October 27, 2002
Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

[Underlined text will take you to another sermon]


"On Being Holy"
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Would you describe yourself as holy? 

Or to put it another way, would you feel comfortable saying to one of your close friends, "I am a holy person?" Better yet, would your husband or wife fall down laughing if you asked them seriously, "Honey, would you say that I am a holy person?"

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines holy as, "exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness".  In other words the impact of describing ourselves as holy or thinking of ourselves as being holy translates to thinking we are perfect. And as everybody knows - __________________   ! (Nobody's perfect.)

The English word holy is related to the word "whole" - meaning without imperfection or defect. To be whole is to be complete and without wound or injury. A holy person would seem to be a person who is perfect and worthy of devotion and as far as most of us are aware, there are no people like that. When we use the terms "holy man" or "holy woman", we have in mind someone like St. Francis or Mother Theresa or a hermit who wanders in the desert with no other aim or desire in life than to seek God. Or - the term is used as slang for a chaplain in the military. When I was in the Air Force, we called our chaplain a "holy Joe."

I would seem then, that the idea of being a holy person does not translate to the world you and I live, work, and play in. It is almost as though holiness is otherworldly and maybe even irrelevant in our culture. Going back to our original question, "Would you describe yourself as a holy person?" - The question might more appropriately be, "Do you want to be a holy person?"

There are a few Christian communions in what can be called the "holiness" tradition where the concept of being holy is not so foreign. But in most of our lives, "being holy" is not a significant blip on our daily radar screens.

***

The problem is that line in our scripture where Moses tells God's people what God wants from them. "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."

But then, maybe this is one of those, "That was then - this is now," things. Moses was speaking to an ancient group of Hebrews who had escaped slavery in Egypt and were on their journey toward the promised land. The whole book of Leviticus is made up of religious and social rules and regulations that were given to bring this rag tag group of runaway slaves into some kind of community. God had led them out of Egypt and they were supposed to be holy as God was holy.

Maybe for we moderns who live in a civilized society where church membership is the norm for us Christian folk, the call of God to be holy is not applicable.

The difficulty with this is that it wasn't just Moses speaking for God way back then. Jesus, speaking for God hundreds of years later said, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." [Matt. 5:48] When the earliest church was growing and the faith was spreading over the then known world, the First Letter of Peter said, "...as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy.' " [1 Peter 1:15-16]

We don't have so much trouble with the idea that God is holy. One of the best known hymns in the Christian world is "Holy, Holy, Holy."  God is holy and early in the morning we sing our praises to a holy God.

It would seem that the call to holiness is not irrelevant at all. It is a call to the people of God then and it is a call to the people of God now ! Our difficulty is not so much with God's holiness, but with ours. Yet a careful study of the word holy or holiness throughout the bible would quickly let us know that this is no peripheral issue in the life of faithful Christians, but rather is at the center of who and what we are.

It will help us to understand God's call to holiness if we examine more closely [1] The meaning of holiness and [2] The implications of holiness.

The Meaning of Holiness

There is a clue to the meaning of holiness for our lives in the wording of Leviticus.  19:2. Listen again with this emphasis: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."

Did you catch that? Holiness is something that we are to aspire to - but on the other hand, holiness is something that God is. God is holy. We are to become holy. If we can ascertain what God already is, we will be in a better position to know what it is that we are to become.

When Moses encountered God in the burning bush he was told to take of his shoes because the place where he was standing was, "Holy ground."  The Sabbath was to be a day of rest because the Sabbath was a day that was "holy to the Lord." When God gave instructions for Israel's worship in the wilderness, everything that was set apart for use in worship was holy. Whether utensils which were used in the sacrifices, the furniture which was a part of the tabernacle, or even the priests and people who officiated at the worship - everything that was used in worship was holy.  The sense is that holiness means "set apart."  Something that is holy is "set apart" for worship.

We can understand this concept if we think about the altars or communion tables we use in worship. They have been "dedicated" at some time or another for use in our sanctuary.

Some years ago, I was working with young people in a cooperative ministry to "street kids." These were teens who had little home life and spent most of their time on the streets. It took lots of time to gain the trust of these teens and get them to come to the "hang out" we provided in our church basement. Within a few months, there were two or three hundred young people who frequented the "hang out" they eventually named, "The Place."

