Liturgical Olympics

This is a sermon given by guest preacher, Kimberly Axtell on February 23, 2014.

Jesus said, You have heard that is was said.

Well the season is almost over. No, not Epiphany, I’m talking about the Olympic season. I believe that the closing ceremonies are tonight, right? So in the spirit of the season, I am going to briefly mention a post I read about having a different kind of Olympics: Liturgical Olympics. So for all the church-y people who are feeling left out the past 2 weeks, the Rev. Bosco Peters in New Zealand has the following suggestions:

Speed mass – where the celebrants have to complete the Eucharistic prayer and distribute the elements in record time. Extra difficulty points will be awarded to those who select Rite 1 and don’t trip over the older language.

Other suggestions included Acolyte Choreography, Altar Guild prep, changing the worship space and my personal favorite: Endurance preaching – how long can you preach without preparation on a surprise text without putting anyone to sleep. This sounds a bit like one of those cooking shows like Iron Chef, with surprise ingredients;   but I don’t think we’ll be participating in that one today.

On a slightly more serious note, another Olympic story caught my eye about the women’s figure skater, Gracie Gold. The story briefly told how Gracie wanted to skate at the Olympics and was yet afraid of failing. So her new coach “convinced her that her perfectionism was getting in the way.” That “it’s not the perfect skater that wins, it’s the best skater.” And by allowing herself to be comfortable with the prospect of failure, Gracie got a spot on the American team and skated her way to 4th place. This is actually an important point and I will come back to this a little later. So keep this brief snippet of a story close at hand.

And if it seems that the Olympics have been too short, it has been a long Epiphany season – yes we are still in the season of Epiphany – the season of the wise men, and the baptism of Jesus. Christmas seems so long ago. This is a flexible season whose length changes from year to year and it has as a central theme the proclamation of God revealed in this world. The star sends out a beacon light to gentiles near and far. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry is celebrated in his baptism. And for the last couple of weeks we have been hearing different takes on the Torah, or Hebrew teaching. This week, that emphasis is brought into sharp focus.

You have heard it said…

I had occasion this week to sit and talk with a Rabbi friend of mine, Rabbi Ari who leads a synagogue close to our work. And he had some interesting observations about the passage that we just heard from Leviticus. Unfortunately today, we did not hear the whole passage. Some verses were cut for the sake of editing, I guess. But he named this chapter in Leviticus the heart of the Torah. The arrangement of the verses, their number and their structure, has an overarching meaning of life – life in this world and the next. And in contrast to our translation of word Torah as Law – something that is legalistic, so very cut and dried, it is actually the keeping of Torah that is life now, and in the life to come. And the emphasis is on the word keeping, not perfecting. Remember the story about Gracie Gold.

If you look closely, you will notice that the commands that God gives to Moses begin with the concept, “you shall be holy.” This concept is then laid out in the next 32 couplets as an example of how to be holy – separate, set aside as priests to the world. Rabbi Ari pointed out that it is in the doing of good works (keeping the Torah), that the Hebrews are sanctified. Not that they are perfect in doing the law, but that they keep the law. It is an important distinction. Nowhere does God say that we are to be perfect at all times in our thoughts or our behavior. (We’ll be getting to the Matthew reading here soon).

And another observation quickly surfaces, that all of the words that were given to Moses in this passage actually relates to our conduct to one another. Leave some leftovers at the edge of your fields so that there is something for the poor to gather with honor, so they do not have to beg. Don’t take something that doesn’t belong to you. In a world of limited means, taking more than your share might mean that someone starves. Don’t take away someone else’s honor or dignity – be true to your community and all that are there. These commands are summed up in the verse that you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. How else to be holy, to have life and to give life, except to love your neighbor?

You have heard it said…

As we move on in our readings for today, we have a passage from Psalm 119. This acrostic hymn to God‘s teaching, God’s word, goes on for many verses – 176 unique verses, I might add. Blessed are you who finish this Psalm in one sitting. If you look closely at the section, not the whole psalm but just the section, you will notice the emphasis is on God and God’s leading: Teach me, Give me, Make me, incline my heart, turn my eyes. In every instance, it is God leading, God doing the work, so that the psalmist, and we, might be able, to be prepared to do the work that God has prepared for us to do.

And so, after hearing these two passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, we are prepared to hear the words of Jesus.

You have heard it said…

I believe that it is the job of each preacher to tell the gospel story to their own community, to meet the needs of their time. This is what I believe that Jesus is doing in this continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. This section is set up by Matthew to echo Moses giving God’s teaching on Mount Sinai. It appears that the Hebrew culture had drifted away from the original meaning of the Scriptures, focusing on the perfecting of the Torah and not the doing. So often Jesus criticizes the spiritual leaders who focus on keeping themselves pure and separate, and ignore the needs of those close at hand. Matthew, who is writing to a Hebrew audience, pictures Jesus going up to the brow of a ridge, where he could be heard by a number of people and he gives a new teaching.

Jesus echoes a portion of the Scripture and gives a new twist – one that would resonate with his audience: if anyone humiliates you, turn your cheek, essentially walk away, do not get into a fight. If you have excess clothing, do not cling to this status of wealth, give your excess to someone who needs it. If you are in the unfortunate position of being called upon by the authorities to schlep their stuff and act like a common mule, smile and go the extra mile.

Then Jesus points out the obvious fact: the sun rises on us all, and the rain falls on us all. Rise above your situation and love those around you. In essence, remember to do the teaching of God, don’t be concerned about keeping yourself pure and separate, or being angry and afraid. And Jesus throws in this kicker as a summation of his sermon: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect. Wait, doesn’t this contradict what Jesus was just saying?

Not quite. The word that is translated here for the word perfect is the Greek word, telios (as in teleological). And one of the primary meanings of this word is complete. So if I may rephrase: be complete, be healed as your God is complete and whole. Remember Gracie Gold, it is not perfection that we should be striving for, but wholeness, completeness, healing. It is in the doing of God’s will that we are made whole.

What does this imply for us today and for this community? With the season of Lent just around the corner, I would offer to you this one thing. It is often the custom to give up something for Lent, to abstain from a bad habit or to start a new holy habit. I would suggest that for the season of Lent you would give up Fear. So often in our society and in our media, we are encouraged to be afraid. There are many things to fear, many things we should be concerned about and try to change. But fear should not be a selling point for that new gadget or that new car, or how or if we vote, or speak out against the problems in our community. So I would ask you to consider being brave, to try some new thing, to risk failing, falling on the ice in order to learn to do better. And as a part of the process of trying something new, tell someone about that experience. For it is in trying and failing and getting back up and doing it again, that we learn to love one another and God and ourselves more fully, that we accept the true cost of reaching and do it anyways because that is what God is calling us to do: to be brave.