“I cannot WAIT to hear what the preacher is going to say about Leviticus!” said no one ever. The book’s Greek name alludes to the priests of the tribe of Levi. It concerns sacrificial offerings and ritual laws that the people of God were required to follow back in those times. At first glance, Leviticus is dry, and legislative, and cumbersome. It is one of those old books we prefer to keep on our back shelves: heavy, musty and untouched. With a sigh, we take it down, if pressed.
Is it possible this book might yet have something to offer us? We—in 2017—who are free from the drudgery of stringent laws and rules, rules, RULES about everything… Or, at least, that is the lens through which we might see the old ways. A burden. A chink in the metal of our shiny Christian freedom.
Would you be surprised to discover that, even in Leviticus, there is a love story? With due respect to the Greek translators, I believe “Leviticus” does not come close to the book’s soulful Hebrew name: (vie-yee-KRAH) “Wayyigra.” It means, “And He called.”
What we have here is not an imposition of laws for the sake of power by God inflicted on his humble followers. When we look closely, we can see the vibrant strokes of something entirely different: the story of a beautiful, mighty, sacred Being who longs for relationship with the ones He created out of dust and stars.
It is the story of a God who seeks out his people, calling them to Himself again and again, in every aspect of their lives.
In the Jewish tradition, these laws—these rules—were not practiced under resentful protest. They were understood as a way for the people to respond to God in gratitude, as faithful, obedient, and beloved.
Our reading begins by introducing the idea of holiness.
“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
We don’t really use that word anymore. When was the last time you met up at Bagel Basket with a friend, and the conversation suddenly turned to holiness? Is it still relevant for us today? We are children of the new covenant in Christ, far removed from the realm of burnt offerings, or the laws on proper hand washing techniques.
What does holiness mean, anyway?
We are all familiar with the religious person that emanates a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Let’s get THAT elephant out of the room. I’m fairly certain that none of us aspires to be that smiling, yet not-so-secretly condescending overachiever: You know—the one whose mission it is to be a role model for all the OTHER poor souls within and outside the church, bless their hearts.
Rest assured, this is NOT the definition the Bible is suggesting.
Holiness is about identity. “Be holy…for I the Lord your God am holy.” It is not something we put on and cast off as it suits us. It is a stirring, living energy—a way of being. In striving for holiness, we are our best selves, living in the image of our Creator.
The verses that follow teach us what, on a practical level, being holy means:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field…You shall not gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard, but leave them for the poor and alien.” In our abundance, may we be mindful of the less fortunate, and of the marginalized. A mindfulness that births generosity. Even, apparently, to the ‘alien.’
In this climate of growing nationalism, I admit that I am disheartened by the words and actions that are being paraded as patriotism. Even worse, mindsets that attempt to justify stinginess toward the marginalized as “Christian.” The rhetoric lacks a certain humility in understanding: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Further, our reading clearly teaches that our response, as people of God, to those on the fringes is to be inclusive.
We are asked to make space for these ‘others’: The foreigners. The refugees. The ones who don’t quite fit within the definitions of our norms; perhaps even, the illegals. I wonder.
Being holy also means being just. We are urged to act fairly. “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.” Integrity, justice, honesty. Even in a seemingly post-truth world; ESPECIALLY in a seemingly post-truth world. When it feels like the ones who we look to lead us cannot find their own way, may WE be the light for one another. We—all of us—who are the keepers of the truth are charged with holding the line. With saying “No” to false statements, to law bending to suit special interests, to alliances that do not serve the welfare of the people.
Sometimes holiness requires us to practice courage…and it’s OK if it does take practice.
Our reading continues: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone…but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And there it is. We began our reading of Leviticus with ‘holiness,’ and at the end we find ourselves poised at the edge of that boundless sea: Love.
But, this really isn’t a surprise, is it? In being mindful, in being truthful, in being just…we see the life-giving streams of love flowing. We are born of Love—made in the image of the Divine—and, if we open ourselves to Him, the streams flow through us, too.
I believe that holiness and love are hopelessly, passionately intertwined. These are two parts of the same whole: Like the heat and the radiance of the same sun. Holiness does not exist on its own, for its own sake; it compels us to reach out, to love.
In the gospel lesson, Jesus invites us to love with reckless abandon, reminding us that “God sends rain on both the righteous, and on the unrighteous.” That love, in its truest form, is unconditional.
Writer and pastor John Pavlovitz puts it another way: “Jesus prepared a meal for the multitudes to remind us that we feed people not because they deserve it, but because they are hungry.”
We are not asked to judge; we are called to be holy.
In Southern California, there is a nine year old girl named Khloe who would walk the same path to school day after day with her mom. And, day after day, she would see the many homeless people—mostly women—on the streets. They had nothing. This child’s sense of justice was stirred, and—moved with compassion—she decided that she could not walk those paths again, as if she had not seen.
Khloe began her own charity, called Khloe Kares. She had decided to give each of the women a sturdy bag that wouldn’t break—handmade, with the help of her great-grandmother. Khloe wanted them to have something special, something of their own. In each bag, she put toiletries—a toothbrush, a hair brush, hygiene products… And from then on, every time Khloe and her mom would walk those paths, the little girl would introduce herself to the women, tell them what was in the bags, and offer them.
One of the women, Khloe said, really moved her. The woman said to her, “You make me feel like a human being.”
Holiness in 2017.
The Epistle lesson tells us, “God’s temple is holy, and you ARE that temple.”
Paul continues: “All belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
You belong. WE belong. This is the love story.
May we be generous with the edges of our fields.
May we allow justice and love to be our defining virtues: For this is holiness.
May we hear the One who never stops seeking to gather us under His wings,
calling us, by name.
Video of Khloe Thompson’s ministry:
Khloe’s Thompson’s webpage: