Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Highest Expectations

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
February 20, 2011

Year A: The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

The Highest Expectations

Some of you know that before I got into the priest business I spent about fifteen years as a high school history teacher. I loved teaching, and still miss it – the interaction with students, the challenge of trying to come up with new ways to teach familiar material, the chance to work closely with colleagues.

And, yes, I admit it, I miss the amazingly long summer vacations.

Grading tests and essays was no fun, but the rest of it was great.

Over the years I got to be pretty good, though not perfect, at sizing up students. I got to be pretty good at knowing who was really trying and who was trying to pull a fast one. I could recognize students who really wanted to learn and those I had to keep my eye on during tests.

All of us have been students and some of us still are, so I don’t need to tell you that we all get pretty good at sizing up teachers. We can tell when a teacher (or a professor) doesn’t really care, is just phoning it in, is burnt out and is maybe only hanging in there until retirement.

And we can also tell when a teacher is passionate about his or her subject. We can tell when a teacher genuinely cares about his or her students.

And, if we’re really fortunate, every once in a while we encounter a teacher who can see something extraordinary in us - something that maybe we can’t see in ourselves.

These are the teachers who challenge us with the highest expectations.

It can be frightening to encounter a teacher who sees something in us that we don’t see – or, maybe, don’t want to see.

Jesus is often described as the greatest teacher of all. And listening to the gospel lessons these past couple of Sundays, there’s no question that Jesus the great teacher sees something extraordinary in all of us.

Jesus sees something in us that maybe we can’t see - or don’t want to see. Jesus the great teacher challenges us, his followers, with the highest expectations of all.

Over the past couple of Sundays we’ve been making our way through the collection of Jesus sayings that Matthew organized into what we call the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew’s gospel was probably written near the end of the First Century, several generations after the earthly lifetime of Jesus.

With the passage of time, you’d think that Matthew might water down Jesus’ sayings a bit – to make it easier for people to say yes to Jesus.

You’d think that Matthew would lower Jesus’ expectations.

Instead, Matthew collects the most demanding of Jesus’ teachings and organizes them into the sermon that we’ve been hearing in church these past couple of weeks.

Jesus the great teacher uses vivid, maybe even exaggerated, language, but it’s clear that because Jesus sees something extraordinary in us, Jesus has the highest expectations of us.

Obviously, following Jesus isn’t going to be an easy course.

Jesus says that if we call another “you fool” we will be punished in hell.

Jesus says that looking at someone with lust is just as bad as acting on our desires.

Jesus says we should tear out our eye or cut off our hand if they are causing us to sin.

Jesus teaches us that we must take our marriage vows with the utmost seriousness.

And then just when we might have been considering dropping this difficult course, we have the sayings we heard today.

Jesus teaches us, do not resist evildoers, regardless of the consequences.

Jesus teaches us to give away our coat and our cloak, even if that leaves us naked.

Jesus teaches us to give to everyone who begs from us.

Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

And finally, just when we might be ready to give up and transfer to another religion, Jesus concludes with, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Jesus sees something extraordinary in us so Jesus has the highest expectations of us.

What is it that Jesus sees in us?

At the very root of our tradition there is the bold, nearly absurd, recognition that we are made in the image of the God of the universe. We have a hard time seeing that in ourselves, because so often we sin - we mess up - we fall short.

But, despite our stumbling and fumbling, God sees far better than we do what’s inside us. We are created in the divine image.

Knowing who we are and what’s inside us, God’s command to us in Leviticus makes sense:

“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”

In other words, God says, “I made you to be like me. You really can be like me. So be like me!”

That means, God loves all, so we should, too.

God forgives all, so we should, too.

God gives to all, so we should, too.

The highest expectations.

Since we keep coming to church, I guess we’ve decided to stick with this most challenging course.

Let’s face it, though, we know that in this life we’ll never meet God’s highest expectations, the highest expectations expressed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Despite our best intentions, some marriages will end in divorce, and sometimes we’ll look someone who’s attractive.

Despite our best intentions, we won’t always turn the other cheek and we won’t always give to everyone who begs of us.

Despite our best intentions, we won’t always bring ourselves to pray for our enemies.

It sure seems like we’re going to fail, but the very good news is that although Jesus has the highest expectations for us, it’s actually not so hard to pass this course.

The only requirement is trusting in Christ and trying to follow God’s will.

The 20th Century monk and writer Thomas Merton summed up what’s required of us when he prayed:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.