Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 & Matthew 5:38-48.
The title of today’s sermon is “What’s It Mean to Be Holy?” But there seems to be, first, a more basic question: do we really mean or even want to be holy?
We may not be so bold to admit our ambivalence or confess our disinclination in church, but I think it’s the real question. Do you aspire to be holy?
We have good reason to be a bit wary of holiness. There’s that well-founded, sneaking fear that being “obviously religious” is risky. Scripture records a long, storied history behind such suspicion. Showing your peity in public (“showing off” would probably be more on target!)… showing out too much leaves an awful lot of room for hypocrisy.
You know, like when someone’s praying too loud or too long in a public place, especially outside the confines of a house of worship or a worship service. Or any of those other things Jesus kept harping at the Pharisees about.
On our side of the church aisle, holiness may have lost some of its luster and popularity for other reasons as well. When asked what it means to be religious, people around here speak of a variety of hopes– about being welcoming, caring, non-judgmental, forgiving and forgiven, peacemakers, workers for justice. But “holy” certainly doesn’t just trip off the tongue as one of the first items most of us list among the goals of our religious life.
That could be, in part, because we’re too assimilated into the secular world around us, and a bit shy about, not to mention ashamed, of our faith. …Not wanting to be seen, or to appear different, to stand out. We figure if we’re saved by faith, not works, anyway, can’t we just live like everyone else, but believe in God.
We’re not comfortable with appearing all that different, stand-offish, self-righteous. Perhaps “holiness” is not just out-of-fashion, but old-fashioned– like one of those names the Pilgrims gave their girl babies, but one never hears of anymore.
Back in the day, in earlier, less scientific, more believing times, particularly when or where “the fear of God” packed more punch (you remember “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”)… when believers’ world views and lives were more organized around taboos– trespasses forbidden by God and clearly demarcated by powerful social custom— it wasn’t uncommon for religious people, almost by definition, to be distinguished by their longing or pursuit of holiness. They desired and aimed to be, and to be seen as godly. They didn’t mind being different, even segregated. The difference then between believer and everyone else was not only that which constituted their religiousness, but also their group identity, their community.
The Israelites understood themselves chosen, called out of slavery, put through the tests of the wilderness and delivered into the promised land in order that they might live differently, according to the Law. Their lives were structured by taboos, that while not all rational, still together defined, segregated, set apart the chosen for God’s purpose and service. In Jesus’ time, an observant Jew could not even eat at the same table with a Gentile. This separation was seen as constituting the people’s closeness to God.
Maybe because I lived in NY so long, but Hasidic Jews pop out as modern examples of the holiness ghetto. Hasidim in Hebrew means “holy ones.” Rejecting, in obvious ways, aspects or mores of modern life the rest of us accept unquestioningly, even celebrate thankfully, the Hasidim stand apart. They follow their own rituals and social customs. Maintain a separate language. Function within a defiant subculture that stands up over against all the reach and consumer power of the dominant culture.
Holiness traditions are also found in Christianity too. It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest, Jesus was calling his followers to a deeper holiness. Our contemporary example, I suppose, are the Amish. But the same impulse drove the Pilgrims to Holland and to New England. The Huttites to Canada. And the Mormons to Utah. Well, that impulse and the religious intolerance of their neighbors who didn’t appreciate their differentness.
One of the reasons holiness feels foreign to us, I think, is that it often packs a strong critique of the society in which its bearers find themselves. Our current faith seems a bit more complimentary, rather than adversarial, when it comes to the status quo and the world we’re comfortable in and privileged by.
Holiness traditions are often based on a cosmology that is equally foreign to us. A dualistic world view that mainline Christians, for the most part, no longer share. The drive for holiness is often about creating sacred space in an otherwise overwhelmingly profane world. Carving out a space that is free from the toxins and temptations that mar the world. Drawing a clear line between what is good and evil, brings life or death, what is prohibited and what is allowed.
It’s this sequestering, roping off and keeping at bay the world’s evils, erecting some sort of sacred tent, withdrawing into a sanctuary, trying to insulate ourselves from a threatening world and all its people that is foreign to us. Our religious tradition no longer depicts the world around us or its people as first and foremost dangerous, impure, sinful, contagious.
Our theology, while not denying the presence and effects of evil, refuses to either concentrate or localize it in certain places or specific people. We acknowledge that there is brutality and injustice and selfishness and violence to be contended with. It’s all part of, the underside of life and an aspect of human existence.
But we resist positing all those negative in specific totems– our enemies, those who are sick, sinners or their sins, other religions, people who are different. I guess, hopefully, one can explain our position as “We’ve met and recognize the enemy, and he or she is us.” We know well the evils of our world… know them well enough to recognize they are with us too, part of our make-up, found right here.
