We Are Kingdom ReflectorsMatthew 5:38-48 Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
So, this is the fourth week of our series on the Sermon on the Mount. So far we have talked about what it is to be Kingdom People through the Scripture of the Beatitudes: Blessed to be a blessing. We have talked about being Kingdom Builders through the invitational ways of being salt, and light and doing good deed. And last week we talked about what it was to be Kingdom Thinkers, with Jesus’ great call to look beyond legalism and to take stock of our own hearts. All in all, these past few weeks have been building up to this week’s Scripture reading. When Christ talks about what we need to do to embody Christ’s teachings as a whole, to live out everything that Christ has talked about so far in his famous Sermon on the Mount… So this is the apex of the sermon… and this is what Christ has to say:
“Be perfect, therefore, because your Heavenly Father is perfect.” That is what Christ has to say to us this week. That is what it is going to take to embody and live out Christ’s teachings. Perfection.
This is a grand statement… I’m not even sure we could call it a statement… but perhaps we could call it a challenge?
“Be perfect, therefore, because your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
This isn’t just asking for a lot… this is asking, it seems, for the impossible.
Especially when we remember that Romans 3:23 states, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Our sinful ways and our shortcoming… don’t those rule us out as beings that are even capable of perfection. When I think about who I am: the label of “sinner” taste more familiar than that of “perfect”…
Yet Christ Jesus says…
“Be perfect, therefore, because your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
Do we chalk this statement up as being impossible… rip this page out of our Bibles wad it up and move on… or could there be something about this Biblical concept of “perfection” that we do not understand.
And for this conundrum – I have a delicious visual to share with you that might help us in considering our options:
Do we throw out this verse for it is impossible? Or do we think about…
(Unveil the donuts) Donuts!
I have been looking forward to this sermon all week because I get to do this:
(Take a bite)
As uncomfortable as it is eating in front of my congregation, this is a donut! If there is a greater example of perfection in this world, I have not encountered it!
So, as a means of introducing our visual aid here, I will share with you a little bit about donuts:
Did you know that the most popular donut in the world is the simple and classic glazed donut? I prefer one with bit more pizzazz as you can see from my sprinkled donut selection.
(Take a bite)
Donuts originated in the 16th century Holland. They were cooked in oil, and were so greasy that the Dutch called them “oily cakes”
The Pilgrims, our Spiritual forbearers, who had lived in Holland, brought the cakes with them when they came to America. Their version was a round doughy ball about the size of a nut… thus the term “doughnut”
(Take a bite)
Now the origins of the donut hole is a really intriguing story. It is said that there was a captain named Hanson Gregory, in the 19th century who was eating a doughnut while sailing through a storm… And suddenly, the ship was rocked violently and he was thrown against the ships wheel impaling his poor cake on one of its spokes!
(Take a bite)
Seeing how well the spoke held his cake… Captain Gregory began ordering all his cakes with holes in them. Which made them convenient for snacking opportunities…
Doughnuts were popularized in the US after the Salvation Army began feeding them to the troops during the Second World War! The Salvation Army folks had doughnut cooking stations set up from garbage pails and they serve them by looping them over the end of a bayonet…
(Take a bite)
The Soldiers got so hooked on them that they were called “doughboys.” And in my reading this week… I wasn’t sure if that was in reference to the donut cakes or the soldiers… probably both.
(at this point the whole donut has been eaten)
Now for the big question! And this is a bit of a riddle… So, what is left of the donut?
The Donut hole, of course…[i]
Now to make the leap back to Scripture. To say that “perfection” is the same as being sinless is like saying that a donut is the same as the hole.
(Grab another donut)
I’m not going to eat this one.
Is this donut real? Yes! Is the hole real?
But a real hole is kind of a contradiction. It is real but it isn’t.
The hole exists only in relation to the donut.
The hole exists only if the donut exists.
And now, because I ate that donut – our donut hole no longer exists.
No donut, no hole.
The donut hole represents my perfection, and yours. It exists only in relation to the actual sinless perfection that is Christ. Christ being the donut.
We, as human being, are not capable of perfection on our own. If life, and life alone, has taught me anything, it is that I am not perfect. This I know for sure. And I think that that is probably true for all of us.
But Scripture tells us that there is perfection to be found in Christ- more specifically in our relationship with and to Christ.
The donut hole only exists in relation to the donut.
Our perfection only exists in relationship with and to Christ.
Now our concept of perfection, in our English/American/Midwesterner context means something a little different than perfection as told in our Scripture lesson.
The Greek, ‘teleios’, this word for perfection, appears in the New Testament 48 times, and is often translated as perfect. But is also translated as accomplished, mature and complete.
The root of this word does not come from blamelessness or sinlessness… but from maturity and completeness.
So perhaps we would reread Matthew 5:48 as: “Be complete, as your Heavenly Father is complete.”
“Be mature, as your Heavenly Father is mature.”
I’d just like to emphasize that this perfection- maturity- completeness that Christ calls us to is not one that requires us to be spotless and blemish free (that is impossible)– but it is one that demands that we grow from our mistakes and our sins. The very heart of maturing is taking responsibility and growing into a person of integrity.
Now, the question is: how do we be or become this mature being that Christ has asked us to be? Well… from what our Scripture passage said today, we learn that our answer lies in our choices: We choose to act like Christ. We choose to reflect Christ to the World. Our perfection/Maturity/Completeness is founded in reflecting Christ’s actions and love to the world.
This is the message that Christ has made as the apex of the Sermon on the Mount: “You are Christians, now act like Christ.” That may seem so obvious to us, that as Christians we would bear Christ’s reflection to the world… but it is the hardest task of our lives.
