February 23, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Matthew 5:38-48

“We Will Be Holy”

God says “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And as I read, and re-read, and reflected on these words this week, I became very aware of how unholy and imperfect I am.

I was having one of those days… the kind of day when nothing seems to be going well, when work is a struggle, and everyone is getting on my nerves. My biggest problem, I was sure, was not my problem. It was everyone else around me who was at fault… from the bad drivers on the road in the morning, to the Olympic commentators with their poor grammar in the evening. And during the daytime, none of the people with whom I had to meet and interact were living up to my expectations at all, and I was frustrated beyond belief.

Some of the worst religious people, I think, are the ones who live a certain way because of their faith… maybe they don’t drink, or they don’t swear, or they don’t live together before they’re married, or maybe they don’t drive a gas-guzzling truck that harms the environment, or they don’t buy anything except fair trade and organic products, or whatever… But rather than simply living according to their understanding of God’s laws, and leaving it at that, they spend a lot of time and energy judging and scolding other people who don’t follow or live up to the same rules.

When the Pharisees were at their worst, I think they were a bit like that. They were good religious people who loved God and wanted to follow God’s laws. But they got so focussed on the rules and following them just right that they forgot about the love and mercy of God. They tried to be holy, they tried to be perfect, just as God, and even Jesus, had told them to be, but they lost sight of the reason for the laws, and the love and grace that needed to undergird all their relationships. Like me on a bad day, I think they spent a lot of energy judging other people and finding them lacking. And in the end, even if they were pretty close to perfect, they were nowhere near “holy.”

A pretty standard Christian response to the laws of the Old Testament is to say that because of God’s forgiveness and grace in Jesus Christ, we no longer need to follow the covenant laws. We don’t have to worry about all those rules anymore because God has forgiven us for failing to fulfil them, and Jesus has called us to respond to God’s mercy by simply doing our best to love God above all and love our neighbours as ourselves.

But something I find striking about today’s scripture readings is the fact that the rules are there both in the Old Testament passages and in the Gospel. God, in Leviticus, says to be holy. God tells the people of Israel to help the poor and be kind to the foreigner. God tells them not to steal, or lie, or commit fraud, or judge someone unjustly, or hate anyone, or hold a grudge. God tells them to love their neighbours as themselves.

Jesus, a person of faith who would have studied and perhaps even memorized passages like this from the Torah, taught his followers something very similar. Jesus told them to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He didn’t say “Don’t worry about the law anymore because God forgives you anyway.” In fact, he reminded them of the laws and asked them to do even more…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

And then Jesus requires even more: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These words hit hard on those days when no one is living up to my expectations… when I’m judging and complaining, and acting like I’m the only one in the world who has any sense. Because all of a sudden I realize that Jesus is challenging me (just like he challenged the Pharisees) not just to be good and right, but he’s calling me to be kind, and merciful, and forgiving of those who may not be as good and right as I think they should be.

Jesus doesn’t throw away the covenant laws of God for God’s people, saying that we don’t need to worry about those things anymore. Instead, he asks us to go beyond the rules of what is right or fair – to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Jesus doesn’t toss out the rules and laws of his Jewish Faith. He invites his followers to live by those rules and to take them even further by showing the love and mercy of God towards others who may not live up to them too well. What Jesus makes clear, however, is that following the laws is not what earns our salvation. Salvation is given by God’s loving and merciful grace, and living according to the laws of God is our thankful response.

As one commentator helpfully explains it, “The law is given, not as [our] gateway to salvation, but as salvation’s way of life.” Both for God’s People Israel, and for Jews and Gentiles who follow Jesus with our lives, this is the way we are called to live… loving both our neighbours and the strangers in our midst, showing kindness and mercy both to our friends and to those who have hurt, or harmed, or failed us in the past.

In a reflection on Leviticus 19 and God’s instruction to be holy, Kimberly Clayton points out that the whole subject of holiness can make us uncomfortable. “It is fine for God to be holy,” she writes. “Everyone knows that God is holy, but we have a pretty good sense that most of us are not holy – or holy enough. We are never holy enough. In fact, our discomfort on the matter has become a commonly understood expression of disdain, ‘holier than thou.’

