The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio
In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this seventh Sunday after the Epiphany we’re coming to the end of the season of Epiphany, a season that is marked with our reflection on the light coming into the world in the form of Jesus Christ and the time when we are called to rededicate ourselves to our missionary task to carry that light into the world. It seems appropriate that we reflect this morning on those two great teaching texts from the lens of that portion of the 19th chapter of Leviticus which you heard and that portion of the fifth chapter of Matthew which you just heard. This is actually the third Sunday that we have been reflecting on that gospel lesson—the fifth chapter of Matthew which is the beginning of Jesus’ core teaching that we know as the Sermon on the Mount.
For those of you who are part of the Cathedral worshiping community, for the last two Sundays we’ve been privileged to hear two incredibly thoughtful and deep sermons. The first from our Dean who importantly made the point that God is God—and we are not—and that we are called to seek God’s righteousness, not be seduced into our own self-righteousness. One is discipleship the other is hubris. Then last Sunday David Brooks gave us an incredible reflection not only on his own spiritual journey, but he characterized this time that we inhabit in this country as an Exodus moment, a moment where we are called to rebind the social fabric, to rebind our relationships one with another. And so from the lens of Leviticus and Matthew I hope to build on those two things.
The 19th chapter of Leviticus is the core of ethical teaching in the Old Testament. Embodied within that chapter in some form are each of the Ten Commandments. But it doesn’t stop just there. It’s what it means to live a holy life. What is pointed out to us is that it’s not just about excellence in ethics. It’s much more than that. We’re called, no less, to imitate the behavior of God. Some of how we do that is outlined for us in that 19th chapter; and, if you missed the point, look at how the chapter begins: “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” That’s a tall order. But it gets even taller as we move into that fifth chapter of Matthew. Note that Jesus picks up one of the core teachings from Leviticus: we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Jesus gives us a window into what that looks like. Jesus says the familiar, “You have heard an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say…” And that’s where Jesus starts to impart this vision of an alternative community, one that’s grounded in love, not revenge, not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That we are called not just to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love our neighbor as ourselves, but to, yes, love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And then the passage ends, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Well, lest you throw up your hands and say perfection is a little bit beyond my reach, a helpful note on that. Kathleen Norris makes the point that perfect in Jesus’ context is not the way that we hear it with our 21st century ears. That perfect was better understood in Jesus’ day as moving toward completion, moving toward maturity. So that when we are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, we’re called to maturity where we give ourselves to others—loving our neighbor as ourselves; turning the other cheek; going the extra mile.
I know that that’s a challenge to do in these days. Many of you have shared with me your despair and pain related to the brokenness and the divides in our country and abroad. How are we called to manifest our own discipleship and task to take the light into a broken and hurting world? Part of what I realized as I prayed and thought more deeply about that, I saw some of the answer in today’s passage from Matthew. It appears to me, and perhaps it seems to some of you, that we have been caught up over the course of a year with people on all sides living into an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It’s all too tempting to engage in that tit-for-tat and that’s what we’ve been witnessing.
But my brothers and sisters, I do not believe that that’s who we are. I believe that we fundamentally are better than that. Jesus calls us to an alternative way of being. Not an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. No. But to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend time naming and blaming enemies. I find that life depleting, not life giving. I believe that Jesus has called you and me to not let ourselves be seduced into that self-righteousness, not be seduced into that vengeful eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. We are better than that. We are called to be better than that. We are called to aspire to an alternative community where love prevails.
Martin Luther King, Jr. at one point said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” So how do we do that? How do we know what is ours to do? How do we know what God is calling you and me to do? I believe as Jesus states in the seventh chapter of Matthew that if you ask you will receive, if you seek, you will find, if you knock the door will be opened for you. If you sense something stirring inside of you, pay attention to that. That may be God’s prompting. That may be God’s leading of where God would have you carry a light.
It doesn’t have to be grand. It starts one person at a time with whatever God has put on your heart. In the mid-90s, I felt God putting something on my heart and a stirring deep within me. You may remember in the mid-90s there was a spate of black churches that were being burned and at a sickening rate, one every five days. They were primarily happening in the South and they were primarily happening at the hands of white bigots. As a white woman from the South I chose not to be defined that way. That’s not who I am. That’s not who I aspire to be. I rejected that as the way of being, as a way of loving your neighbor as yourself.
And so I asked, I sought and I knocked. And I found a way to respond to what was agitating me inside. There was a group from Montgomery County that was organizing to go to Effingham, South Carolina, to restore, rebuild, rebind, reconcile a black church that had been burned. So with a friend of mine from church we got in my car and we drove to Effingham, South Carolina, in August, 1996, when it was 100° outside and the humidity matched it inside that church. We stood shoulder to shoulder, paint brush to paint brush, sponge to sponge, and spatula to spatula, with friends from Washington Hebrew Congregation, with friends from the Baha’i tradition, with friends we had not known before. But we all came together because God put that on our hearts to show in a small way, not a grand way, what one can do when you set out to do a small thing with great love.
In this time when we see these tensions and these divides being played out with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, don’t let that define you. Don’t be tempted into that tit-for-tat. We are better than that. Jesus calls us to take the light of Christ out into this hurting and suffering world. The antidote to the despair or the pain or the loneliness that you feel is acting on what God has put in your heart. Only you can control your own heart and your own behavior. Only you can define who you are at your core.
John of the Cross said, “Where there is no love, put love and you will find love.” So I invite you my brothers and sisters to ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will indeed be opened for you. Put love where there is no love and you will find love. Amen.