Bless me, reader(s), for I have sinned: it has been more than two months since my last blog post.
I suspect that few of you are particularly upset by the long dearth of content – surely there are other places on the World Wide Web where you can turn for half-baked, wishy-washy, pollyanna, obvious and sometimes borderline heretical spiritual reflections, aren’t there?
And to be honest, I’m not terribly upset about this extended hiatus either, because the reason I haven’t done much writing about Disciplehood lately is that I’ve been too busy living out my Disciplehood.
I’ve been asked to serve as the Lay Director for the upcoming Men’s Spring Cursillo weekend here in the Anglican Diocese of Calgary, and the discernment process that’s exploring whether I’m called to ordained ministry is gathering steam – so I’ve been too busy with those two items (plus work and family, of course) to spend much time in the ol’ Blog Factory.
But I thought I’d take some time today to get back in the sweatshop, in light of a momentous milestone in my own journey: my first sermon.
That’s right – my pastor (The Ven. Stephen Hambidge of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Calgary) invited me to step into the pulpit and share some thoughts on the day’s readings, just like a real preacherman.
My first sermon is titled, ‘An Ultimatum … or an Invitation’.
In case you’re interested, here it is:
And I gotta say, preparing and delivering the sermon was tougher than I expected. I’ve been writing wanna-be sermons in this blog for more than six years now, and through Cursillo and my role as Music Director at HTACC, public speaking about spiritual topics is fairly familiar territory – but being the actual Sermon Guy on a Sunday morning is something quite different.
Coming up with something to say that’s insightful, helpful and relevant to the day’s Lectionary readings – and then presenting it in a way that’s engaging but not gimmicky – is a bigger challenge than I expected.
And I’ve got to tell you: that ‘not gimmicky’ thing was tough for me. I had a long (but not all that funny) Superman joke and a Kenny Rogers song written into a draft of the sermon at one point – as well as plans to have the congregation shout back to me key words in the sermon as we came to them.
But I decided to approach the sermon a little more conventionally than I do my Cursillo talks and my blog posts, to make sure that the substance had center stage, rather than style – partly out of respect for people’s time.
Speaking of respecting people’s time, I could easily have written a 45-minute sermon and not picked all of the low-hanging fruit in Leviticus 19:1-2; 9-18 and Matthew 5:38-48 – our readings for February 19. Deciding which great bits – all of which supported the general message and theme of the sermon – to save for another day, and which ones to preach on Sunday, was tougher than I expected.
It was a great reminder for me of how much wisdom and insight is waiting in these texts, just waiting for us to dive in, wrestle with it and dare to apply it to our lives. Not that there’s anything humdrum in the Sermon on the Mount, but it’s also well-trodden territory. Still, I’ve discovered (and will continue to discover) that even if you’ve heard five-thousand sermons on the Feeding of the Five-Thousand, there’s always room for one more.
Now, in light of the fact we won’t get back to Matthew 5 again in the Lectionary until 2020, I thought I’d share some of what didn’t make the cut from today’s sermon, in this blog post. It’s probably best to listen to the recording before reading on, so if you haven’t done so yet, please do. And then read on:
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Our Leviticus reading begins with the phrase, ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.’ And our Matthew text ends with the phrase, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
And at first glance, I’m really not sure what we’re supposed to do with that. So I took took a look at some other English translations of the Bible, just in case other translations of the Bible use a different word for ‘perfect’ than the NIV does.
No such luck. This Greek word translated as ‘perfect’ in this verse – teleioi – is sometimes used to mean ‘complete’ or ‘mature’ in other places in the New Testament, but every English translation available in Bible Gateway uses the word ‘perfect’ in Matthew 5:48. So it’s pretty clear that scholars agree that ‘perfect’ is the right word.
And let’s be clear about what the word ‘perfect’ means. It’s an absolute. There aren’t degrees of ‘perfect’. You can’t be partly perfect. You can’t be a little bit perfect. ‘Perfect’ is like ‘pregnant’: you either are or you’re not. And Jesus is telling us here to ‘Be perfect.’
Not to ‘become perfect over time’. Not to ‘aspire to be perfect’. But to be perfect – right now, and all at once – or else.
But, Jesus, nobody’s perfect! And You, of all people, should know that!
After all, Scripture tells us that Jesus was the only perfect human who ever lived. Jesus never looked too long at a pretty girl. He never had one meatball too many. And He never said a cuss word after hitting his thumb with a hammer. (I guess He probably never hit His thumb with a hammer, either: if He was perfect, he must’ve had perfect aim, too!)
And Scripture also tells us that the very reason Perfect Jesus came and became one of us is specifically because we’re not capable of being perfect!
What on earth could Jesus have been up to here?
(Listen to the sermon for some thoughts, if you haven’t already…)
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Did you notice that Matthew 5:43 sounds a little like Leviticus 19:18?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ – Matthew 5:43
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. – Leviticus 19:18
Not only are these verses similar, but according to the footnotes in my Bible, Jesus is quoting Leviticus 19:18 in Matthew 5:43. Or more accurately, He’s misquoting that verse.
But take a close look at the way the New International Version translates it: ‘You have heard that it was said: Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ He didn’t say ‘It is written,’ or even ‘You have heard it said…’, but ‘You have heard that it was said…’
It almost sounds like Jesus is subtly accusing His listeners of accepting hearsay, doesn’t it?
Maybe that’s because in many ways, the people of Jesus’ time were living as though they thought it was encouraged, or at least OK, to hate their enemies. And I think a lot of us today, maybe without realizing it, are living as though we think it’s OK to hate our enemies, too.
Jesus wants to set us straight on this, but rather than confronting us about how we’ve read it wrong and getting bogged down in an ‘am not-are too’ argument, our practical, patient and gracious teacher meets us where we are, and starts there. (He does that a lot, doesn’t He?)
He seems to say, ‘Regardless of how you’ve understood this concept before now, I’m telling you what God really wants for (not from) you in this area: to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’
Now, in our civilized, polite society, we might be inclined to think this word isn’t for us: we don’t have any enemies. But if Jesus were to visit your social media channels, would He be quick to agree you don’t have any enemies? And would He be pleased at how you’re doing when it comes to showing love to them?
Similarly, most of us who grew up in Canada probably don’t know what real persecution feels like, either. But everybody knows what it’s like to be treated unfairly.
Your boss is unreasonable. Your landlord is unforgiving. Your taxman makes mountains out of molehills. There’s a bully in your middle school locker room. Your boyfriend plays mind games. Your girlfriend cheated on you with your best friend.
Jesus wants us to pray for the people who hurt us.
Not to pray that they’ll ‘get what’s coming to them’. Not even just to pray that God would change their hearts and show them the error of their ways so they’d stop hurting us and start blessing us.
I think we’re called to pray that God would bless our persecutors, even if they will use that blessing to continue to persecute us. Look at the rest of the verse and the ones that follow:
‘But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ – Matthew 5:44-48
God isn’t stingy with his blessings; he blesses indiscriminately, and I think Jesus is calling us here to get in step with that – in our prayers, and in our actions. To pray indiscriminately and to bless indiscriminately. To love indiscriminately – and to love creatively.
And as we strive to put that into practice, in our messy and imperfect lives, I suspect we’ll increasingly understand what it means to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
Peace be with you.