Today I am at The Church of the Reconciliation, in Webster. They are served by the Rev. Janice Ford, rector. Below is my sermon manuscript for the day.
Today is the seventh Sunday after the Epiphany. We don’t get to say that very often; in fact almost never. Without going all liturgical on you, the reason for that is that Christmas is a fixed feast day and Easter is a moveable feast day. Christmas always falls on December 25, but Easter falls on the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox.” (BCP 880) So Easter can be as early as March 22 or as late as April 25.
Are you still with me? This year Easter falls almost as late as it can – April 20. So the space between the Feast of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday gets filled with more Sundays than usual; in other words, a very long Epiphany season. Next weekend we will finally reach our destination, the same place Epiphany season always ends - on the Mount of the Transfiguration. So next week’s readings will be familiar ones because they come up every year, whether Epiphany season lasts four weeks or eight.
Alright: that liturgical lesson is free of charge, but it also doesn’t count against my preaching time. But if we are all on the same page, then let me say again: today is the seventh Sunday after Epiphany. One almost never gets to say that! And it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we are having such a long and brutal winter; it’s just that Easter is late. It means that we very rarely get to hear these readings together that we heard today.
Now on top of all that, we Christians very rarely read from Leviticus. And when we do, we don’t much know what to do with it. It tends to be focused on ritual laws like circumcision and keeping kosher and no tattoos. But today we turn our attention to a core text from Leviticus which takes us to the heart of what it is meant to be about: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
Now flash forward to this Jewish rabbi we claim is the Christ, who well knew Leviticus, saying in the most Jewish of the Gospels, Matthew, these words we heard today: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Now I’ll come back to those two words, holy and perfect, in a few moments. First, though, I want to linger with you on this radical idea that we human beings are being challenged in both places to be like God. And it’s something that most of us, particularly if we were raised in more Protestant traditions, are resistant to. We are worms and no man (or woman) right? We are sinners. We are “but flesh.” That’s what we’ll say in just ten days: we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are absolutely positively not God! And confusing ourselves with thinking we are God is the worst kind of pride, right?
And yet, there is another strain of thought within the deep and broad Christian faith, found particularly in Eastern Christianity, that says that God became human so that humans might become divine. One of the early church fathers put it just that way. It’s ironic that in an especially long Epiphany season, which is the season when we reflect on the incarnation and all the ways that God is made manifest in our lives, that we have at long last come to these two verses in Leviticus and Matthew because they give us a liturgical context. The fact of Jesus coming into the world is not only to save sinners but to transform sinners. It is that we might have full and abundant life. It is that we might live as not only witnesses to God’s love but as sacraments of that love – as outward and visible signs of that love to the world. Just a couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus talking about our vocation as the Church to be salt and light. I think it’s all of a piece. We are made to become holy…Or as we put it in the Baptismal Covenant, we are called to grow into the full stature of Christ.
The word “perfect” in English, however, is incredibly unfortunate, especially for the perfectionists among us. Trying to be perfect very often works against holiness. So let’s remember that every translation distorts the truth, as anyone who has ever travelled in a foreign land holding a dictionary in hand knows. In Greek the word here is teleios. It is not about being perfect in some abstract or mystical way. It does not mean making straight A’s or never making a mistake. It’s a more functional term that refers to something realizing its purpose. Telios means purpose or end or goal. It’s about becoming who you were meant to become.
I’m not making this up! God knows who God is, and God gets to be God. So that job is taken. We get to be who we were created to be. So it doesn’t make sense for Janice to try to be Rich or for Rich to be Janice, or for either of us to think there is one right way to be priest and that we both have to perfectly conform to that cookie cutter way. We are different people with different stories: the goal is for each of us to become fully who God made us to be. The challenge (as Richard Rohr and others have pointed out) is that we are tempted to live into a false idea of self rather than our true selves, the unique person God created us to be.
When you die and go to heaven, St. Peter won’t ask you why you weren’t Mother Theresa or Martin Luther, King, Jr. or Bishop Fisher. Or your father, or mother. The question is: were you truly yourself?
Now think about that for just a moment and all of the implications of that and all the sermons that could be preached on it and also all the ways that perfectionism ironically, and tragically, keeps people from that very truth. That is the great irony here. If parents are living their dreams vicariously through their children both are diminished and kept from fully becoming who they were meant to be.
And you could say the same of a Christian community. The goal for Reconciliation, Webster is not to be “perfect” as some ideal congregation in our heads would be perfect. The goal is not to become All Saints, Worcester or some other parish. The goal—the end, the purpose—is for this congregation to live more fully into God’s call for you to be uniquely who you are, in this place and time: to be a congregation that is sharing in God’s mission to reconcile the world to God’s self.
Now I want to let you in on a secret. Just like sometimes people have a conversation and remember things a bit differently, the same thing sometimes happens with Jesus. Some of you may remember that old Monty Python scene at the Sermon on the Mount when the people in the back row don’t hear blessed are the peacemakers, but blessed are the cheesemakers. And more recently I saw a meme on Facebook where Jesus says, “now listen up, I don’t want four versions of this…”
Well, it’s pretty funny. But something like that does happen in the gospels all the time and it happens with this passage between Matthew and Luke. Because Luke doesn’t use the word teleios at all; but another word that we translate as merciful. Instead of asking us to be perfect, Luke hears Jesus say: be merciful as your Father is merciful. That word is connected to the word for womb so we might even be so bold as to say, merciful as your Mother is merciful. God feels deep compassion and love for Her people as if we were God’s own children; because we are. And we are to emulate that womb-like compassionate love for each other. Be merciful, as God is merciful. Forgive, as you have been forgiven.To be like God, Luke says, is not to always get it right. It is not to be perfect. It is to forgive seventy times seven times if necessary.
So, this brings us back to the original text, from Leviticus: be holy as God is holy. Our little tour through Luke and Matthew and the Greek language brings us back to a very big question: what does holiness look like? It, too, is a very tricky word: most of us don’t feel called to be “holier than thou.” Sometimes Christian piety and religious piety in general can feel judgmental and arrogant. This is why so many people claim to be spiritual and not religious, because the holiness they see doesn’t make them feel welcomed or included.
But in both the Old and New Testaments, God’s holiness is rooted in covenantal love. Again and again, God forgives. Again and again, God shows mercy. Again and again, through thick and thin, God says “I love you.” I love you Rich, I love you Janice, I love you Reconciliation, Webster. I love you for whom I have made you to become, not to try to be anybody else.
God’s holiness is expressed in God’s amazing grace. And you and I are called to be more like that. To live more like that.
I have a friend who has a bumper sticker on his car that says, “wag more, bark less.” Now I realize that is a theology of be like Dog, rather than God! But even so…more wagging and less barking is, I think, also the way to God.
Next weekend I won’t be with you, but our Epiphany journey will culminate on the Mt. of the Transfiguration.
Manifest on mountain height, shining in resplendent light,
where disciples filled with awe, his transfigured glory saw.
When from there he leddest them (and us) to Jerusalem,
cross and Easter day attest, God in man made manifest.
Jesus keeps leads us through Epiphany and down from the Mount of the Transfiguration and into Lent. He keeps inviting us to take the next step, and then the next one: to live one day at a time and to become more fully whom we were made to be. Be holy, like God. Be perfect, like God. Be merciful, like God. Let your little light of Christ shine, shine, shine…