Several months ago, I took two daughters to my mother’s childhood home in Stanley county, about thirty miles east of Charlotte. About a mile south of Richfield, I turned in to somebody’s driveway as they asked, “Do you know where you’re going?” I didn’t answer because I was looking for a hidden one-lane unpaved road downhill and then uphill for about a mile until we reached an old, old house. “This is where your grandmother was born and lived until she married your grandfather.” Then we had a really nice visit with my first cousin. When I wonder who I am, I have to consider those roots.
Each of us has roots in a particular place and time. Each of us has an intricate story of how we have come to where we are, and how we have become who we are. We cannot know ourselves until we come to terms with all those elements that have gone into our individual and unique identification. And we have to know who we are in order to make sense of Jesus’ word that we must be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. But we cannot be perfect.
For instance, the prodigal son did not understand who he was and where he fit in, until he was destitute, and then he realized that he was still his father’s son. That relationship is all that remained after he threw away everything else. A philosopher said, “Blessed is he who is homesick for he has a home to which he can go.”
If we were to evaluate the burdens that we all carry, the most serious might be not knowing our own roots, not knowing where we belong, where we fit in, not knowing, in a symbolic way, our own home address. Under the right circumstance and with the right person, we might get around to questions such as: Where do you live? Where did you come from? Who was your family?
We ask ourselves where are my roots? Where do I belong? What is my origin? Where are some other family members? When my daughters were teenagers of dating age, they said I always had the same question: “What does his daddy do?” Our problem is not our mobility, being physically uprooted and moved halfway across the country to a new home. Rather, our problem is not knowing the scheme of life God has in mind for us.
We live in a time of social chaos, moral confusion, uncertain values and controversial priorities. Vast segments of us are not satisfied with where we are, not at peace with ourselves. We ask, how can we be perfect as our Father expects when we are so uncertain about who we are? At such times, we refer to our deepest and most historic roots. Where did we start?
Who were our ancestors and how do they influence us yet? On what foundation can we build life to make it worthwhile so that my life counts for something? What sort of spiritual ancestry do we have? Moses, under the Lord’s direction, knew that the people of Israel faced the problem of identity, the problem of not knowing how they fit into the world and its future. They had been a people without identity, mere slaves of the Egyptians, disorganized, demoralized, and ethnically desensitized.
The task of Moses was to form them into a people, a family, a self-conscious unit who had a place and a part in God’s great drama of salvation for the world. Moses took stock of them on the way to the Promised Land, but it was already inhabited by nations with standing armies. In addition, they were surrounded by people with strong national identities. The Phoenicians, ancient Egyptians, and Syrians were all well organized people who were in charge of their own destiny.
Now here come these former slaves, lacking any political organization, taking over territory, laying claim to the real estate. What was their mandate, their marching orders? What was their own unique identity? They had an unbelievable warrant from God. The Lord told Moses, “Say to the people, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy’.” In the 19th and 20th chapters of Leviticus, that last word appears 20 times. “I the Lord Your God am Holy.” The implication of that phrase is important and easy to understand. Speaking through Moses, the Lord was telling the people that He, their God, lives. He is neither an idol of wood and stone, nor of gold and silver. He is not blind and unthinking, with carved eyes and painted hair. He is alive. He moves and directs events.
Here, then, is the point for us. If he is holy, living and in charge, then those people who belong to him in a unique way are holy because their personal identity comes from him. We are talking about ourselves. We are holy, we have life, and we are in charge of what we do. Our history, our home address, rests in him. If we could ask the descendants of Jacob about their origin and their history, they would say, “God has freed us and we are no longer slaves. We have a new identity.” To help them understand the meaning of their identity, all kinds of situations were set before them, particularly in the matter of relations among people.
The greatest example of the holiness expected of them would be in the way they treated their enemies. They soon got past those early days of wholesale slaughter of their enemies.
Later, they figured out that because the all-wise and all-loving God sends his acts of mercy and providential care equally on the just and the unjust, then his chosen people must reflect the same mercy upon their enemies.
You can’t hate your brother in your heart, but you can reason with him unless you want to push yourself into a more serious error. That is, “don’t take revenge or bear a grudge. Love your neighbors because I, the Lord your God, am holy and that is my way with you.”
All this sounds similar to the Sermon on the Mount, that long section in Matthew from which our Gospel and text for this day comes.
But too frequently, the Sermon on the Mount is treated as a section of the law. Is the preacher supposed to pound on the pulpit and try to impress the congregation that Jesus was pouring it on?
Some people would build a barricade and say, “Here a line must be drawn. Either you love your enemies, become holy and be perfect, or God will get you if you’re not.”
What Jesus really said was, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” He prayed for those who crucified him because he spoke of the kingdom of his Father who created heaven and earth.
His Father, and our Father-God endured all the insults of the golden calf, the rebellious people, the wayward kings, the false prophets, the ungrateful people, the selfish and mis-guided priests – and still He loved them because He is the Lord God, the Holy, living, thinking, loving God.
What Jesus did to the tradition from Moses was to add his own sacrificial life. If we are to understand who we are, and where we can be at home, we must come to terms with Jesus Christ as our Father’s son, our brother who died for us.
If we build life upon him, if we search for the meaning of our identity with him, we will find our true roots in God’s plan for us. We will become God’s temple, the dwelling place of God’s Spirit. The new life in Christ for each of us who wanders across a spiritual and personal desert is waiting for us when we come home to where we belong.
It is the glory of the church that in Word and Sacraments, God keeps calling to us. Come home, child of God, come home. We know who we really are and this fellowship is our home. Life is in God. Your real home address is with him. You are the children of your father in heaven.
We don’t mind hearing him say to us that we must be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. It is not a command, but an invitation. From the pride he takes in us as his children, overlooking every fault and sin, somehow we’d like to measure up in response to his goodness to us.
After all, consider who we are as the children of God. Can we be the family of faith? Can we be a holy people? Considering how we are called to be God’s people from everlasting and stretching into eternity, we’d be disappointed if He expected any less.