Sermon 19 February 2017

St Columba’s Church of Scotland

Sermon 19th February 2017

Revd Andrea Price

Listen Here: https://youtu.be/jvvwPaI-H7g

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you our Lord and redeemer. Amen

 

Our readings today ask us to think again about God’s Torah, not His law as we saw last week, but God’s instructions.

And again one could run away terrified!

Moses says in Leviticus: You shall be holy! (Lev 19,2b)

Jesus finishes our passage in the Sermon on the Mount: Be perfect! (Mt 5,48a)

And anyone with half an ounce of self-awareness and humility must admit: we are far from holy, far from perfect.

 

Tom Wright tells the story of a father of three young children about to go away for a few days on a business trip. Anxious that his wife would miss his support he speaks earnestly to his eldest son, a 9 year old boy. “When I am away”, he said, “I want you to think what I normally do around the house and you do it for me.” He had in mind that the boy would clear up in the kitchen, do the dishes, take the rubbish out and suchlike.

When the father returns he asked his wife what their eldest son had done in his absence. “Well, it was very strange,” she said. “After breakfast he made himself another cup of coffee, went into the sitting room, put on loud music and read the newspaper for half an hour.”

 

Children learn from their parents about life, values, manners and how to behave. Happy and blessed is the person who has had loving examples to follow in their parents.

What an added struggle in life for all who have to overcome words and actions, which damaged them and their family life, when they were children. How hard it must be for all, who had few or no positive role models to follow.

Adults will quite unconsciously still follow childhood role models, good or bad. But adults and even children can decide to go against bad patterns and role models.

 

Jesus’ call “Follow me” is the invitation to all of us to find and imitate the best role model for living. Jesus invites us to use His life, his teaching and example as our role model for living. There is no better example to follow.

In all the instructions Jesus gives to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount there is none that he did not live perfectly himself.

Take for example the instructions of today’s passage: Jesus did not wish to take revenge even in extremis but instead turned the other cheek. He gave his cloak and undergarment without complaint and carried his cross from the courthouse to Golgotha outside the city of Jerusalem.

Jesus knew that violence breads violence and in contrast lived radical non-violence in the way he acted all his life. He behaved radically different because he lived the Rules of a new Era, was living by the rules of the Kingdom of God.

 

This does not mean that he became a doormat. On the contrary Jesus lived and advocates non-violent resistance. In turning the other cheek, after being hit the first time, Jesus encourages that we get up, show backbone and have the courage of our convictions to turn the other cheek, rather than cower away to avoid a second blow.

In asking to give up not only the coat but also the cloak or undergarment the average person in Jesus’ time would have stood naked in front of the court. This would have been an embarrassment yes, but at the same time shameful for the whole company, who purport to execute justice!

In insisting to go a second mile with a Roman soldier the soldier would have become liable to punishment himself, as there were strict rules that a soldier was only to pressgang someone to carry their pack for one mile or they would be punished. Imagine the embarrassed soldier trying to get rid of the “helpful” person refusing to return his pack. He would not have asked someone to carry his pack a second time.

And Jesus loved his enemies, prayed for forgiveness for those who nailed him to the cross.

Jesus was holy and Jesus was perfect. How? Because of God:

Moses said: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Jesus said: Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

God’s Spirit is working fully in and through Jesus’ every word and actions.

 

But how can this happen for us? Will we, who are bound to fail, not all be liable to judgment and condemnation for failing these commands?

There are moments where we do the Christian thing in word or deed. There are also people who have dared to push back on the meanness of the world’s easy, selfish ways and we remember them for their saintly ways: Mother Theresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Pastor von Bodelschwingh to name a few examples.

 

Pastor Bodelschwingh was the director of Bethel near Bielefeld, a large institution caring for people with Epilepsy and other mental illnesses in the 1940s.

The order had gone out from the Nazi government that incurables and the insane were no longer to be a burden on the Reich. Three officials descended on Bethel and demanded to see Pastor Bodelschwingh.

“Herr Pastor,” they said, “The Fuehrer has decided that all these people must be gassed”. Von Bodelschwingh looked at them calmly.

