s temple. God’s temple is holy. God’s Spirit dwells in you. You belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. The connection between our identity and our God are inextricably bound together. The relationship between our person and our purpose is dependent upon our relationship to our God. Despite any rhetoric to the contrary, freedom in Christ is not independence. In fact, freedom in Christ is dependence on God and self-transcendence, not self-indulgence.

To be explicit, this Christian self-transcendence is not the New Age version of floating above the fray of the world or living on some supposed high plane of consciousness, our total self-fulfillment. Christian self-transcendence is the self-emptying kind of Philippians 2. It is the kind of self-transcendence John the Baptist points us toward: “I must decrease so that he (Jesus) may increase.” Thomas Merton, as quoted in Jeffery Shaw’s book, “Illusions of Freedom” puts it like this:

He (the Christian) is striving with his whole heart to fulfill the will of God and lay hands upon that which God created him to receive. And what is that? It is nothing else but a participation in the life and wisdom, and joy and peace of God Himself. This is greater than any other gift, higher than any other power. It is supreme freedom, the most perfect fulfillment.

Freedom comes with participating fully in God. Our holiness depends on participating in God’s holiness. Our perfection comes only through participation with the perfect Father. Our ability to be temples for the Most High God comes only through participating in the Spirit of God. None of this is of our own doing and yet we are given clues in all three readings as to what might make us open to the workings of the Holy Spirit within and through us.

Leviticus instructs the holy ones of the holy God to not reap the edges of their fields. Why? So that the poor and alien will have something to glean because “I am the Lord your God.” Don’t swear falsely or defraud your neighbor. Don’t play favorites, judge with justice. Participating in God, being holy, entails tangible acts of justice and care, for neighbor, poor and alien alike.

Paul tells those who are temples of God, places where the holy dwells, to become fools so that they may become wise. Don’t rely on human leaders or the wisdom of the world. Look to Christ and holiness will follow.

Jesus teaches his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount: Turn the other cheek, give your cloak in addition to your shirt, walk the second mile, give to anyone who begs, love your enemies. Seeking perfection means seeking the welfare of others, neighbors and enemies alike.

Do you begin to get a sense of the self-emptying, self-transcendence we Christians are called upon to exhibit? Freedom in Christ is not individual independence but instead personal sacrifice for the sake of another. Is Merton right? Does this indeed lead to life and wisdom, joy and peace, perfect fulfillment? Perhaps we don’t know because we’ve never really attempted to live such a God-focused, other-oriented life. (Or maybe that’s just me.)

I just finished reading John Carlin’s book, “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation.”  It was humbling to read of Mandela treating his jailers with dignity, working side by side with those who’d orchestrated his long imprisonment, learning and speaking the language of the people who’d created apartheid, encouraging those who had worked for de Klerk to stay and work for him. His ability to look beyond his own emotions and well-being time and time again was remarkable.

Toward the conclusion of the book Carlin writes, “He succeeded because he chose to see good in people who ninety-nine people out of a hundred would have judged to be beyond redemption. … Instead of eliminating the enemy and starting from zero, the enemy was incorporated into a new order deliberately built on the foundations of the old. Conceiving of his revolution not primarily as the destruction of apartheid but, more enduringly, as the unification and reconciliation of all South Africans, Mandela broke the historical mold.”

I cannot help but think of another Scripture passage, one from Ephesians 2, about creating one humanity in place of two, strangers and aliens now members of one household, the whole structure growing into a holy temple. Certainly, this outcome was not one person’s doing, but nonetheless it is difficult to imagine possible without the self-emptying of someone willing to give shirt and cloak, go second, third and fourth mile, and love more radically than most of us can ever conceive of doing.

What, I wonder, would be the result if we tried such an experiment? What if we did conceive of decreasing in order for Jesus to increase? What if we looked to the interest of others, daily, even in very small ways? What if we were holy – making sure the poor and alien had food to gather, telling the truth, making sure people got a fair wage? Consider what it would look like in your household, congregation and community if you didn’t rely so much on the wisdom of this age, the experts, the prevailing sentiment of anger and division or the hope for Apollos or Cephas to set things right, but instead focused on Christ and him crucified? Wouldn’t it be radical if we actually didn’t repay evil for evil, but rather always sought to do good to one another and to all?

I suspect living in such holy ways, even if not perfectly, would be very freeing. We might get out of our own way and in so doing make a way for the Lord.

You shall be holy. You are God’s temple. Be perfect. Why? Because our God is holy and perfect. How? Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. Make sure the poor and alien have food to eat. Don’t be afraid to look like a fool so long as you are one for Christ. Any questions?

This week:

  1. Can you think of contemporary sayings to which Jesus might respond, “You have heard it said, but I say to you …”?
  2. Daily read 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22 and consider how you might live out this charge.
  3. Read this article on restorative justice.  How does it relate to the texts appointed for this week?
  4. Do you think of yourself or your congregation as holy? Perfect? Why or why not?
  5. Many of the Bible verses connected to the Matthew text highlight hospitality. Why the emphasis on hospitality? How do we practice hospitality in our day and time?
  6. How do we hold one another accountable to the standards Jesus calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount?

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