Everybody’s Perfect, Sermon, 23 February 2014

I preached this sermon on 2.23.14 at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., as part of the Baptist Women in Ministry Martha Stearns Marshall month of preaching.

Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5.38-48

Have you heard it said that we are to love our neighbors? Have you heard it said that we are to love God withmlk all of who we are?

We have heard it said. We have heard it said over and over again so that it probably seems like old news. Maybe it’s not even challenging or offensive anymore. But it is. The command to love our neighbor and our enemy is radical, and maybe even downright impossible.

You know you’re in trouble when you’re getting ready to preach on a text and pretty much every commentary you come across basically counsels you to preach on something else. Which is what happened when I started reading about both the Gospel and Old Testament texts. Which I took as a challenge. So: Challenge accepted. Besides, I like a good theological wrestling match and the Old Testament and Gospel passages offer us at least that.

So here’s the question we have to wrestle with – and probably ought to wrestle with a whole lot more than we do: What if Jesus really meant what he said about all this – this loving our enemies and perfection stuff?

We know the answer (even though we often act otherwise). So, we wrestle with the reality that “Jesus isn’t kidding and is dead serious about these commands [about love].” David Lose says this: in this sermon, Jesus outlines his vision of God’s Kingdom and issues a summons to those who desire to be a part of it. Jesus isn’t trying to modify the rules of the world.” This is not a Gospel of prosperity or safety. “Rather, he’s starting a revolution by calling the rules of this world into question and, at the very same time, redeeming this world that he loves and that will, in due time, put him to death.”[1]

There are two troubling commands in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, and come from the levitical code: the call to love not just neighbor but our enemies, and the call to perfection. And these calls are directly linked. When Jesus said love he’s not commanding sentiment, romance or lust; it is action – the kind of love that has the power to transform and redeem and recreate.

Which informs the impossible command found in the readings from both Leviticus and Matthew: “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,”[2] and “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”

This call to perfection is not a call to sinlessness – though, don’t get me wrong, that’s a pretty good ideal as well – but when we understand it that way we get distracted and bogged down by rules. Rather, it is a call to the perfect kind of love and inclusion that is the very heart and identity of God.

It is less about action and primarily about identity, about doing. It is about who are we. We are known by what we do – and we are called to love, forgive, and pray. If we are to be called children of God, we do not retaliate, we don’t return evil for evil, we do not turn our backs on the poor and the alien and the downtrodden. And we do not look on them with pity.

Rather, we open our eyes and our arms and our hearts to love fully, to we include the Other in our community to the extent that there is no such thing as “the Other” anymore.

Everything we read today – about holiness, perfection – comes back to this: the love of neighbor, which is integrally wrapped up in loving God with all of who we are.

What Jesus does is not rewrite the Law or negate the Law or any of that. He simply enlarges the definition of neighbor. Actually, he breaks down our definition so there is no difference between neighbor, enemy, alien, family. All are one – we are called to love all persons with dignity and worth and love of God.

When we ask the question of how we live in human community as God intended, Leviticus answers that our ethical behavior is how we demonstrate authentic love of God. We are called to action – again, not to earn anything.

This is not our means of salvation, but the very working out of the free gift of salvation. Because God loves us, because God offers us free and abundant grace, we have abundant life when we love others and offer others the same forgiveness and wholeness.

Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount build on and expand the legal tradition. What he is getting at throughout his sermon is our collective call – the Christian vocation. We often use the idea of vocation so narrowly defined as to be basically the Christian code-word for career.

But listen to the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus is telling us our vocation as his followers – who and what we are called to be and do: build peace, seek righteousness and justice, choose against injustice…

And so this passage ends with a bit of a summary of this vocation. It’s still seems pretty impossible, doesn’t it? It’s certainly not supposed to sound easy. Because it isn’t easy. And it often seems hard to know how we are to be or what we are to do.

We are called to the work of being holy. Of getting our hands dirty and doing the hard work of loving, forgiving, welcoming, providing, liberating. Frame this with the call to nonviolence and we see that it is anything but a call to submission or victimhood.

Rather, it is a call to work to see that not just ourselves, but our communities, our systems, our world is redeemed into the likeness of God. It is a continual work to live into the presence and likeness of God – and this is the very promise of God in the covenant and in the Gospel – we shall be like God.

