“But I say to you…understand God’s word on another level”

February 23, 2014
7th Sunday After Epiphany
Matthew 5: 38-42
The Rev. Leonard B. Oakes
HCSM Daly City, CA

“…but I say to you, understand God’s word on another level”

I bring you greetings from Jerusalem!

Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular, attract visitors and pilgrims from all over the world because of where they are and what they are. 37 of us pilgrims sponsored by the York Rite arrived In Israel with a certain amount of knowledge, understanding and insight about their situation and its realities. But whether we come for just a few days or are living there on some kind of longer-term basis, we soon discovered how little we really know and find the exposure takes our thinking to another level.

At a special meeting held at King Solomon’s Hotel in Jerusalem, I was attracted to a talk given by a Palestinian Christian Minister, The Rev.  Alex Awad who presented himself as a child of a Palestinian refugee and whose parents were original residents of this land but now found themselves fighting for identity and home. Knowing a little about the Palestinian experience of living under Occupation I thought ‘I’ll go along to that and see what he has to say.’ Not very far into his talk I realized that this wasn’t just going to be the usual stuff about the value of non-violent resistance, but would challenge me personally to re-examine my own attitudes to people I disagree with or actively dislike in an altogether more profound way, in the light of the Christian faith..

These illustrations are examples of a common human experience, namely how we become exposed to things which challenge our previous understanding and take us into deeper water than we’ve been in before. And this is exactly what the Gospel read this morning would try to take us for a journey. Jesus is addressing his disciples and a Jewish audience concerning the teachings of old.   In  previous readings he says ‘I did not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them.’ In other words, his ministry wasn’t about starting some new religion, but about uncovering what was the deepest intention of previous teaching and giving it fresh meaning. So each new paragraph in today’s reading begins with words like ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you….’

It is interesting to note that of the topics touched on in today’s reading about God’s calling to us, concern our relationship to other people, and all are designed to prick the bubble of any sense of self-righteousness we may have. So truly Christian behavior is not about leading a life of outward respectability, keeping our nose clean and not getting into trouble; it needs to be seen on another level. So what might Jesus be saying to us today?

The first topic is humility and service. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ ” Countries surrounding Jerusalem and in many other countries, even in our own personal relationships with others, have taken this words literally and try to destroy each other. Jesus is offering us another way to view this in the spirit of humility and our service to each other.

It was very admiring to see brothers of different faiths in Israel come together in the table of brotherhood and talk about Love and Charity at Holy City Lodge #4 in Jerusalem. 9 of the 37 pilgrims were masons and have attended a degree conferral in this lodge. It was remarkable to learn that Palestinians, Jews and muslims alike were gathered in the spirit of brotherhood setting aside their political differences. You will never find a trace of personal grudges but only harmony and trust. That’s what Jesus is offering when he asked us to offer the other cheek of non-violence and go an extra mile to serve others.

Martin Luther King Jr said, “An eye for an eye will keep everybody blind” If we all break each other’s teeth, how can we enjoy the fellowship meals set before us by our family members? Would one just go away and starve themselves rather than eating and dancing with them? Or how could you enjoy your meal if your enemy is in front of you? You will find your teeth grinding each other without even having anything to chew! Some of us even take that hatred to our graves. Jesus is telling us to move to another level of Being, another level of Living the Love of God. Jesus is offering us Love, which takes us to the second topic:

“Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Jesus wants us to step into a higher level of love, a love that transcends even into the highest heavens. A love that has no boundaries or exclusion. An unconditional love.

Jesus wants us to step into a higher level by winning over the aggressor with tough, wise love, so that we may win people to Christ and transform human society into the Kingdom of God. Jesus wants his disciples to repay evil with kindness. Instead of retaliation, Jesus gives his new law of love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and no retaliation.

We must treat others not as they deserve but as God wishes them to be treated – with loving-kindness and mercy. God is good to the unjust as well as the just. His love embraces saint and sinner alike. God seeks our highest good and teaches us to seek the greatest good of others, even those who hate and abuse us. Our love for others, even those who are ungrateful and selfish towards us, must be marked by the same kindness and mercy which God has shown to us. It is easier to show kindness and mercy when we can expect to benefit from doing so. How much harder when we can expect nothing in return. Our prayer for those who do us ill both breaks the power of revenge and releases the power of love to do good in the face of evil.

In the last century the great Indian leader Mahatma Ghandi was deeply attracted to the person of Christ and found great inspiration in the Sermon on the Mount, as countless millions have both before and since. It is said that when someone once asked him why he never formally embraced the Christian faith he said; I might have done if the Christians I have met had looked a little more like their Christ. We could react to Ghandi’s comment in one of two ways: either simply negatively, to make ourselves feel guilty, or as an invitation, a spur to a deeper engagement with Jesus Christ and his calling to us. All of us find ourselves somewhere in the sea of faith. Some of us may still be close to the shore – perhaps knee-deep or waist-deep. Others will be further out – perhaps already swimming where we can barely touch the bottom. Whatever our current position, Jesus’ call is always to venture further out into deeper water. ‘Come in deeper’ he says, ‘and swim with me in the ocean of the love of God.’ Amen.

