Your Reward

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Matthew 5:38-48

Sometimes we are faced with job descriptions that seem impossible.  That might be the list of school assignments the teacher hands out on Monday morning or at the beginning of the semester.  It may be the “how to” manual for that new appliance or piece of equipment you need to use.  Maybe it is the list of skill requirements for that job you thought would be perfect for you.  Possibly the significant list of “to dos” for good parenting seems daunting.

Routinely we are faced with expectations which force us to reflect on how we might meet them and if the expected outcome is worth the effort.

This morning’s scripture lessons are filled with expectations.  We are to be Holy as our God is Holy, to think of others first.  Called to make every decision and action for the common good.  We need to see each person as sister or brother and act out of love, not saying hurtful things about them or taking any actions which may harm them.  We are not to take revenge against those who harm us, but seek good for them.  We are to provide for the poor and the foreigner.

We are to be gracious, forgiving, hospitable, and generous; to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.

Just like many of the “job descriptions,” you have received, this one may seem impossible.  The promised reward for doing it seeming to falling way short of the personal cost and/or skill level.  Personal perfection expected in the midst of putting everyone else’s needs and safety first, confronting us as too much to ask.

Some of you may know the story of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  Jean Valjean is an ex-convict who has just been released from nineteen years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children.  As he reenters society, no one will house him or give him work because of his criminal record until he stumbles into the bishop’s house.

Much to Valjean’s bewilderment, the bishop treats him with kindness and hospitality.  Taking advantage of the situation, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver plates and flees into the night.

The Bishop’s reaction to Valjean’s treachery is not what we night expect.  Instead of being angry and offering condemnation, the bishop examines his own behavior and finds himself lacking in charity.  “I have for a long time wrongfully withheld this silver; it belonged to the poor.  Who was this man? A poor man evidently,” he reasons to himself.  So when the police arrive with the captured Valjean, the bishop’s silver in his possession, the bishop calmly greets the thief and says, “But I gave you the candlesticks also… why did you not take them along with the plates?”  The police, surprised and confused, reluctantly let the thief go.  Jean Valjean expects blame and condemnation for his actions.  Instead, he receives forgiveness and mercy.  He expects hatred, and, instead, he receives love, and at that moment evil is transformed into good. [1]

 

Currently the 10 a.m. Sunday School classes are learning about Joseph and his many colored coat.  The story of brothers jealous because Joseph is so loved by their Father, because he has had educational opportunities, because he has dreams and their interpretation of the dreams he describes makes them angry.  He annoys them.  Their solution to what they see as a situation harmful to their well-being, is to sell him to foreigners traveling through and to lie to their father about what happened.

Because of Joseph’s skills and dreams we know he becomes the manager of resources in the foreign land into which he was sold as a slave.  He is faced with an opportunity to help the brothers who treated him unfairly or to harm them.  He chooses to help them.  Not what they expect when they realize this is the brother they sent away.  He offers mercy instead of blame and condemnation.

 

I have not had an opportunity to hear the stories of everyone in our congregation yet, and I am sure what I will share now, with permission, is reflected over and over in your stories.  This member of your faith community shared one particular part of her journey.  Two years of traveling with her young child through a battle with cancer.  Often alone with her son while other family members cared for children at home and kept up with day to day responsibilities.  Decisions made by some in her family to stay away from the hospital, for reasons such as being uncomfortable and not wanting to intrude were hurtful to her, and her immediate family.

Loving and trusting God, she put her son in God’s hands as well as the relationship with those who determined for themselves what the best ways to help her were during that time rather than asking her.  She still grieves the death of her son, still remembers the joy he brought to the family, the presence of God sustaining her.

When faced with opportunities to help or ignore the needs of those who weren’t there when she would have appreciated their presence, she choose to ask them what was helpful and to step up to follow through whenever possible.  She chooses to seek ways to help others in the way they need help, learning from her experiences and hearing the words Jesus shares with his disciples in this passage.

Grace is God’s story.  Grace is extended in each of these illustrations.

The reward in each of these stories doesn’t come from loving those who are looking out for your interests.  It doesn’t come from choosing to take actions which harm those we perceive harmed us.  It is in seeking to see the situations through God’s eyes, to respond with God’s grace as we have received and experienced that Grace in our own lives.  We are transformed in living out the job description to which Jesus calls his disciples then and now, and that is our reward as we live into the kingdom of God.

We can only live in this way through the work of the Holy Spirit within us.   We can be patient and kind, strengthened by the power of the spirit.  An English mystic in 1396 said that true lovers of Jesus “do not despise their neighbors or judge them, but they pray for them in their hearts, and feel more pity and compassion for them than for others who never harmed them, and in fact they love them better, and more fervently desire their salvation, because they see that they will have so much spiritual profit form their neighbors’ deeds, though this was never their intention.”[2]

Sometimes people who harm us need help we can’t give or to be placed in places where they can’t harm anyone.  Sometimes we need to separate ourselves from dangerous situations.  These scriptures aren’t supporting our ignoring the need to change our circumstances for our own health or safety.  They are saying that we actively seek what is best for others whenever possible, that we offer grace when what we really want to do is pay back in kind for the pain inflicted on us.

The job description for following Jesus is difficult in that it pushes us to choose righteousness in an imperfect world.   But God has provided us with all we need to live into that job description to heal us and makes us more perfect.  God knows every part of who we are, the number of hairs on our heads, what brings us joy and what fills us with sorrow.  Jesus comes from the very heart of our Creator God, bringing us a glimpse of what God desires for us and how we should live as children of God.

Jason Byassee, writing in Feasting on the Word puts it this way:  “We are called here to love as God loves.  This cannot be done out of our own resources.  So this is no admonition to try harder – if it were, it would indeed be recipe for despair.  It is a plan of action rooted in the promise to be made “Children of your Father in heaven”.  The Sermon here and elsewhere is a portrait of the very heart of God, one who loves the unlovable, comes among us in Christ, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us.  Turn the cheek, give the cloak, go another mile, lend, love the enemy – because that is how God loves.  If you want to follow this God, fleshed in Jesus, you will be adopted into a life in which you find yourself loving this way before you know what you are doing.”[3]

John Wesley talked about us moving on toward perfection.  Living and loving this way with the help of the Holy Spirit is how we live into that reality.

Let us pray

God of grace toward all, sometimes I feel your words are too difficult to hear let alone live out.  Sometimes I want more than an eye for an eye.  I ask why I need to give up an extra shirt, let alone a coat.  I can I go a few feet out of my way let along a mile or two miles.  I question how I can love my enemies when I am finding it difficult to love those close to me.  Hold me accountable to your word, oh Lord.  Help me to live as you call me to live, and in so doing help me be an example to those around me, that they may see your grace abound and come to know you more.  Amen

[1] www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/4677/sermon-options-february-19-2017

[2] http://liturgy.slu.edu

[3] “Theological Perspective” on the Gospel reading for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany in  Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised common Lectionary.  Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.  Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 382.

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