Fences, the sequel.

Last week we spoke of fences as metaphors for the law and the commandments. Depending on ones perspective, fences can be seen as obstacles to be overcome, especially when we perceive them as proscribing our behavior – telling our willful selves what we can’t do. Alternatively, they can be seen as protective – even life-giving – when we see them as prescriptions for how to live in harmony with one another and God. The choice of how we see fences is left to us, but that choice may tell us much about the health of our relationships with our Creator and with our neighbors.

Today’s lessons elaborate a bit more about the reach of these fences. In essence, today’s lessons caution us to not make the boundaries of our fences too small, lest we exhaust the grassland and begin to believe we don’t have enough to share.

The reading from Leviticus reports a conversation between the Lord and Moses. I emphasize the choice of the name “Lord” because this identity should be central to our own identity. The Lord is Yahweh, the great I am, the source of all that is, the Creator. Our very existence is grounded in this identity. All that we have and all that we are has its beginning and ending in this identity.

In this conversation with Moses, the Lord is describing an expansive and generous attitude about the land. The conversation begins with the instruction, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”[1] “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” How often do we look at ourselves through this lens? This is an invitation to acknowledge the root of our being and to live expansively and generously with whatever gift we have received because of this heritage.

As the Lord begins to set the fence posts for what this heritage looks like, the Lord begins by describing an expansive and generous perspective – share what you have with poor and the alien. At each turn, with each example, the Lord reminds us, “I am the Lord.” This is an indirect reminder that we are the Lord’s children and heritage, this is our DNA, so act like it.

This lesson concludes with the admonition, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”[2] “You shall love your neighbor as yourself:” this is our DNA, this is our heritage; to love our neighbors as ourselves.

As individuals, as a congregation, as a convocation, as a diocese, and as a denomination, we stand at an inflection point where we are confronted with this question of identity. Who are we? Whose are we? What are we called to be? How are we to live?

Would that our DNA and heritage, working quietly within us, were enough to guide us in overcoming “the wisdom of this world.”[3] But this wisdom, which is foolishness to the Lord, is pervasive and persuasive; and it encourages us think narrowly, to pull the fence lines in, to shrink our sense of identity, and to exclude – even those who are our sisters and brothers in the Lord – our own DNA and heritage.

Jesus so understands this inclination – this resistance to the Lord’s desire – that he speaks plainly to our inclination and tells us to redirect it. Rather than resist the Lord’s desire, resist the wisdom of the world – the desire to retaliate – resist by giving of yourself. Rather than hate, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[4]

In other words re-set the fence posts of your identity – move them out; live and love expansively, even as it exposes you to suffering. This is the way our Savior Jesus Christ lives, and this is the way he prescribes for us a disciples; after all this is our heritage, our DNA, this is our identity: we are the Lord’s.

[1] Leviticus 19:2

[2] Ibid., v. 18

[3] 1 Corinthians 3:19

[4] Matthew 5:44

Fences

In Southeast Kansas we know a lot about fences. Yet we may have different opinions about their purposes. Our opinion or perspective about fences may depend upon which side of the fence we stand on.

As a kid in rural South Carolina, I viewed fences as inconvenient impediments to my ramblings and play. I didn’t take them too seriously; they were simply obstacles to be surmounted or gotten around.

There were any number of ways to get around the obstacle of the fence. Part of it depended upon your size. If you were little, you simply crawled under the lower wire. If you were a little older, you might step through the middle wires. If you were older still, and wanted to demonstrate your athletic prowess, you would vault the fence. Of course there was always a practical alternative, if the gate was in sight, you simply opened the gate and walked through.

There were lots of ways of dealing with the problem the fence presented; and we did tend to view the fence as a problem. The fence was an impediment to our doing what we wanted to do. It proscribed our behavior. In essence, the fence told us no, you can’t do that. To curious and creative kids this was just a challenge to be overcome. One could say that we were using our God-given faculties to solve a problem. Of course it never occurred to us that we might be the problem, or part of the problem.

Because of our own willfulness, we weren’t taking into account the perspective of the fence builder or owner. Perhaps their intent it was to keep us out for our own protection, or because of the risk our presence presented to the owner. Perhaps the fence was not built to proscribe our behavior at all, not to tell us no. Perhaps it was simply built prescriptively to keep the owner’s property in; to protect their livestock, to keep them from wandering away.

I think this may be the lesson Jesus is trying to impart to his disciples today.

You may recall from last Sunday that the Gospel lesson ended, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[1]

Remember that a helpful way to understand righteousness is as a condition that is acceptable to God. Stated another way, how would God like to see me respond to this circumstance?