Because God loves us. Because we are God’s children.

So. It is not so much perfection, as we tend to think of it, to which we are called – but perfect love – understood when we consider the source of both the law and the Gospel.

Consider the source of these words – Jesus, the very embodiment of God. God who loves us enough to engage in radical relationship as one of us – instructs us in perfection: when we take into account the source of these commands we understand that we have “a portrait of the very heart of God, one who loves the unlovable.” Jesus gives us such seemingly radical ways to love and live, not because he wants us to turn to the despair of impossibility, but “because that is how God loves. If you want to follow this God, fleshed in Jesus, you will be adopted into a life in which you find yourself loving this way before you know what you are doing.”[3]

Consider the source: We know Jesus. We claim that we have seen him, that he continues to live and move among us. Therefore, we see the possibility breaking through the impossibility: We “know God’s love,” and so we can love our enemies and offer forgiveness. All of this transforms into the realm of the possible because we don’t just read words on a page – we know directly their source.

The injunction in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy, and the charge from Jesus to be perfect as God is perfect is, again, not intended to push us to give up because we’re fighting a losing battle.

Rather, both the law and the gospel point to the entire goal of discipleship. We are to imitate God.

The rules are not set up for mere conformity’s sake. Jesus doesn’t want us to be submissive or weak, but we are called – our very vocation as his followers – is to imitate God. And we can do that because we consider the source, we know how God loves and moves and responds because we know Christ. The very goal of our lives as followers of Jesus is to be perfect, which is to say, to imitate God. To love as God loves. To forgive as God forgives. To welcome as God welcomes.

I’d like to take a step back. I would like to pause right here. Remember how Jesus told us we are supposed to love our enemies? I always think (like a lot of things Jesus said) that this is a nice idea, for other people. But when you get practical about it, who could love and forgive their enemies, even if we wanted to?

And we must tell the truth here: part of the problem with this Gospel text is that it has been used, and continues to be used to justify oppression and pacify victims.

We certainly could and ought to wrestle with this text by acknowledging the utter difficulty – even impossibility of loving enemies who inflict real and prodigal harm – abusers, murderers, sexual predators, war-mongers. We could throw the Hitler card here in Jesus’ face and leave feeling pretty frustrated.

And that’s some worthy wrestling, to be sure. It is a hard vocation we are called to, to figure out how to show love to enemies without ourselves becoming victims or doormats or worse. To be clear – I do not believe that Jesus is calling us to be passive victims or doormats or worse.

Another way I’d like to wrestle with this call to love our enemies, is to hold that command up in light of the holiness codes found in the reading from Leviticus. Our culture has created enemies out of difference.

We are hard-wired, it seems, to look for enemies all around us. We fear shadows and we persist in our fear of folks with skin color unlike our own, or language unlike our own. We hold suspicions against those whose income and housing do not look pristine. “The poor” has become a dirty word for us – as though being poor reflects one’s personal and spiritual worth.

If we know anything to be true consistent throughout the biblical story is that if we make enemies out of the poor, the oppressed, the alien, we have made enemies out of God.

One of the principles guiding the lives of the Hebrews was that God dwelt among them. So the holiness codes, the laws were a way of answering the question: If we believe that God dwells in our midst, what difference does that make?

I think we ought to ask ourselves the same question: If we believe that God dwells in our midst, what difference does that make? What matters most are not the things we do to prove ourselves good, but the ways we engage with one another and treat one another.

To what extent do we guard each other’s dignity – and not just the dignity of people we like; that part is easy. How are we at guarding the worth and dignity of people who are downright rotten to us? Or the people we are otherwise told to ignore – the poor, the alien, the broken (in body, mind, and spirit).

If we take seriously the commands in Leviticus and the Sermon on the Mount we are confronted with the reality that, “Because every human being bears ‘the likeness of God,’ the failure to love others is equivalent to saying that neither thy nor we have value in the eyes of God.”[4]

This is part of the challenge in what Jesus offers today. Our rules – the games we play – are obliterated. Jesus sets out the rule of perfect love, which is all inclusive – and completely dissolves the distinctions between us vs. them. “‘We’ and ‘they’ are all loved by God.”