Our faith then, rather than directing us to create a safe bubble where we can live free of the world’s pollution, is about identifying and appreciating how the whole world and each of us are both sacred and profane. How we find God and the good right alongside, tooth to jowl with that which is evil and brings death.
Instead of gathering us in for protection, our faith is more oriented towards sending us out for service. Instead of trying to create some holy, safe ghetto, a sanctuary from the big, bad world, where we can effectively segregate and insulate ourselves from evil, temptation and harm, our faith exhorts us to differentiate between the good and evil that are omnipresent, and then sends us out into the big, mixed up world to be agents of good, instruments of peace, co-creators of the Kingdom.
Do we really want to be holy? Maybe not in the sense of withdrawn from the world. Not in the sense of ancient sacred rituals and solemn assemblies that even God admits to detesting in the Book of Amos.
Our faith doesn’t ask us to dress differently. Or cut ourselves off, refrain from brushing up against or sitting down to eat with tax collectors and sinners. Our holiness code is no call to liven in some figuratively or literally gated community.
But our faith should make a difference. Still calls us to a different kind of life. Asks us to be different.
As described in both Leviticus and Matthew today, we are called to a different Way.
Aren’t we to claim can identity that comes from God and calls us to new life? Aren’t we to recognize God’s claim on us? How it not only makes us a community, but also makes concern for others sacred as opposed to all the profane, more mundane, narrower individual concerns we bear.
What does it mean to be holy? It’s not to withdraw in fear or for some imaginary purity. Rather, it’s finding a deeper, more radical way to live in this world. Holiness is the transformation that comes of that kind of living.
Our covenant with God doesn’t provide much protection from a dog eat dog world. It doesn’t promise some narrowly defined order out of the unending chaos all around us.
Instead, it aims higher and wider– empowering us to create a new kind of community, to begin right here, right now, with a process of transformation that changes us and how we relate to one another first and doesn’t stop until it effectively transforms the whole world.
Beloved, holiness is to begin living, fully — completely, into a new world, one beyond all the divisions and fractures that characterize the old one. It’s a new order. Not simply about making the weak strong and the strong weak. Instead, a faith, an experience that touches, transforms and redeems everyone. A new community wherein all are saved. Where there’s room for all. A table that seats us all. A place for every last one.
Holiness isn’t any pietistic way of living. Not saying required prayers. Or studiously memorizing Bible verses like magical incantations. It’s not holding on or dropping out until Jesus comes back. Or separating ourselves into some righteous aloofness, pure and disconnected until the end of time.
No, holiness in our tradition is faith in action. Rolling up one’s sleeves. Wading right into the muck of our world. A way to begin really living right now. That not only to make one’s own life more abundant, but for making the whole world a more blessed place.
Holiness isn’t going to the right church for exactly one hour or all day on Sunday. It’s not getting baptized the right way– baby or believer, dunked or sprinkled. It’s not the right understanding of communion. Or reciting what someone else says it the true creed.
Instead, it’s the complicated and confusing living of our whole lives on mixed up Sunday mornings and the rest of the week which are no more clear. As I said in last week’s sermon, “in all of our gray areas.” We see through a glass darkly. But we can strive, nonetheless, for lives of hearing, believing, incarnating, sharing the good news as suggested in both our readings today:
Make sure there is food left over, set aside, dedicated, so the hungry can also eat.
Recognize the limits of private property.
Be honest with everyone, starting with yourself.
Treat others, no matter who, as your neighbor.
Refuse taking advantage for your own gain.
Make accommodations for others’ limitations.
Never think yourself “better than,” or even in any position to judge.
Beloved, none of this is easy. It’s foreign to us, a different way of relating to the world and other people, especially in their shortcomings.
Don’t let evil and scarcity and fear set your agenda. Or determine how you carry yourself.
Don’t insulate yourself. Or even protect yourself. Jesus says it’s better to be hurt than cut off.
It’s better to go out of your way.
Better to give up what’s yours.
Better to be hurt again.
Rather than let the ways of this world, or the limitations of others define, constrain who you are or how you will live.
Beloved, our calling is bigger. To be bigger than ourselves.
Our calling is deeper. To be deeply loving like God.
Our calling is more thorough. To be more thoroughly changed that we might in turn change more.
Because, Jesus says, this is how we become more mature, how we become more complete ourselves and serve our part to complete the world as God means it to be.
Loving completely is to have less concern for yourself. To be more self-giving. To become more whole and to make our world more holy. Amen.