February 20: God of the Future
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Ninety-eight years ago this past Thursday evening at 8:30, the Armory Art Show opened by invitation only at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th streets in Manhattan. This International Exhibition of Modern Art featured works just arrived from Europe by Picasso, Matisse, Cassatt, Cezanne, Duchamp, Manet, van Gogh, Hopper, Monet, and dozens of others.
Among those invited to see the exhibit was Teddy Roosevelt, who according to some who were there ran from room to room waving his arms and shouting, “Art?? Art?? This isn’t art!!”
The show was, without overstating it, a revelation to the people of this city and the USA of the time. Though modern art had been making its mark overseas since the 1860’s, the Armory Show did something extraordinary here. It brought the past to light – (revealing almost four decades of work) – in the present, and in doing so, shed light on what might be a path into art’s future.
In my life and yours, what is our experience of the relationship of the past, present, and future? Some of us can remember our past, with more or less light shining on those inner memories. We live the present, whether in delight, in agony, or for most of us, in something between the two. And the future? We can imagine it, whether accurately or not; we can look forward to it with anticipation; we can dread it; or we can ignore it, probably at our own peril.
And sometimes, as at the Armory Show here in NY almost a century ago, past, present, and future come together in one moment. And when they do, a power and light is revealed that transforms, renews, and for some – including Mr. Roosevelt – challenges.
In the center of this past week we received midwinter days with shadowed sun and temperatures that doubled and tripled what we have known for the last several weeks and months. Was this a tease? In light of yesterday’s cold temperatures, prestigious winds, and snow flurries, it would seem so, but those days were also a promise. Somewhere in that shadowed sunlight was and is foreshadowed the brilliant light and warmth that will be early July.
The future is here, in the present, linked to the past.
Times of revolution are always like that. As is our time, and as was the time of those men and women to whom the words we hear from the book of Leviticus’ chapter 19 were first directed. It’s a strange set of commands they heard. These directives run around the mental furniture and up and down the stairs like children in a new house – all over the place – but remaining centered around the call to love the neighbor, and the reminder that it is God, the Holy One, who speaks and who calls those who hear to holiness.
Stranger yet is the truth that these commands, beginning with those focused on how to take in the harvest from the fields and the grapes from the vines, were first spoken to a people who had not yet reached a home of their own. They were on the journey, on the way, still in the desert, still uncomfortable, still very much a pilgrim folk – and yet, they are commanded now not to forget to make provision for the poor among their neighbors then – in a future time when they will have fields and harvests and vines filled with grapes.
Those wanderers in the wilderness, still looking toward a home of their own, understood themselves as people of God, and believed that it was the voice of God they were hearing in those instructions:
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. 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. But you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
Some six centuries later, in the land that had been the focus of their hope from the desert, a voice is raised on a hillside. Jesus speaks within the tradition that his forebears knew in the desert, but in a manner that opens up something startlingly new in what those who listened to him thought they had known from their earliest days.
“You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . . “:
. . . Turn the other cheek;
. . . Give your cloak as well;
. . . Go also the second mile;
. . . Love your enemies;
. . . Pray for those who persecute you;
. . . Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This is a new voice, and yet it is the same voice that Israel had heard before, speaking to its heart. Jesus speaks without hesitation to the very center of Israel’s life, daring both to affirm what they knew and to ask of them something more. ‘More,’ not in the sense of something additional; rather, it is the radical opening up of what may have lain hidden from most of God’s people, lying there in the open all along.
In both the desert of Leviticus and the hillside of Jesus, the voice of God is not just informing. It is forming. Forming this people to become something beyond its own expectations. In the desert they wanted only good food, adequate water, and a return to the comforts they had known even in bondage. On the hillside, some wanted freedom from Roman occupation; some, to be a nation characterized entirely by its allegiance to God’s law; some, as in every time and place, wanted only a little open space and time to live and love and raise their children. But both in the desert and on the hillside, the voice that addressed them had in mind something more.
Listen to those voices yourself this morning, and find your own answer as to what that ‘more’ is that God has in mind for the Chosen. I see it this way. I see God standing in the future and speaking from there. Oh yes, God is present in every now as well, and the outline of God’s designs can perhaps be seen most clearly in looking back to what has already been. But it seems to me that God’s preferred address is the future, present in what is yet to come.
From there the Father of Jesus speaks a word that paints a portrait of who and what God’s people are called to be:
– a people who provide for the poor and the stranger and the alien among them – provide not only food, but the sense of their own dignity that can only come from being loved;
– a people whose focus remains on the neighbor, on the other, attentive to the needs of the other – be that other spouse/partner, family member, the person next door, the one in the next office – attentive not only to that person’s needs, but to knowing the God-given marvel that every person is;
– a people generous to the point of lunacy;
– a people that refuses to define another as the enemy;
– a people willing to be known as fools in order to grasp the wisdom of God;
– a people that – even in its brokenness – is the Temple of God;
– a people that – with brazen faith – knows itself to be called to the holiness of God, and at its best believes that it actually is meant to come to be perfect with the very perfection of God.
From the future God speaks a word that is both invitation and creation:
- an invitation to participate in the building of this community;
- and the revealing of a creation that is ultimately the vision and the work of the Divine One.
I see undying hope in this vision. God stands and speaks from a future in which this community of ‘more’ has already come to be. God’s word to us in our past and in our present is assurance that this future is our future. For those lost in the desert, for those living a fractured unity in the early church at Corinth, for those who walked away from the hillside that day when Jesus had completed painting his picture of the future, for us here this morning together in this place of Grace to hear God speak of what we shall be – for us all, the Word that reaches us from God is a Word that redeems the past, establishes the present, and lays an unbreakable foundation for the future.
For we who are marked inside-out by the name of Jesus, in his sermon on the mount he is stretching, stretching, stretching us toward a future, unseen, but somehow already known. Its Constitution is hidden here in his words; the power that will bring the community of the future to be vibrates between every syllable he speaks.
What does all this say to us then, in our time and place? I know that I can often be like the people of Leviticus: just get me a place to call my own and I’ll be happy. Or like the people on the hillside with Jesus, thinking perhaps: this is all too much; let me just get back to making the best out of life as it always has been. Our response to God’s inviting word from the future might be a lot like President Roosevelt’s response to what he saw at the Armory Art Show. We might run through church, away from this vision, waving our arms and yelling, “Community? Church? Society? This doesn’t sound like any community or church that I’ve ever known!” Or perhaps want to know.
Because it is challenging. The God of the future has ideas that are not ours. And most of us, most of the time, we want our own way. We prefer usually to stay with the familiar, with what we call the tried and true, even if it is tried and ‘not quite true.’ But the God of the future stands and waits for us with the gift and the challenge of what will be. God is still there, in our future, and still active.
Could it be that the God who long ago freed the Israelites from oppression by the Egyptians is in our times freeing the Egyptians from oppression by the Egyptians?
Could it be that God is speaking to us to ask us to trust the future that is in the divine mind, as he asked the people of Leviticus to give that trust?
Could it be that Jesus is working to stretch you and me and our ways as he worked to stretch those who heard him on the hillside?
I think it very well could be. In fact, I think this must be the case.