Loving other people – loving all people, even our enemies – is about honoring their humanity, believing that God really can transform the other, and then to treat them with the dignity and respect of another created in the image of God.[5]

“Jesus is taking the imago Dei not just seriously, but literally, a truly incarnational theology. … We are, Jesus implicitly argues, God’s heirs, and also God’s flesh and blood, God’s family, God’s descendants and legacy. We have more to live up to than we ever imagined.”[6]

Perhaps this is why we so often prefer to maintain a theology focuses on God’s transcendence – God’s holiness that is so far removed and above and other than us.

It is safer for us that way. In the end if we don’t have such a responsibility, if our DNA weren’t wrapped up in God’s own being – then we could remain all-too-human – clinging to our humanness as an excuse, rather than responding to and embracing the blessing of being God’s children – made flesh and blood in our incarnational theology.

A piece of Jesus’ call to perfection is – much like in the verses prior to this in the Sermon on the Mount – a call to recognize who we already are – we are created in God’s image and we are called children of God. The call to be perfect as God is perfect, then is, at least, “an invitation to self-recognition.”[7]

So, the call to Christian vocation is a call to perfection – but it is not a perfection in the ways that we assume. It isn’t living up to a checklist of do’s and don’t’s perfectly. To be sure, it is about doing, and action, but out of our identity as children of God we move to love others as God loves them – we love all of humanity as God loves them, with no partiality, and with full worthiness.

The call to Christian vocation in Jesus’ words is a clear call to perfection – which is worked out in relationships and communities It embodies the very grace and provision and liberation of God. It is not a call to perfection thinly veiled as a set-up to failure, but a radical call to acknowledge who we are created and gifted to be, and a participation in the redemption and transformation of ourselves and our world into the fully realized Kingdom of God.

Did Jesus really mean what he said? You bet he did. Thank God he did.

[1] David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher,” 2.18.14: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3076

[2] Leviticus 19.2

[3] Jason Byassee, “Theological Perspective,” Matthew 5.38-48, Feasting on the Word: Year A, vol. 1. 382.

[4] Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus: Interpretation Commentary. Westminster John Knox, 2011. 166.

[6] William F. Brosend, II, “Theological Perspective,” Matthew 5.38-48, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew. 112.

[7] Brosend, 114.


“You Already Are” – Sermon, Epiphany 5

I preached this sermon at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky, Sunday, February 9, as part of Baptist Women in Ministry’s Martha Stearns Marshall Month. I also preached it at my congregation Sunday, February 16.

Matthew 5.13-20 & Isaiah 58.1-12

Today’s Gospel text is one of those passages that I have a hard time grasping. Not because what Jesus says is particularly spiritually challenging – though it is, of course. My problem is much more pedestrian than that. I simply don’t like salt. Okay, I’m American. I love salt. Potato chips. French fries. But I pick the salt off my pretzels. I “forget” to add salt to vegetables when I cook them. I don’t like to add salt to my eggs. When people come over to my house and ask for salt, I often have to go looking for it. Yes, I know. I’m a weirdo.

So when Jesus tells me I am the salt of the earth, it seems an entirely unnecessary thing to be. And all salt really evokes in me is a desire for chocolate.

My tastes aside, when you start to think and read and ponder what Jesus is up to here, his words are not only challenging, but the kind of words you can hang your spiritual hat on, so to speak.

We often re-tell this part of the Sermon on the Mount as though it is part of a series of commands, as though6a00d8341bffb053ef0134818071ae970c-500wi Jesus is telling his disciples to be something that they aren’t. Or to be it in a better way. Be saltier. Be brighter. But that’s not what he says; he says you are the salt; you are the light. He tells them what they already are. Reminding them of the gifts they already have. The qualities they already possess as functioning, participating members of God’s Kingdom. Their already-present identity in the image of God.

He is telling us: you already are the salt.  You already are the light.

This part of the Sermon on the Mount is “Sheer promise and declaration”[1] from Jesus. Jesus doesn’t command; he commissions those listening “actually to be salt and light, to be the persons they’ve been called to be.”

