Spoon River Anthology, written in 1915 by Edgar Lee Masters, is a collection of short free-form poems, describing the life of a fictional small town. 212 separate characters in the poems provide accounts of their lives and losses. Each subsequent poem is an epitaph of a dead citizen, delivered by the dead themselves. Many characters in the Anthology were based on real people whom Masters knew or had heard of in the two towns in which he grew up in Illinois. In 1963, Charles Aidman adapted Spoon River Anthology into a theater production that’s still widely performed today. In July, 1981, I was privileged to be part of the cast in Albatross Theater’s production of the play in Sacramento. One very touching monologue usually brought me to tears as I stood back in the wings. It depicted a young Chinese girl, named Yee Bow, speaking from the grave:
What a painful, sad example of what a “Christian” should not be. Surely Harry Wiley, as many of us, would’ve repeatedly listened to these passages of Scripture which we’ve just heard in the three readings:
“You shall be holy…”
“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin…”
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself…”
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?…”
“I say to you, Love your enemies…”
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Obviously, this minister’s son didn’t have a clue as to the connection those words had with his relationship to others in his Sunday school class. He missed the power of the ways of the Holy and of the love which fills us with thanksgiving if we’re receptive.
Today’s first reading from Leviticus (19:1-2; 9-18) is part of Chapters 17-26, commonly called The Holiness Code, because of the unifying theme of God’s holiness. The Hebrew word which speaks of God as holy means separate, set aside as clean, dedicated. The “Holy One of Israel”, Isaiah tells us, is wholly Other. “...for I...am holy...I am the Lord.” God alone is Holy and all other holiness comes from God. It’s God’s gift to us. “You shall be holy…” What God says of Godself, what God is, is what God graciously lets us be. God’s holiness is the basis and sufficient reason for our being just, honest, generous, and loving to one another. God never proclaims God’s holiness in total isolation, but always in a context where God separates, sets aside, consecrates, someone out of the everyday world to serve the Almighty’s purpose. Not one of us has the right to claim that holiness is beyond our ability. God has let us exist, be, and by the very fact that you are and I am, we can know for certain that we’ve been set apart and have received from the Holy One all that it takes to be holy.
Think about that! That’s so awesome a fact that it should make us, like Moses, want to “take off our shoes”, for we’re indeed standing on holy ground. In the presence of the holiness of the God of Hosts, we can only realize how separate we are, in the opposite direction from God, because of our selfishness. When we stand before the Holy God what’s uppermost in our minds is our utter need for forgiveness and mercy. Holiness isn’t something we work up: it’s rather the gracious, undeserved gift of the One who is Holy. When God touches us, it evokes our awe and worship. Perhaps only the language of worship can adequately express what it is we try to stammer: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might; heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.”
In the first reading God says to Moses: “Say to all the congregation of the people of Israel...You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…” The gift of the Holy One lets us be holy individually, and also lets us be a holy people. Last week’s second reading from 1 Corinthians ended with the words: “...you are...God’s building…”, the immovable and only foundation of which is Jesus the Christ. But St. Paul isn’t just talking about an anonymous building. “Do you not know,” he asks in today’s second reading (1 Corinthians 2:10-11; 16-23), “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” The you here is plural in Greek. The temple, this holy people, is where the Holy God lives and is present through the Holy Spirit of Love. “...God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple…”
In light of the first two readings, perhaps, what many of us have likely seen as one of Jesus’ most difficult sayings in Matthew’s Gospel (5:38-48) will begin to make some sense: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” What bothers us, I think, is the word perfect, and the implication that somehow you and I, mere humans, should or can measure up to God’s perfection. We know that that’s impossible. To expect otherwise is, at best, arrogantly presumptuous, at worst, blasphemous. Unfortunately, many folks have driven themselves crazy trying to be as perfect as God.
The Greek adjective for perfect means complete, full-grown, thorough, whole-hearted. The root verb, to perfect, means to set out for a definite point/goal, and the noun, perfection, refers to completeness, the point aimed at, the terminus, the result or end-product, the purpose achieved. The 1st Epistle of John translates today’s message into amazingly simple terms: “God is Love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” The Holy God lets us be holy and we are holy, as individuals and corporately as the congregation and as the wider Church, when we offer to any and every person who comes into our lives the love of God’s Holy Spirit in Jesus. That’s completeness. That’s the point aimed at. That’s God’s purpose, the end-product. That’s what it means for you and me to be complete as our heavenly Father is complete.
