Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Actions of Faith - a sermon for the seventh Sunday of Epiphany, 2014

Once upon a time, in a land much like ours, there were some weary travelers who came to a village with nothing but a cooking pot. They found a place to camp near some water, filled up their pot, and put it over a fire. Then they took a large stone and put it in the pot as it simmered.
A villager, upon seeing this, becomes curious and asks, “What are you cooking?” The men explain that they were making a wonderful dish called stone soup. “We would be happy to share with the village,” they explain. “We just needed a few small things to make it extra flavorful.” The villager decides that he can part with a few carrots and he adds them to the pot. Another villager sees them and contributes some potatoes. So forth and so on the villagers add their ingredients until there is a wonderful, nourishing soup to be enjoyed by all.
This folk tale slyly illustrates what the concept of gleaning can look like in a community. By each contributing some, there is always enough for all. In the story, the villagers were sort of tricked into contributing, but they did contribute on their own accord because they believed that the end result would be something great. And it was. But it would not have been if they decided to keep their doors locked and never spoke to the strangers amongst them.
In the story, the stone was the base for the soup, with the villagers building upon that. Similarly, as Paul reminds us today, Jesus Christ is our foundation. We must choose with care how we will build on it – individually and as a community. We are the Body of Christ. We belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to God. All parts of us belong to God: our hurts, our joys, our imperfections. If we believe that God’s Spirit dwells within us, that means that God’s Spirit dwells in others, too, whether we like it or not.
And this should matter to us. This should change us. This should transform us into being perfect as our “heavenly Father is perfect.” Not an ethical or moral perfection, but a perfection based on the Hebrew sense of “wholeness” (tamim). To be perfect is to serve God wholeheartedly with a single-minded devotion. That is what we are striving for in this lifelong journey with Jesus.
So if we are striving for wholeness in God, then our lives as disciples will show it. Our love is not one of vengeful retaliation, as we see in our gospel story today (Matt. 5:38-48). Instead, our love extends even to our enemies, because that is what God calls us to: actions of faith. The thoughts and feelings that are inside us are acted out with the vehicle of our bodies. Are we God’s dwelling place? If so, how does anyone know?
Jesus calls us to radical hospitality – for ourselves and for others. God loved us first so that we could know what love is. It is because of God’s love for us and our love for God that we are able to love ourselves and to love others in return.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
Tax collectors were despised in Jewish culture for being unpatriotic and were seen as unclean by coming into contact with gentiles.
“And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?”
The gentiles were unbelievers and unclean to Jews. To be compared to such as them was insulting. Jesus calls the disciples…Jesus calls us to a higher standard than this. God’s love is seen in the world when communities are concerned with compassion, justice, and care of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.
Have you ever walked into a party or a conference where you know only one or two people? Or have you ever been the new person at school, at work, at church? You look around and everyone else is chatting and seems to know each other and you just stand there feeling awkward. It’s hard to know where to begin.
It’s always easier to love the person who already loves us or to talk with the person we already know who likes the same things we do. But Jesus doesn’t call us to the easy life. Jesus calls us to discipleship. That means not just mingling with, but embracing the other. That means noticing the awkward person in the corner and inviting him or her into our conversation. That means praying for those who wish us ill and respecting the dignity of every human being, as we promise to do in our Baptismal Covenant.
Victor Hugo begins Les Miserables with the story of Jean Valjean. He is an ex-convict who has just been released from nineteen years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. As he reenters society, no one will house him or give him work because of his criminal record — that is until he stumbles into the bishop’s house. Much to Valjean’s bewilderment, the bishop treats him with kindness and hospitality. Seizing the moment, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver plates and, then, flees into the night.
The bishop’s reaction to Valjean’s treachery is not what we might expect. Instead of being angry and offering condemnation, the bishop examines his own behavior and finds himself lacking in charity. “I have for a long time wrongfully withheld this silver; it belonged to the poor. Who was this man? A poor man evidently,” he reasons to himself. So when the police arrive with the captured Valjean, the bishop’s silver in his possession, the bishop calmly greets the thief and says, “But I gave you the candlesticks also ... why did you not take them along with the plates?” The police, surprised and confused, reluctantly let the thief go.
Jean Valjean expects blame and condemnation for his actions. Instead, he receives forgiveness and mercy. He expects hatred, and, instead, he receives love. At that moment evil is transformed into good.
Remember, there will be times when we are the awkward person or when we are someone else’s enemy. The Christian life is not a passive life, but very active and intentional. It means seeing God in the other, as God sets no bounds in loving. If we stay inside the boundaries of where we feel comfortable, wars, racism, ageism, sexism, and prejudice of all kinds will continue.
Look around you in the pews today, or when you’re at work or school, or on the street. Catch someone’s eye. Hold eye contact for a moment and really look at them. See them as God sees them – precious and holy – a child of God.
How does it feel to be beheld like that? What is it like to know that you are loved by God with such utter completeness?
Again and again and again, God gives us grace instead of grief. God gives us blessing instead of blame. God gives us comfort instead of condemnation
Hopefully, it is life changing. Hopefully, this love reminds us that we are all part of something greater – a community that is larger and more understanding than we know. Hopefully, we will know that we are cared for by a God who really see us and invites us to share what we have for the soup, no matter if we think it’s fitting or not.

This is what it means to be God’s dwelling place in the world – our hearts have changed and our actions of love for one another make the soup what it is: a dish that people want to gather around and be part of.

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