Pastor David Lose puts it this way: Jesus calls those listening “to season and preserve the world, to let their light shine so that others will see their good works — yes, good works! — and glorify God. Jesus isn’t asking them to earn their salvation, of course, but to live out the salvation and discipleship that has been given them as a gift.”[2]

We are invited alongside God’s work. Not only are we invited, we, really and truly, are commanded – no, commissioned – to work alongside. To get to work. To be the real living breathing working moving presence of God in our world – in fact we already are just that.

I opened up my computer to work on this sermon. I pulled up Facebook because I’m really good at procrastination. I mean, I’m really good at research. Luckily for me my procrastination led me to this – another pastor, surely working on this same passage mused:

“When, If, Until, Unless – these words are the enemies of grace.”[3] We use these words a lot, don’t we, to excuse away our own inability or unwillingness to participate in God’s work? I use these words all the time to excuse a host of inactivity.

I’ll be a good person when I find all the answers, if I do these certain things. I don’t have to start being like Jesus until I’m a grown up. I’ll be ready to work for God’s Kingdom unless the basketball game is on. When. If. Until. Unless. These are enemies of God’s grace and the Gospel.

The verb tense here is present – you are. Not you will be. The passage begs the question, does your life – do our lives as a community – make a difference? Not will they. Not in Heaven. Not when, if, until, or unless, but here and now? Are we living, worshiping, working, confident in God’s grace and being agents of flavor and light in the world – making a difference?

I really like how the Message translates these verses. Listen:

Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.


What a beautiful way to reinterpret and redefine the metaphor Jesus uses.

How do we know if the flavor and color we add are of God, though? Keep this passage in the context of what comes before – flip back a few verses to the Beatitudes – we know salt and light when we know meekness, peacemaking, mercy, poverty of spirit. We know God-colors and God-flavors when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.

Jesus does offer a warning here – don’t lose your effectiveness. Don’t lose your flavor. Don’t find yourself under a bushel – a dark place, for sure, but not one where light is particularly useful. What is your bushel? What is it that renders you ineffective?

We all have our bushels. As individuals – and as a community.

“Maybe the bushel is an inferiority complex, a lack of confidence that comes from chronically comparing ourselves to […other people, other churches]. … Or perhaps the bushel is self-absorption of internal conflicts. … Or perhaps the bushel is the fantasy church in our minds.”[4] All of these things prevent our lives from being light – from introducing the God-colors to the world around us.

The passage from Isaiah today finds the prophet trying to dig his people out from under their own self-made bushels.

In Isaiah, we find the people returning to their homelands and wanting to rebuild. Not surprisingly, they are more than a little nostalgic. That, and more than a little in shock. They miss the old ways, they long for life to be put back together, but are at a loss – how can they put the pieces back together of their old lives, their old rituals, their old worship, when they can’t even find the broken pieces shattered around them?

They do what they can. They have done what they can, and yet, despite their best efforts to do the right things, they sense God’s absence. They perceive that God has not kept the faith – while they have. They have fasted, they have sacrificed, they have done all the right things and been really good at not doing the wrong things. Or so they think.

Isaiah’s words are a call to action – or a call to new action – out from under the bushels of self-righteousness and religiosity. His words serve to remind them of who they are. They have been fasting in effort to earn God’s favor, and Isaiah offers them a new way to fast: “a new set of relationships within ongoing life.”

Instead of fasting from food or drink; instead of fasting as a means of self-denial, God calls them to a new kind of fast, a fast from denying others: “a daily fast from domination, blaming others, evil speech, self-satisfaction, entitlement and blindness to one’s privilege. The fast that God seeks calls for vigilance for justice and generosity day in and day out.”[5]

The fast God chooses is right in line with the words of Jesus. God does not call us to be in relationship with God for our own sake. In truth, we cannot be in relationship with God and God only – we “cannot have a full relationship with God without a just relationship with each other.”[6]

One of the things that strikes me most uncomfortably between the types of fasting here is the means vs. the ends. For the people’s part, fasting is a means to an end. They believe by fasting they will earn God’s favor.

If they fast, then God will answer their prayers. If they follow the rules of piety, then they will find salvation.

