Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Feb. 19, 2017
DWELLING WITHIN US – ACTING THROUGH US
(Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18; I Cor 3:10-11,16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48)
I. MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: TO BE AS HOLY AND AS PERFECT AS GOD
A. Before I sit down to put a homily together, I try to give it a title; that helps to keep me focused on a central theme. For today’s homily, after an initial reading of today’s texts, the first title that came to mind was “Mission Impossible.”
- Fearing, however, that that title might more readily elicit images of Tom Cruise rather than the Holy Spirit, I settled on a different title: “Dwelling within Us – Acting through Us.”
- I hope I can make clear why the second title is preferable to the first.
B. But our first and second readings really do seem to propose an impossible mission. The very first verse of our first reading from Leviticus and the very last verse of our last reading from Matthew really do call us to a task that certainly seems beyond human achievement.
- The Book of Leviticus admonishes us: “You shall be holy, since I your God am holy.”
- Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel pushes the envelope even more: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father-Mother is perfect.”
- This not only sounds preposterous; it might even be idolatrous. We are told that our life’s assignment is to act like God in this world, to be as perfect as God. Who do we think we are!
- I’d like to take these remaining minutes to reflect with you, first, on what I think it means to be holy or perfect as God is holy and perfect; and then, how in the world it is
II. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
A. Leviticus: Called to a love that demands justice
- The Book of Leviticus is pretty clear about how we are to embody God’s holiness in our lives. The message is crisply delivered in the very last verse: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
- That’s how we act like God. We’re familiar with these words from Jesus. Now we know where he learned it.
- But Leviticus doesn’t stop there. The bulk of the reading gives specific instructions on just how we are to love our neighbor.
- And here Leviticus echoes what we have been hearing from Jewish prophets in our readings over these past weeks. In order to love your neighbor you have to bring about justice for your neighbor. Or as my former colleague at Union Theological Seminary, Cornell West, puts it: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
- And today’s reading is very specific about how to bring about justice:
–We have to share our private property – “the harvest of your land” with “the poor and the alien.” (Lots of talk nowadays about so-called aliens.)
–We have to stop “defrauding your neighbor” or “keeping for ourselves the wages of a laborer until morning.” (Minimum wage issues.)
–We cannot earn “profit by the blood [through exploiting] of neighbors [or workers].”
2.What we hear in this reading is a distinctive message in all the monotheistic religions – a message that started with Judaism. It is summarized in the proclamation of Jeremiah: “To know God is to do justice.”
- To experience the Divine or Holy Mystery is to feel the call to love your neighbor through seeking justice. That means acting to change the political, economic policies and structures that unjustly oppress our neighbors.
- Therefore, as Gandhi put it, to say that religion shouldn’t have anything to do with politics is to misunderstand religion!
- At least for a Jew or Christian or Muslim, to be religious is also to be called to be engaged, in some way, in politics, in the struggle to shape just social and economic structures.
- This need for religion and churches to be politically concerned and engaged, some would say, is all the more urgent given the present state of politics in the USA. This is not to say that religion or the church or our community of Holy Wisdom is to identify with any one party; nor does it mean that we Christians will always agree on which candidates and parties to support. But we must be talking with each other, and each of us must be, as our time and circumstances and personality allows, concerned in working for justice.
B.Jesus: Called to a justice that demands love
- Good Jewish prophet that he was, Jesus would certainly agree with his prophetic-predecessors that love of neighbor requires justice for one’s neighbor. Jesus’ demands for love calling for justice, after all, lead to his execution.
- But Jewish prophets were wont to both build on and expand their predecessors’ message. And in today’s Gospel, Jesus is doing just that. He’s upping the ante.
- Here he is calling for a love of neighbor that not only requires justice but goes beyond justice.
- He defines our “neighbor” not only as “our brothers and sisters” or, as the reading from Leviticus puts in, our “kin” or “our people.”
- The neighbors we are to love, for Jesus, also include “evil-doers,” our
“enemies,” those who we believe are “persecuting” and causing injustice.
- Jesus is saying that if love calls for justice, as Leviticus tells us, justice calls for an even more radical love. Jesus is completing the circle and announcing that to really and effectively work for justice, we have to deepen and broaden our capacity to love.
- This means that our actions for justice need to be animated by a love not only for the victims of injustice but also for the perpetrators of injustice.
- When we speak up against injustice, when we confront the politicians of Washington or Madison, or the captains of Wall Street (now I’m showing my political colors), they have to feel that we are doing so not just because we demand justice but because we love and respect them.
- For Jesus, only if you love your enemies do you have any hope in making them your brothers and sisters.
- This is to be perfect as your Mother-Father God is perfect.
- But how in the world, this world, is that possible?
III. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?
A. I think an answer can be found in our reading from Paul.
- We can practice such radical love, we can embody God’s holiness and perfection because — “Don’t you know that God’s Spirit dwells in you.”
- We are the temples, the containers, the vehicles, the human expressions of the Divine.
- What Paul is expressing here is the foundation, or the heart, of Christianity – really of any religion: the personal, mystical experience of always being held by and in the Holy Mystery that Paul calls Spirit, the mind of Christ, the Christ-in-us.
- As Richard Rohr puts it: “Christianity isn’t primarily a moral matter; it’s a mystical matter.” Christianity – any authentic religion I would say – does not tell us to follow the rules so we can be united with God; rather it invites us to experience our union with the Divine so we can follow the rules.
- And so the title for this homily: “Dwelling within us – Acting through us.”
- And therefore the importance, the necessity, of having some kind of regular contemplative practice – some form of prayer or meditation – by which we can stay in contact with the Spirit dwelling in us and as us.
- One such contemplative practice is our Sunday liturgies. Liturgy, when it works, is contemplative; it connects us with, it enables us to feel, the Spirit — the Christ-Spirit – living in each of us and among all of us.
B. That contemplative ingredient was expressed beautifully in our opening hymn, “To Be Your Presence.”
- I told Lynn that this hymn expresses in poetry and music pretty much what I wanted to say in this homily. I suggest you don’t turn in your programs today but take them home for personal meditation.
- I can’t think of a better way to end these reflections than with a contemplative re-singing of our opening hymn. It is a beautiful call to allow the Presence that dwells within us to act through us. (Please remain sitting as we sing and contemplate.)