Sunday, February 20, 2011

7 Epiphany Sermon - "Be perfect" - 20 February 2011

The Rev. Peter M. Carey
7 Epiphany 2011 Sermon
20 February 2011
Emmanuel Episcopal Church in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia

Jesus sets the bar high, but he enacts what he demands.  When Jesus speaks during the Sermon on the Mount he lays out high expectations for his hearers, high enough expectations that some must have heard him and mumbled and grumbled and stumbled off to go about their day.  When he expands upon and deepens the understanding of the requirements of the law and the tradition, he is making the kind of demands that are both hard to hear and also strike the ear with hope and joy.

When Jesus appears to give this sermon on the Mount confirmed that he was no mere teacher of daily wisdom, no mere healer of everyday occurrence, no mere friend doing good works for those in need, no mere companion of the poor and outcast.  Don’t hear this the wrong way.  Jesus was the teacher, the healer, the friend, the companion but he was far more, of course. 

It is tempting to try to water down the words of Jesus that we have read over the last few weeks.  It is tempting to try to explain them away, to give historical reasons why his understanding of “enemy” may not be ours.  It is tempting to try to explain away his notion that when a mile is demanded we should give our oppressor two miles of service.  It is tempting to listen somewhat attentively to the words of the gospel and the words of the preacher only to forget these words over a cup of coffee and the commencing of the 2nd half of our weekend. 

However, what if we really took this words to heart.  What if we placed these words in our minds and let them roll around for awhile.  What if we wrote these words down on a slip of paper and put them into our wallets.  What if we wrote these words down on a bookmark and used it for the reading of our nighttime reading this week.  What if we pasted them with scotch tape on our car steering wheel and read them when we’re stuck in traffic or in the pickup line or when we’re waiting to pick up a loved one.  What if we really took these words to heart?  What if we thought, perhaps, that Jesus actually meant what he said?

Jesus sets the bar high, but he enacts what he demands.   A few weeks ago, we heard Jesus give blessings to his close followers before he began the Sermon on the Mount, and we came to understand that he was not merely describing the blessings of the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.  No.  Jesus offered the blessings and enacted blessing – he made the community a blessed community – he was not merely describing, but creating.  He was not describing the reality, but transforming the community into the blessed community – never the same, but richer, deeper, more joyful, more hopeful, more glad, more giving, more loving, more faithful.  Who was saying these words was vital for our understanding.

Last week, we heard that Jesus was once again creating transformation when he led his hearers into a deeper and richer understanding of their own tradition.  But, again, he was not merely teaching, but creating.  He was not merely describing, but transforming.  When he asked his hearers to understand in a new way, he was actually making them understand, when he was calling them to a new life, he was empowering them to live a new life, when he was setting the bar high, he was also lifting them over that bar.  Jesus sets a high bar, but enacts what he demands.

And so, we are still left with these words – love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you, …

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  Give to anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

You see, Jesus is the prophet who is not only predicting and describing the new reality, he is the prophet who is not only painting the picture of living that will occur.  He is painting a picture, but he is placing us within it.

The painting of Jesus has at its core the beloved and blessed community, the community open to all – the wedding banquet which is ever expanding and where there is a place for all.  At the core of this blessed community are demands and requirements that seem impossible.  For us, to imagine how to live these out are seemingly impossible.  But they are what God demands.  They are what Jesus demands.  However, Jesus enacts what he demands.

All things are possible with God.

The Kingdom of God is not enacted by us, is not brought into being through our own efforts, is not limited by our imagination, but is limited only by the ever expanding and growing imagination and creation of God.

When Jesus says “Be perfect,” he is not admonishing us.  When Jesus says, “Be perfect” he is not challenging us.  When Jesus says, “Be perfect” he is not trying to scare us.  When Jesus says “Be perfect,” he is transforming us, creating us, and placing us in the grand tapestry that God is weaving.  When Jesus says, “Be perfect” he is making us perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.

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