Pick up a newspaper, watch the news, pull up a podcast, or read someone’s feed on Facebook or Instagram and you will see life is a mess right now. Whether it is on a national, local or personal level, or whether it is politics or religion. What are we to do? How can anything beautiful, good or true come from such a mess?
The words of Leviticus 19 help us step into the answer. Yes, Leviticus 19. It’s not the first place I would have looked either. It’s not the only place to find our answers. I don’t know that I have ever heard a sermon based on this book of Old Testament law, codes, rules and regulations. Perhaps that is why it is so powerful. Perhaps the strength of what it offers is in the fact we don’t expect to find much there. Perhaps that is why it can take something so messy and create, discover, build and imagine something beautiful.
From the perspective of a modern or postmodern reader, Leviticus appears to be the least useful book of the Bible. However, here is something that could cause us to rethink all that: In the New Testament, Leviticus is quoted several times, including by Jesus himself. When Jesus was asked about which commandment was the greatest, he answered by citing two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That second one, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a direct quote from Leviticus 19 (our text for today), and Jesus said that “Upon these two commandments hang ALL the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures” (Matt. 22:40). The apostle Paul also quotes that verse from Leviticus in his letters to the Romans (13:9) and to the Galatians (5:14). What’s more, the New Testament book of James, which almost everybody agrees is a helpful and important book, actually seems to be a sermon based on Leviticus 19:12-18.
Given all that New Testament attention to Leviticus, perhaps we should take another look at this book, especially chapter 19. People of God, hear these words again - Lev. 19:1-2 and 18. In it, we are taught the whole great big mess of life in community comes down to and can be cleaned up in two verses. All you have to do? Be holy and love your neighbor.
Easier said than done right? Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe, we as humans simply makes things much harder than they need to be. One of the first questions we ask is “How?” How do we demonstrate a holy life? How do we love our neighbor? Wait, no that’s not right. No, the first question we need to ask is what every two and three year old knows to ask, “why?” Why live a holy life? Why love my neighbor, especially that one?
Answer? “Be holy God says, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” I am going to tell you something that will serve you well if you don’t already know it. Remember when you would question your mom, dad, or maybe your grandparents? More often than not, what would they eventually say to you? “Because I said so, that’s why!” The phrase “I, the Lord your God, am holy” is the the divine “because I said so”.
If you think about it, yes maybe from our parents it was sometimes said in frustration but if you could hear behind their words and into the depth of their voice, they were really saying, “because I love you.” It is easier to say, “because I said so” but there is much more to it. So it is with God. “Be holy.” Why? Because I said so - because I love you far more than you can possibly imagine. I want to provide for you, sustain you and bring you into completion. I want to be in relationship with you. I love you.
That is why.
The trouble with being holy, is that is cannot be rolled up into a single activity or be reduced to a way of dressing or expressed solely by carrying a Bible everywhere. Church attendance by itself doesn’t count. Knowing the Lord’s Prayer, Apostles Creed, or the 10 Commandments in and of itself doesn’t cover it. Rather, the presence of God - the very imprint of God among us is expressed in our daily practices and acts of thoughtfulness, kindness, justice, mercy, compassion, generosity, and wait for it...love. Those are the expressions of God’s holiness in the world. Whether that world is right here in Franklin, the bank down the street, the drop off line at school, the doctor’s office, in your own house, or across to the nation's capital and around the world. That is the loving your neighbor part.
Behind the archaic sacrificial instructions found in Leviticus, the outdated rituals and complex dietary restrictions that are unnecessary for contemporary Christian living is this rock-solid truth: we are to be a holy people because the God who created, designed and loves us, is holy. We are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. EVERYTHING else, Jesus said, hangs on those two: love God, love neighbor. In doing so, we come to recognize, it is not about us - what we want, what we like, what we can or cannot accept, what makes us comfortable, what makes us feel popular or in control. It is not about being right, having more experience or authority.
The times and culture may have changed but the essence and truth of God’s message has not. It was and is and forever will be about our lives being an expression of a holy God who so loved the world that he gave everything to us out of a desire to make something beautiful, good and true. That “something” begins in and comes to life by living in community WITH others; alongside and accompanying ALL people on this crazy train called life and faith.
The bottom line dear people of God, is and always has been this: whatever mess we find ourselves in in this life - in this world, in the church, in our families, with friends, with strangers, and with those who think, act, live, choose, and believe differently, the only way through is to recognize it is about love and relationships. God’s love expressed in our connection to people and them to us. It’s called community and we need to be about loving and relating to people, all people. Not because we agree with them, or we like them, or they us. Not because we fully understand them, but because being in relationship, being connected to others is what it means to experience the completeness and perfection of God.
May we all do our part to make it so. Amen.
Pastor Jenothy Irvine