St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5:38–48
Epiphany is that season of the liturgical year when we crane our necks and peel our eyes for all the ways that God is showing up around us. We are invited to see the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus, to wonder at the proclamation of God’s glory written on creation, and today, we are asked to consider how God could show up in the way we treat one another.
Now, I know a lot about good behavior. I grew up in North Georgia, just a couple of hours from here, and was raised to have good manners and be a good girl, a nice young lady. In my little Georgia city, when we were about 12 years old or so, those of us from certain families found ourselves stuffed into our Sunday best and shuttled off to the gym of the United Methodist Church for afternoons of what they called “Junior Cotillion.” Do you all have this in Harriman? Did some of you poor souls undergo the same trial as children? It was excruciating! I can think of twenty things I would have rather done on a Saturday afternoon. And while we were beginning to like the idea of liking boys, to our horror, when we got up close, the girls realized that by and large, they didn’t know what they were doing any more than we did. They were all a head shorter than us and had terrible sweaty palms. And while the abilities to do a basic waltz, write a thank you note, and know my dinner utensils have served me well, being a nice girl has not.
Here’s the thing about being a nice girl, about niceness in general. Nice is too often a poor replacement for loving. Nice is too often silent in the face of injustice. Nice is so accommodating that it begins to fear any confrontation. Nice keeps to itself. Nice cannot discern when, for the love of God and neighbor, we can no longer afford to be nice, and our love needs to be fierce and creative and courageous, rippling out from us to impact the world.
Today’s scriptures are about so much more than nice. This gospel passage is God’s invitation to a holiness that is huge, a move toward making ourselves and our world whole. In Leviticus, the law tells us not to hate anyone in our heart, but then situates this inner love is in our culture, society, and economy. This is a love far beyond nice. God’s love and justice are about setting our relationships and community right, and God is calling us now to gather courage and participate in this work. The Old Testament reading offers us first a vision of proactive love, courage, and generosity. The Gospel reading gives us a way to think about responsive love and courage in the face of oppression or hurt.
Stay with me this morning. This is hard and demanding and runs counter to most of the values of United States culture in our time. But it is also more creative and fun and satisfying and joyful than any other vision of ethics I’ve seen.
So first we have this call to proactively care for the vulnerable.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.”
Do you remember Ruth? Hers is the story behind this commandment. She was a widow and a foreigner in need, who went out gleaning in the fields, taking the bits of grain and produce left behind from the harvesters. Her story is a story of hope because Boaz, her late husband’s relative, kept this law of Israel and recognized that what was seconds to him could be more than enough for someone in need.
Leviticus is reminding us that there something more important than maximizing the profit margin. God’s telling us that our fields and our harvest are not really ours. We don’t possess any of this. Let the anxiety of owning nothing wash over you. Feel the precariousness of all we think we have sit for just a moment, and then notice if there is an inkling of relief along with the nervousness. We are called to build in a margin, a gap between what we need and what we could take.
This generosity takes foresight and thoughtfulness. It sees that the laborer, the one living check to check, needs their wage sooner than later. This generosity takes the disabled person into consideration, seeking to make the community accessible.
And so we see that love, the creative, courageous love that God is inviting us to practice, moves from the state of our hearts outward and back again. We tend to our inner circle of a loving heart, then move from there to just work in the world. Then we come back to home base, think about what we have seen, what we have been doing. We meditate, consider, cultivate deeper thoughtfulness and compassion.
The laws go on to say, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” and this brings us to the Gospel reading.
We know from Jesus’ teachings on the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is rarely someone easy for us to love as ourself. Neighbor ends up being all kinds of people we’d rather not deal with. And here, Jesus is talking about how to respond to acts of aggression and violence in the context of Roman occupation. The way that we face unjust leaders and laws, the way that we respond in the face of vitriol is the response to a neighbor. More than ever, separated by partisan politics and the cloak of facebook comments, we need the reminder that we are connected, that our responses to one another aren’t just a bomb we get to set and walk away from, that the conclusive mic drop doesn’t exist.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
These instructions deserve a look at their cultural and historical context. First, turning the other cheek. Most people are right handed. A blow to your right cheek from a right handed assailant isn’t a punch in the face. This is a backhand slap of humiliation. If I’m hit like this, to turn the other cheek doesn’t mean that I’m being a doormat—saying, “Ok, hit me twice.” It means I’ve turned to look them in the eye. If they hit you again on the other cheek it will be after seeing your face, your humanity, and to hit you on the left side, your assailant would have to hit you as an equal.
If someone is suing you for your coat, that means that they are pressing you in court for resources you don’t have. You don’t sue someone for clothing, you sue them for money, for payment to right the wrong. Jesus is condemning the exploitation of taking someone to court when all they have is the clothes on their back. To give not only the coat but the cloak is to strip yourself naked, right there in the court. You are saying, “See me! See that I’m a human like you! See what your injustice is doing, stripping me of everything!”
Under the rule of the Roman Empire, a soldier could force a subject to carry his gear for one mile. It didn’t matter what you were doing, going about your day. If a soldier wanted your help, he could command it, no questions ask. You can imagine that this experience would range from an aggravating inconvenience to a humiliation that drains the last of your time and strength when you’re just trying to hold things together. But imagine, won’t you, the soldier who’s conscripted you to walk his gear. He stops and says, “Ok, that’s your mile.” But you don’t stop. You grimace under the weight of the work and keep trudging along. “Wait a second! Stop! That’s your mile!” Now he’s jogging to keep up with you. Maybe other travelers on the way have stopped to watch, surprised and laughing. By continuing on, you are confronting the soldier and the unjust practices. You have forced him think twice about his behavior and the harmful system without moving toward violence or detraction in your confrontation.
I recently heard a story about Martin Luther King Jr., when he was marching in peaceful protest alongside the community in Chicago. This was during the same time that he was hit with a brick. As they were marching, they passed one of many angry counter-protestors, a white man there to harass the marchers, screaming profanity at them. Dr. King looked at him and said, “You’re too smart and too good looking to be filled with so much hate.” The Civil Rights protestors saw that the hatred and racism was eroding the souls of white antagonists who were so bent on racial segregation and oppression. Calling for a more just world meant calling out the humanity even of the most hateful and harmful people.
And this is how we go, in the path of a Christ who drove the moneychangers out of the temple, but put his whip not to the human beings, but to the tools of oppression. We follow his footsteps, with our eyes on the grace and goodness of the Father, accepting the invitation of the Holy Spirit to deeply notice ourselves and one another, the invitation to move beyond nice, to take the sacred risk of generosity, love, and courage.
I want to leave us this morning with a few questions.
What is your field and harvest?
Are you stripping it bare, keeping the plenty and resources all for yourself?
Who is the neighbor who could be nourished by your abundance?
How are you experiencing that backhanded slap?
Where do you see the abuse of empire at work in your community?
Who is looking you in the eye, inviting you to see their humanness?
Whose eye must you look into, to commit that brave act of vulnerability and asking that your humanness be seen?
May the God who created us, lived among us, and breathes in us now, be made known through our treatment of one another, glorified in our generosity and courage. Amen.