Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 33-37
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 2-19-2017)
As a boy, our church sang “Take time to be holy” with great gusto. Congregations that listen to Leviticus never sing that hymn, not because it is wrong, but because it is incomplete. Holiness, for Leviticus, is not something that occasionally we “take time to be”; holiness is what those created in the image of God do, every hour, every day. Why? Well, Leviticus answers that question sixteen times this one chapter alone. Why? Because “the Lord your God is holy.”
So, just what is holiness? It is not a measure of how often we say grace over a meal, but how often we act graciously toward others; not a measure of how many times we sit in church on Sunday, but how we stand for those who need us to raise our voice on their behalf every day. Holiness does mean “to be set apart,” “to be set apart” from petty pursuits that distract us from living into God’s grand vision. It must also mean “to be set apart for,” “to be set apart for” life lived on behalf of others, because our God is holy, so we are to be holy, every day, every hour.
While “Holy” is a frequent visitor to Leviticus, unfortunately, Leviticus is an infrequent visitor to Christian pulpits. Even when Leviticus does visit, it is often dismissed as being a part of the archaic and arcane Old Testament. Too many Christians believe with the heretic Marcius of the 2nd century that Jesus arrived to delete the first half of what we know as the Bible, especially to delete such ridiculous books as Leviticus. The only problem with that approach to reading the Bible is that one of Jesus’ favorite chapters in the Bible is Leviticus 19!
So, for better or for worse, Leviticus and his friend “Holy” are back today. I must confess that I have mixed emotions about her arrival, because I too am a bit uncomfortable with the whole notion of “Holy” and holiness. When I think of “Holy,” I picture people like Mother Teresa and Archbishop Desmund Tutu, people of extraordinary spiritual grace. Or, far less inspiring, I picture those folks who drive me crazy, the “holier than thou” crowd, always pretending to be more spiritually enlightened than the rest of us. Either way, “Holy” is a word I use sparingly and reluctantly and her arrival today gives me pause.
Fortunate for us, “Holy” is not waiting for an invitation, not hoping for a favorable public approval poll before she unpacks her bags and settles in to stay. “Holy” is not shy. She is no recluse. She lives not only in the homes of those with extraordinary moral character, but with anyone who is willing to let her in. Pay attention even a little and you will see how “Holy” really gets around.
My first memory of meeting “Holy” was as a young boy. I grew up in Newport News but my cousins grew up in rural Eastern North Carolina. In the late spring, my brother and I would often head to Mt. Olive to harvest everything from melons to cucumbers to tobacco. Early on, I was struck by how inefficient my uncle and cousins were in harvesting crops. Never shy to share my opinion, I remember asking one cousin why they did not go back through the field to collect all the melons missed the first time through. He looked at me with that “you city fool” look and said, “Ain’t you ever read your Bible, Gary? Those other melons are for folks who need to eat them more than we need to sell them.” He was, of course, citing Leviticus 19:9-10 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.” Who would ever think that my first encounter with “Holy” would come from a conversation with my filthy, from head to toe, cousin?
If you have been taught in church that the Bible is a spiritual book uninterested in such mundane earthly affairs, like economics, like picking melons and tobacco, like foreclosures and fair labor practices, like avoiding slander and libel, then your Bible teachers skipped much of the Bible, and certainly skipped the third book of Bible, Leviticus. Just read Leviticus 19:35-36: “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances. . . . I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus knows that we will never get our economics and public policy right until we get our theology right. We will never “be holy” if we treat neighbors – human or creation – as if they are something other than “Holy.” I love how Walter Kaiser defines “Holy” in Leviticus: “To be holy is to roll up one’s sleeves and to join in with whatever God is doing in the world. . . . In Leviticus, if you want to be holy, don’t pass out a tract; love your neighbor” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 2, 1136).
