Be People of God, People of Mercy

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Peder Stenslie
7th Sunday after Epiphany
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

"As children of God, we stand in many different situations. We can be very different from each other; but we are all called by God to grow in mercy and wisdom. We are all called to open our hearts and minds to the work of God’s spirit."

Some years ago, my daughter Solvei wanted to teach our neighbor girl how to play piano. The girl knew nothing about piano. So where to start? Solvei began by explaining that each key on the piano has a name that corresponds to a musical note. Then, she showed how these notes are arranged on the keyboard, starting with middle C.

Eventually, she would have to show how these notes are represented on paper and begin explaining the basics of how you read music.

Now, let’s move forward a bit on the skill continuum. Last Sunday, as we were singing the communion hymn, “When Long before Time,” I was listening to Joy play as we began verse 5. Suddenly, her fingers were everywhere. She came with all sorts of dramatic runs and soaring harmonies. I saw her staring at the music as she played; but I knew that what she was playing wasn’t written on the paper. It was beautiful and exciting. She saw it there in the music… on the paper; but it wasn’t written there.

After the service, I asked her what she saw when she played that enabled her to produce music that wasn’t written yet that expressed the song so beautifully. She stated that she sees scales and chords. These aren’t written on the paper, but she sees the patterns in the music; and from these patterns, which are the foundations the song is built on, she creates new music that conveys the same song in original ways. I think that’s amazing!

Both the friend of Solvei, sitting at the piano for her first lesson, and Joy sitting at the piano here in our sanctuary playing “When Long before Time,” were doing the same thing… working at making music with the piano. But the conversations Solvei and I had with these piano players were completely different.

Both are about playing piano, but the conversation between Joy and I would have no instructional value for Solvei’s friend. It wouldn’t help her develop her piano skills. It would only confuse her. Likewise, the conversation between Solvei and the neighbor girl would present no learning opportunity for Joy.

Scripture, I think, is like that too. The Word of God speaks to all of us. Scripture is God’s conversation with us, meant to guide, comfort, teach, correct and free us. But we are all very different from each other. We live in different situations. We’ve had different experiences. Some of us are very new to the word of God. Others have been pondering it, wrestling with it, growing from it for many years.

If the word of God is to work growth in us, then not all of us can be spoken to in the same way. Because we are all so different, God’s word must speak to us differently in order to help us grow through different situations, experiences and times of our lives.

One thing that has fascinated me as I study scripture is how differently Jesus talks to different people. To some he speaks gentle words of forgiveness, acceptance, love and support. To others Jesus speaks hard words of judgment and correction.

I think we like to have the image of Jesus as always being the same for us; but in fact, because he is everything to us, he addresses us in many different ways. It is always love that motivates his words to us and his work in us… it is always to move us toward health and wholeness… but sometimes that requires different words, different work. In scripture we see that, sometimes, Jesus praises those closest to him… his disciples; sometimes he comforts them. Sometimes he teaches them. But sometimes he confronts, judges and scolds them.

I want you to think about that as you consider today’s lessons. I definitely think we hear different voices of God in these texts.

If you look at the Old Testament lesson from Leviticus, you can see that the main theme is about mercy… about being merciful. It is about being generous and kind and good to those who stand in a position of weakness. That’s a simple enough concept; but it’s a difficult command for us human creatures to fulfill. Our human nature drives us to take advantage of those who are weaker than us, simply because we can; but we are called to be different than that.

We are called to be people who see our neighbor’s need and respond by supporting them and helping them. Why are we to do that? Because God loves our neighbor as he loves us. And God’s love is meant to live in us in order that his will may be done… in our families… in our communities… on earth.

Today’s Old Testament lesson echoes one of the greatest themes of scripture. God has shown us that true power and strength are reflected in mercy and compassion. As we are his people, that power-reflected-in-mercy should define who we are and how we live.

The Gospel lesson, on the other hand, is a much harder read. The first lines of the lesson seem to command us to let those who abuse us continue to do so. “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.”

These words are really hard to take. Nothing could be more difficult than what they ask… could it? Even though Jesus said these words, I would never… could never… recommend this course of action to victims of abuse, for example. Simply everything the word of God has taught me over many years of study, reflection and prayer tells me that it would be wrong to encourage a victim of abuse to heed the commands given by Jesus here.

These words seem to reverse the message of the 1st lesson about mercy. There God lays out his desire that the vulnerable ones be strengthened and protected. In the Gospel, he seems to direct these same ones to open themselves up to more abuse. What sense does that make?

It runs counter to another of the most basic themes of scripture… God’s will for his people is that they know in life the good things of his Kingdom. God wants us to be happy, safe and well fed. His will for us is reflected in the words of the bible verse we give to students when they leave here: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

So why, when others abuse us, would he command us to open ourselves to more abuse? He wouldn’t. He doesn’t.

God does not want the weak and vulnerable… the abused… to accept the abuse that is heaped on them. The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel text are not intended for these people… not in this way.

The hard words of today’s Gospel lesson are intended instead for people who are in a position to hurt back… and, perhaps, are inclined to do so. It’s addressing those who are in a position to fulfill the ancient code that Jesus refers to: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

The usual way we respond to those who hurt us is we hurt them back. As a school teacher, I see this inclination in young people again and again. It seems to be deeply ingrained in our nature.

Jesus rejects completely the idea that inflicting violence on others is acceptable under any circumstances, even when they inflict violence on us first. All violence and abuse between God’s people is against God’s will. Deeds of violence create a cycle of inflicted pain and revenge that destroys the fabric of life God has created and prevents the Kingdom of God from coming forth.

God’s people are called on to put an end to the cycle of violence and this can only happen when the violence stops with us. Though we may be victims of violence, Jesus says, we do not continue it. This, of course, is not easy to do, but Jesus here, calls on us to find in him the wisdom and strength to do it. That is because bringing an end to the violence that afflicts his creation is the will of God… and it is the work of his people.

This is a deep and important truth of the Kingdom of God.
But it is not one easily understood. Jesus words’ in today’s Gospel lesson are not for people just becoming familiar with the Word of God… like my neighbor girl sitting at the piano learning about music for the first time.

It is for people who know God well, like Joy who has spent her whole life immersed in the world of music and therefore is ready for deeper work.

Jesus words about retaliation are for people who already know that God calls them to a life of mercy and compassion. It is for people who already know that God desires that his people be preserved, protected and strengthened… not repeatedly abused. These challenging words of Jesus are spoken for people who are ready for further growth and tougher work in the Kingdom of God.

As children of God, we stand in many different situations. We can be very different from each other; but we are all called by God to grow in mercy and wisdom. We are all called to open our hearts and minds to the work of God’s spirit.

The final verse of today’s gospel lesson reads: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word for perfect can be a little misleading for us in the English language. A better translation of the Greek word would include the meanings “complete,” “whole,” “fully mature.”

“Become whole… become fully mature…” is what Jesus is asking us to do in this lesson. As we study God’s word, we need to let it speak to us in all its many voices so that we can grow always richer in love and wisdom that we may better serve God and the neighbor he has given us.

Amen.

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