Epiphany 7A: Deeper Into Holiness

Deepest part of oceanOLD TESTAMENT:  Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

Leviticus appears just this once in the entire Revised Common Lectionary cycle—and in most years, Lent begins before seven Sundays after Epiphany elapses.  This passage sounds a lot like the Ten Commandments.  There’s a good reason.  These are the Ten Commandments plus some additional guidelines as to how the people live as a holy people.  The laws of Leviticus as we know them come out of the story of the exodus.  Freed from slavery, the people have not yet entered the Promised Land.  But this looks ahead to that time when they will return home and how they should conduct their lives as residents in that land that was promised to them.

These are not really “laws”, per se, the way we think of laws.  They are not prescriptions for right behavior that includes the promise of punishment for those who fail to follow them.  They are rather a description of an ideal community, a people of faith, who are devoted first and foremost to God.  The beginning directive to “…be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” brings to mind the story of Creation in Genesis and the fact that we are “created in God’s image”.  As people of God, then, there is a calling to be a reminder of who God is, an image that brings God into people’s lives.  A holy people can remind people of the holiness of the ever-present God who created them.  Thomas Merton said that “your life is shaped by the end you live for.  You are made in the image of what you desire.” (in In the Beginning, God:  Creation, Culture, and the Spiritual Life, by Marva J. Dawn, p. 36)

But this holiness thing is often uncomfortable for us.  We tend to fault on the side of modesty and reserve the description of “holy” for the likes of Jesus, Mother Teresa, or the Dalai Lama.  Kimberly Clayton, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (p. 365), says that “as appropriately modest as this may be, it is also a way of letting ourselves off the holiness hook.  This is not biblical.”  Essentially, we are called to be holy.  That’s it.  We are called to be holy, rather than overly modest. (OK, I for one apparently have some work to do!)

Many times in this passage, we read the words, “I am the Lord.”  It is not a threat, but a reminder that God is always and forever present in our lives.  The law of God is not a list of rules; rather, it is connected with the character of God.  It is a depiction of who God is in the world.  And it is evident that God is first and foremost about relationships.  Part of the way that a people becomes a holy people is by dealing with others in the way that God would—with justice and mercy and love.  So, these “laws” call the people to be honest in their dealings with each other—financially, in the ways we deal with the earth that we share, and in the way we treat the poor.  As the passage goes on, you’ll notice that the “other”—the “poor”, the “alien”, or “another”—becomes your “neighbor”.  It is a reminder that we are all neighbors.  There is no one outside that definition.

And as neighbors, we are all part of one family, one “kin”, as the Scripture points out.  Our neighbor (whoever that may be) is one of us, one of “our people”, one who we are called to love just as we love ourselves.  We are marked as the people of God.  We are claimed by God.  We are one in God. 

It is a reminder that we have been loved more than we can possibly imagine and that is the way we are called to love.  In The Quotidian Mysteries, Kathleen Norris writes “God speaks to us…reminding us that by meeting the daily needs of the poor and vulnerable, characterized in the scriptures as the widows and the orphans, we prepare the way of the Lord and make our own hearts ready for the day of salvation.” 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What is hard for us to hear?
  3. What does it mean to be holy?  What do you think of the notion of our possibly being overly modest?
  4. So, who are our neighbors? 
    1. Who are those to which we’re called to be a neighbor? 
    2. Who are we called to allow to be a neighbor toward us?
    3. Which of these is more difficult?

 NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Just as in the readings over the last couple of weeks, this week’s Epistle passage is Paul’s way of continuing to try to unify the members of the church at Corinth who are distracted because of some misplaced priorities.  The community here is being torn apart by arguments and competing authority.  (In the chapters that follow, the heated discussions will escalate to the subjects of sexual morality and marriage, lawsuits, and behavior at The Lord’s Supper.)  So Paul is trying to guide them back to what is important, to their focus on God and their unity with each other as one body.

Paul reminds us that the foundation is none other than Jesus Christ.  The metaphor of a foundation is an interesting one.  If you think about it, there are a lot of things that can be changed and updated in a house.  Houses can look different from each other and individual houses can change over time.  But if the foundation is not solid, the house will not stand.  I don’t think this was Paul’s way of depicting our understanding of faith as inflexible or limited.  Far from it.  In our world of religious and denominational pluralism, perhaps the foundation becomes even MORE important.  It’s our starting point; it’s our unity.  As Christians, Christ is not merely the “way” we build the house, but is indeed the solid foundation on which our faith rests.  Christ is the center.