Leviticus invites any who would welcome “Holy” as the “Lord your God is holy” to hold a broad and generous notion of “neighbor.” Read Leviticus 19 alone and “Holy” resides in us when “neighbor” is more than the person living next door or the friend at school, “neighbor” includes the poor, immigrants, refugees, laborers, the deaf, the blind, and the good earth itself.
“Holy” is not here to help us care for those of similar advantage as ourselves; “Holy” is here to make sure that we care for those who are most disadvantaged. “Holy” lives wherever we make sure that the powerful cannot prey on the powerless and the vulnerable cannot be consumed by predators. I fear that much of the current political rhetoric around immigration, the environment, and public education has “Holy” ready to pack her bags.
Holiness is not about wearing haloes, but it is often about wearing the scars that result from listening to God and following Jesus and acting on behalf of our neighbors. As long as “Holy” is confined to church sanctuaries, she is really no bother and frankly, of little interest. When we walk out of the sanctuary with “Holy” into God’s beloved world, we often are met not with adulation but resistance and disdain.
The late, Appalachian preacher, Fred Craddock tells a story about holiness-resistance that he experienced in his first church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. When Oak Ridge itself was built, the little town was suddenly overrun by construction workers who lived in hurriedly assembled trailer parks.
Craddock writes, “After church one Sunday morning I asked the leaders to stay. I said to them, ‘Now we need to launch a calling campaign and an invitational campaign in all those trailer parks to invite those people to church’. ‘Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here’, one of them said. ‘They’re just here temporarily, just construction people. They’ll be leaving pretty soon’. ‘Well, we ought to invite them, make them feel at home’, I said. We argued about it, time ran out, and we said we’d vote next Sunday.
Next Sunday, we all sat down after the service. ‘I move’, said one of them, ‘I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county’. Someone else said, ‘I second that’. It passed. I voted against it, but they reminded me that I was just a kid preacher and I didn’t have a vote (Craddock Stories, p. 28).
Maybe Leviticus is such an infrequent visitor to the pulpit because “Holy” comes along too, more often than not, she is a trouble maker. The symbol of the Iona Community in Scotland, a community committed to revitalizing Christian worship and Christian life, is the wild goose, which is itself an image for the Holy Spirit. “Holy” does not calm the waters, but stirs them up when they are far too calm.
As a child of the 60s, God knows how many times I have listened to and sung Simon and Garfunkel’s, “The Sound of Silence.” The lyrics that will never shake free from my memory are “No one dare disturb the sound of silence.” “Holy” dares. “Holy” sings when others wish she would not. Maybe that is why she is here today and in pulpits across the land, across the globe. Maybe she is here to confront the deafening sound of silence?
“Holy” will not rub our backs and whisper soothing things to us while we refuse to speak on behalf of our neighbor, whether it is our neighbor being sent to substandard schools or living in substandard housing or having no housing at all, our pre-teen neighbors being sold into sexual slavery on the street corners of Atlanta and D.C., Chicago and L.A., our sea and sky neighbors being polluted by our waste and wasteful ways, our without proper paper neighbors being targeted and rounded-up, families and children alike. “Holy” will not condone our silence when hateful speech becomes the standard speech on the right and on the left.
William Sloane Coffin once said, “Christ came to take away our sins, not our minds.” To that saying, I would add “and not our voices.” Earlier this week, Polly sent me a church sign that she and Walter saw in their recent trip to Charleston, S.C. I am convinced it is a sign that was written by “Holy.” It reads:
BE THE CHURCH. Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.
At risk of editing “Holy,” I would change the last line to read:
Embrace diversity. Choose Welcome. Love God.
To live into that “Holy” sign means that we will do more than sit here on Sunday. We will also use our feet to march and our voices to shout and our emails to protest and to advocate on behalf of our gay neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, our river neighbors, our mountain neighbors, our people of color neighbors, our impoverished neighbors. We will dare to disturb the deafening sound of silence.
So, Cove friends, do not “take time to be holy.” Instead, make room for “Holy.” She has unpacked her bags and she is here to stay!