Being Holy

A sermon preached at St Paul’s Church Bantam by Christopher L. Webber on February 20, 2011.

Years and years ago I was serving in a parish on Long Island and we were working on a relationship with a nearby synagogue. The youth group from our church went to the synagogue for a service, the rabbi came to speak to our couples club, and I was invited to preach at the synagogue. When the rabbi came to speak at our church I gave him a copy of a book by a priest of the Church of England which was a translation of the four prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea. I thought that was very thoughtful.  But after I preached at the synagogue the rabbi one-upped me in spades. He came by one day to say that he had been in London the previous summer and had found in a little shop of some kind a few pages of a first edition of the King James Version of the Bible and he was having one framed and would send it to me as soon as the framing was done. So a few weeks later the package came and I opened it up and it was the 19th chapter of the book of Leviticus, the Old Testament lesson we heard this morning.

There are a few, if any, passages in the Old Testament as significant as that for the faith Jews and Christians have in common.  It’s called “the Holiness code” and it marks one of the great leaps forward in humankind’s understanding of God and the relationship God wants us to have with God. “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.”

What does “holiness” mean?  Every human community has some idea of the mystery of human life. Call it a “religious sense” or just a sense of mystery, but it is the sense that life is not confined to the observable, material things around us. We sense something more and we struggle to define it. For most civilizations, that sense results in a definition of “the holy” or “tabu” or “manna.”  The holy is that which is not human, which is marked off and separated. One keeps a distance from it because the holy is the unknown, the strange, the mysterious. We approach it in fear and at our own risk. Te story is told of a certain rabbi who before he began his daily prayers would always take leave of his family.  Hey: You never know!  The great Greek tragedies express that sense in a very typical way. Human lives become enmeshed somehow in the holy, the gods get involved somehow, and tragedy results. The gods have their purposes and these purposes leave human beings broken and battered in their wake.

Helen Gardner spoke of this Greek understanding of the holy in a lecture on “Tragedy in the Ancient World:”She said: “The gods have…. a formidable holiness. They are other than men. The depth of Greek religious feeling is most often felt in the sense of divine otherness: the inhumanity of the gods, whose ways are not our ways and who cannot endure human pain. This sense of awe at the gods as not comfortable to men, can be felt at the close of “The Women of Trachis,” when Hyllus speaks of the cruelty or iniquity of the gods and the chorus can only reply that “all that has happened is of Zeus.”That’s just how it is. The gods are like that.  Keep away from them if you can.

Now the Old Testament would agree that God is “other than human beings,” that God’s “ways are not our ways.” But beyond that there is a world of difference.  There is throughout the Old Testament and New Testament as well – – no abatement of the sense of awe and mystery – – yes, and even danger.  Think of Moses and the burning bush: “Take off your shoes: this is holy ground.”   Think of Aaron and the Levitical priesthood: only those set apart could offer the sacrifice and if others presumed or the priests did it wrong they would die.  Do not approach God casually.

If you ever read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis, you might remember how the children first encountered Aslan, the Lion.  Susan said, ‘Is he safe?’ And Mr. Beaver responded:“Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”

It’s not safe to get involved with God. God makes demands on us, changes our lives – and not always in ways we want.  So much of what passes for Christianity today in this country trivializes religion. “Jesus is our friend; God makes us happy.”  Don’t count on it. The holy is other than us.  God’s ways are not our ways. But the Gospel message is that God calls us to act in a certain way and that as we act in that way the separation between human and divine will be overcome, that we will, in fact, be united with God – for better or worse.

So let’s look at this “Holiness code.”  It is, first of all, a code of conduct. You shall not gather the gleanings and strip the vineyard – – – you shall leave them for the poor and Sojourner – –. You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another – – you shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him – – you shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind – – you shall not hate your neighbor in your heart.”

To curse the deaf or trip up the blind seems almost silly at first alongside “you shall not hate your neighbor in your heart” but if you look carefully, you might begin to see that it’s two ways of saying the same thing. The deaf will not hear your curse but it will be in your heart and God will hear what is in your heart and God will know. But the vital essence of the whole is in the beginning: “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.”  So holiness here is not something to be feared. Holiness is in the heart. Holiness is the attitude of my heart toward my brother and sister and toward God. That is what holiness is.  And that is what separates God from us, what makes God’s ways strange to us, because we are not like that.

We were meant to be like that, of course: we were made in God’s image.  But then there was sin and separation because we changed and God does not change.  God, perfectly, love’s God’s people.  God loves us with a love that is almost totally beyond our understanding and so appears to us, now, mysterious and awe-inspiring and incomprehensible. But that holiness is not to be feared, not to be strange to us any longer because God calls us to be holy also.

Now that is a profound revolution in human thought and we find it enshrined first in the book of Leviticus centuries before the time of Christ.  But that is only half the story. There are many things Christians and Jews have in common: the law, the prophets, the Psalms, and so on. But the Holiness code of Leviticus forms the essential background for what has often been cited as the very heart of Jesus teaching and that is the Sermon on the Mount, and in particular the passage we read this morning which is the ending of the great fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew.All through that fifth chapter Jesus has been citing the Old Testament law and calling his disciples on to something higher, something more complete, and something far more demanding. He cites the law and says, “you have heard that it was said to those of old…” and then he says, “But I say . . .”  Again and again, the law Jesus cites has to do with outward behavior and again and again he tells us that what God asks of us first of all is a change of heart.“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 one who is evil. You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, Love your enemies. . . that you may be children of your father who is in heaven.”

Now a great deal of the law in the Old Testament doesn’t sound like a very high standard to us but we need to see it in context. The law says, “An eye for an eye,” but that is equal justice and it was proclaimed in a society in which justice was not equal because vengeance was unlimited.  If someone struck out your eye, you were entitled to claim their life. What the Old Testament calls us up to is a higher standard of equal justice. In social behavior, it’s about where we still are.  When crimes are committed we retaliate and still require, for example, a life for a life. As a society we have not yet learned another way to act though the issue is before the Connecticut legislature at the moment as they look at the death penalty and ask whether that kind of retaliatory equal justice is still who we are.  But we as individuals, as Christians, as children of God, are called on beyond equal justice to return good for evil, to act like God who returns good to us again and again in spite of our failures and disobedience.  In fact, Leviticus also calls us beyond mere equality.  We read this morning: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.”  You may own the land and the whole crop may belong to you.  You may own the vineyard, and those may be your grapes, but to be like God as we are called to be requires us to leave some of what is technically ours for those who are in need.

How do we translate that into terms that matter? When I read that the Congress has refused to lower taxes for the rich but is now considering reducing programs for the poor I have to ask whether those who claim to be Christians or Jews have read the Bible and understood what it is saying.  I have to ask whether we have voted with our billfolds and pocketbooks or with the Bible.

The passage in Matthew ended this morning with a transformation of the Holiness code: no longer simply “Be holy,” but “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.”  Your Father in heaven is merciful. God is not a God of equality but a God of abundance and giving. We are to be like God.  That is our calling. But to be like God is to be more than holy.  Holiness is different, separate, set apart. And if we begin to act like God with mercy and abundant generosity, we will be different, maybe uncomfortably different.  But the perfection Jesus outlines is not totally set apart; it is in and of this world and your life and mine.

Here’s the challenge:  this is God’s world and we are to be in this world like God.  And we know what that means because we have seen what God is like in the life of Jesus.  We are to be like that so the world also may know God, that seeing us they will know what God is like and come to share in the fulness of God’s abundant love.

Leave a comment

Your comment