Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Psalm 119:33-40; Matthew 5:38-48
This past week my wife & I watched a TV show about an airline tragedy a couple of years ago. In June of 2009 Air France flight #447 from Rio to Paris mysteriously went down in the Atlantic Ocean. Although some of the wreckage was found no one has ever figured out why the plane went down in the first place.
The most likely cause of the crash was ice that covered up instruments on the outside of the plane. This meant the pilots couldn’t tell how fast they were going. But here’s what I learned: An airliner can stall and fall out of the sky if it’s not going exactly the right speed. And by “exact speed” I mean if it goes just 10 mph too fast or 10 mph too slow it can fall out of the sky.
Ten! I told my wife I don’t know if I want to fly again!
As you listen to this morning’s readings, you might get the idea that God works that way, too. The rules we’re supposed to follow seem strict. If you don’t follow the rules you’re in big trouble. You might be punished. You might die. Like an airliner flying too fast or too slow you’re going to crash!
Take today’s reading from Leviticus. “You shall not steal. You shall not swear. You shall not lie.”–over and over again. In fact, “You shall not” shows up sixteen times in just this one reading! Hearing what you “shouldn’t do” over and over can become discouraging and overwhelming.
If you were hoping Jesus would ride to the rescue and make things easier—good luck with that! Who is able to love anyone in the way he describes?—let alone enemies! Who is able to obey his command to be perfect, as God is perfect?
God sets the bar impossibly high. If obedience to God’s laws is the key to our relationship with God, it seems we have only two ugly choices: denial, or despair.
Denial means that we can’t face the truth. We ignore those laws that are uncomfortable, such as the laws in Leviticus against lying, stealing, swearing, revenge, ignoring the poor—and how about this one: “bearing a grudge!” Denial happens when we water down God’s laws by making excuses and exceptions for ourselves. This is like a pilot flying the wrong speed but refusing to admit there’s a problem, even as the plane is about to crash.
The other ugly choice is despair. Faced with the impossibility of keeping God’s laws we become overwhelmed. We feel hopeless. We think less of ourselves and less of others. This is like a pilot who, upon realizing s/he’s flying the wrong speed gives up–lets go of the controls–even as the plane is about to crash.
Human beings can never match God’s standards. We can’t really even imagine a world where God’s rules are followed. Spiritually, we can’t keep perfect “airspeed.” If Christian faith is about following God’s rules, sooner or later our spiritual “plane” will crash, either on the rocks of denial or in the waters of despair.
And yet. And yet Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Perfect?? What do you think he means by that? How can I be perfect? How can I keep perfect “airspeed” in my relationship with God and others?
Maybe you’ve already guessed the answer. The answer is love. In the book of Leviticus God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And Jesus himself teaches, You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, “Love your enemies.”
At first, this sounds like more impossible rules. But what we actually have here is a wonderful gift. Here we have the key to perfect airspeed. Here we have the answer for how not to crash the plane!
That key is love. But maybe, like me, you have trouble with the word “love.” In our language it can sound mushy, sentimental, or romantic. But Jesus is speaking of none of these things! Instead, a reliable way of reading the word “love” as Jesus uses it is to substitute the word “forgiveness.”
Forgiveness is first and foremost what our faith is about. Offering forgiveness to others. Accepting forgiveness from others—and accepting forgiveness from ourselves. Remember, if it’s rules and regulations that are the key to our relationship with God and one another, we will fail. We will crash the plane on the rocks of denial or in the waters of despair.
Love your neighbor as yourself. We begin by practicing forgiveness toward ourselves. Forgive your neighbor as yourself. Can we read through today’s lessons and freely admit that we have not lived up to God’s standards? For example: 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. Anyone have a perfect record on that one? When we’re in a position to confess, we’re also in a position to forgive ourselves—because God has already forgiven us.
Forgiving ourselves is not the same as minimizing or making excuses. It doesn’t mean comparing ourselves to someone who’s “worse” than we are. Forgiveness acknowledges the truth–that we do not measure up to God’s vision for our lives and for the world. We can’t fly our spiritual plane at perfect airspeed.
But the good news is: we don’t have to! All is forgiven, before we even ask. When that belief takes hold—really takes hold—our response can only be gratitude, and even joy! Gratitude for God’s forgiveness doesn’t lead us to give up trying to follow the gift of God’s law. Instead, gratitude motivates us to try even harder to obey the gift of God’s commandments.
So—in the midst of all the “You shalls” and “You shall nots” this morning do you hear good news? Do you believe that we don’t have to get it right for God’s sake? But do you also hear the other part, just as important? It’s this: God’s laws offer wholeness, dignity, hope and protection for all people. For that reason I want—and I hope you want, too– to get ever closer to getting it right—for the sake of the world God loves!