Saturday, February 22, 2014

Extreme giving, extreme loving, extreme holiness

Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18; Psalm 119:33–40; 1 Corinthians 3:10–11, 16–23; Matthew 5:38–48

As I have been thinking about the scriptures for today, I have also been watching the Olympics. Some of the events are pretty “normal” – figure skating, downhill skiing, hockey, curling, combinations of skiing and shooting. Some of them fall into what is for me the arena of extreme sports. Snowboarding half-pipe, where the goal is to use physics to fly above the snow and spin and somersault in the air; short-track skating where the action is so fast I wonder why so few go flying off the track. Extreme sports test the will and skills of the competitors.
In this text, I suggest that Jesus is calling us into extreme giving, extreme loving, and extreme holiness. He is challenging the interpretation in his time of the Hebrew Scripture. People, then and now, have a tendency to brag that they have the right to poke out someone’s eye if the other person made them lose an eye. It’s called retaliation.
The original intent of this type of law, called lex talionis, is to limit the amount of violence. The loss of an eye should not result in the loss of life, for example. But, Jesus is saying that we should not answer violence with violence. That simply contributes to a cycle of unending violence.
In a more positive sense, this means we should give more than is asked for. Extreme giving is described in the passage from Leviticus: leave enough of your crop for the needy to harvest, so they can feed themselves. In other words, give some of what you have, so others can live.  
Give your coat, and your cloak, Jesus says. Since most of the people Jesus was talking to had very little clothing, they were being told to give up a significant portion of their belongings. In today’s setting, perhaps Jesus is saying, give up your tablet and your cell phone, or your car and your truck, or your Social Security and your retirement. In other words, be willing to give up an extreme portion of your possessions.
There’s a story about a Lutheran pastor who is talking with a wealthy parishioner. The pastor has just learned that the parishioner gave $1 million to Robert Schuler, to help build the Crystal Cathedral. The pastor asks the parishioner why he didn’t give that money to their church. The man replies, “You never asked me, and Schuler did.” While the man certainly had plenty of money left, a million dollars is to me a pretty extreme gift. I don’t want any of you to accuse me of never asking. So, if you have money you are thinking of giving away, I’m asking. Hope is still here in great part due to the generosity of those who made substantial gifts.
Jesus says, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. What is more extreme than loving your enemy? Of course, for that to make sense, we first have to identify who our enemy is. It was hard for us in class to identify a real enemy. Of course there is al Qaeda, and similar terrorist groups, but in our real world, we don’t give them a lot of thought. They are extreme enemies, and it takes extreme love to forgive them.
So, we need to define enemy differently. What happens when I ask: against whom do you have a grudge? Who is hard to forgive? Even if we have forgiven, it is still hard to forget the hurt. These folks are our enemies, too. These folks deserve our prayers … not a prayer that they would agree with us, but that we both would be healed. This is extreme loving.
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of conflict in Kiev, Ukraine. The people have been demonstrating against the leadership, because the leaders have been too controlling. The conflict has been violent, with a number of deaths. The priests have tried to intervene, literally standing in the gap between the two groups, between the army and the rebels. Thankfully, perhaps because of so many prayers, there has been a resolution to the conflict. Now, we can pray for the new goals to be implemented.
The other day there was an incident along the highway. In a traffic slowdown, a mother heard her infant stop breathing. He wasn’t feeling well and he had been screaming. Suddenly, he was silent. The mother pulled off the road and got into the back seat, where the baby was already turning blue.
She panicked, and couldn’t think. She stood shouting for help outside her car. Another women stopped and helped out. She had recently taken a course in CPR, so she knew how to breathe and give chest compressions on the baby. Other drivers called 911, so there soon was professional help. In spite of the hurry to get to wherever they were going, a number of people stopped and helped. They shared of themselves and offered the sick baby some extreme love.
Of course, the best example of extreme love is Jesus himself, who gave up his life so that we all might know the extent of God’s love for us. We are not called necessarily to literally give up our lives for Jesus, but we are called to give and love extremely.
At the end of this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges us to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. I strive for perfection, and at times suffer from an obsessive need for some things to be perfect. Not all things – as my desk readily witnesses. But this need to be perfect is not what Jesus is talking about. He is referring to the perfection of holiness. In Leviticus, God’s people are called to be holy, as God is holy.
Sometimes, we get into a tizzy thinking about how imperfect we are. We sin in big and small ways all the time. We think, there is no way we can be perfect, no way we can be as holy as God calls us to be. Jesus is really saying, he knows we cannot be perfect as humans define perfection, or as holy as humans define holiness. But through Jesus’ extreme sacrifice and extreme love and extreme giving, we are perfect enough, we are holy enough in God’s eyes.
It is not what we do or don’t do that makes us holy or perfect. It is what Jesus has done. It is how much God loves us. We are perfect, we are holy because that is how God sees us. We love, because of how much God loves us. We give, because of how much God gives to us.
This week, you may not have an opportunity to offer extreme love, or to give to the extremes, but watch for times when you can love and give a bit extra. Watch for examples of loving and giving by others. Love and give this week because you are already holy; you are already perfect.
Please pray with me. Loving God, we give you thanks for your extreme love and care for us. Thank you for accepting us as we are. Help us see opportunities to be loving and giving to others. Amen