St. Paul's Episcopal Church-Bakersfield
February 19, 2017
Lectionary: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Today, our Scripture is bountiful in wisdom so let us dive in with a story.
There once was an addict who could not break their chains. One morning after a bender, they laid in filth on the street with their sins apparent to all. Their mangled body and soul laid bare for all to see. A Christian adult and child walk by and the adult claims "see this is what happens when you sin and don't follow Christ". The adult and child cross the street to distance themselves from the addict on the street. The addict is seen as a lesser being and a liability for their righteousness. Later another believer comes along but manages to recognize them self in our fallen addict and more importantly, recognizes Christ, and claims "hey there, Jesus still loves you and life does not have to be this hard. Let me help you turn yourself around".
Our story has three characters. An obvious sinner, a sinner in denial, and a recovered sinner who is devoted to life in helping others walk the line to redemption. With lament and thanksgiving, I confess to have enacted a version of each of these roles at different points in my life. If these characters are perceived in the basic definitions in the evolutions of a struggling sinner; perhaps you may identify with one, or two, or three. A beautiful aspect of this life is that we have the opportunity to evolve and transform our realities for the better. Although I strive to live a life as the recovered sinner with a purpose of helping the other sinners; I still stumble sometimes and rely on Christ to keep me on this path of righteousness and use my experiences with sin for the glory of God. It is this path of righteousness that is a fine line to walk and this path requires humility.
Former priest and author of the Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning, wrote "Biblically, there is nothing more detestable than a self-righteous disciple. He is so swollen with conceit that his mere presence is unbearable. However, a nagging question arises. Have I so insulated myself in a fortified city of rationalizations that I cannot see that I may not be as different from the self-righteous as I would like to think?" Oy Vey… What rationalizations of righteousness are in your life? We are all ragamuffins and sinners need to leave the judgement up to God and through a reliance on God's Grace that we lay our foundation in Christ as Paul describes in his letter to the Corinthians. "According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ."
This foundation, where we lay bare of the rationalizations built in our lives and the facades conveyed to the world allows us to present ourselves to God in an honest and pure space. Graciously, Christ meets us in this bare space and loves us while using our journeys to help build our unique foundation in Christ to be a Holy temple filled with God's love and salvation through life in Christ. This foundation in Christ and allows us to be vessels of God's love or temples for the Divine to work through us to bring others closer to God.
We lay our foundation in Christ through the wisdom shared of how to live in our biblical texts. Today's Leviticus readings teach the basics of what we shall and shall not do in life. These are rules for righteousness that are intended to enhance better living rather than restrict. We shall not lie, shall not steal, shall not murder, shall not be greedy in our wealth and privilege, shall feed the poor, we shall be fair in judgement, shall not swear falsely by God's name, and we shall not make life more difficult than it already is for the disabled. We shall not gossip and slander, shall not seek vengeance or bear a grudge, and shall love our neighbors, ragamuffins included. Our Psalms reading teaches us a prayer for how to seek and live as we are called in this righteousness with pure desire. Paul's letter to the Corinthians calls for a foundation in Christ because we need to constantly seek Christ through every fiber of our being so that our faith may influence you daily thoughts and actions. It is a relentless pursuit of formation to help us remain centered in who we are as followers and ministers for Christ.
Our Gospel reading for today calls for perfection; perfection is a beautiful and completely unrealistic goal that even Christ fell short of at times (for instance his experience with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark.) Christ fell short because this human experience is difficult, exhausting, heart breaking, and full of injustices and inequity. However, the Greek word for “perfect” (teleios) in our Gospel reading can also be translated for the word "whole" or “complete” rather than "perfection." Wholeness in Christ is completely possible and guaranteed when one lays their foundation in Christ. Wholeness in Christ allows us to persevere through the difficult experiences of life and seek God in joy, beauty, chaos, and sorrow.
Christ's teachings call for a revolution through today's Gospel. Catholic theologian Barbara Reid teaches that “the "eye for an eye" scripture is based on the principle of equal reciprocity with the intention to place limits on retribution and restrict escalating cycles of vengeance. A response to an act of violence could not exceed the original offense. Jesus provides four examples of non-retaliation as strategy for breaking cycles of violence in confrontations between people of unequal power. These strategies are to stop violence and create an opportunity for generosity. Christ's expectation is that this new generosity will be reciprocated and that this strategy of nonviolence will restore justice.
Jesus' teachings of nonviolence should not be confused with meek choices and behavior. It is strategy for gaining power in a situation. In the social context of our Gospel in Matthew, when one turned their cheek as they were assaulted and provided an opportunity for excessive justice to be given, especially with the unclean hand, the power was transferred and shame was given to the instigator who intended to inflict abuse and shame. When we over pay our debts, especially when it leaves us with absolutely nothing left (even leaving us naked!), Christ teaches of the need to expose the greed and injustice of the economic system and prove that sometimes, debts need to be forgiven and accommodations need to be made. In Jesus' parable of forced and excessive labor, a transfer of power occurs when we continue to work harder than commanded and cause the injustice to be evident for all. Our fourth example of giving to the poor every time when asked calls us to be mindful of those who are impoverished or in debt and create power and opportunity for them by not asking for anything in return.
Christ's teaching in today's Gospel increases the challenges of our human experience, requires us to strive to rise above the difficulties and to continuously strive to be "better". Jesus calls for us to continue to make the righteous choices through the easy and difficult times. Jesus calls us to forgive those who harm us and cause us sorrow. Jesus calls us to identify inequity, stop cycles of violence, to use our privilege to restore justice and create opportunity and abundance for the "least of these".
In the Ragamuffin Gospel, Manning wrote "To evangelize to a person is to say to him or her "You, too, are loved by God in the Lord Jesus."” Our job isn't finished with a conversation of sharing the love of Christ; we have to follow it up with action. As Disciples, we are called to evangelize to others about the Grace and salvation offered through Christ. Our behaviors and words are the most effective Evangelism tools. It does not matter how many Bibles we own, church services and events we attend, or scriptures we have memorized if our words and actions do not reflect Christ's teachings. Life in Christ is a continuous journey of bettering ourselves as our human circumstance does not allow perfection as our modern understanding, but wholeness. When we embed ourselves in the Body of Christ, lives and communities are improved.
Please consider "what more can be done?" Who else is missing out on the salvation of Christ? Do your relationships with others lead them to understand how loved and treasured they are by God and Jesus or is it serving as a boundary to wholeness?
 Manning, Brennan. The Ragamuffin Gospel. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 1990,2000,2005.
 REID, BARBARA E. "Violent Endings in Matthew's Parables and Christian Nonviolence." The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66, no. 2 (2004): 237-55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43725204.