One evening I noticed that three or four of the kids had left the large room that was provided by the church. Two rules were that the "upstairs" or sanctuary was off limits and the kids could not leave the building and then return. (A rule which was put into place after several incidents of teens leaving the building to go drink alcohol. They would come and go and some would become inebriated. Fights would break out and the ministry was threatened.)

This particular evening, I went looking for this small group who were informal leaders of the larger group. I found them in the sanctuary, having lively conversation while smoking their cigarettes and drinking soda. Two sat on our communion table with pop cans and ash trays scattered about the table.

I asked them to return to the basement room and told them this was absolutely out of order for them to be in the sanctuary smoking and littering our communion table with ash trays and pop cans. Our relationship was solid and honest, so they took my "scolding" without incident. The thing that struck me in all of this was the comment of the kid all the others looked up to.

"I don't get it. What's the big deal - it's just an old table!"

And indeed, in his world it was just an old table. In my world it was a very special table which was set aside for a special use. In the world of our church's member's this incident would have been cause for expulsion of the ministry to street kids. For our church this was a "holy" table.

Yet for this young man, my indignation at finding ash trays, cigarettes and soda cans on the communion table was as bewildering to him as my question to my wife, "Honey do you think I am a holy person?"

To be holy is to be set apart for God and God's purposes. To be holy is to belong to God and to no longer belong to the world. When we present ourselves or present our children for baptism, we are asking that they be set apart for God. In some communions the cross is traced on a child's forehead as the words are spoken, "You are...  marked as Christ's own forever." In the most basic sense baptism makes us holy. That is it sets us apart for God - we are declaring them and ourselves to be holy.

When we become persons of faith and affirm our commitment to the Lordship of Christ in our lives, we are in some sense declaring ourselves to be "holy." Namely, we are declaring that we belong to God and that we no longer belong to this world. In those communions that use the ecumenical creeds in worship, there is a weekly affirmation of this relationship with God and with each other in which we belong to an entirely new kingdom. We are already citizens of the kingdom we ask for every time we pray, "Thy kingdom come... they will be done."

So as it turns out - it is not so much that we don't know what "holy" means, it is just that we have come to understand the meaning of holy and holiness in ways that are not biblically correct. Every time we dedicate something to the service of God - our sanctuary, our money and even our very selves in service - we are setting these things apart for God and the purposes of God.

It would seem then, that the idea of being a holy person does not translate to the world you and I live, work, and play in. It is almost as though holiness is otherworldly and maybe even irrelevant in our culture. Going back to our original question, "Would you describe yourself as a holy person?" - The question might more appropriately be, "Do you want to be a holy person?"

There are a few Christian communions in what can be called the "holiness" tradition where the concept of being holy is not so foreign. But in most of our lives, "being holy" is not a significant blip on our daily radar screens.

The Implications of Holiness

Once we understand the basic meaning of holiness, we are in a position to look more carefully at the implications of holiness. In other words, what is being holy when it comes to our daily living?

You might be thinking, "Okay, I understand what it means to call the sanctuary holy and the things we have set apart for worship as holy. And maybe even grasp what it means when a child becomes 'holy' in the special sense of setting the child apart for God in baptism. I guess I can go so far as to say that my faith sets me apart for God, but I'm still having trouble with calling myself a holy person when I leave church and head into the week."

Maybe it will help to talk about the principle of holiness as opposed to the practice of holiness. When all of us leave here today, we are leaving as persons of faith who belong to God because we are children of God. We are in principle holy persons. In order to answer the call of God as expressed by Moses, "You shall be holy... for I am holy..." we need to live out in the real world the meaning of being God's people.

Perhaps that is the difficulty with this idea of being holy. We don't have so much trouble with thinking about the church and all that is in it as being holy when we leave it all behind and return to our homes and our lives. And for those of us who are used to clergy who wear clerical collars - we might attribute a bit of holiness to clergy. But when I leave church, I don't think of me as being holy.

