Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19:1-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Not long ago I had one of those horrible, terrible days we all sometimes have. I teach English at Oregon State, and that day I not only had my own classes but an extra class, for a colleague who’d been called away, and it was raining and sleeting and snowing, and I had a bad head cold, with body aches and a sore throat, and all the students I tried to teach just stared back at me, unresponsive, restless. I couldn’t get a rise out of anyone. It was all just a slog.
And what does the Lord call us to do on days like this?
Turn the other cheek. Turn and face this. Because this is a grace. This a call.
We don’t want this kind of grace, of course, and we’re always trying to find ways to avoid it. “People will do anything,” Carl Jung says, “no matter how absurd, rather than face their own souls.” What I like is to get a scone and another cup of coffee, or jump on Facebook and start scrolling and clicking, or find someone in another office to gossip and complain with. And there’s nothing wrong with scones and there’s nothing wrong with Facebook, unless I start eating more and clicking more, and gradually the eating and the clicking become part of a general pattern of avoidance and addiction, as they are, really, for most us.
Or worse, rather than turning the other cheek we can start blaming everyone else for our emptiness—blaming the students in this case, demonizing them, turning them into some Other we have to manage and control and keep away from us, and I can fall into that trap, too, as we all can, and it’s wrong, scripture tells us. “We must love our neighbor as ourselves,” Leviticus says, and even love our enemies, according to Jesus, and I think when we don’t it’s because we’re avoiding what’s inside us, projecting onto a scapegoat.
Of course there’s injustice in the world, and we have to resist it. There’s evil in the world, and we have to fight it.
But not before we turn and face our own darkness, our own sin.
Not hating ourselves. I don’t mean that. Not thinking of ourselves as worthless and terrible. That’s another temptation, from the other side, to think that everything is our fault, that we’re not worthy of love, when we must love ourselves, too, must remember that we are “temples of the Holy Spirit” every bit as much as anyone else, despite our human limitations.
The “enemies” we have to love are also the enemies inside us, the fear and the anger–“love” not in the sense of letting these things determine our behavior but in the sense of admitting them, realizing that we’re not perfect and that we need grace.
The best thing about a cold is that it reminds us that we have bodies and that we’re mortal. The best thing about the dark and dreary days is that they remind us that grace is not our accomplishment but the work of God and the gift of God.
And then, feeling that, knowing that, we look at other people differently, not as enemies but as family. Brothers. Sisters.
In a way the biggest temptation of all is to think that unless our lives are heroic and dramatic and trending on Twitter, they don’t really count.
I say I want to serve the poor. Well, here they are, staring back at me from their little desks.
I say I want humility. Well, now I’ve been given it.
What I really want, of course, is for everyone to see me being humble and to admire me for being humble. Kneeling in a shaft of stained glass light. Choirs of angels singing in the background.
But no. It’s this moment, and the next, and the next, and every moment, and especially the everyday moments when we just have to do the best we can and admit we’re not succeeding—those are the moments when the Spirit moves in us and the Spirit comes into us, if we let it, because these are the moments that Jesus came into, in an ordinary stable, in an ordinary little town beside the lake, a man who ate and slept and laughed and cried just as we do and who never turned away from the world and who never rejected any of the ordinary people who came to him for help but served them and loved them right down to washing their ordinary, smelly feet.
“Do you not know that you are the temple of God,” Paul asks us, and not just when we’re in church, not just when everything is going the way we want it to, but wherever we are and whatever we do, sitting at our desks, standing at our sinks.
And the rain it sometimes falls, and falls, and falls, and it falls on the just and it falls on the unjust, Jesus tells us, and there’s nothing we can do about it, it just what it is, which is why weather is used again and again in the Old and New Testaments and in the Christian tradition to describe the peace and the joy that sometimes come to us in prayer, but only now and then, and when we least expect them, and not because we’ve prayed in the right way or earned that grace or ever have to or ever could.
We prepare the soil, St. Theresa of Avila says, and we work hard at that, and we plant the seed, and we work hard at that, and we tend the rows and weed and water and do all we can, and because of our work the seedlings begin to rise, and maybe, in the early stages of our prayer life, we think, hey, I really know what I’m doing, this all feels really good.
But then as we all know, all of us who have committed ourselves to a life of prayer, the desolation comes, and the wind and the storms, and our garden won’t grow and our garden won’t yield unless the weather brings the rain or the sun we need, and all we can do is wait.
And even on the rainy days there’s the lovely sound of the rain, and the bright green of the moss on the trees, and the boy and the girl laughing and running as they share an umbrella, and they’re so young, and new, and full of life.
And soon it will be spring, and the crocuses will be coming up, miraculously–every year they come up again–and the bright yellow daffodils, and the cherry trees blossoming, and all the earth is growing, and all the earth is dying, and all praise for the miracle of life itself, the water always becoming wine, the crucifixion always leading to the resurrection, our dying-to-self always leading to a new self, rising, coming free, through grace, through love, through this man who walked the earth and is walking it still, in us and through us and all around us.