February 23, 2014: Holy As God? You Have to be Kidding!


Sermon
The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Who wants to hear a sermon from Leviticus? If you raised your hand, you may not know much about Leviticus. That’s okay. A lot of folks don’t, and don’t care to. But you’re getting a sermon from Leviticus today anyway. I feel like I have to give you some of this stuff, too – it’s in the Bible, after all.

Leviticus sets down laws on making sacrifices for sin, sexual behavior, worship, treatment of neighbors and aliens, what you can’t eat, and more stuff than you want to know. One law prohibits tattoos, which doesn’t exactly help us recruit younger people these days. In regard to all these laws, no less than Martin Luther said that Moses is dead. Christ has come, so   get rid of Moses. For those who think the Law is over with Jesus, Luther’s a hero. One problem – Jesus says he fulfills the law, not abolishes it.

People who fight culture wars today focus on sexual behavior laws from Leviticus. They also conveniently ignore laws which forbid eating shrimp and lobster, or wearing cotton/polyester clothes. Of course, for us who remember double-knit polyester leisure suits in the 60’s, we’ll keep that one.

All of this law stuff sounds silly to us. I once invited a rabbi friend to talk with our parish about how Jews read Leviticus today. He said, “For us Jews, it is important, but not the way you Christians think.” He was referring to Christians who believe God’s chosen them to enforce laws they like. The rabbi told us that Leviticus was written for a people freshly freed from slavery, who had to form a religious community in covenant with God. Gradually over time, some of the Law remains, depending upon your corner under the tent of Judaism.

Leviticus is about holiness – first God’s and then ours. The middle chapters are the “Holiness Code,” not to be confused with the “Da Vinci Code.” God alone is holy. We are holy only because God says we shall be. We can’t act our way into holiness by striving to be righteous, impressing God, keeping laws, being nice, coming to church, giving some money, and leaving satisfied we’re doing what it takes. Holiness is God’s generous gift to awaken us, set us apart, and call and transform us to become holy in this world. When we are holy, our values change. We are being transformed by God’s love. To be holy is to be other, separated out, chosen to serve God for the world. Don’t let being “chosen” go to your head. It is living the way God has made us to be – generous and loving. We don’t do that so well on our own.

Jesus fulfills the Law. He basically says, “Look, you people have done so well keeping the Law, I’m raising the bar. Be not just holy. Now be perfect, like God is.” Are we holy – maybe? Are we ever perfect – no? I knew a woman who didn’t say the General Confession. She said she’d never sinned. I said, “Bingo! Saying you don’t sin is your first. Welcome to the club with the rest of us.” God takes note of our love, not our sin anyway. Jesus says the Law is fulfilled by loving God who helps us love others, not just those we like, but those we fear, who mistreat us, even our enemies. Love them because that’s how God freely loves us all – holding nothing back. Love is more than a feeling or emotion. It’s a decision to act as God does. Jesus didn’t make this up. God’s been trying to get this plan working from the beginning – to love God and each other. That’s the world God is creating now, and will complete and fulfill one day.

Once a woman told me our church men’s group – of which her husband was a member – was furious. “Well, tell me about it,” I responded. She said the men had taken up money to give an older couple for groceries, but no one had told the couple what the money was for. I’d been behind the scenes with this couple and knew that, as well as their story. The husband had severe heart problems and wasn’t going to live much longer. The man’s sons took him to buy a new rod and reel with the money. Then they all went fishing. The incensed woman didn’t know they’d enjoyed a memorable, fun, last time with dad doing what he loved — fishing. “This is an abomination,” my friend said. “I see what you’re saying. Guess they didn’t have sense enough to handle a gift so freely given them.” “Our men will never do anything else for this family again,” she stormed out. I wondered, “Honey, what can I say to you and still be holy?”

I have attended Sunday school classes in different locales. I’ve noticed a pattern. Members pore over the scripture de jour – and conclude by dissecting the “group de jour” they hate. I think, “You don’t get it. Should I tell you?” as I realize, “You’ve helped me feel holier than you and closer to perfect than you.” Then it hit me, God didn’t say, “For I am holy, therefore, you be holier-than-thou.” We all need grace and forgiveness – especially those whom God is making holy. Think the cross. There we see what love in the real world looks like. God so loves this world, Jesus will die to show us how much God loves all, even if we don’t get it.

Are you inviting God daily to make you holy? God won’t do it without you. Look at your relationships with those who love you and who refuse to love you – those you love and those you refuse to love. That may help you answer. Maybe part of a daily Lenten practice could be to ask yourself, “Where is God at work in my life? Am I growing closer to the person God says I am?”

Jesus doesn’t say, “Love God, and don’t eat shrimp, lobster or get a tattoo.” He says, “Love everyone.” Everyone includes everyone. God is interested in how much our hearts bend toward Him. That’s all. And that will make us more interesting people, as we become more interested in God’s interests. What a break for us. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” That Law still stands. God keeps it to save the likes of us.


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