February 19, 2017

7th Sunday after the Epiphany

Once upon a time, in a land much like ours, there were some weary travelers who came to a village with nothing but a cooking pot. They found a place to camp near some water, filled up their pot, and put it over a fire. Then they took a large stone and put it in the pot as it simmered.

A villager saw this, became curious, and asked what they were cooking. They explained that they were making a wonderful dish called stone soup that they would be happy to share with the village. They just needed a few small things to make it extra flavorful. The villager decides that he can part with a few carrots and adds them to the pot. Another villager sees them and contributes some potatoes, and so on and so forth until there is a wonderful, nourishing soup to be enjoyed by all.

This folk tale slyly illustrates what the concept of gleaning can look like in a community. By each contributing some, there is always enough for all. In the story, the villagers were sort of tricked into contributing, but they did contribute on their own accord because they believed that the end result would be something great. And it was. But it would not have been if they decided to keep their doors locked and never spoke to the strangers amongst them.

In the story, the stone was the base for the soup, with the villagers building upon that. Similarly, our foundation is Jesus Christ, as Paul reminds us in today’s epistle reading, and we must choose with care how we build on it – individually and as a community. We are the Body of Christ; we belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to God. All parts of us belong to God: all our hurt, all our joy, all our imperfections. If we believe that God’s Spirit dwells within us, that means that God’s Spirit dwells in others, too.

This should matter to us. This should change us.  It should transform us into being perfect as our “heavenly Father is perfect.” Not an ethical or moral perfection, but perfection in the Hebrew sense of the word “tamim,” which means “wholeness.” To be perfect is to serve God wholeheartedly and to be single-minded in our devotion to God. That is what we are striving for in this lifelong journey with Jesus.

If we are striving for wholeness in God, then our lives as disciples will show it. Our love is not one of vengeful retaliation, as we see in our gospel story today. Instead, our love extends even to our enemies, because that is what God calls us to.

Jesus calls us to radical hospitality – for ourselves and for others. God loved us first so that we would know what love is, and because of our love of God, we are able to love ourselves and love others.

Jesus constantly challenges us with this. He said:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”

Tax collectors were despised in Jewish culture for being unpatriotic and were seen as unclean by coming into contact with gentiles.

Jesus continued: “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?” The gentiles were considered unclean and unbelievers in Jewish culture, and to be compared to them was insulting. Jesus calls the disciples – us – to a higher standard than this. God’s love is seen in the world when communities are concerned with compassion, justice, and care of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

Have you ever walked into a party or a conference where you don’t know anyone? Or have you ever been the new person at school, at work, at church? You look around and everyone else is chatting and seems to know each other and you just stand there feeling awkward. It’s hard to know where to begin.

It’s always easier to love the person who already loves us or to talk with the person we already know who likes the same things we do. But Jesus doesn’t call us to the easy life – Jesus calls us to notice and reach out to the other. That means seeing the awkward person in the corner and inviting him or her into our conversations. That means praying for those who wish us ill and respecting the dignity of every human being, as we promise to do in our Baptismal Covenant.

Remember, there will be times when we are the awkward person or when we are someone else’s enemy. The Christian life is not a passive life, but active and intentional. It means seeing God in the other, as God sets no bounds in loving. If we stay inside the boundaries of where we feel comfortable, wars, racism, ageism, sexism, and prejudice of all kinds will continue.

Look around when you’re at work or school, or on the street. Look at the people. What do you see? See them as God sees them – precious and holy – a child of God. This may be difficult, especially if you feel someone is your enemy, but as Frederick Buechner wrote in his book “Whistling in the Dark”:

“Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. … You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction.”

How would it feel to be seen like that? What is it like to know that you are loved by God with such utter completeness?

Hopefully, it is life changing. Hopefully, this love reminds us that we are all part of something greater – a kingdom that is larger and more understanding than we know. Hopefully, we will know that we are cared for by a God who really see us and invites us to share what we have for the soup.

This is what it means to be God’s dwelling place in the world – our hearts are being changed and our actions of love for one another make the soup what it is: a dish that feeds us and all those whom God invites.

Amen.