Published on 20 Feb 2011
Sermon by The Reverend Chris Dierkes
Preached at Christ Church Cathedral Vancouver
Epiphany 7 2011 (February 20, 2011)
Click Here to listen to an audio mp3 version of this sermon.
Today’s first reading is from the Book of Leviticus. Now it’s not every day you hear a sermon on the Book of Leviticus. Today however is that day.
There’s a practice kept in some churches, mostly of a more evangelical bent, where someone takes up reading The Bible from cover to cover, beginning to end, over say a year or more. The person might read a chapter or two every night before bed for example. The way this usually goes down is that the person flies through Genesis with all its amazing stories of Creation, Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Noah & The Flood, The Matriarchs and Patriarchs, and so on. Sex, murder, and betrayal–you know all the good stuff. Then they still go briskly through The Book of Exodus, with the dramatic storyline of the calling of The Prophet Moses, The Plagues, the freeing of the slaves, the wandering in the wilderness, and the giving of The Law on Mount Sinai.
And then the person gets to the third book of The Bible, the Book of Leviticus and bam, they hit a brick wall. They get bogged down and then give up. Or at least skip this book altogether and move on to Numbers.
Let’s be honest, the Book of Leviticus is pretty weird. There’s all kinds of descriptions of various offerings one makes, what kind of flour and cereal’s and bulls to use for sacrifices. There’s rules about why you can’t where two different kinds of fabric simultaneously. My alb incidentally is a polyester, cotton blend, so I’m bodily in violation of the Levitical code.
Or worse, in the current troubles of the Anglican and larger Christian world, the Book of Leviticus, when cited at all tends only to be cited to exclude people. One side will quote the text to claim that, for example, churches like this one who believe same-sex individuals and couples should be welcomed are impure, sinful beings.
So given all that baggage, I can sympathize with the common sentiment to ignore the text, not read it during the Sunday liturgy, or throw it out of The Bible altogether.
But if we did throw the whole thing out we would lose this gem from the 19th chapter of the book of Leviticus which we heard in our first reading. Chapter 19 is part of a portion of the Book of Leviticus called The Holiness Code. It is called The Holiness Code because of its constant references (which we heard this morning) to “I am the Lord, I am holy.”
The key phrase is the first one in this morning’s reading:
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Everything that follows in the reading is meant to be understood in that light. We are to be holy because God is holy. Holiness is imitation of The Divine.
God is Holy. God calls us a people to walk in God’s paths of holiness by God’s holy grace. We shall be holy as God is holy.
Now holiness is not something we typically talk about either in the so-named liberal church world or in the wider world. The concept of holiness tends to be thought of as individual piety. “Good people” are holy. Holiness in this line of thought to be people who don’t curse and inevitably it has to do (a lot) with sex. And given that view of holiness, it’s not surprising no one is really interested in becoming holy.
But if you believe the 19th Chapter of the Book of Leviticus, there is a better way to understand holiness. According to the 19th chapter of the Book of Leviticus, holiness which is of the very essence of God, is about Justice, it is about right relations.
How then are we to practically live out holiness?
verses 9 and 10: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges. You shall not strip your vineyard bare or gather the fallen grapes of your field. You shall leave them for the poor and the alien.”
In other words, don’t exploit creation. The earth, the air, and the waters do not exist to be turned solely into economic gain. That is what the line about not harvesting to the edges of the field is all about. Maybe some of the earth should be there for itself. That is holiness.
There is enough to provide for the poor and the immigrant. When we design our economic systems, we have to build in a way to address this issue.
Remember again that refrain repeated throughout the reading: “I am the Lord your God. I am holy, you too must be holy.”
verse 11: You shall not steal. You shall not lie
Tell the truth in your relations. Tell the truth in love. Be a person of integrity. This constitutes holiness.
“verse 13: You shall not defraud your neighbor.”
We’re still in the midst of a major economic downturn, of global proportions, whose promixate cause was the trading and selling of bad mortgages. We live in Vancouver, a city ‘obsessed‘ (that’s a polite way of saying it) about home prices. “You shall not defraud your neighbor.”
“You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”
Notice this isn’t Karl Marx but the book of Leviticus, that supposedly arch-conservative text. Maybe it’s just me, but when the Book of Leviticus gets quoted in church fights it’s usually not this section I hear cited.
verse 14: “You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.”
verse 15: “You shall not render an unjust judgment.”
I find that verse, given our world, both powerful and utterly heartbreaking.
“You shall not render an unjust judgment.”
Remember all of these are about holiness. Not lying, not stealing, not defraud or put positively–telling the truth, being generous, being a person of integrity…this is holiness.
“You shall not profit off the blood of your neighbor.”
verse 17: “You shall note hate in your heart anyone of your own kin.”
That is a hard one. The black sheep in our families. Maybe some of us were or are the black sheep in our families. Maybe if we were poorly treated we hold hate in our hearts for our kin. Anger…yes. Hurt….of course. But Leviticus states, “we shall not take vengeance or hold a grudge against any of our people.” Any. There’s no qualification there. “You shall not hold a grudge against any…”
Jesus takes this passage from Leviticus and takes it one step further in this morning’s gospel (Matthew 5:44): “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.”
I think it’s easy or at least easier for us self-described enlightened liberals to love our far away enemies. Demagogues on TV try to fill us full of fear or some faceless, nameless enemy “out there”, who most assuredly is coming to destroy our good way of life. I don’t think this community’s struggle is loving that enemy per se. I think it’s rather to love our enemies at work, in our relations, our politics, our families.
St. Paul says in our second reading today (1 Cor 3:16) that we are God’s temple and that God’s spirit resides within us. That Holy Spirit that resides within us desires to come out from us and transform this world into of justice, into one of holiness.
The Book of Leviticus offers us these concrete ethics to embody the holiness that resides within us from The Holy Sprit of God.
Now at the end, I must confess that I committed the same mistake that I criticized others for doing earlier in the sermon. I have only given you a part of the book of Leviticus. I could be accused of having picked the sections of the book that I agree, that I find good. And I would be very happy to be called “one-sided”, if only this one side of Leviticus would get a greater hearing. If it were to get what I believe is it’s proper due then I would be very happy to enter into a discussion about the other parts I find so difficult.
“Speak to the congregation and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Amen.
Enjoyed this post?