Here's a brief and necessarily oversimplified definition of what it means to be holy:

To be holy as God is holy is to live our lives in the world, fully conscious of the fact that we are in the world as representatives of the God to whom we belong. We seek to grow in the great commandment to love God completely in heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor (whoever and wherever they may be) as we love ourselves.

In other words, to be a holy person is not to be a "weird" person. To the contrary being weird - even religiously weird - does not represent God well at all. To be a holy person is to be a person who loves God and loves like God loves.

With this understanding, we might try out the question to our spouses all over again, "Honey, would you say that I am a holy person?"  This time maybe they won't fall to the ground laughing. But they might say, "Well dear, in principle you are, but in practice you do have a ways to go!"

And don't we all. That's why we are in this thing together. That is why we worship together, learn together, grow together, play together and pray together. We are a holy community of faith - set apart for God and the purposes of God and committed to answering God's call.


Connections in the Texts

Love of God and neighbor are bound together so tightly in the Judeo-Christian tradition that one can not be genuine without the other. It might be countered that it is possible to love neighbor without loving God and that there are examples of wonderful people who do just that.

Yet, the Jewish and Christian scholar would insist that these two "great commandments" do indeed belong together and in the precise order Jesus gives them.  Love of God is primary.  It stands first because it is the thing that nourishes the other.  If we love God, we will of necessity love what God loves and God loves each one as though they were the only one.

Jesus brings love of God and love of neighbor into full expression in his incarnation, death and resurrection.   The love of God is fully given as Christ pours out his own life so that "whosoever believeth" will find their spiritual home in the Lord.  Then, the one who receives the life of Christ is bound to love neighbor on behalf of Christ.

Matthew spells out the two great commandments.  Leviticus focuses on the practical implications of loving one's neighbor and Paul brings a kind of personal flavor to loving neighbor -- in this case the members of a church he grew.

One of the ways to use these texts is to weave a meditation which keeps coming back to the idea that the reality of our love for God is evidenced in the quality of our life together as a community of faith. The only way the world has of seeing God's love is to see it in the character of our relationships together in the church.  The adjective that describe such a church run along the lines of: inclusive, accepting, supportive, nourishing, forgiving, loving, encouraging...    A fellowship which breaks the great commandments will be described with words like: judgmental, unforgiving, exclusive, gossipy...   The conflict between Jesus and official Judaism reflects the "commandment breaking" characteristics of the latter and this lies behind the "spiritual disaster" we have been looking at through Matthew's eyes as we close out this church year.

Matthew 23:34-46

Note:  The lectionary gospel reading for this week skips over Matthew's account of the Sadducees' interrogation of Jesus with respect to marriage in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Luke's version of the interaction is found in Luke 20:27ff and there is a full text sermon on the passage at: "A View From Beyond the Grave"

When asked for the greatest commandment, Jesus answers with two commandments and not just one.  The second, he suggests is "like" the first.  In context, "like" (homoios) suggest more than similarity.  We might think in terms of:  "Love God with all your heart....   and along with that, love your neighbor as yourself."  Perhaps we can think of Jesus as bringing a much needed correction to the idea that one can isolate loving God from our relationships with those around us.  While the O.T. frequently enjoins justice and care for the poor, the stranger, the despised and dispossessed --  the behavior of the religious leaders of Jesus time turns away from the love of neighbor which breaks down barriers and overcomes prejudices.

We can not, therefore, get away with saying, "I will love God -- but I can not love those around me."   Loving God compels loving neighbor.  Loving neighbor is a reflection of loving God.  The neighbor will see a reflection of the love of God when they look at us.   If there is no reflection of God's love in my countenance -- well -- you recall the old horror movie theme that the devil and its cohorts have no reflection in a mirror.

In the NCL and Episcopal readings the question of Jesus regarding Messiah is asked. Most commentators agree that in this question, Jesus addresses the limited idea of Messiah that the Jewish leaders have.   There is more to "Messiah" than the simple idea of the Son of David who will come as a mighty military leader who will give Rome the boot.  William Barclay in his Daily Bible Study Series remarks that in this pericope, Jesus makes his greatest claim.  Although the people gathered that day could not have understood all that Jesus meant, Barclay writes, "...even the densest of them felt the shiver in the presence of the eternal mystery...   in this man Jesus they glimpsed the very face of God."  [Mt. Vol.2, p.310]  Eugene Boring the the New Interpreter's Bible does not go as far in the transformation of the idea of the popular idea of Messiah -- but he does suggest that the use of "Son of David" is given new content.

