Thursday, February 20, 2014
Standing Your Ground, February 23, Proper 2, #2 in A Series on Sin
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
Listen to this compact summary of this gospel lesson: You disciples must love your neighbors just as you love yourselves, and no less must you love your enemies. When you do this you are imitating God, who loves his enemies no less than his friends, who blesses the righteous and the unrighteous without distinction. You imitate God because you are children of God, and children imitate their parents. Your imitating God is what distinguishes you among the peoples, who all love their friends but not their enemies. In your distinction lies your specialness, your holiness, your godliness, your god-like-ness. Your imitating God is not merely your obligation; it is your goal: "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (from Greg Carey).
There’s a challenge: to be perfect. Sure, God may be perfect, but how can we be perfect too? The challenge of the Lord Jesus echoes the prior challenge of Moses in Leviticus: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." Is that what perfection is, is it the same as holiness? How do you get this holiness?
In other religions holiness is a state of being, of being set apart, it comes with a special status or a special closeness to divinity, like when we say, "His Holiness, the Dalai Lama," or "His Holiness the Pope." But in this religion of Leviticus it is intended for everyone, and it’s not a state of being but a habit of action. It’s not for being set apart, but how you engage the world, the real world, including agriculture and commerce. I should be able to address every one of you as "Your Holiness," or how ’bout, "Your perfectness."
What Jesus means by perfection is not flawlessness, but a thoroughgoing integrity and unity of action and intention. Elsewhere the Bible calls this doing something with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength. This thoroughgoing integrity and unity of action and intention is true of God and natural to God. Your goal is to get there too. You do what is right because you want what is right. You have developed your moral character to such an extent that the reason you do not sin is because you don’t want to sin, and not because you are afraid of the penalty. You just don’t want what it offers. You do what you do out of love and not out of fear. You certainly must calculate the consequences of what you do, because innocence is not the same as naiveté, but your calculations do not drive you: you do what you do even when it looks like you will lose.
This is what Jesus just two weeks ago called "the righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees." Which righteousness you want, which is so reasonable and desirable and yet so unattainable, so that every week you come back here and confess that you "have sinned, that you have not loved God with your whole heart nor have you loved your neighbors as yourselves," that you have not attained that thoroughgoing integrity and unity of action and intention, and you are "truly sorry" and you "humbly repent."
You’d like to attain it, you’d like to imitate your Father in heaven and act how God acts, but you settle for an ethic of what human nature can accept and attain on human terms only. So that while we say that terrible sinners are guilty of crimes against humanity, we also say of ordinary sinners, "Well, he’s only human." We settle for a tolerable level of sin. Jesus says, "No, don’t settle." You don’t have to settle. Sin is neither essential nor inevitable. Sin is not a necessary way of life.
I will tell you a story I’ve told you before. I knew a farmer in Michigan who farmed black dirt, what they call muck, you get it when you drain a swamp. All along the ditches were rows of trees. In order to increase the efficiency of his machines, and get a few more rows of carrots in, he cut down all those trees. The resulting absence of birds increased the number of bugs, and he had to increase his use of pesticides, which then burned and desiccated the soil, which then was blown away by the winds, which were no longer hindered by trees, and he lost another foot of soil every few years.
So I’m saying that the laws for the poor in Leviticus are rooted in the laws of creation. You treat the poor and the alien a certain way because of how God made the world. God created the biological world with superabundant inefficiency and generosity. The fruits by which one species propagates itself provide the food for other species too. Pine cones and red squirrels, pollen and bees, springboks and leopards, and the examples are infinite.
So to imitate God in farming is to "not reap to the edges of your field nor gather the gleanings of your harvest nor gather the fallen grapes" but with generous inefficiency to leave them for the poor and the alien, "I am the Lord your God." To love the Lord your God who is the creator and sustainer of the earth is to love the poor and the alien in structural terms. I’m saying that structural generosity to the poor and the alien is not charity but integrity.
On the other hand, not to honor the creator and sustainer of the earth, but to live within nature as if you could do with it as you please, is sin. To regard your property and wealth as yours to do with as you please, without regard for how God wants you to use it in the interest of your neighbor, is sin. It may be legal, but a standard of only legality is to settle for human-level goodness.
Of course this is costly. You lessen your profits, because your profit is in the extra beyond your expense, in the abundance beyond necessity, in what might be gleaned. Discipleship is costly. Take Jesus’ examples here: When a Roman soldier orders you to carry his pack a Roman mile, you have no choice but to obey. He can’t demand from you the second mile, but if you offer it, though it cost you, you are now free, you are empowered, you are not the victim. You are now hosting a Roman soldier in your land instead of being occupied. For disciples, such hospitality is worth the cost.
It costs you mightily to stand your ground and turn the other cheek. When you get struck it’s cheaper to give in and back away. To stand your ground and offer up the other cheek but not strike back is a daring thing. Because now he might strike you worse and knock you down. The stand-your-ground law which Jesus offers is non-violent, with no weapons, because you must love your enemy as you love yourself. Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis would still be alive. To stand your ground with a gun in your hand may be legal, but you’d have to say that it is sin.
Don’t give in to evil. Stand up to it. Violence is neither natural nor inevitable. Challenge it with all your life. Not foolishly, not heroically, but in community, with strategy, protecting the weak and defending the abused and relieving the oppressed, not letting them be sacrificed again.
It’s a very tall order and I am scared of it. What about the larger evils of the world, what about Syria, what about Ukraine. The Ukraine has been heavy on my mind this week, as I know it has been for some others of you here. Do we just sit back? Would our intervention serve our economic interests or the sanctity of human life, and would we pay the terrible cost of the latter, by sacrificing our lives for the lives of others? Are the foreign policies of nations exempted from what Jesus says here? How can we say they are?
Over the centuries Christian thinkers have wrestled with this and given us much painful wisdom. Is there such thing as a just war, a right war? No, not absolutely, not after what Jesus says. War is always sin, but it may be the lesser sin. When we go to war we dare not celebrate our might, nor can we confidently calculate the consequences. We can only say that we go to war with penitence and repentance and heavy hearts, and God forgive us.
But what about you? In your own life where you have power and discretion? How do you deal with your personal enemies, and how do you handle your own prosperity? You want to be realistic, but not sin. You want to be perfect, but not a Pollyanna. You’d like to imitate God, if that’s feasible. You’d like to be holy, if that’s available. You’d like to love as far as Jesus has challenged us.
You do have to start with yourself. You perfection in love is to love your own inner enemy. You recognize yourself in your persecutor. Your enemy is a mirror for yourself. As you love them you love yourself and you forgive yourself. Your holiness is not from having no sin but from recognizing your sin and processing it, just as God has done with you. You confront your sin within you, you stand your ground against your sinful self. You love the sinner inside yourself, neither naively nor heroically but humbly and because God does. This is the unity and integrity of action and intention which is love, and you love yourself in imitation of God’s love for you.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.