“Except for those in Holiness church traditions, most of us think true holiness is reserved for a few exceptional people of faith, like Mother Teresa or the pope or the Dalai Lama. Holy people live far removed from us and do with their lives things we cannot, or likely will not, do with ours. As appropriately modest as this may be, it is also a way of letting ourselves off the holiness hook.”

Our readings today, both from Leviticus and Matthew, remind us that we are all on the hook for being holy. God says to Moses, ‘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.” Everyone, the whole congregation, is called to be holy. Being holy is what any person created in God’s image is called to be.

Clayton notices, however, that in these biblical passages, holiness is not characterized by an ethereal state of being, but by how one acts in everyday places and relationships: “You are holy when, harvesting your crop, you choose to leave some of the grain you drop and more uncut at the edges of your property, so that Ruth, or someone like her, does not go to bed hungry. Holiness is not always about making grand sacrifices to God or speaking pious prayers. Holiness is not stealing what belongs to someone else or telling a lie, even a lie that seems harmless. Holiness is being a good employer, paying someone on time for work done.

“Some consider holiness doing notable, selflessly noble deeds. In Leviticus, holiness is at least not making life more difficult for someone with a disability or standing idly by when a neighbour is in trouble. You are holy when you do not gossip or slander or hold a grudge. You are holy when you are fair to everyone equally, without being influenced by either pity or greed… Holiness is not reserved for God alone or for the hermit in his cave or Hildegard of Bingen in one of her visions.”

And holiness is not only striving to do all these things, but it’s learning day-by-day to be kind, and patient, and merciful to others who may be struggling to follow the same kind of pattern with their lives.

All of this sounds good and right to me, and I’m sure that God is reminding me through these biblical texts to strive for more holiness in my life. But when I’m in the middle of one of those bad days, when nothing seems to be going well, when everyone is getting on my nerves, “holier than thou” comes a lot more easily than actual holiness. And when I stop to reflect on what has happened, on how I have acted and reacted to my circumstances I am often filled with regret and discouragement.

But that’s why I am so very grateful for the biblical scholars who have the language skills to examine the Hebrew words more carefully and precisely than I could. You see, when God says, in Leviticus, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” the mood of “you shall” can certainly be read as imperative. It is an instruction, a command, or an order: “You shall be holy.”

But that’s not the only way that the Hebrew words can be interpreted. “You shall be holy” can also be taken as declarative: “You SHALL be holy” not meaning, “You MUST be holy,” but more like, “You WILL be holy.”

Suddenly, instead of a daunting commandment, God is giving us an amazing promise, a sure and certain prediction. The Holy One says, “In company with me, you will grow to be like me. Because you are my people, because you live in relationship with me, because you turn to me for help, and strength, and wisdom, and courage, you will be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

So that’s what I am going to receive from today’s scripture texts, and I hope you will also. I’m not going to get stuck feeling guilty about the fact that I wasn’t as perfect or as holy as could have been this week. And I’m not going to get discouraged by the fact that I have a long way to go towards the kind of holiness that Jesus is calling me to embody.

Instead, I am just going to draw close to God once again. I’m going to immerse myself in God’s Word and open my heart to let it speak to my life and my everyday interactions with the people I live with, and work with, and minister to, and meet in the community. And I’m going to trust that God’s promise will be fulfilled – that because I belong to God, because God’s Spirit lives within me as a child of God, God will make me holy.

A really interesting video was posted this week on YouTube. It is a greeting from Pope Francis, recorded informally on his friend’s iphone, to a conference of Pentecostal Church leaders who were having a gathering in the United States. The Pope’s message doesn’t really have anything to do with my sermon today. It’s on the topic of Christian unity, and I think it’s really hopeful and inspiring, and definitely worth taking a few minutes to watch.

But the reason I am bringing it up is because of a quote near the end of the message. Speaking of Christian unity as a miracle, Francis recalls the words of a character in a novel by Alessandro Manzoni. He says, “I’ve never seen God begin a miracle without him finishing it well.”

I am so grateful that through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God has begun to work in my heart and in my life to make me holy. And I’m so grateful that God is doing the same within the hearts and lives of all God’s children. Today, let us draw close to God once again, trusting and believing that the miracles God has begun in our lives will also be finished well. Amen.