Lessons for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Stone Soup is a folk tale told in many cultures around the world. You might be familiar with it. One version goes something like this:
A weary traveler, in the depths of winter, came into a dark village. His feet were sore and his stomach was empty. He walked, door to door, with nothing but a single copper coin to his name, and asked the villagers if he could buy some of their food. At each door, a gaunt villager told him that they were starving, unable to spare even a morsel of their winter stores.
Finally, the young man sat down in the center of the square, aware of the eyes peeking at him from shuttered windows. He reached down, brushed some snow from a small rock beneath his feet, and lifted it. With a start, he leapt to his feet, looked up to the shuttered windows, cleared his throat and made an announcement.
“You silly, starving people! How can you hide behind your walls, desperate for food when you have perfectly good stones like this laying all around you? Does but one of the women here have a good kettle she can loan me? I promise enough stone soup to feed her whole family if she loans it to me for the day!”
The washerwoman had a kettle frozen behind her house, a large kettle last used for stew at Christmastime, too large to use for her family’s meager meals and too small for laundry. She volunteered it, and the young man dragged it, full of snow, from the outdoor hearth it had occupied for a month to the center of the square. Villagers, bored in the dark winter, gathered around to help the man start a fire and melt the snow and ice in the pot. They were all convinced he was nuts, but helped him nonetheless. It was a sleepy village, and his obvious lunacy was worth a few cold feet to observe.
Once the snow had melted, he lifted the stone high for all of the villagers to see and plopped it into the pot. “Stewus blueus magic rock,” he chanted, “give us soup within this crock!” He walked three times around the pot and took a spoon someone handed him and dipped it in. Ever the diligent cook, he tasted the water and its mild aftertaste of Christmas stew and shook his head. “It’s bland,” he told them, “If only I had a bit of salt.”
The butcher told him he had salt sitting in his salting pot, the remnants of salting the midwinter’s catch, which had run out the week before. It was brown and hardened into one lump, but he’d give it to the man for free.
The man took his offer gladly, and added the brown lump to the pot. He again took a sip. “the magic is working” he told his audience, and, indeed, there was a faint smell of food coming from the pot. He sipped the soup again, and made a face. “It’s too sweet!” he said. “If only I had the ends of some turnips, or some radishes to give it some bite!”
Two women looked about and then went into their houses, coming out with half-rotten vegetables. The man carefully cut the rotted parts away and added the vegetables, greens and all.
There was no mistaking that it smelled like food now. The man tasted the soup, and said “It’s missing something” and handed the spoon to the brewman’s wife, who nodded, then scurried into the closed tavern, returning with a small burlap bag of barley. As she dumped it in, the wife of the mayor objected. “You can’t have barley in soup without parsnips!” she declared, and produced a bunch of limp, graying parsnips, which she handed to the man, who skinned them, chopped them and plopped them in.
Another woman objected as well, adding a fat, dry onion to the broth, and another, and still another, each adding the small secret ingredient that made the soups they made at home “perfect.”
Within an hour, the smell of the soup filled the square, and the people came from every crevice and corner with a bowl. The mayor of the town hailed the wanderer as heir savior and put him up in his own house after he and the villagers had filled their bellies with delicious, if odd-tasting, stone soup.
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, whether we like it or not.
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 mean “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: actions of faith. The thoughts and feelings that are inside us are acted out with the vehicle of our bodies. Are we God’s dwelling place? If so, how does anyone know?
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 know only one or two people? 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 discipleship, and that means not just mingling with, but embracing the other. That means noticing 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, believe it or not, are someone else’s enemy. The Christian life is not a passive life, but very 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 you in the pews today, or when you’re at work or school, or on the street. Catch someone’s eye. Hold eye contact for a moment and really look at them. 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:
“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.”Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark
How would it feel to be beheld 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 community 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, no matter if we think it’s fitting or not.
This is what it means to be God’s dwelling place in the world – our hearts have changed and our actions of love for one another make the soup what it is: a dish that people want to gather around and be part of.
RADICAL FORGIVENESS & RECONCILIATION
Immaculée Ilibagiza is a living example of faith put into action. Immaculée’s life was transformed dramatically during the 1994 Rwandan genocide where she and seven other women spent 91 days huddled silently together in the cramped bathroom of a local pastor’s house. Immaculée entered the bathroom a vibrant, 115-pound university student with a loving family – she emerged weighing just 65 pounds to find her most of her family had been brutally murdered.
Immaculée credits her salvage mostly to prayer and to a set of rosary beads given to her by her devout Catholic father prior to going into hiding. Anger and resentment about her situation were literally eating her alive and destroying her faith, but rather than succumbing to the rage that she felt, Immaculée instead turned to prayer. She began to pray the rosary as a way of drowning out the negativity that was building up inside her. Immaculée found solace and peace in prayer and began to pray from the time she opened her eyes in the morning to the time she closed her eyes at night. Through prayer, she eventually found it possible, and in fact imperative, to forgive her tormentors and her family’s murderers.
Immaculée’s strength in her faith empowered her to stare down a man armed with a machete threatening to kill her during her escape. She also later came face to face with the killer of her mother and her brother and said the unthinkable, “I forgive you.” Immaculée knew, while in hiding, that she would have to overcome immeasurable odds without her family and with her country destroyed. Fortunately, Immaculée utilized her time in that tiny bathroom to teach herself English with only the Bible and a dictionary; once freed she was able to secure a job with the United Nations.
We speak the truth that God loves all people, that God makes the necessities of life available to all – both evil and good, righteous and unrighteous – that retribution is not the way to show the justice of God.
When we are out there alone as Jesus was, in a community governed by power that seeks to preserve its own hold on others, we are subject to the persecution, betrayal, and death that Jesus endured. But we, as Christ’s followers, can be working to create systems and communities where we will not be out there alone. We have the benefit of the gospel and the knowledge of God’s overwhelming grace and love that is able to sustain us and protect us, and even overcome the power of death. We have the chance to work to nurture children and young adults that understand that their well-being is only secure in the securing of the well-being of others, all others. We are the people to whom God is looking to make the effort to see that all are treated even as God treats all.
So, are we to be doormats? Are we to meekly submit to the persecution of this world and our enemies? To borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, “By no means!”
What we are to be is those people who do not seek to simply protect what they have or what is their own, but who seek to protect others. This profound lack of self-interest and self-protection is rooted in the desire of a community of believers to protect one another, to make sure that all people in all communities, both enemies and friends, have access to the means of life and know the benefit of God’s awesome and amazing love.
As Jesus toured around from town to town, he embodied God’s call to come together. He reminded the people that holiness is not about achieving a standard of perfection but about all kinds of people embracing a perfect, unified love.
The meek, the hungry, the poor and oppressed—Jesus calls them “blessed.” He even calls on them to love their enemies. He practices what he preaches, and because Jesus is an effective teacher and the incarnate revelation of God, people still respond as only people do when they recognize Truth.
Jesus helps us realize that God’s kingdom is not an exclusive perfect people club with a privacy gate and a bouncer at the door; the kingdom of God is what we live when we choose to see each other as beloved children of God instead of as commodities to be bought, sold, judged, and discarded. Living in God’s kingdom is like awakening from what Thomas Merton called a “dream of separateness,” which is much more nightmare than dream.
We follow Jesus not only because he appeared to be an exceptional human, but because of his truly divine ability to birth the kingdom of God in every given moment. And we can participate in this kingdom, here and now. When we wake up in the morning, we might say our prayers or just pause for a moment to watch the sun creep above the horizon. Whatever our spiritual practice might be, it ought to include God’s timeless affirmation that we are beloved.