To the Parishioners & Friends of Saint Bernard's:


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A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Rauen Sciaino
on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2017,
at St. Bernard's Episcopal Church, Bernardsville, NJ 

Scripture: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
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.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.
You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 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.
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.
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. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," and again, "The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile."
So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-- all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
Matthew 5:38-48
J esus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
"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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." [or "Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be." [1] ]
Our gospel passage today begins with "an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth" - an ancient legal approach intended to rein in endless acts of revenge and instead offer equivalent justice. Only an eye for eye or a tooth for a tooth.   Back in 2006, I read a poem entitled "Revenge," written by the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali.   This poem was first shared with the world at the Dodge Poetry Festival, when it was still in Stanhope. It was read at the Poetry Festival by Mr. Ali in Arabic and by his translator, Peter Cole, in English. The Star-Ledger newspaper published a number of the poems that were a part of the Festival. And that's where I read this poem and clipped it out and stuck it on the wall of my cubicle. I want to share these words. Words that come from a different place yet our current time. Words that reach each of our hearts.
by Taha Muhammad Ali, translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin
21 December 2006

At times ... I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
expelling me
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I'd rest at last,
and if I were ready-
I would take my revenge!

But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who'd put
his right hand over
the heart's place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they'd set-
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.

Likewise ... I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn't bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbours he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school ...
asking about him
and sending him regards.

But if he turned
out to be on his own-
cut off like a branch from a tree-
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbours or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I'd add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness-
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I'd be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street-as I
convinced myself
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.

April 15, 2006[3]

"You shall be holy as the Lord your God is holy."   We hear this message from God through the Prophet Moses in today's reading from the Book of Leviticus.   And then we hear all sorts of commandments about how to move from selfish living, from scarcity thinking and vengeful thinking, into a practice of treating other people as holy, no matter how they are categorized or judged by the world. I have zero experience in farming, and yet I am always moved by the generosity of these commandments telling us to leave some of the harvest, some of the fruit that we have worked hard to grow. Leaving it intentionally for those who are without food. Those who are without connections. The stranger in our midst.
I think this is a kind of generosity we struggle to comprehend, let alone practice in our lives.  But it's a part of an understanding that we're constantly working to move into. To live in a way that recognizes and proclaims that all things come from God. These aren't things that we have earned or gathered or hoarded, but they are gifts from God that may pass through our lives and our hands for a time. Gifts from God that God wants others to have: shelter, food, and work. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," we hear this in the end of our passage in Leviticus.  And we know it as one of the commandments Jesus lifts up for us in what we call the Summary of the Law.  And together we see that being holy and loving neighbor is the primary way that we love God and we follow Christ.
In our second reading, we hear from Paul that we are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in us.   I think that Ali's poem recognizes the holiness of his enemy's common humanity. He comes to see this man who killed his father and razed his home as a branch of the man's own family. A vital and beloved part of a family and community. Taha Muhammad Ali may have initially been driven to harm the man who killed his father. And yet the more he considers and imagines the man as having a life like his own, the more Ali realizes he doesn't want to cause another family the suffering that he himself lives with, suffering and pain he knows intimately, each and every day. And I love that the poet gives flesh to his enemy, and by doing so his enemy becomes a neighbor, someone familiar, rooted in a loving community, vital and valuable, beloved and blessed. And it's from a similar sense of our own rootedness in God our Creator and Jesus our Redeemer that Paul writes to the church at Corinth "you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God." That experience of belonging that shapes our identity and gives life. And as Christians, we are never alone in Christ. We belong to Christ, but we also belong to the broader Body of Christ. All those who have been baptized into Christ.
Over these past five Sundays, we've heard what Jesus expects of us. We have sat at his feet alongside his first disciples, hearing pieces of his Sermon on the Mount.   I'm positive that Jesus' instructions sound no easier to them than they do to us.   "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" is just as jarring to the disciples' worldview and status quo as it is to ours. This past weekend, I've been at Cross Roads Camp and Retreat Center for the Elementary Retreat with my daughter, Phoebe. The guiding Scripture for the retreat was one we heard a couple of Sundays ago, the gospel about salt and light. But they used the Message translation, which conveys Scripture using contemporary ideas.
We were asked to listen for a phrase that struck us in the passage from Matthew chapter 5, about light.[4] One phrase really got me; the idea of "being generous with your lives." We're the light of the world; "be generous with your lives." Jesus is not content with typical acts of generosity - loving those who already love us. Or helping people in a limited way, bandaids that helps people get through today but perhaps doesn't change the system. Jesus encourages extravagant generosity to unexpected people, which leads to transformation for us and for them. You may have noticed that at the end of the Gospel I switched out the familiar line "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." And that's because the translation "perfect" is itself imperfect. We're not talking about moral perfection. The word "telos" means the purpose, end, or what you are becoming.[5] That you will become what you are made to be.
Our life in faith, this journey with Jesus, is in itself a process of becoming who God has made us to be. Jesus is telling us that we already belong to God. We are created to be subjects of the beloved community, members of that community, God's kingdom. And the Message translation ends this passage with the words: "Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity." [6] We're heading into the end of the season after Epiphany that moment where the star reveals Jesus to those who have come from far away. And we are reminded again of our potential to live lives that reveal God's love to the world.  
And so, we gather here to be renewed by God's grace and love and reminded of God's promise of a transformed life. Affirming that we belong to God, we are the embodiment of God's love and light, living as Christ's hands and feet in the world. And as we asked in our Collect of the Day, we ask repeatedly, for God's Holy Spirit to pour God's greatest gift into our hearts - love - which helps us do all that we've been commanded to do and practice in our readings today. Because it's God's love that we trust will transform us and help us love our neighbors in unexpected ways, seeing and then celebrating their common humanity. We need, all of us, need God's help and God's grace to live this way. To live as God created us to be.
The concrete examples given in our readings may not be a part of your own daily life. You may not be a steward of a vineyard or someone who is farming. However, there are other ways we can think creatively about how we see our common humanity and how we share the many blessings and gifts we have been given. Because they have not been given just to us, for our own use. All of these blessings and gifts, as small or large as they may be, have been given to everyone, all of the children of God. Sometimes I imagine that God is in a constant state of wanting us to figure out yet another way to actually share them. "Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be." [7] Amen.

[3] "Revenge" was initially published by TWO LINES: World Writing in Translation, along with a short introduction to the poet and the poem by Peter Cole. The poem was read by Taha Muhammad Ali and Peter Cole at the 11th Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, New Jersey. Taha Muhammad Ali lives in Nazareth. When he is not reading and writing poetry, he runs a souvenir shop. Peter Cole is a poet, translator and editor, and has been visiting professor at Wesleyan University and Middlebury College. He lives in Jerusalem. This poem is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at