This verse immediately precedes Jesus’ teaching about anger, adultery, divorce, and oaths. It invites us to consider our condition as we encounter these and other fences. Are these commandments and laws proscriptive – intended to tell us no? Or are they prescriptive – intended to keep us from wandering away?

In today’s lesson, Jesus is speaking to circumstances where we let our will or desire get ahead of God’s. Those place where I am prepared to jump the fence before considering why it is there.

Jesus understands that the commandments and laws are too often seen as proscriptive, telling us what not to do, as opposed to being seen as prescriptive, telling us how to maintain relationships, first with God and then with our neighbors.

Paraphrasing and summarizing the teaching, we – as disciples – need to tend to our harmed or strained relationships first before we present our offering at the altar. We also need to recognize our human proclivity to objectify others, and understand how it diminishes their worth as children of God in our eye and in our hand. We also need to understand that our desire to put ourselves ahead of others has far reaching and unanticipated consequences.

These inclinations are not limited to the things we do, but they also apply to the things we say. Jesus tells us not be reckless with our words; but to speak plainly and with integrity, be straightforward. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.

Our reading from Sirach reminds us that God has placed before us a choice: fire and water, life and death. We can choose to jump the fence because we don’t like to be told no; or we can respect the fence as an invitation to remain in relationship with God and one another.

Let us choose to respect the integrity of the fence, and to mend those that we have strained or broken so that we can enter the kingdom heaven together.

[1] Matthew 5:20

You are what you are.

Let me share with you these two words from the Gospel. You are. You are. Not you are becoming. Not you are on the way. You are!

This is a present condition, not a future possibility that may or may not be realized. You are already! So what are you?

Well it’s important to remember the context of this lesson. It is part of the larger narrative of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus takes his disciples aside and shares with them the beatitudes, the states of blessedness that his followers can expect.

As baptized Christians, you are these followers, you are these disciples; so today’s lesson is meant for you.

So, “you are the salt of the earth.” Given what we understand about salt today, this is an intriguing metaphor because we know that salt is lethal to humans in excessive amounts. And food that is too salty is repellent and even dangerous to many of us.

Yet we also know that salt enhances the flavor of foods, it can make them more flavorful and enjoyable. I think we are called to share our gift of saltiness with others to help add zest and flavor to their lives and our own; all the while being mindful of the toxicity of salt if we are reckless.

But there is also a cautionary note to this metaphor about salt losing its taste. Perhaps this is intended for us to reflect upon recklessness – where salt no longer enhances life.

Just as too much salt is repellent, too little salt fails to have any impact. This occurs when it is too diluted by other substances that we may add or encounter in our lives, distractions such as busyness, anxiety, or fear. All those external pressures that distract us from the presence of God’s gifts in our lives.

This prompts Jesus to ask us, “how can its saltiness be restored?” Unfortunately, he doesn’t answer the question, at least not directly. Instead Jesus tells us it “is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Thrown out and trampled under foot. I suspect this speaks to how many us of us have felt at some point in our lives, I know it speaks to me. In this story, thrown out and trampled under foot would seem to leave us there; in the dirt and without hope.

However, the story doesn’t end there, because we know the story of God’s restorative power; and we know a version of this story that was unknown to the disciples in first century Palestine. So perhaps this version of the story is intended for us as disciples of today.

Through the intervening millennia since this story was first told, God has revealed to us through the natural sciences more about how creation functions. The short version is that there is at work a constant restorative and recycling process in which nothing is wasted, it is just transformed.

So that tasteless salt thrown on to the ground, through the process of erosion is gathered gradually into streams and estuaries where it makes its way ultimately into the seas, those salt water bodies that cover 71% of the earth and are the living and purifying process of the earth.  Here saltiness and flavor are restored; nothing is wasted. Yet our human recklessness is taxing even creation’s ability to be restorative; but that is a story for another day.

Next Jesus present us with the metaphor of light, “you are the light of the world.” This is perhaps a more apt metaphor, one of giftedness and persistence.  We have more tangible experience with light; we understand how to manipulate light for our purposes, both positive and destructive. Yet Jesus doesn’t tell us to use it or manipulate it, rather he tells us simply to “let your light shine before others.” Do not diminish this gift or hide it, but expose it and share it so that others can see your giftedness – your light – because in your light they will see not only your giftedness but the glory of your Creator.

The story of salt and light is all about our fulfilling our giftedness as stewards and disciples of Jesus’ Gospel. “I have come not to [extinguish] but to [rekindle]” the law and the prophets – those fundamental revelations of God’s love and desire for God’s people. These will not pass away until all is accomplished.

So, you are what you are, a gifted part of Creation and a part of the Body of Christ. Therefore, prepare yourself now to come forward and join this communion of the gifted stewards of the Body of Christ, restored, refreshed and recharged as the salt and light of the world.