Sunday, 20 February 2011

Relationships above rank

Epiphany 7 year A Sermon 
Today we’re still in the Roman Empire of the first century…sometime after Paul’s letters were written…
Alexandria… in Egypt…
And not only has this vast seaport… become the largest city on earth…with half a million people…it’s also home to the largest Jewish community in the world …they share the city equally with Greeks and Egyptians.

Since the time of Alexander the Great…three hundred years earlier… the Hebrew Scriptures have been translated in stages…into the dominant Greek language.

Hi my name is Amos like the prophet and I’m ten
and if you haven’t met me before…
you won’t know we received word last November…
that the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed
by Roman Troops…and thousands killed…and because of this…every Jew in Alexandria’s looking for a sign of hope…that God hasn’t abandoned his covenant with us.

Like all Jewish boys I’ve already memorised the five books of the Law of Moses… we call the Torah…
and I dream of following a famous rabbi when I’m older  taking on his yoke… becoming a great teacher myself.

For the past four weeks my grandfather…my Sabba has been reading to me from an illegal text he’s smuggled in …about the birth and baptism and temptation of a rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. We’d never heard of him till some of his followers were kicked out of our synagogue.

Now we’re studying this rabbi Jesus’ teaching…as he lays out his yoke…his interpretation of the scriptures …on a mountaintop!

But today my grandpa’s worried…Jesus teachings are
becoming political…maybe revolutionary…even dangerous.
He says here in Alexandria we have a nice easy relationship
with our Roman occupiers…and with the Greek aristocrats
who consider themselves… above the rest of us

But like their slaves and their women…
I’ve seen our Jewish men…treated like dogs.
And I’ve seen how our men are forced to hide their rage …when they’re hit with the back of a centurions hand

Oh they’d never hit us with their fist as they would an equal…with the back of their hand
they make a point of showing us… we’re beneath them

Ok I have to be quiet now it’s time for my Sabba to read.

Thank you Amos…for letting me get a word in edgewise
…You will remember that last time I read to you… this rabbi Jesus was telling us the quality of our relationships is more important than our religious rituals …and today my grandson…he seems to be making an even bolder claim…that our relationships are more important even… than our ranking in society…

Jesus begins this teaching… with words only a rabbi with great authority would say
"You have heard it said…
'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'

Yes I remember Grandpa… it says in Leviticus ‘fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.’

Yes that’s right very good Amos… that’s what the Law says…but next this Jesus is saying…

But I say to you, don’t resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn also the other cheek. 

Amos…Incredibly…this rabbi Jesus is telling people not to give a higher ranking person the power to humiliate them…by turning the other cheek
as if he wants us to say "Try again. Your first blow has absolutely failed to achieve its intended effect.
I deny you the power to humiliate me.
I am a human being just like you…made in the image of God. Your rank does not change that.
You cannot demean me."

And Amos you can imagine how such a response would put the attacker… in a very awkward position.[i] How can he now strike the other cheek? He certainly can’t backhand it with his right hand. Oh he could slap but that is what women do…And he can’t use his fists …that kind of fighting is only for equals

The whole point of hitting us with the backs of their hands… is to make sure… women and children and slaves…and Jews…know that we’re not equal…
Now I will read some more…

and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat,
give them your cloak as well;

Oh my Amos my grandson…
this is very mischievous teaching for the poor to hear …if all they have is their coat to repay a debt…
Only the poorest of the poor who’ve paid everything they have…
Only the poorest of the poor would have nothing but their coat… as security for a loan.

Amos you may not know this but our Jewish law
requires every evening… all coats must be returned at sunset because that’s all the poor have
to keep them from the cold at night.
But Grandpa…if they offer their cloak as well like Jesus tells …they’ll be naked
and such a thing in public is forbidden in our faith…
Isn’t it? I’m right aren’t I?

