Sunday, February 20, 2011
A much, much shorter version of this sermon was preached today after the endowment committee gave away lots of money. It was a nice tie-in to the messy, foolish, openhanded community.
Seventh Sunday of Epiphany, 2011 – Matthew 5:38-48, Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18
“Gleaning on the Edge” –
When we went to Germany, we also wanted to see the part of Poland where my husband’s ancestors came from – what was once Greater Pomerania – now it’s Poland. Driving across north east Germany, we all commented how much it looked like Wisconsin. The fields were reasonably sized, with hedgerows of pine and other trees. There were sections of woods, there were occasional farm buildings. It looked like a hospitable land, homey, a good place to live. That all changed when we crossed the border into Poland. The same topography, the same hills and valleys, the same farmland, had been opened up by the communist agricultural system. The fields were massive, huge, endless. There were no edges with trees, no small woodlots, there were no old farmsteads – all had been taken away. There were no hiding places for deer, for foxes, for wild animals at all. The farmers lived in apartment buildings in tiny villages – cramped together while surrounded by all that vast landscape. All was devoted to production –and all was about production with no waste allowed.
I tell you this story because I was most struck this week not just by Jesus’ strong words about relations with our neighbors and our enemies, but by one little verse in the Old Testament Lesson – which gives us a new way of looking at the words of Moses and Jesus.
In Leviticus - which is a book that I know most of us would rather ignore – God puts forth detailed instructions for his people. God desires his people to be holy, as he is holy. God wants his people to be good, as he is good. Jesus interprets this – be ye perfect, as our heavenly father is perfect. Jesus’ words are based on this Hebrew Bible tradition – the Ten Commandments and the elaboration of them throughout history. Let’s not discard this Law too quickly. It was important to our Savior, it should be important to us, too.
Perfection, Goodness, Holiness. That seems like too much for us, doesn’t it? We want to hear that there are ways out of those kinds of expectations. We are sinners, we know, we are imperfect, we just not capable of that kind of perfection. Many of the commentators and preachers I read and hear try to explain away Jesus’ words, explain away Moses’ words – wave them away so we can go living as we want to. The basic message is – since it’s impossible to be perfect – why even try? Since we’re not born holy – let’s enshrine all our sins, all our weaknesses and say that Moses and Jesus really didn’t understand human existence – that Moses and Jesus are asking too much of us.
Human life is messy. It is. We love imperfectly. We make mistakes. We are greedy. We are selfish. We try to tie everything up into bundles and keep our stuff safe and we become territorial and emotional and we can hurt each other. And all those elements of our being – those are part of the great gap between us and God. So are Moses and Jesus asking too much of us? I think that’s the wrong question to dwell on – let’s look at what is being asked of us.
That’s where the image of gleaning comes in. Gleaning is exactly described right there in Leviticus 19:9 – when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edge of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes. You will leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. Gleaning is a harvest practice . . . it means to leave behind wheat in the field, grapes on the vines, olives and apples on the trees.
Don’t be too neat when you garden. Remember the fields of Poland and the fields of Germany? There could be no gleaning from the fields of Poland – they were too aggressively cultivated, too neatly manicured. God wants his people to be messy harvesters. It has something to do with holiness, God says. I am holy – you shall be holy – and people of a holy God do this: they are messy harvesters. They are called to be messy at the harvest for the sake of others – for the poor, for those who are passing through, those who have no one else. They are called to be open-handed to the neighbor. They are called to be foolish – not playing politics and treating the rich any better than the poor.
Does that have to do with us, and that question – Are Moses and Jesus asking too much of us? I think it does. The Old Testament world, and the Old Testament laws, and Jesus’ world and Jesus’ words – love your neighbor, love your enemies, give your coat and your cloak, don’t hit back, give charity freely, lend openly – all that stuff is related to call of God to God’s people – be holy. Be a holy community.
Be a community – that’s the key. Gleaning – the process of sharing the harvest with those in need – is a community thing. God’s command to allow gleaning points all of us to remember that we are not put here just for ourselves. We are not put here to neatly tie up all the ends and be secure by ourselves, in ourselves. People need people – as the song says – and people interact in all sorts of ways – we are messy with each other. And that is part of being a living, holy - messy, open-handed, foolish community.
The call to live together underlies all of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We hear those things that sound so tough – if someone takes from you your coat, give them your cloak also, hit on one cheek, turn the other. And if we are thinking of ourselves as solitary individuals, as only me, then, yes, this doesn’t make sense. But, Jesus isn’t thinking like that, like we are all alone, not at all. If you are forced to give your coat and your cloak away – then your neighbor, your community, will come to your aid. If you are being beaten up, then your community should step in to protect you.
Be a holy community, says God to Moses in the Hebrew Bible. Be a living community, says Jesus to the disciples and to us on the Sermon on the Mount. Go ahead, be messy around the ends. Be generous and kind, give to people who don’t deserve it. Don’t harvest to the edge of the field, but share with your neighbor and those who are in need. Watch out for those who are being battered on one cheek and the other, for those who have lost their coat and cloak, for those whose miles are longer and harder than yours. Be a community that loves the neighbor, that allows itself to be messy and open handed and foolish.
For Jesus himself was messy and open-handed, and foolish – and look what he did for us. Amen.