Sermon: The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Below is my sermon from the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer.  The lessons can be found here.  The recording can be listed to below, or over on the parish website.  The manuscript is also included below.  As always, comments and feedback welcome. 

 

Nearly three years ago, I found myself sitting in the common room at Yale Divinity School for Admitted Students Day. The day’s formal activities began with remarks from the YDS Dean and President. I have, I’ll admit, forgotten most of what Dean Sterling had to say on that April morning, but there is one thing that has stayed with me. I remember hearing about the school motto: Faith and Intellect

divinity_1At our very best we live each day in the balance of Faith and Intellect. We study with world-renowned scholars. We take seriously our call to common worship. Even our architecture is governed by Faith and Intellect. As you stand at the foot of our quad and look out on that lovey Jeffersonian architecture your eye is drawn to a grand marble staircase that leads to the doors of Marquand Chapel. And lest we loose sight of the balance of Faith and Intellect, directly below those large white doors of the chapel is the main entrance to the library. In our schedule, in our community life, in our architecture we are Faith and Intellect.

This is YDS at its very best.

Now if you’ve spent any time in any institution – school, church, or otherwise – you’ll understand what I mean when I say: very best is often very far from reality.

There is tension in faith and intellect. There is a struggle for priority. Chapel gets skipped for a little extra study time. Parish internships take priority over paper writing. There is an instinct to use the power of the mind to rationalize, justify, even minimize any question of faith. I don’t understand, I don’t agree with, I don’t like what the Church has believed for centuries; what Jesus teaches in the Gospels so let me problematize it, let me ignore it, let me explain it away. Let me use human knowledge to make sense of God.

So when I read today’s epistle, having lived in this tension for nearly three years, I can’t help but get a knot in my stomach.

Paul writes: “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.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I love being at YDS. The formation in Faith and Intellect I have received there has been instrumental in forming me into the person of faith I am today, and God willing, the priest I will be in the future. But I cannot help but wonder, what if Faith and Intellect misses the point.

In writing to the community in Corinth, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to think more clearly about what it means to be the Church. He is writing to a community that is struggling, and focused on internal fighting. They are weighed down by misdirected priorities, and cannot agree on whom the head of the Church is. The Church in Corinth lacks unity.

Just as Paul reminds the Corinthians, we too are reminded that the foundations of our lives are not to be determined by our preferred political or religious leaders – the foundation of our life is Jesus Christ. No matter where we fall in the debates that preoccupy our lives we are to be unified because we all share one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. We are all built upon that foundation which is Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul is urging the Corinthians to live with a particular sense of intentionality that stems from their foundation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Paul is urging them to be mindful of their unity and the importance of living as a community of faith. When a community lives into this foundation, the wisdom of God – that which is seen as foolishness to the world – can be found. This is where Faith and Intellect come into tension for Paul and the Corinthians.

The Corinthians lived in a time and place where eloquence stood in a place of great honor. The eloquent were deemed the wise of society, and their rhetoric was their gift. Corinthian wisdom was grounded in human intellect, while Paul’s wisdom was grounded in the Cross. This human intellect and this faith in the cross of Christ cannot be balanced together. How can we make sense of God who honors the death of a condemned criminal of the Roman State by using it as a means to bestow redemption and eternal life on humanity? Instead of balance there is tension.

If we can, even if only for a little while, put our human inclination towards intellect aside, we might be able to glimpse the wisdom of God. We might be able to see more fully the reality of the Cross. For in God’s wisdom – in the Cross – God’s love is found.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is not the only place where human intellect and reason must take a back seat to God’s wisdom. Both our lesson from Leviticus and our Gospel reading from Matthew draw our attention to God’s wisdom as opposed to our natural human instincts.

Leviticus is one of those Biblical Books we do not read from very often on Sundays. In fact, Leviticus only appears twice in the lectionary cycle and on both occasions we read the same passage. The words we heard today are the only words we hear from this book, which leads me to think that there must be something important for us to hear in this passage.

This passage is part of what is known as the Holiness Code – a list of laws that tell the Israelites how they are to live and act in the world – a way of being that honors their relationship with God. What we hear today is in many ways the summation and culmination of the entirety of Israelite theology.

In everything they do, Israelites are reminded of their relationship with God. More importantly they are reminded that as a result of that relationship, how they behave is an indictor of how they understand God to act in the world:
When you reap the harvest of your land . . . I am the Lord.
You shall not steal . . . I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin . . . I am the Lord.

In all that they do, they are to remember that they are to be in the world the way God is in the world. For “you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” This declaration of their holiness – by virtue of their willingness to live as God’s people in the world – distinguishes them from the rest of the world. In their likeness to God they are set apart as otherness to humanity. In being faithful witnesses to God they defy what human intellect begs them to do.

As Moses speaks to all the congregations of the people of Israel, Moses also speaks to us, and it is not just Moses who calls us to model our lives on God. For Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Here is Matthew Jesus sets up parameters that turn societal norms upside down.

“Jesus said, ‘You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you.” Jesus takes a system that is set up to make sure retribution is equitable and tells the people of God to give up their right to retaliation.

I can imagine these words causing significant anger in those who heard them. They are living in a world of political unrest; a world where they are being oppressed by the Roman authorities. Instead of fighting back, Jesus calls on them to leave vengeance to God. Jesus was not calling them; Jesus is not calling us, to give into evil. By resisting the urge for retaliation, by keeping away from ourselves that self-destructive bitterness, we join Jesus is breaking down the very system that allows oppression to exist. These words are meant to shock the imagination and instill a more profound insight into God’s intention for the world.

Jesus’ commands do not stop there – Jesus calls us to go further. “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.” Just as was true with the first set of commands, this command is not aimed at the goal of self-protection. This is not to be a plea to God to change the enemy’s mind; it is an invocation for God to transform our own lives. That the scales might fall from our eyes so that we can see everyone – even those we despise the most, even those who persecute and oppress us – the way God sees them: As beloved children.

We are called to risk everything for the opportunity to love our neighbors – those we like, those we cannot stand, those who wish us harm. We are called to risk everything for the opportunity to love our neighbors so that we might understand love more profoundly than human intellect can even imagine. This is what it means to be perfect. It is not some call to live by contemporary standards of perfection; it is a call to see the world as God sees it. To believe all people, no matter how evil the acts they commit are, are beloved children of God. It is to see the world from the foot of the Cross.

The parallels we see in Leviticus and Matthew today point to the reality that all people who choose to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – are called to live by a standard deemed foolish to the wisdom of the world.

There is nothing wrong with striving for faith and intellect – as long as we do not use our intellect to create a faith suitable for our desires instead of Gods. In those moments where we find ourselves experiencing the tension between our faith and our intellect – between what our human nature compels us to do and what God begs us to do – we must take the bold, counter-cultural, abnormal stance of faith. From that place we can use our gifts and intellects to build with care upon the foundation of Jesus. We do all this, not with the hopes of explaining away all the difficult things Jesus calls us to do, but with the hope that we might reach the foot of the Cross and finally know what true love is.

AMEN.

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