Yes, Amos my grandson…this man Jesus is a shrewd rabbi…he knows that shame will fall…not on the one who is naked…but the one who sees it or causes it.

Do you mean Grandpa…Like when Ham,
saw his father Noah naked… and was cursed by him[ii].

That’s right Amos…
If the poor person strips and goes out into the street
everyone will see the greedy moneylender’s shame for sentencing the naked man to a life of poverty with his loans

but remarkably…this rabbi Jesus tells us
all this standing for equality must be done…
not with hatred and bitterness…but in the spirit of love…
listen to this…

and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and don’t refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

"You have heard it said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
so you may be children of your Father in heaven; 

for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,
and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
And Jesus continues…
For if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even tax collectors even do the same?
And if you speak only to your brothers and sisters,
what more are you doing than others?
Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?

Amos…this Jesus is saying…stand as an equal to all people but love them all as well…for this Jesus my grandson
‘this is kadosh…this is holiness … for he says be
holy just as your heavenly Father is perfectly holy.’
as far as Jesus’ yoke is concerned …this is the will of God

it’s Leviticus again grandpa…
"Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: 'be holy[iii] because I, the LORD your God, am holy.

Yes Amos my genius grandson…Leviticus again.
But to follow this rabbi Jesus will be a hard thing
for not only must we insist on our equality with others even the Greeks and the Romans
but your grandmother may insist on her equality with me…and don’t you get any ideas young Amos…

and if you vow to follow this rabbi Jesus
you’ll have to love those unclean gentile children the pagan children in our streets and the Roman soldiers too
as though they weren’t our enemies already…

But grandpa…let me tell you a secret…some are already my friends. [pause]

And here we are two thousand years later…at the ends of the earth beneath these majestic mountains and beside this shining lake … and still we are challenged, convicted and concerned
when we hear the words of Jesus teaching in the gospel of Matthew…yes thank goodness his gospel is legal here
but in some countries it’s still banned even today. 

And I hope you’ll agree that reading Jesus words in the context of a first century Jewish grandpa and his grandson …we can no longer delude ourselves that for Jesus…
holiness had anything to do with personal purity
and spiritual maturity…

those were not Hebrew longings but a desire of the greeks Greek who aspired to become divine…
in the Hebrew Scriptures holiness was never a commandment but always an adjective[iv]
describing a quality of those who are God’s children…
identifying a feature of those who are set apart
for God’s holy purposes. 

And in the thinking of the ancient Hebrew people…
holiness was only observed through actions.

holy actions enshrined in the passage from Leviticus you heard today…the one little Amos memorised by the time he was ten… holy instruction for honouring parents, for Sabbath keeping, farming and business practice, charity
and justice in community.  [pause]
For God’s children…each and every one of these
is about the acting out of holiness… not all by ourselves…
but in community.  For there is no Hebrew concept of holiness… apart from all of us together
The “you” in Jesus sermon on the mountain top is plural! 

Holy living together…
as God directs… not as the world dictates. 

What the actions in Leviticus echoed in Jesus teaching today… boil down to these…

sharing, truthfulness, protecting the vulnerable, fair dealing, guarding your tongue… loving … never hating

Jesus challenges his followers…challenges us
to embrace these expressions of holiness
in all our relationships as a visible sign we are God’s children.

and yes…in the midst of all this equality and love…
Jesus commands us to exhort and admonish one another…whether our neighbours in church and  community …our business partners …our members of parliament …maybe even other nations

urging them to holy action…when they are guilty of hoarding and corruption, and exploitation, injustice, cruelty, dishonesty, violence and abuse…
speaking out lest we be guilty ourselves.

How can we claim to be Jesus’ followers…how can we claim to be God’s Children…filled by God’s Spirit…
if we don’t manifest this holiness.

My prayer is that we …surely will.

[i] My gratitude to Walter Wink for this insight
[ii] Genesis 9:20-27
[iii] קדוש (pronounced - Kadosh)