We’ve talked a bit before about a research project that has been ongoing for some time on the faith of Americans. It’s a major national study that started at UNC Chapel Hill over a decade ago by looking at teens in particular, and then expanded to include younger adults, and by now its assessment of where all of us are spiritually as a culture has by become incredibly influential. The initial thing sociologists noticed in this study, back in about 2005, was that no matter what religion younger Americans said they belonged to, when asked to talk about what their principles were, how they knew right and wrong, what God was like, they all did something similar. Virtually none of them referred to any of the theology, practice, or vocabulary of the tradition they said they belonged to. De facto, it just wasn’t in the picture.
In other words, the Jews did not say “My family keeps Sabbath, and taking that break every week has taught me that there’s more to life than your career.” The Catholics did not say, “My goal in life is to emulate the Blessed Virgin Mary in saying yes to whatever God asks from me.” The Muslims did not say, “It was fasting during Ramadan that made me decide to get a job that helps address world hunger.” Whatever religion they claimed to be part of, almost none of them was capable of talking about it. They were articulate about other topics, but when it came to being a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew, they could only resort to platitudes that sounded the same in people of every background.
The three main platitudes, which were produced in one form or another by a very high percentage of the respondents, were these:
First, they agreed that "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair." Researchers called this a Moralistic orientation: nearly everyone de facto believed that all God cares about is how you measure up to a basic list of moral standards.
Second, they expressed that "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself." Researchers called this a Therapeutic orientation: nearly everyone de facto saw life as being ultimately about themselves and their subjective well-being.
And finally, they agreed that "God does not need to be particularly involved in your life except when you need God to resolve a problem for you." Researchers called this a Deistic orientation: nearly everyone de facto treated God as irrelevant to the majority of what human beings do, think, and experience.
Now these three orientations, as I hope might be obvious, are in flat conflict with all major world religions. The Christian faith -- and indeed every historic, serious religious tradition, but I’m going to focus on ours because we’re all here in a church – presents completely different answers to the questions of what God wants for us, what the central goal of life is, and how God is involved in the world. I wonder, if I were to give you all pencils and a few minutes, how you would answer those questions. What does God want for us? What is the central goal of life? How is God involved in the world? You can find texts that address all those questions throughout the Bible and the Prayer Book, but for the sake of ease I’m going to talk about them using today’s readings from Leviticus 19 and Matthew 5. The Gospel and the Old Testament are always thematically linked in our lectionary, so it makes sense to look at them together.
I’m going to start with this question of God’s involvement in life, taking it from Leviticus: Is God distant unless we choose to bring him in to help us? Not according to this text. Look at the kind of ordinary human behaviors it assumes God is part of and has a stake in:
--“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings... you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” So here is a God who is involved down at the level of your smallest financial or business decisions, and who particularly cares not about whether they’re making you feel good about yourself, but about how they’re affecting others. So God is involved at the level of whether you leave a waitress a 10% or 25% tip. At the level of whether you give employees a cost of living increase. He has a stake in that.
--“You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.” So here is a God who is involved down at the smallest movements of our heart toward unkindness. Who is aware of the temptation to try and get a laugh at the expense of someone who stands out as different. He has a stake in that.
--“You shall not render an unjust judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.” So here is a God who is involved down at the level where social and economic divisions affect how we behave. He understands the dynamics that make us over-focus on the lives of well paid athletes or movie stars or the wealthy. He understands both that we can be starstruck with celebrities and bored with the lives of the ordinary, or that we can be so biased toward salt of the earth folks that we resent successful people and enjoy seeing them get taken down a notch.
In all these kinds of behaviors and more, God is already present, and he knows all our inner workings better than we do ourselves. There is not a step you take or a thought you have that he isn’t in the middle of. He already has an opinion, he is already hurting for our bad decisions, already wanting at these most intimate and daily levels of behavior to offer us a freer and holier way of life.
If that is true, if God is that involved, there must be a very different answer to the other two questions, which are actually deeply related in any mature religious system: what’s the goal of life? What does God want for us? In a mature religion, those are almost the same question. The answer our tradition gives is hinted at in Leviticus, but Jesus takes it much further in Matthew. One of the characteristic lines used by Jesus is one we’ve been hearing all month in the Sermon on the Mount: “you have heard it said, but I say to you.” He is consistently trying to move us from external rules to a deeper attitude, one of reflecting who God is. His offer is to change us at the level of intentions, not up on the emotional level of how we happen to feel about ourselves any given day, nor up on the rule-based moralistic level of thinking of ourselves as nice or good.
People who haven’t read the Bible tend to assume that the Old Testament is stringent, but Jesus is much more lax and really loosens things up. But it’s actually the exact opposite. Jesus sharpens, not dulls, the Old Testament to shock us into noticing what God wants and what life is about. We heard it today: he quoted our Leviticus reading ("You have heard it said, Love your neighbor") and sharpened it dramatically ("but I say to you, love your enemies.") Jesus takes commandments that were very hard to keep and demands we view them from the heart, as a matter of attitude, to the point where they would be impossible to keep unless God were to keep them in you. Unless you were to begin reflecting who he is. And then Jesus says, “And by the way, that could happen.”
The connection of who God is and what we are made for was already there in Leviticus: I am the LORD. Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy. And Jesus says today: Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect. What God wants for us is all rooted in who he is. Once we embark on the journey of living in him by Baptism, he loves us too much to want to see us settle for being nice or happy. He wants us to be his. He holds out for the most beautiful thing in the world, something only he can give: you, made fully yourself and fully human by his grace.
When we are finally received into God’s direct presence at the end, when the New Heavens and the New Earth are revealed, he will fulfill all that he has done for us perfectly in us. But it begins now. God is already here. Notice his loving presence, and you will begin to find yourself loving your enemies. Step into who you are in Christ by grace, and you will begin to find yourself being generous with the poor. Drink of the holiness and love Jesus pours out on us from this altar, and you will begin to find yourself becoming a carrier of that holiness and love to the world around you. He does it, not us.
God does not say: I am your consultant. I am your therapist. Would you enjoy hiring me part-time to enhance your self-esteem? He says: I am the LORD. I am your God. Don’t you want to be my people?