Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Washington on February 23rd, 2014
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany Year A
We are on Holy Ground. Right here, this place; this is Holy Ground. Now you may be thinking, “Well of course it is. It’s a church. The bishop came and consecrated it.” But that’s not it. This is Holy Ground because you are gathered here and you are Holy.
You are God’s holy temple.
We heard Paul tell the people of the church in Corinth, “God’s temple is Holy and you are that temple.” But they weren’t holy because they were incredibly mature in their faith or righteous in their actions. We know this because the rest of the letter is about them being such infants that he must feed them spiritual milk instead of solid food. He chastises them for their awful behavior. No they aren’t holy because of what they have done; they are holy because God has made them Holy. The Holy Spirit dwells among them.
Our reading from Leviticus is from the section sometimes called “The Law of Holiness.” The Lord commands Moses to tell the people, “You shall be Holy for I, the Lord your God, am Holy.” Their holiness is derived from God. Moses then goes on to instruct them in how to live; how to behave toward one another because they are holy.
And finally, at the end of today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus tell his disciples, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Now there is much debate about how to interpret this, but scholars seem to agree that it’s not about “getting things right’ like a perfect score on your spelling test, or being morally perfect.
Some say it is more about “wholeness;” others that it is about being the person God created you to be. Still others say it is a call to love fully, richly, abundantly, and completely – as God loves. The New Jerusalem Bible translates it this way, “You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his.” That wholeness, that capacity for love is also given to us through the grace of God.
I suggest that we use the lens of holiness to look at our scripture this morning. Holiness is the starting point. Because you are holy¸ Moses tells the people, this is how you should live; this is how you should treat your neighbor, because your neighbor is also holy.
You are the holy temple of God¸ Paul writes, and he will go on to correct their inappropriate behavior.
Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of Heaven, portraying God’s vision, God’s desire for the world, for the people and all of creation that God so loves and has made holy. And much of what he says is challenging. It is so tempting to explain it away so we won’t have to follow it.
Today’s reading is in that realm and that is why I suggest we look at it through the lens of holiness.
So often, these imperatives are used as weapons by those with some amount of power against those who have less power or who are already hurting or oppressed.
The purpose of the Old Testament formula of an eye for an eye was to place limits on retribution. It was to stop the practice of killing whole clans as retribution for some crime. And yet, even now, that is how most of our society sees “justice:” an eye for an eye. Let the punishment fit the crime. “Justice” is used to get revenge – have the state carry it out in an orderly fashion. This value of retributive justice is pervasive. Yet, Jesus says no, do not resist the evil doer.
Am I suggesting that we tear down our prisons and let criminals go free? No, but I am suggesting that we rethink the purpose of our system of justice and how we achieve that purpose.
And now I’d like to consider the other half of this antithesis because it is also used as a weapon. “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus says. How often have victims of oppression or domestic violence been told to turn the other cheek; to be patient; to put up with it?
Now, let’s look at it through the lens of holiness. You are Holy, your neighbor is Holy, all of creation is Holy and God’s desire is for each of us to grow toward wholeness. Would you seek retribution, causing further harm to your neighbor? Would you tell someone who is holy and is being abused or oppressed to stay and suffer, perpetuating the cycle of violence? Of course not!
Do I mean that we should ignore what Jesus is saying? Of course not. We hear it as a path toward the wholeness God desires for all – but not to the detriment or harm of others. And so we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
Holiness does not resist evil with violence.
Holiness resists evil with love.
Holiness resists darkness with light.
Holiness resists despair with hope and faith.
The Sermon on the Mount is challenging. Even with some 2000 years of Christianity behind us, we still find that discipleship is difficult. We are still learning how to follow Jesus. But the whole point of the Sermon is that the Commonwealth of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, is at hand; it is here. We can begin living it now by the grace of God.
We are on Holy Ground. You, the gathered Body of Christ, you are the Holy Temple of God. When you leave this building, you are still the Holy Temple of God, you are still on Holy Ground.
Go. God has made you Holy.
Be whole and love abundantly as God loves.
Live the Kingdom of Heaven.