It should also be noted here that Paul is asking these first-century hearers to see the temple and to see themselves in a radically new way.  The temple had, for them, been the center of religion and the center of their very lives.  Following the return from Babylon, the temple had been rebuilt as the center of Israel’s worship and the center of their society.  The belief was that the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, contained the very presence of God.  In fact, only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was the high priest (and the high priest only) allowed to enter the inner sanctum to make sacrifices for the sin of the nation.  But here, Paul is saying that the church, the people, the Body of Christ, is now the temple.  This discombobulated, dysfunctional, and “disunified” group of people are now called to be one, are now called to be the Body of Christ, the very embodiment of the Presence of God in our midst. The temple exists where God’s holiness exists, in the people that are called the people of God.

So, once again, Paul is compelling them to be one, to let go of all of the arguments and the competition for “who’s on top”.  Again, have the humility of holiness.  Be the people of God.  This congregation, this people, this holiness of God, this good news of Jesus Christ, are not things to fight over.  No one owns or has a direct line to what is right and to the way that the church should work.  That belongs to God.  That belongs to the foundation that we find in Jesus Christ.

One of the joys of being a grandfather is getting to take your grandchildren to do special and wonderful things. Not long ago, I was called upon to take my two grandsons to their swimming lessons. I thought this would be the routine trip, but I was wrong. The pool was enclosed in a rather large building, and the sounds of all those excited children of different ages and abilities were deafening.

Upon further observation, I noticed something unusual. All the noise was coming from the shallow end of the pool. The only sound coming from the deep end was the sound of experienced swimmers swimming with discipline and confidence. There was no yelling, no crying, no complaining, no evidence of fear or frustration. They were following the instructions of their leader.

After a lifetime of parish ministry, I have concluded that all the noise comes from the shallow end of the pool from those who haven’t learned to swim with confidence or are not secure enough to venture into the deep water. Churches reflect that clearly. The noise comes from the shallow end, not the deep end. Look at current statistics. Church attendance is up. Excitement is up. We have gone into show business, but if you dig deep into those statistics, you don’t find discipleship being up, nor do you find godliness up. We find a lot of people who are attending but few people who are swimming in the deep end. There is not much Christlikeness or commitment. It’s easy to draw a crowd. The people of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus have taught us how to draw a crowd. But it’s tough to build a congregation. One pastor said to me with tongue in cheek, “Our people are deeply committed in every area except three: lifestyle, mindset, and values. Other than that, they are deeply committed to the Gospel.”…

In any city there are churches saying in like manner:

“Come to our church. Our preacher doesn’t wear a tie. Our preacher wears golf shirts and jogging shoes.”
“Come to our church! We wear shorts and sandals.”
“We’re fundamental.”
“We’re liturgical.”
“We’re liberal.”
“We’re moderate.”
“We’re denominational.”
“We’re mainline.”
“We’re dispensational.”
“We have video.”
“We have snare drums and screens.”
“We’re into political reform.”
“We have a religious superstar preaching today.”

Everyone is out front, just like the carnival barkers were, pushing their style, their religious product, but when we get inside we find-just like the carnival-that no one knocks out the balloons or knocks down the bottles. No one wins the prize. No lives are changed. The church of the big idea, the church of the big action, and the church of the big deal somehow leave us empty. Something is missing.

That is the issue Paul was addressing in this letter. Churches that are built only on ideas or actions or style are doomed to die. Paul said, and I paraphrase, “I gave you a good foundation, Jesus Christ. You build on Jesus Christ. And if you build with gold and silver or straw, it will fade. You must build on Jesus Christ.” Jesus earlier said in Matthew 16, “On this rock (the confession of Peter) I will build my church.” During his last week, he said to his disciples, “I am the vine. Ye are the branches.” In other words, stay connected to me, and you will bear fruit. If you get severed from me, you won’t bear fruit. (From “Swimming to the Deep End of the Pool”, by Rev. Dr. William L. Self, available at http://day1.org/808-swimming_to_the_deep_end_of_the_pool, accessed 16 February, 2011) 

  1. a.      What does this passage mean for you?
  2. b.      How can this be applied to our own cultural context?
  3. c.       What does this image of the temple mean for you?