Either way -- Jesus silenced his adversaries.  They had no answer for his question and indeed had no questions for him at all from this point.  At the very least, the issue of who Messiah is has been opened up and the remainder of this last week in Jesus' earthly life would bring a whole new answer.

Leviticus

If the passage from Leviticus has anything to say to us at all, it wants to make sure we remember who the Lord is.   Seven times in these verses the phrase is repeated, "I am the Lord!"   There is a good question here.  "Do we need to be reminded that God is God?"  That there is no other God besides God?

Let's not answer too quickly.   To affirm that the Lord our God is really God in our lives has to do with:   consistent worship, refraining from worshiping anything other than God, how we treat the poor,  and whether we treat all persons equally.

You could call this pericope from Leviticus a "reality check" on the second great commandment.

1 Thessalonians

"What you see is what you get."  Paul came to the church with a message he had been given by God and he came without pretence or gimmicks.  His motives are simple.  He believed he had been "entrusted" with the message of Good News and his sole task was to deliver the news.

Yet, he did so with tremendous affection for the people. It is interesting to note that Paul uses the image of a mother caring for her own children (the NRSV translates "trophos" as nurse -- the NIV as mother -- actually the word is "nourisher"  -- a nurse or perhaps nursing mother.  In any case, a striking image)

There is one line in this passage that rivets my spirit.  It is a thought that seems to me to go to the heart of parish ministry.  It is one thing to teach theology, administer the denominational program or write for pastors.  It is another thing entirely to take the Good News and personally live among the people who are recipients of that news.  Listen to this essential core of what it means to be a parish pastor:

"...we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us."

Who can say more than this?   This is a wonderful illustration of keeping the two great commandments.  To love God is to embrace and then deliver the Good News.  To love neighbor is to share your very self as well as the news because you have come to love the people.


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship

L: We rejoice and praise Your holy name today, O Lord,
P: Because you have kept us from a destructive path.
L: We give thanks because Your word gives us hope,
P: And we reflect on Your word at all times.
L: You are the Source of deep seated faith,
P: And our spirits are refreshed in your presence! Amen!

 

A Prayer of Confession

O Lord of compassion and mercy, we confess that one of Your greatest gifts to us has so often been the source of our greatest trials. You have given us the gift of choice. We can choose between right and wrong, between love and hate. We can take the high road or the low road. We can reach out in your name or we can retreat in the name of selfishness. O Great God of grace, help us to choose with clarity, compassion and commitment. Cleanse us from every wrong and give us the joy of making choices that bring honor to the name of Christ. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Dear friends, our Savior is more gracious than our hearts could ever believe.  Just at the time we were sinners, he died for us that we might have peace with God.  Believe the good news that in Jesus Christ we have forgiveness.  Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

How wonderful it is O Lord, that you should call us your children.  You have given us the gift of life and of new life and have called us to hope and joy in your Son Jesus Christ.  We are blessed beyond our ability to conceive and gifted beyond our wildest imagination.

You have called us to be representatives of your love and grace and made us stewards of all you have to give to others.  It is sometimes hard for us to grasp just how much you have invested in us.  We have times when we simply can not believe that it is up to us

The hungry child.  The lonely teenager.  The homeless man.  The abused mother.  The broken heart...

All await the good news that can only come from your people.

O Lord God, we are humbled at your vision of our worth, challenged by the call of your Son and empowered by the gift of your Holy Spirit.

O help us not to miss our call, nor fall short of your kingdom's goal.

We give you thanks and praise today that you have called us to be more than onlookers in the business of your divine Kingdom!

Amen.

 A Prayer of Dedication

As we bring these gifts to You, O God of light, we ask that Your Spirit open us up fully to all we can be through the love of Christ. Shine Your light within our hearts that we might see more clearly how You can change the world through the gifts we bring. Amen.