February 19, 2017
The first thing I learned when I walked into an Episcopal Church was the awesome recognition that I had finally stepped into a place that I had been yearning for, aching for. I learned that in this tradition, I had permission to ask hard questions about God and what a relationship with God means. I learned to read the Bible not only with question marks, but also with God-given imagination using my reason, my own life experiences, tradition, and especially, input from the community of faith—to find my own story within the biblical narrative.
Our Old Testament reading for today is from, of all things, Leviticus. If you don’t know much about Leviticus, it is probably because it doesn’t show up very often in our Sunday lectionary, and depending upon your perspective, you might be horrified or grateful for it. The first thing we heard from Leviticus this morning is the command: “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Well, what does it mean to be holy? What does it mean to be holy because God is holy? Can we, mere mortals, mere dust, be holy?
Perhaps your first reaction to this proposition, as was mine, is to recall the “holier-than-thou label we’ve heard. I once heard a precious, precious woman refer to someone as “holier-than-thou” and I’ve never forgotten that moment. It’s the first thing I thought about recently when I heard a Jew refer to a particular Christian as a “righteous gentile.” I couldn’t wait to ask my Jewish friends what was meant by that. As it turned out, it means something very specific and positive. It refers to the Christians who helped protect the Jews during the Holocaust. That’s a holy standard that I can only hope and pray that I could meet if it came to that.
Twenty years ago, I heard my mentor, Macrina Wiederkehr, say: “Frail dust, remember, you are splendor!” i It shocked me into asking the question, how can I be both dust and splendor? At the time, I was very much aware of the dust, but the splendor? I repeat the question for us today, can we, mere mortals, mere dust, be holy, be splendor, without thinking “holier than thou”?
The word holy means to dedicate, to set apart, to designate something for a particular purpose. To the Israelites, it had a sense of changing directions, allowing God to draw them as a community into a new, unknown way of living. Holy also means whole or complete. We think of Holy Scripture as being eternal and completely sufficient for us to experience salvation. This business of being holy is a scary thing because to say yes to who God says we are, requires us to say no to anything otherwise.
Notice that the last thing we heard in our reading from Leviticus is the familiar command: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In-between these two instructions—be holy, and love your neighbor—we hear specific, practical ways to maintain relationships—honest relationships that have integrity—with the poor, the rich, the laborer, the deaf, the blind, family, fellow countrymen, and the stranger. They seem to be concerned not only with our behavior, but also with the kind of person we become.
Closing each of these practical instructions, in today’s reading alone, we hear “I am the Lord your God” six times. In the entire book of Leviticus, we hear it at least 56 times; 56 times we hear, “I am the Lord.” The focus in Leviticus today is on how we are to treat one another, but the teachings are based upon the way God treats us—Leviticus is consistently pointing us toward God. It is God saying love one another BECAUSE I love YOU. It makes our connections with one another holy, but Leviticus insists, repeatedly, that human holiness derives from God’s holiness.
The book of Leviticus, possibly the heart of Israel’s theology, is a documentary that covers several centuries of the ancient Israelites asking, “What does it mean to be holy because God is holy?” Some of their responses seem foreign to us today; some remain true to our own experiences, but if we look closely, we notice the Israelites’ ongoing journey of working out ways to allow God’s holiness to shine into the ordinariness of their daily lives—wanting to fill their whole life with the presence of God.
Jesus, in our Gospel reading today, quotes from this section of Leviticus, “. . . love your neighbor.” And Jesus, being the good Jewish teacher that he is, augments the original text to make a point. Jesus adds “love your enemies.” This may be the hardest thing of all for us to imagine. If we are still questioning just who is our neighbor—Jesus says our neighbor includes our enemy! And, in this reading, Jesus ends with a parallel to Leviticus’ “be holy because God is holy.” Jesus says it this way: “Be perfect. . . as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The term perfect here is another word for being complete, being set apart, being on target. Jesus agrees with Leviticus.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today points out that 1st our foundation is Jesus Christ, period; 2nd, we are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in us; 3rd, our physical bodies are God’s dwelling place and that place is holy, Paul says; and 4th, the source for wisdom and holiness is God, not another human; the source is never another human. Holiness is sheer gift, waiting in the depths of our being to be recognized, to be accepted, to be honored.
For us, it all comes back to this: we are Incarnational people. God reveals God’s self to us particularly through Jesus, through flesh and blood that are active in history, then and now. God’s call to us is to become a different sort of person (holy) through a process of learning to walk in God’s ways, which revelation makes clear is a path of generous Love. Our Psalmist today yearns for a deeper understanding of God’s way. “Give me life in your ways” he prays, “. . . in your righteousness preserve my life.” The First Epistle of John sums the holy path up this
way: “. . . let us love one another because love is from God. . . If we love one another God lives in us, and [God’s] love is perfected in us.” ii
If we know anything about the Hebrew Scripture at all, we know that God is a liberator, God set’s captives free, and using the voice of Moses in Leviticus, connects this sense of freedom with loving one another and what it means to be holy. We have seen today that the Psalmist passionately pleas for this promised Life, Jesus agrees with Moses, Paul and John agree. If we look further in Scripture, we’ll find more agreement—Peter, for example, also quotes from Leviticus, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” iii The question is, do we agree? Do we understand that anything we do, any law we make, any action we take, any way we treat the other—God expects us to reflect God’s way?
This is a living, breathing covenant. God is concerned not only with our relationship with God, but with how we think about and how we act with others—all others. And, God is concerned about how we think about ourselves. Macrina would say, “Believe the truth about yourself no matter how beautiful it is.” iv
I propose to you this morning, on this seventh Sunday after Epiphany, that all our readings today are interrelated in such a way that we cannot ignore; each, in its own way, leads us to perhaps the very first thing we need to acknowledge in our searching mind and heart: this business about being holy is more than a command, it is a gift, it is an invitation, it is a promise of purpose, it is part of who we are—a space for God to be present in the world.
“Frail dust, remember, you are splendor.” God’s invitation is for us to embrace both our dust and our splendor—they are God’s gift to us, and the gift comes with the promise of holy potential. The source of unimaginable power, unimaginable love—is available to us. Holiness is the work of God in and through us.
The holy story started with the Israelite’s sharing their journey that was sparked by their ache for a Life with God—their asking the question: What does it mean to be holy because God is holy? That story continues with us. What questions are we asking? What holy stories are we creating?
i Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB, A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), xvi.
ii 1 John: 4: 7—12
iii 1 Peter 1: 15—16
iv Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB, is an author and retreat leader. She is a Benedictine nun who lives at St. Scholastica in Fort Smith, Arkansas. This quote is from my memory, drawn from one of Macrina’s retreats. I’ve attended many.