Leviticus is the book of focus for today. Our Old Testament reading comes from Leviticus, which can be a somewhat intimidating book, boring, stern, a divisive book painting pictures of black and white morality. Leviticus is often quoted when one wants to throw down the moral gauntlet of what God said is right and what God says is certainly wrong. Leviticus is a book about holiness, or certainly our reading today centers on that very idea of “being holy”. Now, that is a church-y kind of word – an off-putting word, I think, often we think of holy as in “holier than thou”. We say God is Holy, or if we do not say it Scripture certainly does, all over we hear of that God is Holy, the name of the Lord is Holy, Bless God's Holy name. But, what does that even mean?
In our Old Testament, God's holiness is depicted as something completely and utterly “OTHER”. Moses is commanded to take of his shoes for he is on “holy ground”, many hid their face in the presence of holiness in order to spare their lives, and those who did not, certainly died for merely catching a glimpse of the holiness of God. Sound inviting? Probably not. God is holy, because God is perfect and we know that God's ways our not our ways, God's thoughts are not our thoughts. This Almighty Creator of the Universe is Holy and awe-inspiring and worthy of our fear and our worship and our bowing of heads, because God is Holy. As we hear in Leviticus 19 God is inviting us in to these different ways of living – ways that revere our relationships, ways of living that care of those that live on the margins of society, ways of living that do not stand for hatred, but rather love others as we love self. God is holy because these are the very nature of God, God's holiness is defined by relationship, liberation, mercy and love. This is the holiness of God, this is the nature of God.
There is another invitation extended in Leviticus 19. In verse 2 God says, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” To me this sounds like an old parenting technique – “You will sit quietly during church today” “You will clean your room this afternoon” I have used this technique from time to time and I know these statements are not really meant to be prophecies are much as they are threats lest the hoped for behavior does not happen! God says, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This, however is no threat, this is a promise. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This is no threat, this is a promise.
There is a beautiful, and holy litany found in Leviticus 19. The rhythm invites us with every refrain into the Holiness of God, how could we possible be invited? How could we, mere mortals, be drawn into this God whose very presence can cause death, this God whose very nature liberates and loves without measure? Who are we to be invited into this holiness?
Because this Holy God is your Lord and your God, you will be holy. This is no threat, this is a promise.
You will revere your family – I am the Lord your God.
You will care and provide for the poor and the alien – I am the Lord your God.
You will not steal or profane God's holy name – I am the Lord your God.
You will not hate in your heart, you will not take vengeance on anyone, you will love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.
This is not a laundry list of things to be before being considered “holy”. This is a divine gift, a holy glimpse into the ways and nature of God. When our heart and will conforms to the ways and nature of God, we experience holiness...sometimes slight and passing droplets of holiness, sometimes long and satisfying drinks of the holy, beautiful majesty of our Lord and God.
This is the law of God, and the law of God is a way into holiness. Of course, we know this is not something to achieve, rather something to embrace, a life and way of being that is different. We are still mere mortals, we still will turn our faces in the presence of this Holy God because we know how often we have turned down this invitation.
This Holy God is our Lord, our God and we can say this and claim this Holy God and know that we are claimed by God. God claimed us as beloved, redeemed and yes, even Holy, in Christ. Scripture continues to proclaim what was first made true in our creation in God's image, what is proclaimed today in Leviticus 19, Scripture continues the proclamation when Jesus prays these words, in the Gospel of John “17Sanctify them [Jesus' disciples] in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” In the Word we are sanctified, meaning we are made holy. In Jesus, we are sanctified, meaning we are made holy, too. This is not a threat, this is a promise.
We do not make ourselves holy, we will not be offering a holiness-now seminar at church anytime soon. This is the work of the Spirit, and the Spirit is at work in me and in you because Jesus came into this unholy world with a holy promise and a holy invitation. The holy invitation is that our hearts and our very natures will be conformed to God's so that our lives may be love-filled, caring, reverent and holy. This is the work of Christ, in us, you and me. Sometime we catch droplets, sometimes long and satisfying drinks of the holiness of God in our midst.
Three years ago I traveled to Mexico with other seminarians to fulfill a cross-cultural requirement. This was not a mission trip, or a chance to sit on the beach, instead it was a listening experience. Each day for two weeks we stepped into different communities and heard stories—we heard the stories of community organizers working to bring fair profit to local farmers, indigenous people fighting to remain on their land, church leaders working to make the church in Mexico a place for all people and we heard the stories of many, many, many women who work tirelessly for their families, their land and their home. I met one woman whose story will stay with me forever. I met her during our visit to a community called La Estacion. This squatter settlement lays on the outskirts of Cuernava, Mexico and stretches for literally miles. The types of homes one will find while walking the neighborhood range from areas of land, simply marked with string and people sitting around, cardboard boxes, or some more developed homes that have metal walls and some cement foundation or outline. Stray dogs were everywhere and the smells that we walked through made it very difficult to breath. I was prepared to see neighborhoods like this, what I was NOT prepared for was to sit inside a home and have a conversation with a life-long resident. Our trip leader broke us into small groups so that only two or three entered a home at a time, there was not really room for any more. And we were armed with questions to ask so that when we regrouped we would have all asked the same questions and could have a cohesive reflection time. I was tasked with speaking for my group and was ok with most of the questions, what does a typical day look like for you? What is your relationship with your neighbors? Are you hungry? But my final question I was so embarrassed by I prayed we would run out of time so that I wouldn't have to ask it. “What are your dreams?” this is what I was to ask our host, whoever they may be. Standing in La Estacion I thought the word dream couldn't be anywhere in the vocabulary! Who am I to ask about dreams and hopes and aspirations of any kind? What do I know of what the residents could want?
|holiness in Mexico|
With a pounding heart I went with my group further into the neighborhood. Our hostess was Brenda invited us into her home, we ducked out heads and made our way through a small maze of wires, copper-fencing, boxes stacked until we entered the home. The floor was cement and the walls were made of metal…this was one of them most stable structures we had seen. The home consisted of two rooms, the kitchen which we sat in, and sleeping room—the two areas were divided by hanging blankets. Over the entrance hung a cross, and near the only window was Our Lady of Guadalupe. This was the home for Brenda, her husband and their seven children.
She served us a snack and politely entertained our questions. The answers were all the ones we did not want to hear — her day was endless finding and preparing food — some days successful, many not. The community very dangerous — you cannot trust your neighbor even though these homesteads were literally collapsing on top of one another. Then I asked with broken spanish, do you have dreams? Hope? ..she answered that all of her children remain healthy and that their future might be safe, good and better than she could hope. Then I asked if she had fears…that her children would be hurt, ill or stumble onto paths that would lead them to bad places. So many things between Brenda and I are different, at first glace, maybe everything is different. But our heart and our nature is one – we were simply mother to mother and though all earthly measurements put us on different ends of the scale, we were the same, living out the dreams, hopes and fears of all mothers and fathers and care givers anywhere.
In La Estacion I sat while drops fell from Brendas' eyes and drank a long and satisfying drink of holiness. The heart and nature of God manifest in this woman, she is holy because her Lord and her God is holy, she is holy because her heart and nature are of God...love-filled, caring, reverent and holy.
We are invited into holiness, but not just invited, we are transformed and made holy by Christ alone and because this Holy God has made it so. Holiness is not a status to be reached, it is an encounter, it is a gift, it is relationship with God and with one another...this is where we become holy.
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This is not a threat, this is a promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.