Based on: Leviticus 19: 1-2; 9-18 and Matthew 5: 38-48
Opening Prayer: God of love, light, and laughter; God of sadness and joy; God of glory, mystery, and hope, be with us in our listening and in our wondering as we reflect on your Holy Word from Scripture for us this day. Amen.
This morning we come to the end of the season of Epiphany-the season in the church year when our stories from scripture remind us of how the light of God’s love manifested in the person of Jesus takes hold of people’s hearts and lives in startling and amazing ways.
Here this morning we find ourselves once again in the company of the thronging crowds on the mountainside.
You remember-the blind ones, the deaf, the lost, the last and the least ones, all gathered together on the mountaintop, these are ones who just can’t seem to get enough of this person, Jesus, whose compassionate healing and teaching skills and clarity of purpose is about to turn the world upside down for those first followers in his way.
Relying once again on those antithetical words “You have heard it was said that…. But I say to you…” Jesus outlines his strategic plan for embodying the ancient law of Leviticus in authentic, meaningful, and purposeful ways in the context of first century Palestine.
Here, in this morning’s readings from Matthew’s gospel, in place of retaliation, Jesus preaches reconciliation accompanied by nonviolent resistance.
Here, in place of self aggrandizement Jesus preaches a model of sharing access to the most basic of needs such as food, clothing, and shelter.
Here, on the mountaintop, in place of hatred, Jesus encourages the practices of prayer and mutual forgiveness.
Living in just such ways as these ways, Jesus says, will help build a strong foundation for God’s dream for the world, God’s peaceable kingdom, God’s vision of Shalom.
You know the place?
It’s the place where the last and the least will be welcomed as children of a living, loving God and where the holiness of God’s love will be abundantly apparent!
At a first glance we might think, what a great promise! What a powerful vision! What a wonderful plan to set things to rights for those maligned ones so in need of healing, hope, and inclusion in the frighteningly oppressive world of Roman Occupied first century Palestine.
On deeper reflection, however, there is also a sense of foreboding and fear as we understand that more than just the meek, the mild, the lost and the least, the poor and the disconsolate, are listening to Jesus’ words.
Sprinkled through the crowds there would also be informants to representatives of the status quo, the religious leaders of the day, and possibly officers of the Roman court whose mandate would be to maintain orderliness and behaviour in keeping with their occupation of the land.
Knowing that change will not come without struggle and persecution, Jesus concludes this portion of the sermon on the mount with one last significant message:
“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 that 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 the unrighteous.”
To my listening ear, Jesus is teaching those fledgling disciples, entranced by their experience of the holy on the mountaintop, that things will inevitably get a lot worse before they get better.
Reminding them that evil and good do co-exist and that the righteous and the unrighteous will continue to struggle, he encourages them to prepare themselves to be persistent as they say ‘yes’ to the daunting work of following in his way.
This, we do know to be true, as we turn to our stories from scripture that invite us to look back so as to look forward.
This, we do know to be true also as we move from the season of Epiphany to the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop next week and then on to the season of Lent, the journey to Jerusalem, to Jesus’ death on the cross, and to the new life that comes at Easter.
Until then, we are invited into finding some meaning, some grist for the mill of our own lives as followers in the Way almost 2 millennia after Jesus offered these words of hope for the last and the least, the lost and the found, the lame and the deaf and the demoniac, the ones in so much need of healing and hope on that proverbial mountaintop.
To my way of thinking, Jesus’ radical, counter-intuitive, mind boggling call to reconciliation as opposed to retaliation is as daunting for us gathered here this day as it was for those first ones gathered on the mountaintop.
Jesus’ admonishment to let go our need for self aggrandisement and instead find ways of sharing access to the most basic needs as food, clothing, and shelter is as equally challenging for us now as it would have been for those first followers in the way.
Jesus’ encouragement to engage in practices of prayer and mutual forgiveness instead of getting swept up in fearful and suspicious attitudes and practices leading to hatred is also as equally relevant for our ears, hearts, and minds to embrace in our own rapidly changing post modern, post 911, post truth context as it was for those in receipt of Matthew’s gospel in that first century after Jesus walked the earth.
Jesus’ final encouragement to find ways of learning not only to love those ones not of our family, of our ilk, of our tribe, or of our level of privilege or as he puts it our ‘enemies’ but also to find ways of persisting in that love for the sake of God’s vision of shalom is as relevant and as difficult a task today as it was in Jesus’ time.
What hope then might we derive from this morning’s readings taken from this portion of the sermon of the mount as it relates to holy living?
As I reflect back on some of our shared experiences in community here at Knox during the season of Epiphany, I take hope in how it is that we have ordered our life together in ways that have drawn us closer to God.
For some long time into the future, I will carry with me the memory of how the light of God’s love was shared within, between, and among us on Baptism Sunday as one of our youth and our children helped me to sprinkle you, the gathered body, with holy water from cedar boughs.
For some long time into the future, I will carry with me the memory of how we drew closer to God in our shared experience of creating our fifty seven piece puzzle you see displayed on our Epiphany Banner at our potluck meal held for the Al Zaza family in January.
That same night, I recall experiencing the light of God’s love and how we drew closer to God as the five Al Zaza daughters shared a beloved song lifting up their Syrian heritage at our potluck meal in January.
For some long time into the future, I will carry with me the memory of 36 of us as we drew closer to God and experienced the light of God’s love on a snowy Sunday earlier this month. Gathering here at the front of the church and welcoming our neighbour, the Rev. Julie Lees, from VST, was a day I am so thankful not to have missed. Just think what we would have missed had we called it a snow day and cancelled church altogether!
Other examples of what we have been about as a faithful community of family and friends offering hospitality to the last and the least, I recall how we formed a community of 13 Knox staff and friends when we welcomed Heidi Morgan, from First United into our midst. Her workshop topic? How to offer a community ministry for responding to vulnerable ones' needs with integrity and authenticity and to find ways of descalating aggressive behaviour is important work just begun here at Knox. I am aware, that indeed, we did draw closer to God and to the light of God’s holy love as we struggled in community to understand what God would have us do and be about together!
These are but a few examples of hope that popped into my mind as I consider how we try to walk the talk of our faith here at Knox.
To put it another way, I take hope in seeing how, we here at Knox are doing what we can to follow in the Way of Jesus by trying to do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, as long as ever we can as we live into our ministries of healing and hope.
You may recognize this paraphrase from a quote attributed to John Wesley, one of our Methodist forebears.
The quote first came into my view thanks to Susan McAlpine, our board chair in her message in the 2016 stewardship campaign brochure. Thanks, Susan!
That said, in the context of this morning’s readings, trying to do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, as long as ever we can is only the tip of the iceberg of what Jesus would have us be about as disciples actively engaged in offering ministries of healing and hope in an ailing and broken world. It is, however, an excellent place to begin!
We have much to ponder here at Knox about our call to be the church in this time and place and about our need to develop and strengthen our skills in the practices of prayer and mutual forgiveness. This, in turn, will add much to our skills for engaging in ministries of reconciling love within and beyond our walls. At the same time, there is much to celebrate about who we are and who God calls us to be together in relationship in community.
As we come to the end of the season of Epiphany, may we feel fortified by our stories from the ancient texts reminding us that the light of God’s love does make itself manifest to us in and through our experiences as faithful ones.
In the name of Jesus who comes into our midst to make all things new, my fond prayer is that it may be so! Amen.