Sunday, February 23, 2014

3-D Holiness

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
February 23, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Scripture for this sermon was presented as a Readers' Theater, the script of which is below. The readers read the parts and the congregation responded by singing, "Change My Heart, O God." You can hear the music here:

Lev 19:1,2, 9-18                                           
Speaker 1: 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.
Speaker 2: But how can I be holy? Only God is holy!
Speaker 1: 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.
Speaker 2: God asks me to care for others, even in the way I do my daily work. I will need God’s help to do this.
Response: Change My Heart, O God

Speaker 1: 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.
Speaker 2: God asks me to care for others, even in the way I use my words.
Speaker 1: 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.
Speaker 2: God asks me to care for others, even in the way I handle my money and my possessions. I will need God’s help to do this.
Response: Change My Heart, O God

Speaker 1: 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.
Speaker 2: God asks me to care for others, even in my thoughts. I will need God’s help to do this.
Response: Change My Heart, O God

Speaker 1: 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.
Speaker 2: God asks me to love my neighbor as myself. The person next door, and down the street, and across town, and across the country, and across the globe. God asks me to be holy, by loving and caring for others. All others. This is the word of the Lord!
Speaker 1: Thanks be to God.
Speaker 2: We will need God’s help to do this.
Response: Change My Heart, O God

You may remember that last week, our scripture reading was from the book of Deuteronomy, a bit of Moses’ last words before the Israelites crossed the river Jordan into the promised land of Canaan.  This week we are still in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, but we are reading from the book of Leviticus.  This is a pretty complex book, so it is usually divided into sections.  The first section is detailed instructions for worship; if you need to know how to offer your goat up as a burnt offering, this is your go-to guide.  Then there are some pretty intense instructions on what is clean and unclean.  And then, Leviticus chapters 19-26 are what is known as the “Holiness Code.”

This section covers all kinds of rules about what the people must do to be pleasing to God, and it has some serious rules about what you can and cannot eat, who you can or cannot marry, and what it means to be holy.  God reminds the people of two things over and over – first, “I the Lord your God am holy.” And second, “You shall be holy.” This section of chapter 19 deals with what holiness looks like, in action, what holiness looks like not just in words, but in three dimensions – in real life.  The scripture you’ve just heard concerns personal ethics in community, the life of God’s people in relationship to others.  Like the rest of the holiness code in Leviticus, these injunctions are no longer completely applicable in their literal sense. Many words have been said, many more shouted, about what parts of Leviticus should still be taken literally. The reality is probably that none of them really can, since we are no longer an emerging agrarian culture of the 5th century BC.

It doesn’t make sense to us now, for example, to apply the dietary code. God certainly had good reason to forbid the eating of shrimp –who am I to question what that was –but it is safe to assume that holiness for us no longer means what it meant then.  Now, certain people will tell you “you can’t pick and choose!”…“If it is in the Bible, you must follow it!”

But everybody picks and chooses – it’s just a matter of what they pick and how they choose. A few years ago, a fellow named A.  J.  Jacobs tried to follow the Bible, all of it, completely, without picking and choosing, following all the rules – every single one of them. You may know that there are quite a few rules about stoning people to death –blasphemers, pagans, adulterers, mediums, and rebellious children –those are the main categories. The Bible  --Leviticus, chapter 20, says if you run across any of those, you are supposed to stone them to death.

So A.  J.  Jacobs, in his book, described how he spent a year of his life trying to follow all those rules. He wore his hair and beard long, he kept all the purity laws, and one day he went out to stone an adulterer.

Here’s how he describes the effort, after he meets an elderly man in a park who admits he is an adulterer:
“You’re stoning adulterers?”
“Yeah, I’m stoning adulterers.”
“I’m an adulterer.”
“You’re currently an adulterer?”
“Yeah. Tonight, tomorrow, yesterday, two weeks from now.  You gonna stone me?”
“If I could, yes, that’d be great.”
“I’ll punch you in the face.  I’ll send you to the cemetery. ”
He is serious.  This isn’t a cutesy grumpy old man.  
This is an angry old man.  This is a man with seven decades of hostility behind him.
I fish out my pebbles from my back pocket.
“I wouldn’t stone you with big stones,” I say.  “Just these little guys.”
I open my palm to show him the pebbles.  
He lunges at me, grabbing one out of my hand, then chucking it at my face.  It whizzes by my cheek. I am stunned for a second.  I hadn’t expected this elderly man to make the first move.  But now there is nothing stopping me from retaliating. An eye for an eye.  I take one of the remaining pebbles and whip it at his chest.  It bounces off.
“I’ll punch you right in the kisser,” he says.
“Well, you really shouldn’t commit adultery,” I say. We stare at each other.  
My heart is racing. Yes, he is a septuagenarian.  Yes, he had just threatened me using corny Honeymooners dialogue.  But you could tell: This man has a strong dark side. Our glaring contest lasts ten seconds, then he walks away, brushing by me as he leaves.

