When you heard today's text was from Leviticus, some of you got uneasy. Maybe you got fired up that the preacher was going to tackle one of the gnarliest books in the Bible. Leviticus is not a benign book.
Is there a biblical book with a worse reputation? Even if you've never read Leviticus, you've heard other people who've said they've read it, and because of them you're positive you don't need to read it. You know; it's got that one verse used to judge gay and lesbian Christians. You may also know it contains dozens of very specific prohibitions of very commonplace behaviors.
Leviticus prohibits trimming your beard. Prohibits getting tattoos. Prohibits wearing clothes with two kinds of fabrics--everyone wearing yoga pants, woe unto you. Maybe you know that Leviticus forbids cursing your mother or father--and for those of us who have done so, it calls for our death. Leviticus says not to eat shrimp or lobster and most scandalous of all, it prohibits eating bacon. Sometimes I try to imagine the catastrophic effects down here in Georgia if Bible-believing folk ever started taking Scripture seriously enough to ban bacon--restaurants shuttered, people wandering the streets, glassy-eyed, withering away for want of bacon fat....
See--this is what happens too often when we start into Leviticus. We argue or we slip into the absurd. It's hard to know what to do with this book. For churches that take scripture readings from the lectionary, we hardly ever hear from Leviticus; and on the rare occasion we do, as with today's lesson, it's clear some verses have been carved out to save us--the preacher and the listener from some tough stuff. Which verses should we honor, which can we cast off? And what good comes from all of these rules, anyway? Too many of us have been on the business end of legalistic religion to ever want to go back.
So Christians, too often, make bacon jokes and we ignore Leviticus.
One problem with that approach is Jesus. Jesus, it seems, had an awful lot of admiration for Leviticus. One time, long ago, people asked Jesus to tell them the greatest commandment in all of Scripture--which one shows us the way to life? Jesus answered from Deuteronomy: "Love God with all of your heart and soul and strength." And then he added, without a pause, his favorite verse from Leviticus: "And love your neighbor as yourself." Love your neighbor. The heart of Jesus' ethical vision for life is drawn verbatim from Leviticus. Jesus read Leviticus carefully. Shouldn't we?
Jesus was not just lifting lines from his Bible, like some of us do in our haste, to make a point. Jesus shows us how to read and interpret the whole of Leviticus. In fact, I will plant it in you today that Jesus' entire ministry is one extended commentary on the core message of Leviticus.
What is this book's central message? It's not about shrimp or sex or haircuts. It's about holiness. Chapter 19 of Leviticus, verses 1 and 2, begin with God instructing Moses:
"Speak to my people and say to them: 'Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.'"
Be holy. Leviticus teaches how human holiness is fashioned after God's holiness. Think of this book as a user's manual about how a person comes to live a holy life and how a community becomes a holy witness to God. Now I can hear your objections: "Everything in here is too old to tell us what holiness looks like today. And even if it could, who wants to be holy, anyway?"
It's true--holiness has been wanting for a good PR firm. We've had years to grow accustomed to hearing holiness cast in more of a bad light than a good one. I confess to using "holy" most often with a synonym for poop when something shocking happens. If we're not using it that way, we say something like: "Isn't she acting a bit holier-than-thou?" Holiness in our world has come to mean extreme self-righteousness. Who wants to be holy?
I bet you still revere holiness. Especially holiness in the flesh--it's breathtaking. Martin Luther King was a holy vessel of divine speech, calling all of us to a new plane of righteousness. Mother Theresa was a holy presence, dignifying lives others had dismissed. Gandhi embodied a holy pursuit of justice through nonviolence. The Dalai Lama today evokes holiness through laughter in the face of suffering. There are women and men that you know who have a bit of holiness--in your family, in your neighborhood, in your congregation. They are not perfect...but they bring others around them into a better place. They confer dignity.
Sometimes holiness shows itself not so much through people but through moments. If you've spent time with someone who is dying and felt invited into their sacred passage or if you have birthed a child or felt yourself held by loving, accepting arms or had your gifts put to good use in service to others. These moments all dignify the participants; they are holy and they make us more so.