 

Be a beautiful Gem God created you to be

“May God make us into a beautiful Gem
that shines for the world to see”
Malachi 3:1-4
The Rev. Leonard B. Oakes
February 2, 2014

Let us begin our day by thanking God for the blessing of rain. It purifies the earth and all that dwell in it. Let us give God a resounding round of applause!!
Last week, Haidee and I were making a window shopping at a jewelry store inside Serramonte Mall when i was stunned by the beautiful look of gold and diamond rings being displayed. I know for a fact that it didn’t always look that way. That ring wasn’t plucked out of a mine in a perfect circle which just happened to be sized for your finger. Obviously it was formed into that shape somewhere along the line. Even before it was ever shaped into anything however, the metal had to be refined.

I remember when I was assigned in the beautiful Balbalasang in Kalinga, North of the Philippines, I had the chance to hold Eucharist to a group of miners who occasionally drop some gold in the offertory basket as their thanksgiving offering. Someone told me that there was once a priest who would start the service with these greetings: “The Gold be with you” in place of “The Lord be with you.” And the people answer: “And pyrites with you”. Pyrites are called “Fool’s gold” it is a form of shiny iron but not a gold. So the next time the priest held a Eucharist, there was a slight change in his greeting which goes, “The Gold be with Us” and the people answer, “Come let us gather them”. After gathering gold, the process of eliminating the other minerals from the gold is done using amalgamation with mercury to enhance recovery from other minerals, then brought to the market for weighing and refined for a finished product.

Refining is the process by which a metal or some other substance is purified. In biblical times and even today, the process of refining is done through the use of heat. In the case of gold or silver, the temperatures must reach extreme heat, nearing 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. As the metals reach such temperatures, they begin to melt, and eventually all the impurities burn off and what remains is the precious metal in its purest form.

The prophet Malachi in our first reading today used this metaphor to describe our relationship with God. God was not in the least interested in gold or silver, or any precious metal for that matter. No, he was interested in something much more valuable to him: SOULS. And while precious metals can still retain a level of worth even if they aren’t 100% pure, that isn’t the case when it comes to souls. No, the only soul that is acceptable to God is a pure soul, a soul without any impurities at all. Only perfection will do; anything less does not pass the test.

Now, this picture however presents a big problem for you and me, as it did for Malachi’s community. You see, perfection’s not really our kind of thing. We’re kind of unqualified to achieve the thing of purity. It’s not that we don’t want to; it’s that we can’t. And we know it.
The approach, “Since I’m saved by grace, I don’t have to do good works to strive for perfection,” and “I’m forgiven anyway, so it’s ok to go stray once in a while” are both extremely dangerous from a spiritual standpoint. Neither of them stems from faith. Neither of those philosophies come from the new Adam in us, but from the Old Adam, still clinging for dear life, even trying to take the good that God does in our lives and twist and tangle it up. God wants souls that are free from impurities. Souls that buy into either of those two approaches demonstrate that they are anything but pure.

So what does God expects from us, His people? Malachi, suggested in verse 3 that, “God will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.” Such suggestion depicts that God is constantly refining us through the use of a fire into becoming a beautiful gem and be able to shine like that of a gold or silver.

But what really does that mean? God isn’t literally going to put us through a fire in order to melt away our impurities? But it might feel that way as we endure the painful process that God is referring to: the process of repentance. Only through the refining fires of repentance are souls made pure and right and presentable before God.

So why don’t we do just like that? Why instead do we sometimes default back to the previous wicked ways? Because the process of repentance is painful. It isn’t just a general awareness or acknowledgment of sin; that we “know we’re sinners already so let’s move on” type of things. The refining fires of repentance are the coming face-to-face with the impurities of my sin – owning up to them and confessing them before God, admitting that we know how dangerously damning each sin is. Repentance finds us open and exposed before God, with nowhere to hide and no one to blame but ourselves for our sin. And that hurts.

But when we keep in mind that it is when we endure the pain that we can be renewed entirely through the refining fires of repentance. This process removes the impurities. It cleanses. It purifies. It alone makes us acceptable in God’s sight, because it is an admittance that we wouldn’t be acceptable in God’s sight apart from Christ, who paid the ultimate price to remove the impurities of our sin. He gave his life. He himself had to go through this ritual of purification and Simeon took him to his arms saying he had seen Salvation in this child Jesus, a light for revelations for all. If you would open your Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and turn to page 93, you will find the Song of Simeon in his confession upon seeing the child Jesus. “Lord you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promise. For these eyes of mine have seen your salvation, a light for all the world to see.” This is what Malachi was referring to and certainly what John the Baptist was proclaiming about the one who is coming.

The metaphor of being refined offers additional comfort if we carry it a bit further. Malachi wrote, “He will sit as a refiner” When the fire finally got hot enough for the metal to melt, the refiner had to pay close attention. It wasn’t the type of job in which he attempts to multi-task. No, The refiner had to keep a close eye on things. He needed to remain by the fireside throughout the refining process to ensure that the metal got hot enough to burn off the impurities, but also so that it wouldn’t be allowed to overheat, which could end up making the precious metal dull and lose its luster.

And so, as we go through this process of refining, God never leaves us or forsakes us. He remains by our side. God will remain by our side throughout that he might drive away the superfluous ways of life and make us into a perfect stone that shines. It gives us a very good feeling knowing that God will continue to keep his eyes on us and make us whole.

May God continue to mold us as beautiful master’s work that shines to all of God’s beautiful creation. Amen.