A Reading from the Book of Leviticus (19:1-2, 9-18)
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
33 Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, *
and I shall keep it to the end.
34 Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; *
I shall keep it with all my heart.
35 Make me go in the path of your commandments, *
for that is my desire.
36 Incline my heart to your decrees *
and not to unjust gain.
37 Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; *
give me life in your ways.
38 Fulfill your promise to your servant, *
which you make to those who fear you.
39 Turn away the reproach which I dread, *
because your judgments are good.
40 Behold, I long for your commandments; *
in your righteousness preserve my life.
A Reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (3:10-11, 16-23)
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (5:38-48)
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor 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 on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
There’s a story that I read in our local paper several years ago. It was written by an American historian, whose name I unfortunately have not been able to recall. It recounted an event that supposedly took place during the American Revolution.
It seems that a group of revolutionary soldiers had been defeated in battle and captured by the British. As often happened in those days, the prisoners were beaten, tortured and killed by their captors.
A few weeks later, the Continental Army prevailed in another battle and captured a group of Britain’s Hessian mercenaries in the process. These captives waited, anticipating the same sort of cruel and grisly end; but it never came. Their captors kept them confined to a small, secure area, but they never abused them. Instead, they provided them with some food and water and even a few medical supplies to treat their wounds.
The Hessians were amazed. One of them who spoke English finally asked the guards why they were being treated so humanely. The soldiers replied that the entire army had received orders from their Commander in Chief, General George Washington. He reminded them of the words of the Declaration of Independence concerning all people and the “unalienable rights” with which they had been endowed by their Creator. Then the Father of Our Country reminded his troops: “These are the principles for which we are fighting and for which so many of our men are dying. We should be the first to live by them.” He insisted that, despite the ways that they had been mistreated and might still be mistreated, still they had to live by higher standards.
This morning’s gospel reading concerns living by higher standards. It continues the passage that we heard last Sunday. It presents us with the last two of six collections of sayings that are often described as “antitheses”: “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you…” In reality, these are not antitheses, not reversals of the teaching of the Torah, but intensifications of them. They say in effect, “Yes, this is what the law says, but you must go beyond that; you must live by even higher standards.” The six of them conclude with the ultimate high standard: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Well, that’s enough to make you give up and go home right there: “Be perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect.” There’s obviously not a single one of us who is going to be able to be perfect, so why even try?
People had many different opinions about Jesus. Jesus was many things. But Jesus was no fool. He clearly knew that none of us was ever going to be perfect. So why did he bother saying something like this?
Maybe it was because Jesus knew people so well that he said it. He recognized the fact that we tend to let ourselves off pretty easy. We like to have a set of clear-cut rules, both so we can supposedly judge when we have done enough, and, all too often, so that we can compare ourselves with other people. “Well, sure, I know I could be better. I know I could do more. But at least I do a lot better than some of the other people I know!”
Insisting that we compare ourselves not with other people but with God, Jesus takes away any facile comparisons. Instead, he is constantly calling us to something better, to something more, to a striving that will last us our entire life.
There are some aspirations in life that can be overwhelming: that can leave us struggling to try to figure out where to start. But way beyond them all is this call to “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How can we possibly come up with a game-plan for a sincere quest for such an ultimate goal? St. Augustine of Hippo addressed that question. He asked “Do you aspire to do great things? Then begin with little ones.” To do great things, begin with little ones.
When we look at the great needs of the other people in our world, or even in our local community, we can easily be overwhelmed. Rather than throwing up our hands because we know we can’t fix it all, maybe we need simply to start small. In looking, for example, at St. Mark’s three primary outreach ministries, we know we can’t solve the problems of all the children who are abused or neglected, of all the children who are struggling with their education, or of all low-income elderly with their variety of needs. We can’t do it all. But maybe we can spend a little time volunteering at CARE House, in one of the ways mentioned in this morning’s bulletin announcements. Maybe we can give one hour a week to help some students at Kemp School with Reading or Math. Or maybe we can offer a little of our time serving in some way at Canterbury Court Retirement Community. In addition to these parish priorities, many of you have found other ways to serve others, to make the world around you a little bit better place, to help build up the kingdom of God. You do that because you know that, while none of us can do everything, still every one of us can do something.
That “something” that we do, that little act of kindness, that hour a week (or hour a month) that we give to help others, may not seem like much. But God has a way of taking all those little somethings and working through them to touch people’s lives in ways that we don’t always see.
Many people in our society don’t see that, or choose not to. They close their focus in on themselves, asking in all that they do: “But what’s in it for me?” Their own self-interest is their standard.
But we, as followers of Jesus, are called to live by his higher standards. We are called to give even when we are not likely to receive in return, even when those whom we are serving show little or no appreciation for what we are doing or what we are giving. And we do so, following the example of Jesus and of Jesus’ God, who gives generously to all and who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45). Starting small and giving of ourselves to others is the first step on the long road to perfection.