Jacobs reflects on the event:
… Even though mine was a Stoning Lite, barely fulfilling the letter of the law, I can’t deny: It felt good to chuck a rock at this nasty old man.  It felt primal. It felt like I was getting vengeance on him.  This guy wasn’t just an adulterer, he was a bully.  I wanted him to feel the pain he’d inflicted on others, even if that pain was a tap on the chest. ”[1]

I think most of us can relate – it sounds really good to say we should follow all of the Bible, but the truth is, most of us tend to reserve the more judgmental sections for those people who we don’t like in any case. So it feels pretty good to pronounce God’s judgment on people we look down on, people who are strange, not like us. This section of Leviticus calls us to account on that, because it explicitly describes how we are supposed to treat other people.

We can’t ignore this passage by saying, “Well, I don’t know any blind people; I’m not acquainted with any gleaners, and besides I don’t even HAVE a vineyard.” That kind of literalism attends to the letter of the law, and not the spirit, and we all know what Jesus had to say about people who do that. No, this description of those whom we are to care for applies  to every category of person who lacks privilege, who is left out, who is struggling, who is made in God’s image, and therefore worthy of our compassion and our respect.

This code of holiness encompasses all people in God’s justice, and God’s love. In other words, when the man who wanted to justify himself asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answered with a parable, the story of the Good Samaritan. Turns out everybody is my neighbor, from the guy next door to the worst terrorist on the planet. When asked “What is the greatest commandment?”Jesus answered by saying, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.   All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands. ”

Jesus did not change the law, or destroy the law – he fulfilled the law – the spirit of the law. If we hear a text like this, or any other part of the holiness code, we will also hear the call to be holy, ourselves.

So, what does it mean, to be holy? We can’t be as holy as God is, no matter how we try. We understand holiness to be two-dimensional: we are committed, dedicated to God and God alone, and because of that, we are set apart from the rest of the world. But that does not exempt us from the law of love, the third dimension of holiness. If we try to obey the letter of the law, and take every word literally, and demonstrate our own dedication to God, our holiness is thin, linear, one-dimensional.

If we simply choose to deploy these scripture as verses to clobber others, we might perhaps succeed setting ourselves apart from others, excluding them in order to protect our own moral purity, but we miss the point, and our holiness may have two dimensions, but that kind of so-called holiness is still flat, with no depth at all.

If we genuinely seek to understand and live and act in the spirit of the law, we will come to no other conclusion than John Calvin did, when he said, “Let this, therefore, be our rule for generosity and beneficence: We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbor, and are required to render account of our stewardship.  Moreover, the only right stewardship is that which is tested by the rule of love.  .  .  .  Now if [a person] has not only deserved no good at your hand, but has also provoked you by unjust acts and curses, not even this is just reason why you should cease to embrace him in love and to perform the duties of love on his behalf. ”[2]

To be holy, as God is holy, is to love as God loves. Three dimensional holiness stretches out a hand to the hurting, offers food to the hungry, grants mercy to the undeserving, forgives the unrepentant. [3]

Three dimensional holiness welcomes the stranger, refrains from judging, but when it must, it judges fairly. Three dimensional holiness honors God by loving God and loving neighbor. Three dimensional holiness has flesh and bone and skin and a voice, it is fully human and fully divine, perfect love and perfect justice, forgiving seven times seventy and loving even enemies. God called the people to holiness, and delivered them time and again. God made a holy and eternal covenant with God’s chosen ones, and God led them to the promised land. God continued to forgive and offer mercy, even when the people tried to construct their own systems of justice, and God delivered them again from exile, which, let’s be honest, was their own darn fault. And at last God came to earth, as a human, with flesh and bone and skin and a voice, and showed us how to be human, how to love, how to be holy.

In Christ, God demonstrated holiness in three dimensions –devotion to God, being set apart for service, and a life active in love. I am the Lord your God; be holy as I am holy. Love your neighbor as yourself.  

[3] Robson, James E.,  “Forgotten Dimensions of Holiness.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 33 (2011) 121-146

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