Sunday, October 25, 2020

Sermon: "Holiness", Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-10, 13-15, 17-18 (October 25, 2020)


You may be wondering what the deal is with our scripture reading for today. I’ve done a bit of a “cut-and-paste” job on it, but there’s a reason for that. The Lectionary itself only gives us the first two and last four verses of this section, and I didn’t like how much that excluded. But I didn’t want to tackle 18 whole verses in one week; I had to cut SOMETHING out. So, since this passage is essentially a list of rules, I decided to cut out the ones that we’re already very familiar with (those covered in the Ten Commandments) and the ones that really aren’t relevant to today’s society (laws regarding animal sacrifice, which stopped in 70 CE). That left me with what we have before us this morning.

It was important to me that we get a better sense of this section as a whole because chapter 19 of Leviticus is right smack dab in the middle of what’s commonly known as “The Holiness Code”. While Leviticus is chock-full of instructions from God, chapters 17-26 take a break from outlining the logistics of animal sacrifices and priest ordinations and focus instead on how the people ought to live in order to be holy.

This might seem a bit like God trying to micromanage life in the wilderness, but there’s actually a more profound reason for this code of conduct. This reason is outlined in the very first verse: “You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” The people aren’t called to holiness because it makes them better than everyone else, but because God, by God’s very nature, is holy. If we want to be in relationship with God (which I presume you all do on some level) we must strive for holiness so that we can be on the same page as God, so to speak. Holiness isn’t about earning reward or status; it’s about creating the circumstances in which a sinful people can better relate to a holy God.

So that’s our first lesson about holiness. It’s not a status, something marks us as better, more deserving, more special than others. It’s not like the class superlatives in your High School Yearbook; right next to “best dressed”, “nicest smile”, and “most likely to succeed,” you won’t find a spot reserved for the “holiest” person. Holiness is a way of life, a pattern of actions, that helps us remain connected to God—who is the literal epitome of holiness. So in the yearbook of our faith, holiness is more likely to be found on a page devoted to the student organizations: debate club, foreign language club, A/V club, and holiness club. The only requirement for membership is that you desire to live in a way that God has declared holy—everyone is welcome!

Now, while many religious clubs are based on a shared identity, Holiness Club is different. It belongs to the category of social groups that are defined by their actions—what their members do together. Drama Club members produce plays; Chess Club members play chess; Journalism Club puts out a newspaper for the school. “Holiness Club” is no different than these groups. Members of “Holiness Club” do things together: they leave the edges of the harvest for the poor and the immigrant. They pay their employees fairly and on time. They act justly and equitably towards all people, regardless of a person’s wealth or status. Holiness Club isn’t about who you are, but about what you do. Practices, not beliefs. You don’t just join for a label and something to put on your resume. You join for the purpose of accomplishing something together.

Which brings me to my next point: as with any club, Holiness Club isn’t a solo endeavor. In Leviticus 19:1, Moses is instructed to tell *the whole community* of the Israelites how to be holy. The Holiness Code was intended from the beginning to be practiced in community. It’s never been an individual standard. Certainly, each person makes their own choice whether or not to pursue holiness, but the code is ultimately a command to the people as a whole. That’s why verse 17 instructs them to “rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly”—not as a way to prove yourself “holier than thou”, but because your holiness depends on their holiness. Their sin contributes to the sin of the whole. Their rejection of relationship with God impacts you. As with a school club, holiness isn’t something that can be done alone.

According to the Holiness Code, however, there’s one other aspect of holiness that sets it apart from most other “clubs”. Unlike other clubs, which often exist solely for their members’ enjoyment and therefore can remain fairly insular, Holiness Club requires interaction with those who aren’t members. God has designed it so that the act of being holy is a transitive verb—it always has another human being as the object of its actions. We’re only able to practice holiness when it’s directed towards others. We can only be in relationship with God through our relationship with the rest of humanity.

Look carefully at each of the holy tasks given as examples in our reading. Virtually every single one of them is a behavior or action done for the benefit of another person. In fact, this is one of the few cases, in my opinion, where the NRSV does a better job communicating the intention of the original language than the CEB. Whereas the CEB uses a few different phrases to describe the objects of the community’s holiness, the NRSV uses the same one over and over again: “neighbor”. We should avoid defrauding our neighbor; we should justly judge our neighbor; we should reprove our neighbor; we should love our neighbor.

By using a more consistent term, this translation better reflects, in my opinion, the point that Jesus will later go on to make in Luke’s gospel in a discussion of this very passage. When a legal expert—perhaps one of those “holier-than-thou” types who sees holiness as a superlative award—asks him, “Who IS my neighbor?”, Jesus tells him the story of the Good Samaritan. Holiness is not about acting righteously towards your own people. It’s not about acting righteously towards those who’ve earned it. Holiness is about persistently loving the other, whether they’re like you or not. Loving those in whom you can’t see yourself at all as much as those you can. Loving your neighbor—every neighbor—as yourself. THAT’S the work of Holiness Club.

So maybe, then, the type of holiness that God describes here in Leviticus is most like a Community Service Club. It only accomplishes its purpose through collective action, and not for its own benefit or enjoyment, but for any and all people without exception. Holiness is about giving of yourself on behalf of others…which, if you think about it, is exactly what God is all about: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working in concert throughout history for the sake of all humankind.

If I want to be holy, then I am the LAST person I should be thinking about. When we focus only on becoming better, wiser, more accomplished, more righteous than others at all costs, holiness is not what we’re seeking. We’re seeking the Superlative, something to pad our resume and elevate ourselves above our neighbor. And God emphatically rejects this mentality. Our God is not a god of “winners”, of success stories, of achievers. Our God is a god of willing servants.

Every single choice we make is a choice between holiness and that which is not holy. That which seeks proximity to God, and that which doesn’t. As Christians, we don’t have the luxury of compartmentalizing our decisions, allowing altruism when it’s convenient and self-interest when it suits us. Our sinfulness will draw us away from holiness time and time again, but we must keep turning back to it in repentance and atoning for the times we’ve fallen short. Holiness Club doesn’t take attendance, but it expects you to participate fully and to give all of yourself to its cause. If you don’t, you won’t be punished…but can you really consider yourself a member if you only take part once in a while? Can you really be in relationship with God if you only follow God’s code part-time?

Everyone wants to get their picture in the yearbook; to be remembered and immortalized in this small way. But looking back and flipping through the pages of your own, what’s more likely to have meaning for you today: the fact that a handful of other teenagers thought you had the best hair in your class decades ago, or the memories of the time that you spent with your peers trying to make the world a better place? Which is more likely to have brought you closer to God: others’ perception of you, or how you chose to act? Which do you think makes you more holy?

If, at its conclusion, your life were summarized in a publication, like a yearbook sums up four years of high school, what would yours look like? Would it be a list of your accomplishments and the ways that you were better than others? Or would it be filled with memories of the people you loved, the communities that you lifted up, the ways you served others? One of those sounds a like blatant self-promotion, empty of deeper meaning and unappealing to God. The other sounds like a holy life well-lived. Which will you choose? Amen.

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