 GOSPEL:  Matthew 5: 38-48

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

More Sermon on the Mount…In this section, Jesus tells the disciples to turn the other cheek, not seek revenge, give more than what is required by law, give to all who ask things of you, lend without limits, love enemies, pray for persecutors, and welcome the stranger.  Well sure…Jesus once again frames his discourse in light of the accepted laws that were in place in that society.  For instance, the law allowed the notion of lex talionis, or fair retaliation.  If someone practiced wrong against you, you would be authorized to fairly and legally retaliate but only to the extent of your loss.  (i.e, “an eye for an eye”.)  As harsh as that may sound to us, the whole point was that that was the MOST you could do.  You could not retaliate against someone who had injured your eye by murdering them and get away with it.  But Jesus takes that accepted and acceptable way of thinking and remodels it completely.  If someone had injured your eye, the only thing acceptable is to walk away, to not seek revenge.  Essentially, retaliation and anger are not Scriptural.  Rather, we are called to overcome evil with good—to pray for those who harm us, to love those who threaten us, to welcome those we do not know. 

Now, I don’t think Jesus expected us to just close our eyes to the threatening of weak and vulnerable members of our society.  We ARE called to speak out, to do something.  But maybe it will give us pause to ask if there’s another way to handle something. 

Once again, we are asked to give more than what is asked, more than what is expected within the bounds of “acceptable” societal standards.  “Are you kidding me?” you’re probably asking at this point.  Don’t you think Jesus’ first century hearers were asking the same question?  Jesus’ words compel his hearers to love their neighbor—ALL their neighbors—the ones they did not know, the ones they mistrusted, the ones who did not practice the faith, the Samaritans, the Babylonians, the Egyptians.  For us, the message is the same.  We are called to love our neighbors—ALL our neighbors—the ones we do not know, the ones we mistrust, the ones who do not practice our faith, the drunk driver who hit our mailbox, Al Qaeda, and those persons who, because of a misguided sense of who God is and what God is calling them to do, flew planes into the World Trade Center years ago and killed so many of our neighbors.  It is not easy.  I’m pretty clear Jesus never promised that it would be.

The Greek word teleios is often used for this type of faith.  It means to be “perfect”.  (That’s also a notion that we United Methodists hold so dear as we pursue that elusive Wesleyan notion of “going onto perfection”.)  It does not mean perfect the way we think.  It does not mean without blemish; it means a maturity such that one gets it, a desire to be what God calls us to be—something completely different than what is “acceptable” or even “normal” in our society.  Now don’t get me wrong, Scriptural words are nothing if they are not relevant for today’s hearers.  We are called to a faithful reading of them in light of our own experience, reason, and historical tradition.  We are not in this alone.  Our lives and our faith are shaped by the wisdom and influence of others.  But if we don’t at least try to get it, why are we here at all?

This passage tells us to do some of the most difficult things imaginable.  They are things that don’t make sense.  They are things that sometimes get people hurt.  They are things that sometime get people killed. (Hmmm!  You kind of have to think about that one, don’t you?)  The truth is that the Sermon on the Mount is nothing less than a radical call for resistance—peaceful, non-violent resistance against the ways of the world, against the powers that we have allowed to become “acceptable”, against those things that we have allowed to sneak into our very lives and move between who we are and who we really are.  If you want to put this passage into a nutshell, perhaps the writer’s words might say, “Grow up.  You are bigger than that.  God is bigger than that.  You are kingdom people.  Live like it.  Be perfect. (or, for goodness sakes, at least try!).” St. Augustine said to congregants while presiding at the Eucharist: “Receive who you are. Become what you’ve received.”    

  1. a.      What does this passage mean for you?
  2. b.      What is the hardest part of this passage for you?
  3. c.       Is this even reasonable in today’s time?
  4. d.      Is this even possible to do?
  5. e.       What gets in the way of us being “kingdom people”?

 Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 The noblest prayer is when [one] who prays is inwardly transformed into what [one] kneels before. (Anglus Silesius, 17th century)

To be an acorn is to have a taste for being an oak tree.  (Thomas Merton)

Peace does not come rolling in on the wheels of inevitability.  We can’t just wish for peace.  We are to will it, fight for it, suffer for it, demand it from our governments as if peace were God’s most cherished hope for humanity, as indeed it is.  (William Sloan Coffin, Credo, p. 93)

  

Closing

 The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class…Father, forgive.

The covetous desires of [humans] and nations to possess what is not their own…Father, forgive.

The greed which exploits the labors of [persons], and lays waste the earth…Father, forgive.

Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others…Father, forgive.

Our indifference to the plight of the homeless and the refugee…Father, forgive.

The lust which uses for ignoble ends the bodies of men and women…Father, forgive.

The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves, and not in God…Father, forgive.

 Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.

 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Amen..

                                    (The Prayer of Coventry Cathedral]

 

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