Matthew’s passage starts with Jesus saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” referring to Lv 19:18, which actually reads: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” Nowhere in the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures does God or Jesus direct us to hate any person: quite the contrary. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus repeatedly stress that the Holy One of Israel is a God whose Love for every human being is both just and compassionate. Jesus further challenges us, in the Gospel, to let our actions display this kind of holy love. When you’re insulted, he says, challenge the insulter with an act of graciousness, turning the other cheek, and not retaliating. In American society, that’s almost unthinkable for us who are so imperfect in contrast to our heavenly Father. It isn’t, to our mind, the “normal” human reaction. He goes on to urge that when someone sues you for your essential garment, i.e., the “coat”, a long, ankle-length basic garment at that time, offer him/her your “cloak” as well, i.e., the outer, heavier, more expensive protective covering. Or suppose that governmental or military authorities force you to assist them. (It was common in the Persian Empire for an official to require someone to walk a mile carrying the mail, in order to keep up a good system. And in Roman-occupied Palestine any soldier had the right to draft a civilian to carry his pack.) Jesus says, “Don’t just assist: do even double what’s demanded.” Can you imagine how dangerous it was at that time for a Jew to even suggest what sounded like collaboration with the Romans?! But Jesus’ point was not about political collaboration. It was about his followers operating on God’s terms, stepping out of the “normal” human pattern, and shocking the enemy with a surprising act of grace.
The rabbis had a saying: “The one sent out by a man is like the man himself.” Jesus directs you and me to love all people, friend or foe, and to pray for them “that you may be son/daughters of your Father in heaven.” To be a son/daughter of God is to be like God. But it means much more than simply declaring ourselves to be supernaturally reborn. It means accepting God’s holiness as the norm of our life, being centered in love, living by the Holy Spirit’s power into a maturity, a whole-heartedness, a completeness patterned after God’s own Holy Being itself.
That simply means that you and I consciously commit ourselves to genuinely accept every person who comes into our lives, as they are: regardless of their inner or outer appearances, and regardless of how they perceive or receive us. This doesn’t mean that we will, or must, like or go along with others’ evil or hurtful actions. Jesus doesn’t recommend non-resistance. He was anything but a wimp. What he means to say is that, like his Father, one will respond to those actions with unexpected acts of grace. You and I will look beyond to the person who, because s/he is worthy of our Father’s love and compassion, is worthy of ours also. Even Gentiles and tax-collectors, Jesus says, two groups despised and outcast in his time, observe the civility of treating their friends graciously. Our Father goes far beyond that kind of “antiseptic” love, and Jesus challenges you and me not to do anything less.
The Father, Jesus says, lavishes essential gifts, such as sunshine and rain, upon all: the good, the bad, the ugly -- unstintingly, without measure. That’s really the whole point of today’s message: you and I are to be perfect, complete, even as our Father, precisely by freely giving the gift of holy, uncalculating love, the kind which we ourselves receive from God’s hands over and over, to all: friend, enemy, family member, the poor, the sojourner, the stranger.
When I was in seminary many years ago, I bought a book by José Luis Martin Descalzo, called God’s Frontier. It was never a best-seller, but it profoundly affected me then and later. In the book, an old priest, Don Macario, who is dying of cancer, shares with a young priest his reflections on life and the human condition:
“‘This is not what your spiritual adviser told you in the seminary. But if we were all sincere, we would confess that we could not stand Christ as a neighbor’...Don Macario stirred in his bed. ‘I have come to the conclusion’, he went on, ‘that God is constantly changing frontiers. He comes down, sets up his tents beside one city, and then another, and another, and another. There may even be a moment when God is on the frontier of each soul, that decisive moment in life when a person knows that everything is at stake. It is that moment of absolute aloneness when a man stands naked before God, without one human handhold. When that moment comes to the soul, there are few paths to choose from. Before, when I was young, I thought there were only two: either to give oneself up to God or to kill Him; I mean kill the idea of Him, the one we men hold. Later I saw that there was another: to become indifferent and go on living. If this moment has not yet come to you, I may tell you that this third path is the worst, but it is also the most comfortable...and the most frequented.'”