Wednesday, February 16, 2011

February 20, Proper 2, Gleaning, Love, and Deacons

Note: This sermon speaks of two men, who because of my wife, became very important in my life. They were flawed, but yet better men than me. I loved them and they loved me, for which I will be always grateful.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48

My father-in-law Phillip Takken died five years and five days ago in Hudsonville, Michigan. I loved him and he loved me, though he blamed me for his daughter liking to live in Brooklyn. His life’s work was a baby clothes factory in Grand Rapids. He wasn’t the owner, but he was the vice president in charge of production, and over thirty years he brought that factory from twenty operators to four hundred. He didn’t like labor unions, so he gave his employees better conditions and benefits than a union could bargain for. He gave jobs to Viet Nam refugees, and they worked hard for him. He got licenses from the Smurfs and Disney and the NFL and they churned out the sleepers and pajamas by the truckload. One day the owners informed him that they had sold the factory to a conglomerate. A few weeks later he was told the factory was being closed down. They had been bought to get their licenses and then be taken out of production. My father-in-law had to lay off every one of the four hundred workers he had hired over the years and close down the production he had given his life to. The owners walked away with buckets of money. My father-in-law prized loyalty, and he said, “Well, it’s all about the bottom line.”

But in the kingdom of heaven that’s not the bottom line. It’s a top line, it’s a superficial line, it’s a line in the breeze, it’s the conventional wisdom. It’s not the wisdom of God nor the law of God. The real bottom line is the love of neighbor as yourself. I don’t mean love as feeling or affection but actions and practices, even when they cost you or reduce your profits.

Jesus is not talking about charity or generosity. Those things are great, but they are voluntary. He’s talking about something obligatory. It’s obligatory not as a burden but as an attitude in tune with the very deep structures of creation as God designed it. The other mammals have the bottom lines of their appetites or their rank within the herd or their survival. But to choose against your natural appetites and your self-interest in order to love your neighbor is what makes you a human being as God designed you. That’s not charity, that’s actually in keeping with the hard realities of the world, although we keep fooling ourselves against it with our pretended wisdom of the world.

My father-in-law’s father-in-law, that is, my wife’s maternal grandfather, Gerrit Boldt, was a very successful farmer. He grew carrots on forty acres of muck in Grant, Michigan. Muck is black dirt, very fine and fragile; it’s what remains when you drain a swamp. Grandpa Boldt told us once that he was losing a foot of soil a year to erosion from the wind. He told us the main reason was that they had cut down all the trees along the edges of the fields. They had done this to make it easier to turn around their tractors and get a few more rows of crops. But when they cut down the trees they lost the birds who ate the bugs, and they had to start using lots of insecticide, which burned the soil and made it powdery and dry, and as there were no more trees to break the wind, the soil just blew away.

When Leviticus talks about not reaping to the edges of the field, it’s representing the deeper laws of existence, which we think we can ignore, but only for so long. When Leviticus talks about loving your neighbor as yourself and Jesus adds to even love your enemy, they’re telling us the deep laws of existence that we keep ignoring at our peril. The kingdom of heaven is not come on earth to lift us away from real existence, but to bring us back to reality, to get us back into harmony with the deepest structures of creation, the only source of true and lasting prosperity, the great shalom under the great and arching firmament of the sovereignty of God.

People fear that this kind of life will reduce them or disempower them. But if you work out what Jesus says about turning the other cheek, you see that it’s the opposite of that. He most certainly says to not strike back if someone strikes you first. But notice he does not say to roll over. He does not say submit. He says to offer up the other cheek. “Did you call me Roy?” To offer up the other cheek communicates something like, “I don’t believe you hit me,” which the striker might read as “I dare you to hit me again,” and he might think, “Only this time harder.” It takes the power of great self-discipline to act this way. It takes greater courage to turn the other cheek than to strike back, it takes more courage to be non-violent than violent in your resistance to abuse, and you will be tempted to listen to those voices that tell you its less realistic. But Jesus is following Leviticus to call you to the deeper structures of reality, and the long term vision, that “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice,” because it is the will of God.

You need to learn this, because you will have enemies. Especially if you live by love. Do you get that? People seem to think that Christians should have no enemies. But it’s the following of Jesus that will make you enemies. The world resists the holiness of God. But if Jesus loved his enemies who are we who wear his name to do otherwise? Do you want a miracle? Love your enemies. Do you want to work a miracle? It’s easy. Love your enemies. I believe in miracles.

Of course what he calls you to also depends on your having neighbors like yourself who in turn look out for you, who join in your cause, and join you and support you in your obedience. His ethic is not an ethic for heroic individuals, but an ethic for a community of love. It’s an ethic of holiness, because of the holiness of God, and this is the holiness which God requires of us. God says that a village in the Kingdom of Heaven is holy when we consider the fortunes of our neighbors to be essential to the fortunes of ourselves. And who is your neighbor? Well, since this Kingdom claims the whole territory of the world, that means even our enemies are our neighbors. Even your enemy belongs to God, and is therefore holy to you. It doesn’t matter how you feel about them, but what you owe them. You know that’s true, to the deepest structures of the world.

And so we have deacons in the church. They lead us in our intercessory prayers, not only for our own community, not only for the poor and the needy, but also for our enemies. And after they lead us in the offering of our prayers, they lead us in the offering of our money. They collect our money and they count it, and while they may spend most of our money on our own community, they have to make sure that the gleanings and corners of our money go the poor and the aliens, because “God is the Lord.” How large will they make the edges of our fields? How many grapes will they purposely let fall to the ground? You can support them. You can support the deacons by going the second mile with them, and by not refusing them when they beg you for your money.

Jesus got it from Leviticus, that we love our neighbors as ourselves. Yes, it means we have to love ourselves. There is great self-love implied in the command to stand up to the evils and injustice done against you, there is self-respect required in the expectation of self-discipline and self-control. But to love your neighbor as yourself also requires you to treat your neighbor with the same indulgence that you always give yourself. You know how you understand yourself in the best possible light even when you do wrong? Indulge your neighbor as you do yourself. It doesn’t mean to take your enemy’s violence lying down, but it does mean to understand your enemy as you desire to be understood.

This all means that we don’t believe that evil is built into the universe. It means we believe that evil is temporary, and passing, and should never be invested in or given more credit than it deserves. It means to believe that the victory of God is inevitable. It means we believe that we are called to holiness, not a holiness that we can earn or have to earn, indeed, we are holy even in humble repentance, because our holiness is a gift that absorb by having a holy God among us. And God promises to be among us, because God loves us.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.


Lauri Miller said...

I needed to hear this today. Thank you.

Just finished a three year term as Elder; starting a three year term as Deacon. This message couldn't be more timely.

Andy Bachman said...

Really powerful--beautiful sermon.