The following sermon was preached by The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Pero, Director, The Rev. Dr. Albert "Pete" Pero, Jr., Multicultural Center, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, February 24, 2014.
Grace to you and peace from God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Let us pray….
Be holy, because the God is holy. Be perfect because God is perfect.
The Leviticus text is taken from the Holiness Code and might be understood as a summary of the 10 Commandments in Exodus. It reminds us that God expects that the behavior and values of the Israelites will be different from those nations around them, not only in terms of how they were treat one another (with justice, compassion, and fair-mindedness, in live-affirming ways; other parts of the Holiness Code instructed the Israelites how strangers, foreign slaves, and foreigners were to be treated), but also in terms of why they were to treat one another in those ways: in order to hold up the Israelite community so that they might become a model for other communities and cultures.
Be holy because I am holy, says God. Being holy means that the people of God were set apart from others by God’s choice. Note that five of the six sections in this part of the code ends with “I am the Lord.” Perhaps this was an implicit reminder of the great “I am” in whose image humanity was created. But this is not what the sermon today is about.
Jesus’ message in today’s gospel is not very different from the Holiness Code: be perfect because God is perfect. Jesus’ historical situation and social location are just a little different from that of the Israelites temporally and politically. As you recall, Matthew’s purpose in writing this Gospel narrative was to demonstrate unequivocally to first century Jewish Christians that Jesus was indeed the One whose life and ministry fulfilled the OT prophesies: he was the promised one, the saviour of the Israelite people, Messiah.
In our sermon text, Matthew presents a number of distinct scenarios that call Jesus’ followers to make an unpopular, counter-cultural choice when treated unfairly: not to expect retribution by demanding and receiving “an eye for an eye.” The first century honor/shame culture was severely challenged by Jesus’ commands. A few words about honor/shame are apropos. Honor was a combination of one’s public reputation/status, often symbolized in one’s name or family of origin or village/hometown, plus the public recognition of it by the village community. Honor was the means by which social value or social worth was determined. Without the public recognition, one’s honor claims were viewed as foolish, shameful, or even greedy. Honor was either ascribed at birth by one’s family of origin or acquired (bestowed, won, or granted by a patron). Honor/shame was the social sanction system by which dress, mannerisms, gestures, vocation posture, social interactions, and the hierarchical pecking order was determined.
In this social matrix of honor/shame, the ancients also understood that everything in the cosmos existed in limited amounts: food, water, livestock, money, political clout, female sexuality, even honor and shame. If someone’s honor increased, that meant that someone else’s honor decreased and their shame increased. The community recognized any increase (or decrease) in honor in the public square and in the city gates. When one’s honor (or one’s family or community honor) was challenged then, it was a public mztter and one had to defend/reclaim honor publicly, or become shamed and shunned. In a collectivistic (dyadic) society, what affects one affects all. One had to maintain one’s honor at all costs in order to preserve the integrity and wholeness of the family and the community or it would be permanently lost. In this manner, the society was balanced -- everyone had a place, a role, and what they needed to exist. The community was not disrupted or broken. Going rogue disrupts and breaks up the community.
Not to respond to a backhand on the right cheek was to lose honor and to gain shame publicly; yet Jesus said to turn the left cheek also and welcome being struck. If someone threatens to take you to court and sue you for your thermal t-shirt, Jesus says to give them your down coat as well. If the authorities force you to carry a heavy backpack for a mile (as often was the case with Roman soldiers and the Jewish peasants), then offer to take it another mile. Give freely to beggars and borrowers, too, with no thought of how you might be being used or of repayment! Furthermore, God wants us to attach ourselves (friend) to (=love) those who have detached (unfriended) themselves from (=hate) us! Pray for those who call us derogatory names, those who devalue us and spurn us! God expects entirely too much!
The impact of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, especially the very powerful verses that follow the Beatitudes (13-48), present some of the most radical and ethical characteristics of Christian teaching. Jesus’ exhortations challenged the manner in which early Christian converts implemented the commands of God, even as Jesus labored to usher in the reign of God, expressed in the image of building the kin-dom of God. The explicit commands in Matthew 5 caused even Mahatma Gandhi to alter his understanding both of the Christian’s Jesus and of the expectations Jesus had of his followers.
Martin Luther King, Jr., used Jesus’ methodology in non-violent resistance to the plethora of lynching and intimidation that many people of color experienced during the civil rights era in this country. Designed to shame the victims of racism, it instead shamed the perpetrators. Many other sisters and brothers have been faced with God’s outlandish expectations. Especially we recall recently deceased freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, a major leader in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Can you imagine how the most powerful man in the “free” world, President Barack Hussein Obama, feels when he is described as a “sub-human mongrel?” But how else do we become holy and perfect except by participating in those activities and practices that build community and elevate the God-given dignity of the other? God’s sun shines on all of us; snow and rain fall on all of us.
Our human inclination is to stay inside our insider community and seek revenge on those who have dishonored/shamed us. But God calls us to choose a much more difficult way, to choose the way that allows God’s glory to shine forth, to build a new kin-dom with Jesus. Jesus’ words continue to challenge us even today and the choices are still not easy. Today we are invited to reflect on what Jesus says about brokenness and retribution versus restoration and reconciliation, about fairness versus justice or righteousness.
In yesterday’s second lesson (which we did not read) Paul says: Remember that you, individually and as a community, are a temple, God’s dwelling place on earth! You belong to God and, because the Holy Spirit dwells in you, you are holy! Being holy and perfect means that in God’s new community, then and now, we accept everyone without discrimination, we work really hard to change enemies into friends. Jesus worked to extend the boundaries of kin-ship from just our particular, indigenous family or neighbours or community or nation to include all of God’s children who strive for peace and justice for all. Dare we do less by refusing this commission?