First Congregational United Church of Christ

2810 West 7th Street, Hastings, NE 68901


For the Sake of Heaven

Sermon, February 19, 2017


Leviticus 19:1, 9-18

Matthew 5:38-48


Happy Valentine’s Day everybody!  Ok, I’m a little late… and truthfully, I usually avoid any acknowledgment of Valentine’s Day like the plague.  But my parents surprised me by telling me they were going to renew their vows on the beach where they are vacationing in Georgia, and so I couldn’t ignore it this year.  They have been married 35 years – it will be 36 in October.  What about the married couples we have here in our congregation?  In the interest of Valentine’s Day, let’s have the couples married for at least 1 year stand up.  What about those married 5 years?  10?  Stay standing if you’ve been married 20 years… 30?  I’ve heard some of our couples have some milestones passed recently.   – 40 – 50 -60.


It occurred to me last Sunday, in the middle of Jared’s teaching on Mach’kloket – the concept of constructive disagreement for the sake of heaven – he said this interesting thing about the two Rabbis that were always at odds with each other but were cited as an example of constructive disagreement – do you remember this? He mentioned the Beit Hillel, Beit meaning ‘house of’, as in the people who followed Rabbi Hillel, and Beit Shammei, those who followed Rabbi Shammai. He mentioned once, briefly, that these two houses didn’t really have too much of a dispute, because there was a strong history of the students of Beit Hillel intermarrying with students of Beit Shammai.


Did you catch that when he said it?  I did, and I thought…. There’s got to be a marriage joke in there somewhere.  Constructive disagreement for the sake of heaven… I’m guessing that a lot of our married couples of 40, 50 and 60 years know something about constructive disagreement for the sake of heaven….for the sake of the marriage, definitely, but also Love, for God’s sake.


I think this is something marriage – and all relationships that we prioritize – has to teach us.  The kind of nurturing and caring a good marriage requires; the acceptance, respect and effort to understand the another person’s deepest ambitions, motivations and fears; and the concern for another’s hopes and dreams as much as their well-being… and to do all that while hopefully holding onto your sanity and humor – these are the elements that we aspire to apply to or special relationships.  But truly, as we can see in our text, this is similar to what God asks of us in all relationships in community.


The book of Leviticus – our Hebrew Bible reading this morning –is known as the Holiness Code. It is the book in which the most commands come directly from the mouth of God. 

·      you shall leave [your harvest and grapes] for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

·      you shall not steal, you shall not lie, you shall not swear falsely by my name: I am the LORD

·      you shall not defraud your neighbor or your worker, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD

·      you shall not be unjust, or partial, slander or profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD

·      you shall not bear a grudge, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.


…. I mean, we get it already!  Why does God feel that it needs to be repeated so frequently?


Perhaps it’s because God hopes for us to keep our eyes trained on Him.  God begins this verse with, “You Shall be Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy.”  And in some ways this sounds like an impossible and imposing command… but in other ways, it is a promise.  You shall care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, the foreigner, the alien, because God cares for them, and what it means to be holy as God is Holy is to live into these words.  If we truly believe that God is Lord, the one to be obeyed and followed, than these are the things we will do.  Because our faith is not just a theological belief – our faith is a verb.  Our faith in God, who commands all these things, demands that His desires are evident in our works.  It’s as if God says, “In company with me, you shall grow to be like me.”


One of my favorite theologians talks about this a lot.  Gustavo Gutierrez is a Catholic Priest form Latin America who has written many books about how we are to live together.  Gutierrez describes God as the creative force of life because God initiates a relationship with us, His people.  But to be in relationship with God is to live with, and live for, God, and to live with, and to live for others.  In Hebrew, ‘to live’ always means to be present to others because life implies community.  For Gutierrez, Sin is to refuse to love your fellow human, and death is utter isolation from community.  This idea is echoed in some of the laws in the Book of Leviticus and in the Gospel - where punishment for Sin or illness is removal from community.


God has called us to be Holy, and we have responded to that call.  And so in doing, we strive to live as a compassionate community of mutual caring for each other.


In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is concluding the Sermon on the Mount - that which began with the Beatitudes and, like our Leviticus passage, ends with loving our neighbor.  Throughout this sermon, Jesus echoes these requirements to be Holy and declares that, rather than abolish the law, he will fulfill it.  Jesus is detailing his vision of the law by talking about the kind of community the law imagines – a community of integrity, in which people are not taken advantage of, but are trustworthy and fair to one another.


Jesus even goes so far as to say you should love your enemy.  Your enemy!  But who is our enemy??


In Jesus’ time, there were clear abuses of power and might.  Historians tell us that he soldiers of Rome had the authority to do any of what he referenced – they could slap you around with impunity.  Draft you into servitude without provocation. Sue you, based on Roman taxes and property laws, for the last shirt you owned.   There was a lot of justified anger, a lot of humiliation, a lot of rage in his audience.   They were already being stripped of their identity, of their property, and now of their dignity.  Their enemies were clear.


But who is our enemy?  Is it the neighbor, acquaintance or distant Uncle that you just can’t get along with? Is it fans of the opposing sports team, or opposing political party, or citizens of a different nation, or a different religion?  How do we know someone is an enemy? How do we persevere with respect and mutual caring when we are fairly certain someone is out to get us, or rooting for our demise? How do we attempt to love them?


This is where I double back to some of the words of Jared and Mach’kloket, - Constructive Disagreement for the sake of heaven.  On Thursday afternoon, during our interview with the Hastings Tribune, the reporter asked him if he feels safe in Israel because of his faith in God. Jared responded, “as a very religious person…not at all.  I feel safe living in Jerusalem because of the people I know. Because I talk to Jews and Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs, and I know that they don’t want to hurt me.”  Perhaps the way we can strive to love our enemies is first to learn, do we have enemies?  And that may require being able to hold their story and our story within our hearts, at the same time, in tension but in love.


With our eyes trained on God who is holy, maybe we do it for the sake of heaven – for God’s sake.  Jesus seems to be telling us to dig deep, and find the will to respond to greed with generosity, to abuse with resilience, to anger with forgiveness.  When someone takes something from us, he’s challenging us to respond by giving twice as much rather than retaliate.  Because if someone desires something of you, and you give it readily and more – you are taking that person’s power over you. 


Because Jesus is ushering in new era of love, an era that prioritizes caring and fair relationship between individuals.  And when Jesus lives within us, no one has any power over us.


With Christ, a radically new era of God is being inaugurated to our world… an era where love comes first.  God’s great purpose for the human family is being realized with his life, death and resurrection, demonstrating that love is in fact the greatest power in the world. 


Jesus ends his sermon with the instruction to be perfect, as God is perfect.  Perfect seems kind of impossible to me – how about you?  Compared to God’s promise in Leviticus that we shall be holy as God is Holy, perfect does not have the same ring.  But there may be reason for that. 


In Greek, the word used for perfect is Telios.  Telios means perfect, but it also means to be brought to it’s end, it’s maturity, it’s completion.  Perhaps Jesus is saying that with this, loving our enemies, this process for completion, this wholeness in loving others, is finally on our doorstep. We are able to work towards the goal of God’s family; a community of mutual caring and love. And if we are faithful, and are living into those beliefs, then no one will have any power over us but God.


God is perfect, yes, but in following Jesus’ teaching we can strive to also be wholly complete in love for our brothers and sisters, our spouses and children, our friends and even our enemies. 


With Jesus, God’s power is complete.  It has matured to full and whole love and reconciliation.


Let us strive to be perfect in our love for each other, in our actions, in our disagreements, and in our faith.  Let us strive for completion of Love for God’s Sake.