Holiness is not self-righteousness. Holiness is life with dignity. Holiness is God making God's home with us and dignifying our manner, dignifying this life we share together.
I am holy, God says. You be holy, too. But how? How do we become holy? Well, for one, don't be fooled into thinking holiness requires you to go outside of your life--on meditation retreats or long, solitary walks in the woods or in deep, luminous prayer sessions. None of those things are bad; but they're not holiness. Holiness, Leviticus says, is something we find in community with each other, in the hundreds of day-to-day choices that knit us together.
God, this book insists, is invested in every aspect of our lives. Everything matters. Every word we speak. Every choice we make. Every bite of food we eat expresses our oneness. The way we worship--getting our ritual rights--is as important as getting our relationships right. There is no such thing as sacred or secular--we don't step out of church into a totally separate world. It's one; Leviticus says. Communion with God and communion with one another is possible everywhere and anywhere.
It's almost funny how passionate the writers of Leviticus are in their insistence that God and holiness are in the details. Maybe they were afraid we wouldn't get it, so they added to the end of their commands the same refrain, saying "I am the Lord your God." "Do not make metal idols--I am the Lord your God." "Do not speak badly of others--I am the Lord your God." "Stand up when an older person enters the room--I am the Lord your God." It' might strike you as a bit overbearing; but what parent hasn't used the very same response when asked by your child; "Why do I need to clean my room?" The only reasonable answer is "Because I am your father, and I said so." "I am the Lord your God" is the divine "Because I told you so." It means that this thing I want you to do is good. Do it, it will make you a better person; it will make you a better friend and family member. Do this thing, and it will dignify your life and our life together."
Yes, some of the commands in Leviticus are dated, even deplorable. But who says we don't have the authority to adapt them? I bet your faith community continues to write and rewrite its own holiness code for our own time. If your faith community is like mine, it has its own particular rules to ensure holiness. Our congregation's holiness code includes:
- You shall use inclusive language for God in worship.
- You shall not make homophobic, racist, heterosexist, or xenophobic remarks.
- You shall not use anything but fair trade coffee in the coffee hour.
- You shall recycle all recyclable things and you shall compost when possible: for I am the Lord your God!
We still believe that there are certain things we must do to promote and protect human dignity. So long as we believe that, Leviticus will never grow too old to be useful. This book says that God does have a plan to ennoble our life. You are to take on the holiness of God through what you eat; when you do not cheat or steal, when you handle your business with integrity; when you refrain from lies and from speaking badly of others. Holiness is treating those who are weak with extra care. Holiness is welcoming newcomers in the community and making sure there is food for everyone who is hungry. Holiness is treating every life, every life with equal value and seeking justice for all. This is no list of rules--this is a vision for life in all of its fullness, one in which no detail is too small to treat with care.
If this sounds familiar, it should. It is part of the worldview we call gospel, resonant in the message of an itinerant preacher who loved Leviticus:
17 Do not think (he said) that I have come to abolish the law...; I have come not to abolish it but to fulfill it.
Jesus preached Leviticus all the time. One such sermon begins in the 5th chapter of Matthew. It is a sermon on the significance of daily choices: do not be angry, he preaches; do not harbor grudges; do not objectify people sexually; do not mistreat anyone; speak the truth in all circumstances. Jesus is preaching Leviticus. Searching for the words to sum up his way of life and the way of life to which he calls us, Jesus says:
48 Be perfect..., as your heavenly Father is perfect. Be holy, for I am holy.
Jesus is quoting from what may well have been his favorite book.
It all matters. It all matters so much to God. Every relationship you have, every choice that you make, from recycling to Sabbath rest, from feeding the hungry to loving every child. It is all worthy of dignity; it all matters. So you, children of God, take care to live together in such a way that you show that this all matters to you, too. By the love of God in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, "Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy."
Will you pray with me. God, reveal to us every facet of your beautiful world, show us every lovely detail, unveil to us the sacred relationship we share with every living creature and with the earth itself. And, God, grant us grace to honor these relationships with our words and our deeds each and every day. May we be holy as you are holy. Amen.