Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hard Mode

Hard Mode from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2”Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

9When 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. 10You 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.

11You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.

13You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 14You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

15you shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great; with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 5:38-48
38You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43”You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46For it you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Becoming a Christian is easy. Growing as a disciple? That's setting your spirituality on hard mode.

Every time we think we're getting it right, like we've got a handle on it, the Holy Spirit throws something new at us, and often she raises the stakes. Something that is easy to accept in theory becomes much more difficult when it finds concrete expression in our lives.

It's easy to demand "fairness" when we are attacked. It's easy to get by with the minimum payment or the least effort. It's easy to hold on to what we've got. In a Christian majority nation, it's easy to take up our church membership and follow the crowd.

But to take up our cross and follow Jesus? That's hard. Passages like this one make it more challenging with each read through. This passage tells us "Do not resist the evildoer" and "Love your enemy." This passage tells us "Give to everyone who begs from you," and "Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect."

That last line has been used time and time again to give us an out. Interpreters for centuries have made this passage a little easier on us by reminding us that none of us are flawless. All sin, all fall short of the glory of God. Jesus can't reasonably expect us to do the impossible, right? So we don't actually have to do these things, because it's just an instruction to make us rely more on God. Trust God, remember that there's grace when we don't reach our unreachable standard.

That certainly makes the Christian life easier. But ultimately I find it unfulfilling. It doesn't make sense to me that the Word would become flesh only to preach a message that only involves the mind and not our bodies too. I think Jesus means what he says. I think this is meant to be spirituality set to hard mode.

That said, we are sinners, and none of us are flawless. The perfection Jesus teaches in this passage is a matter of wholeness rather than flawlessness. "To be ‘perfect’ is to respond to other people - even our enemies - with the kind of compassion and desire for the good that expresses the way God responds to the world.” It's a matter of reflecting the glory of God rather than meeting every human expectation.

The glory of God is such that it shines through such dim a vessel as the church, built on a foundation of grace, built out of the faith of sinners. Our flaws and sins are not an excuse to take the easy way out. They're evidence that God is free to work through anyone, even a small church like us.

Of course, having the faith to act like God is working among us now is a lot harder than "waiting until we're ready" to begin our ministry. Worshipping God now, growing in faith now, showing God's love to everyone now, that's a hard mission to undertake. Partly because we have trouble imagining the rewards.

Seriously, all that is offered to us as an incentive in this passage is that "we may be children of our Father in heaven." There are no stars in our crown, there is no promised explosion of membership or swelling of our budget. We can picture what those look like. But being children of our Father in heaven? That's such an unimaginable reward that it's almost not real to us. Perhaps that's why so many interpreters have added a list of psychological and social reasons to do what Jesus commands. Perhaps you've heard some of them? They all follow the same passive aggressive pattern, find a way to shame your enemy so she doesn't strike you again, or he doesn't sue you again, or they don't press you into service again.

Yeah maybe, that makes it easier to do what Jesus commands, and those kinds of observations do show up in Proverbs, and are later quoted in Paul's letter to the Romans. But here, Jesus, the Christ, the son of the Most High God, tells us to turn the other cheek, to give our cloak also, to go also the second mile, to give to everyone, to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. He tells us to do these things so that we may be children of our Father in heaven.

Once, our sin made us enemies of God. God's love for us, his enemies, sent Jesus to make us children of our father in heaven. Now he's telling us how to act like it. Loving our enemies and non-resistance are the chores of living in God's household. These are the good manners for the table around which God gathers us. And it's not an easy task. Discipleship is turning spirituality to hard mode.

But that’s who we are, children of our Father in heaven. We are adopted into God’s household through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The commands Jesus gives on the mountain are not thought experiments, they’re not merely spiritual direction, they’re instructions on how to live in the light of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Following these instructions is so difficult because it means working against habits that have been passed down from generation to generation since Adam and Eve. The challenge of following Jesus, of discipleship, is to resist falling back into those old habits.

It would be so easy to fall back into the habit of hating our enemies and loving only those who love us. But Jesus tells us to love them, and to pray for those who persecute us. He tells us to be generous beyond what is prudent. He instructs us to do what is hard, because the difficult path shows the glory of our Father in heaven. Our belief is the easy part, but the action to which that belief leads oughts to reflect the image of God, in which we are all created. “The idea here is not to be a victim, but to be a human being created in God’s image and, ultimately, to be a blessing, even to those who would do violence.” Christian love might not change the hearts of one’s enemies, but changing their hearts is neither a Christian’s goal nor responsibility. The Christian goal is Christ. The Christian responsibility is love for God and for neighbor, especially when that neighbor is an enemy.

Of course, there’s always the easy-way-out of saying that we don’t have any enemies. Then we don’t have to love anybody difficult. We just have to “tolerate” the people who annoy us, but that’s not the same thing as an enemy. We can love the people who love us, tolerate those who annoy us, and then promise to love any enemy we may, at some point make. That’s enough for Jesus, right?

Spoiler alert: It’s not.

I’m not going to tell y’all to expand your definition of “enemy” in this passage. But I think Jesus pretty clearly tells us to expand the list of folks we’re supposed to love. The lazy entitled millennials? Ought to love them too. The overly-sensitive, politically correct “special snowflakes?” Ought to love them too. The folks who just mooch off the system and take advantage of your hard work? Ought to love them too.

And on the other end of the spectrum, those who get reflexively labelled as hypocrites, or bigots, or homophobes, or whatever other slur we might think of, a Christian is required to love them too. Not because it makes sense, but because Jesus told us to.

It’s not easy to do. It’s especially difficult when those folks are actively trying to harm us, when it does cross from “annoyance” to “enemy.” We’re in a war on terror that began four pastors ago. Jesus says that to be children of our Father in heaven means loving even them. It means rejecting the violent relationship that our enemies would thrust upon us. After all, if you have to do evil to defeat the evildoer, have you won? Or just replaced him?

So instead, Jesus turns our discipleship to hard mode, giving us the challenge to be children of our Father in heaven, and to remember how God treated us when we were enemies of God. Jesus sought us when we were strangers, wandering from the fold of God. He interposed his precious blood to rescue us from danger. How could one of Christ’s followers step out of the light of the empty tomb and take the easy way out?

But it’s so much easier to do things the old-fashioned way. Especially since every time we turn around the Holy Spirit is lovingly challenging us again, raising the stakes and making us grow as disciples, as children of our Father in heaven. Perhaps that’s why we’re so prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love. Growing in faith is setting our spirituality on hard mode.

But we’re children of our Father in heaven, our wandering hearts are bound to Christ. Nothing can separate us from that love, not even our enemies, not even our own history as enemies of God can. The love of the LORD, Father, Son and Holy Spirit holds on to us no matter what. That love is so easy to confess, now Jesus has given us the task of putting the grace we have received into action. That’s quite the challenge. But, by God, we will live that faith-charged challenge. We’re going to do it on hard mode.

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