They follow this logic and find themselves even more removed from the light of God – from the presence of God’s holiness. The kind of fasting to which Isaiah calls them is not a means to an end, but a gift to itself. The fasting is about restoring right relationship with other people, and thereby right relationship with God. This is not in order to re-earn God’s favor, but because other people are worthy in and of themselves. We ought to treat people with justice and generosity because they are worthy of God’s kind of love and hospitality. The only ends that matter is not something we earn, but our reflection of God’s own self.

In Isaiah, the people perceive unanswered prayers. They perceive a silent God. Despite all their best efforts it seems that darkness is their home, and brokenness is their God-given (or at least God-abandoned) reality.

I have much more of an inclination, a desire, to be like Isaiah – to want to point out the false worship I see, to observe with righteous indignation the falsely placed hopes in self-righteous fasting. I see the ways that we are like the people in Isaiah: all the ways we tell ourselves – if I do this – go to church, read my bible, have a quiet time – or if I don’t do this – cuss, drink, dance – then I will know I’m favored. I hear how Isaiah would respond to this.

Instead, the challenge for me this week is to be more like Jesus. (Which is really cliché to say, because, really, aren’t we all always challenged to be more like Jesus. I digress.) I am challenged to be more like Jesus to hold up false worship and false idols in tension with the naming of who we already are. We don’t need to do these things because we are already salt and light. We are commissioned by these words to go and season, preserve, flavor the earth. To shine a light in corners of darkness. We can do that – not when, if, until, or unless, but because we already are salt and light.

God expects partnership and participation. We are not to be idle. We are not worthless. And just as Isaiah and Jesus affirm – we are useful only and as far as we are useful for, with and alongside others. We are useful when we bring out the God-flavors of the world, and when our light illumines the God-colors of the world. When we speak peace, mercy and justice in the world of violence, retribution and oppression – when we shine the light and hope of Christ in the darkest corners of despair and death – we are salt and light.

We do not fulfill our purpose when we make sacrifices only for God, or when we fast with the intent to earn our way somewhere – when we keep false appearances of piety, but ignore the real need. How can salt do its job sitting on a shelf? How can light do its job if it does not get right in the midst of the darkness?

When we invite, and allow God to be present among us, and when we respond to God’s call to work alongside God, we find light, we find God’s holiness, we find our own usefulness in bringing out the flavors of the world, as light in dark places.

If we are salt and light – the very presence of God’s Spirit in the world, then are our salty and bright lives the very voice of God when others face their own darkness? When others wonder about the presence of God, the silence of God in the face of their lament, their pleas, their wonderings, what if we really do, by building just relationships, we speak the very peace and righteousness of God? Not in any kind of savior-complex, but in our presence. In our willingness to be the salt and be the light Jesus calls us, in our willingness to be useful, in our willingness to go to the dark places, our lives bear the very presence of the Holy One.

We don’t bring out the God-flavors and colors by following rigid rules of piety – not saying certain words, or ascribing everything to simplified clichés. This is a faith bigger than Pinterest-worthy sayings. We bring out the God-flavors and God-colors when we seek out the lost, when we hunger and thirst for the righteousness of liberation and compassion, when we go to the darkest places and sit, shining our little lights, until the light itself wins out.

Salt is poured out – just as Isaiah urges the people in verse 10: “pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted.” We are to pour out of our very selves out the works and presence of God – liberation, generosity, compassion. Our light, then is a light of freedom, grace, love. And not later – now.

Be emboldened by this good news, friends, that Jesus is talking to us – we are salt and we are light. Not if, when, until, or unless, but we are. Go and be – go and show the world God’s colors – even into the darkest places.

And see, this is my kind of evangelism. Maybe you’re like me and you get a little squeamish when the conversation starts about evangelism. I’ll be honest: I don’t like the word. And I don’t even want to reclaim it anymore. But this passage, if it is about anything at all, it’s about evangelism. Not door-to-door stuff. Not street corner stuff. Not even relationship-in-exchange-for-salvation stuff. It is evangelism that seeks to flavor the world with God’s love and grace – simply because that is who we already are. We are already loved and free, so we move in the world out of that identity and to share that identity.

Go be salty. Go be light. In fact – you already are.

[1] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[4] Amy Oden, “Commentary on Matthew 5.13-20,” Working Preacher, RCL, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1901

[5] Amy Oden, “Commentary on Isaiah 58.1-9a [9b-12],” Working Preacher.

[6] Oden.