“You can put me into a concentration camp, if you want. That is your affair. But as long as I am free you do not touch one of my patients. I cannot change to fit the times or the wishes of the Fuehrer. I stand under orders from our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Q&A page 129)

Pastor Von Bodelschwingh was an example of an obedient servant of our Lord in straightened times.

 

But could we live like this, be holy and perfect? Are we not more likely to be under judgment and have much to fear?

 

If we were following a God, who had given us a law codex to follow this might be the case.

But God asks us not to be his robots programmed by him but to BE like him, become like Jesus as we follow in his way.

Yes, We have been given an enormous amount of freedom for good or ill. We have a great responsibility to use this freedom for good, are asked to use it – but use it right.

We are called to strive in God’s Spirit and live by the example and teaching of God’s instructions, those which came to us through Moses and most of all those who came through Jesus.

 

We heard today from Moses another collection of commandments (Leviticus 19,1-2.9-18). Some of the sentences remind us of the 10 commandments but others draw out different aspects of God’ s will.

All of these instructions describe our relationship with God and most of all with our neighbour. God teaches that no person can be entirely happy if the other person is unhappy. God instructs us how to build just social relationships. The poor and vulnerable are to be looked after. Justice is to be handed out impartially to everyone.

This is the place from where Jesus quotes “Love your Neighbour as yourself”, the second half of his answer to the lawyer’s question as to which is the most important commandment.

 

Jesus in fulfilling the Torah himself encourages us to trust in God and his Spirit completely, not to turn us into legalistic rule book keepers, but instead to inspire us to use God’s gift of reason and his gift of imagination to question and think, form and reform life through the love of God by loving our neighbour as ourselves.

Be holy as God is holy is an instruction for us not to set us up for failure, but to lift our sights. We are to aim high rather than dumb down.

Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, is trying to challenge and encourage us to seek to live God’s character, live in and out of His Spirit.

 

Someone told me of a walk they took late last week around this area. An expensive car drove slowly by. As it passed him the window went down and the man on the back seat threw a handful of rubbish out onto the street.

If a person treats his neighbours’ streets in this careless way, what else will he or she rubbish?

A friend of ours in contrast always left the house for his walk with a plastic bag in his pocket and a grab stick in his hand. And on the way along the river and in the parks he would gaily pick up litter blown there or tossed away thoughtlessly by others.

 

Jesus reminds us many times of our creative thinking. He gives us examples about non-violent resistance from his time and place, not to apply them blindly hundreds of years later, but to think with them and be inspired by them to find the way forward for the problems and riddles of our time.

 

The Torah, the instructions of God and the Sermon on the Mount give us the general direction for God’s will: in the Spirit of God we are seeking to live authentic relationships, we seek to be conciliar, practice equality and justice between genders and nations; we are charged to tell the truth, to be generous and care even for the well-being of our foes.

So do not fear failure. God will forgive when we truly seek his presence and ways.

Instead dare to live fully out of the closeness to God you are invited into.

Will we fail again? Of course. No one is perfect apart from our Lord. Let not fear of failure but love of God rule and guide you and we will be moving onwards towards holiness and perfection. It is a lifelong process and God, like a good master carpet weaver will incorporate and perfect our imperfections, if we let him.

 

Joy Cowley wrote this modern day psalm:

A hymn to imperfection

 

Hey! Let’s celebrate weakness!

Yes! You know!

Weakness as in failure!

Let’s celebrate the slips and slops,

The drops and falls and oh-ohs

That teach us wisdom

And compassion

And patience

And humour

And understanding

Of what it means to be

Not a human being

But a human becoming.

Let us celebrate

All those opportunities for growth

That were ours yesterday and today.

Let’s celebrate for ourselves.

Let’s celebrate for each other.

And while we are at it,

Let us give thanks

For the mistakes

We will make tomorrow.

If we find them painful

Or a bit embarrassing

We can remember that perfection

Means having no room

For improvement,

No need for anyone else,

And who wants that?

Let us be grateful,

That God is still shaping us.

 

Amen