My friends, Jesus’ message throughout his lifetime was that the “heart” is more important than the law! To follow him means that we are called to be a step outside the culture in which we live. “Everyone is doing it,” or, “We have always done it that way,” is not good enough for the followers of Jesus, the Christ. We are always asked to give more than this world asks of us. The world seems to be saying, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy—but Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” We should always take our lead from him, as his followers, not from the world.
Being a follower of Jesus calls us to servanthood—being there for the other. And even in as much as I believe this; I want to extend the caution to those of you out there whom I know to be real “helper types.” We must always remember to keep ourselves in the equation of those we extend our care to.
A lovely story is told, Mama’s Red Dress—one I have shared before, but it bears repeating in this regard. A daughter comes to visit her mother on her death bed and during the course of the visit, discovers a beautiful red dress hanging in her mom’s closet along with a line of drab dresses that she lived her life out in. Asking her mother about the red dress, that she had never seen her mother wear; her mom called her to her bedside, “to set a few things straight before her life was over.”
She told her daughter that she had always believed that a woman was supposed to give to everyone else first and to herself, last. She lived this out in her own life and taught her children to do the same. For her personally, she always got everything her kids needed or wanted first, and if there was anything left, which there never was, she would get something for herself. She always ate the burnt toast and took the smallest piece of pie.
Having taught her sons and daughters to do the same, she was now upset to see the way her sons treated their wives and felt she had done them a disservice. Even her husband, she had taught well—with her now dying, he didn’t know what he was going to do without her—he didn’t even know where the frying pan was!
The red dress had been a whim of hers—about a year ago when she found some extra money that she had intended to pay off extra on the washer and decided to treat herself instead. When she brought it home, her husband berated her with, “Where do you think you will ever wear that?” In fact, the only time she had ever worn it was when she tried it on in the store. So, she made her daughter promise to do her the honor of not following in her footsteps. Her daughter promised and with that her mom died. Servanthood is all about considering the other, including ourselves.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians spells out even more clearly why we should consider not only others, but ourselves. He gives the reminder that we are “temples of God.” He had his work cut out for him, as it was his task “to open up” the message of Jesus—all are temples of God, including the Gentiles. Today, the “Gentiles” in our midst have many names—immigrants, refugees, the LGBT community, women, the poor and so on.
Paul continues talking about “the wisdom of this world” and names it “foolishness” in the light of God’s wisdom. We have heard, the ways of this world are not God’s ways. To consider anyone not “worthy” is to be about the letter of the law, not the heart of the law.
All the readings for today’s liturgy speak to us simple messages and the theme is the same. Be holy as God is holy. The writer of Leviticus reminds us that our likeness to God is determined by the way we relate to others. And we are told in no uncertain terms just how to do that: Do not bear hatred, do not exact vengeance, and do not bear a grudge, but love all as yourself. The part that is to be understood here but isn’t usually put into words is that first we must love ourselves, because if we don’t, then we can hardly love others.
The Summons, our recessional hymn today speaks well to this issue of loving ourselves first before we can really love others. “Will you love the ‘you’ you hide if I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? Will you use the faith you’ve found, to reshape the world around, through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?” The Leviticus reading ends by saying, “I am your God” which simply means, this is the way God wants it to be!
The beautiful psalm, 103 speaks to us of a God who is tender and compassionate. Our God’s mercy toward us is limitless—as far as the east is from the west—limitless!
Jesus’ message is clear—we can’t miss it—we must love as our God loves and that means those that we don’t get along with—those who don’t like us. When we only love those who love us, we are responding in the fashion of “an eye for an eye,” of a few weeks ago. It is important when we reflect on Jesus’ words about “turning the other cheek” to be clear that he is not asking any of us to stay in abusive situations—his point is that we shouldn’t return violence with violence.
Jesus’ final admonition to us today is that we be perfect as God is perfect. In this context we are told, “Perfect” means complete, undivided, grown to full statue—the essence of righteousness and splendor. Simply put, God in Jesus knows what we are capable of and will always call us to be that best self, for ourselves and for our world. That is the only way we will ever know peace on a personal, national or international level, we cannot exact vengeance for vengeance. May God bless us as we strive to be perfect.