But, thankfully Christ has offered us some specific instructions on how to do this.Christ says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
To reflect Christ to the world, we are not to be concerned with our trivial concept of fairness. We are not to repay what is evil – what is hurtful… with evil and hurt. Be we must choose to be merciful and compassionate in the face of wrongs.
If we look at this passage on a superficial level, we are tempted to read this as: “be a doormat, let people walk over you… take the hit and let it be over and done with.” But this is not the intention.
What do we tell kids who are being bullied in school? We tell them not to react. Not to rise to the taunting. We tell them to be mature.
In Jesus’ time, to be hit twice- was to be marked as an equal. Let me explain this a little bit. Touching someone (even in a show of violence- fighting) there was etiquette to it. Before the days of our modern sanitation systems and soap, if there was a dirty job that needed to be done, your left hand was reserved for that task. Your right hand was reserved everything else: eating, greeting people, browsing through things at the market. So, your left hand would never be used if you were to make contact with someone- even to hit someone. This wasn’t just for cultural reasons… but also for religious reasons. There were a lot of clean vs. unclean rules.
So if you were to get hit by someone on the right cheek as Scripture says, they would strike you with the back of their hand. Thereby marking themselves as the more powerful figure, and displaying their obvious irritation… But to turn your left cheek to them, you are asking them to strike you with the front or palm of their hand. Which is not a display of power… but that kind of contact, the palm of the right hand, is reserved for equals. This would be a blatant violation of fighting etiquette!
You would take the power out of the statement they made by striking you across the cheek in the first place.
To turn your check is not to say, “I’m a doormat! Hit me all you want! You aren’t going to get a rise out of me!”
To turn your check is defuse the bomb. To take the wind out of the sails! To make a stand that says, “If you are going to strike me, lets make one thing clear:We are equals and this isn’t going to go any father than that one strike.”
We tell our kids not to react to bullies, because that is the strong and defusing thing to do. We often forget that as adults. In terms of reflecting Christ to the world, Christ is asking us to be strong and radically peaceful even when someone intends to hurt us or do evil against us. Because that is the only way to squash that evil… Even, possibly, to save that angry person from doing an evil act. Now, that is a merciful move.
Then Christ says,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”
Harry Fosdick said, “Hating people is like burning down your own house to get rid of a rat.” Hinting at the fact that we are sometimes willing to destroy ourselves, willing to destroy our faith, with hate just to purge ourselves of an enemy.
But our job is to reflect Christ. To rain down mercy, compassion, kindness, and loving actions – just as God does. Just as our Lord sets the sun to rise on the good and evil alike. We must reflect that. Some days to be loving is a lot of work. To choose to send sunlight out over those things and interactions that makes our mood turn dark… takes a lot of that perfect maturity that Christ demands of us.
We must choose the course that is move loving, always.[ii] Just as it takes strength to turn the other check and defuse anger… so to does it take strength to love in the face of hate. And what could be more loving- What could be more merciful and kind to those who wrong us than to pray for them? … (pause)…
Jesus says: “Be perfect, for your Father in Heaven, is perfect.”
Be mature, be complete… because your father in Heaven is perfect- is mature- is complete. This takes strength- a strength that could only come from Christ.
Our second reading of the morning, comes from the Book of Leviticus. Which is probably the most misunderstood book in all the Bible. Leviticus is a book of rules. And some of them are confusing and a part of a culture that seems so foreign to us… and we don’t tend to like what confuses us…
Leviticus is a list of rules that address, above anything else, the topic of relationship. Our relationship with God, our relationship with one another, and our relationship to our culture. So we have a confusing Book of Scripture that addressing relationship. And what is more confusing than the complexities of human interactions- Confusion upon confusion. So we tend to sweep this book and all that it contains under the rug… we ignore it as just the elephant in the bible (its there, but no body wants to talk about it).
But the section that we pull from today talks about our love for our neighbors. And Jesus pulls this section directly into his sermon… so it cannot be ignored, nor should it!
Leviticus uses the concept of holiness much like Christ uses the term perfection. To be holy means to reflect mercy, compassion, and love to our neighbors. Our usual concept of who our neighbor is geographical, but we are told not only to think beyond geography (beyond who is next door) but to think beyond the boundaries of our culture, economic class, and boundaries of ability. Our neighbors are: The poor, the stranger, the fellow, the deaf, the blind, the rich, our kinsman and your countrymen. Your neighbor is everybody.
These are the people that must see you reflect Christ’s teachings, see you reflect the Kingdom (this different world) that Christ is building.
Carla Works has this to say about the effect of our presence as Kingdom Reflectors: “Clearly the kingdom of heaven does not operate like the kingdoms of this world. How will we know when we see God’s kingdom? When anger results in reconciliation rather than retaliation God must be at work. When enemies are overcome by love rather than violence God’s reign is present.”[iii]
Remember back to the donut (that was o’ so delicious). The donut hole only exists in relation to the donut. Our perfection -that Christ has very plainly called us to- is possible only in through a strong relationship with Christ.
Friends, hear this, to reflect the love of Christ to the world is a lot of work. It requires us to be strong and to always be looking to Christ as our model. You have the choice to not let anger win, and to not let your enemies go unloved or un-prayed for.
Let us pray for a strength and maturity to honors our Lord:Father, when left to our own, we are far from perfect. So far from strong. Lord, help us be strong enough to reflect you to the world. Let our presence and our choices be one that speak peace rather than violence and that speak love always, even in the midst of hate. Thanks you for the gift that is your holy Word. What a gift it is to hear your message for us, and to let it convict and change our hearts. Let our hearts continue to steep in it as we go from this place. And thank you for donuts. In Christ’s name. Amen.
[i] Jeffery Smead – Donut Theology Sermon
[ii] Stassen & Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: 342.
[iii] Works, Carla: Working Preacher