Sermon for Sunday, February 23, 2014 || Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A || Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119: 33-40; 1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Without love whatever we do is worth nothing…You shall not bear a grudge against anyone, but shall love your neighbor as yourself… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Last week we heard the apostle Paul opining to the church in Corinth that they were infants in Christ—spiritual infants too immature to handle the kind of wisdom Paul metaphorically referred to as “solid food.” Paul couldn’t speak to these baby Christians as spiritual people, he said, because they were still “people of the flesh”—people defined more by their lives in the world than by their lives in Christ.
“I fed you with milk, not solid food,” Paul said, “for you were not ready for solid food…Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the [world].”
Challenging words for us even two thousand years later as we, too, struggle to walk the walk, to integrate our spiritual lives with our secular lives, and to become spiritually mature Christians. But ready or not, the readings on the lectionary menu this week make for a feast of decidedly solid food. No baby’s milk here. This is very heavy, spiritual food indeed. And while we may have heard the imperative to love our neighbor as ourselves so often that it sounds like pious pablum, if we are attentive to this morning’s readings—if we really listen to these words—there’s no escaping the realization that from our opening Collect of the Day through both the Old and New Testament readings, we are being spoon-fed one highly sophisticated serving after another of God’s uncompromising command that we be people of love.
Without love, our opening prayer tells us, we’re accounted as dead in God’s eyes. We’re forbidden to hate, we hear in the reading from Leviticus, or to take vengeance, or even to bear a grudge. We’re required to respond with love and only love, our Gospel reading says, whether others offend us, take advantage of us, or force their will on us. Turn the other cheek, Jesus says. Go the extra mile. Give them the shirt off your back. Because even the lowest of the low can love the lovable. Ours is a higher calling: We are to love even the unlovable. We are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
It is so tempting to be dismissive of this divine imperative to love—so tempting to soften it’s blow by judging it a lofty, but let’s face it, unrealistic ideal. Are we to love the friend who betrays us, the spouse who abandons us, and the boss who fires us– really? Are we to love the pedophiles, the murderers, the terrorists, and the torturers of the world—really?
Well, the hard truth of this morning’s scripture is that yes–yes we are. It’s outrageous. It’s scandalous. It’s offensive. But yes, we are called as Christians to love even the most unlovable of God’s creatures.
Now this doesn’t mean we’re called to be doormats or chumps, or to stay in abusive relationships. It doesn’t mean we’re suppose to allow those who do evil to continue their hateful behavior without suffering the social or criminal consequences of their actions.
But there’s no wiggle room here. Jesus is nothing short of unequivocal when he says that we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It isn’t idle chatter. It isn’t a pious platitude. It’s a Divine Dictum and we would do well to take it seriously! Not because harboring hatred is—as the saying goes– like taking poison and expecting someone else to die. And not because love is the only force powerful enough to heal a hate-filled heart—which of course it is. But we must take seriously the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us for one, and only one very good reason: Because Jesus says so.
The question then, is of course, “how?” How can we find room in our hearts for love when our hearts are angry or aching or bitter or broken or frightened or fearful? “To be unloving is to be out of touch with God,” writes the mystic Evelyn Underhill. “Love is what you were made for, and love is who you are,” writes Franciscan priest Richard Rohr.
“Love is what you were made for, and love is who you are.” Think about that for a minute and let it sink in. Love is who you are. Love is your essential nature, your core, your authentic self. We were created by Love, with Love, for Love. Wise men and women throughout the ages have said as much in as many different ways. Love is who you are.
There is a wonderful, albeit apocryphal, story you may have heard about Michelangelo’s creation of “The David.” It seems that one-day the Pope came to see the David, and he was so taken with the magnificent marble masterpiece that in amazement he asked Michelangelo, “How did you ever create a work of such exquisite beauty out of a big ugly chunk of rock?” To which Michelangelo is said to have replied, “I simply chipped away everything that wasn’t David.”
You see, the exquisite beauty of the David was there all along, waiting to be revealed. So it is with the exquisite love that is the center of who we are. All of the hurt and anger and fear and brokenness are just waiting to be chipped away. And that, my friends, is what the spiritual journey is all about: Allowing God’s love to chip away everything that isn’t love. That’s what transforms us from spiritual infants to spiritually mature Christians.
Remember back in the gospel reading, where Jesus told us to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”? Well, far be it from me to offer a word study on the original Greek, but “perfect” is a terrible translation of the Greek word “teleios” that’s used here. What it really means is to be whole, to be complete, to be mature. Jesus isn’t telling us to be perfect, he’s actually imploring us to grow up—to become spiritually mature—so we can live into the fullness of who God created us to be and who we really are. And who we really are is Love.
This is precisely why Christian education, spiritual formation, and practices like prayer and meditation are so critically important. Life, whether we happen to acknowledge it or not, is a spiritual journey. God means for life to chip away at the big ugly rocks we mistake for ourselves. God means for life to smooth our hard edges and reveal the exquisitely beautiful and loving creatures that are our real selves…our authentic selves…the selves we really are. And the spiritual journey we call life is going to keep chipping away at our big ugly rocks whether we cooperate or not!
Our readings today would have us cooperate. Our readings today would have us go to any lengths necessary to facilitate this process of transformation from spiritual infants to spiritually mature Christians. Our readings today would have us commit to learning practices like prayer and meditation that invite God’s love to chip away ever more steadily and surely at everything that isn’t love. Because love is who we are; love is what we were created to do; and love is what this beautiful world of ours so desperately needs. Amen.