A Sermon preached on Sunday, February 23 at St. Augustine’s, Wesbaden
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany: Psalm 119:33-40, Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
“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.” (Lev.19:1-2) So, if that is the Lord’s command - what does it mean to be holy? And are we really all supposed to be holy? And what does the word holy mean at all? According to the dictionary definition it can mean ‘set apart, separate or other,’ it is a word for something or someone dedicated to God. Something holy is something that has been blest and being holy can mean living according to strict moral or ethical principles – so we have quite a few possibilities.
The latter definition, living a life according to God’s moral or ethical principles, is certainly the focus of the passage from Leviticus we heard from this morning. Being holy is all about our behavior, about how we interact with one another, and in particular about how we treat those in need. That is the focus of the very first example, the command to leave some of the harvest behind for the poor and the alien. We encounter this custom elsewhere in the Bible in the story of Ruth: she, a foreigner and her mother-in-law Naomi, a widow, only survive by being allowed to glean in the fields of Boaz, the man she later marries. Leaving part of the harvest behind in the field was not a custom unique to Israel, but other peoples and tribes left it behind, not for those in need, but for their gods. That the gift for the gods became a gift for the poor and the alien is a lovely practical illustration of what I said last week, that we cannot love God if we do not love the other. How might you apply this command to your work today? What would it mean, metaphorically, to not reap to the very edges and to not strip every vine, bush, or tree? Not profit maximization at any cost, that’s for sure!
And what about the other principles? I don’t think any of them are surprising: be truthful and honest, be just and charitable, do not take advantage of those who dependent on you, over whom you have power. The commands not to hate, take vengeance, or bear a grudge are also reminders that, as I also said last week, it is not enough to just keep to a rule, our intentions and our feelings matter to. The passage culminates in the command that we know from Jesus’ summary of all the law and the prophets: Love your neighbor as yourself – sometimes described as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
But being holy is more than keeping to a set of rules, however sensible they may be, and even if Jesus just seems to be giving us a set of rules of his own. If we look at his examples in Matthew’s Gospel – turning the other cheek, handing over your last piece of clothing, going the extra mile, loving your enemy – we see that they are not only more extreme and difficult to keep, but are also from a different perspective. While the commands in Leviticus are addressed to those in positions of wealth and power – the owner of the field or vineyard, the employer, the able-bodied – most of Jesus’ examples are addressed to those in positions of weakness. You only hit someone inferior, a slave, child, or woman, on the right cheek. Someone rich is suing you for what little you possess, your clothing. And only Roman soldiers, the occupying forces, were allowed by law to force civilians to carry their equipment for one mile.
What is interesting about how Jesus calls on us to react in these – symbolic – examples is how those who, in the eyes of the world, are powerless, act as if they were strong and powerful. Offering the left cheek says: hit me if you must, but do so as an equal. Giving the person you can’t win against in court more than he asks for, and more than he is allowed to take, is a way of shaming him, of showing that he is not keeping God’s commands. And carrying the soldier’s equipment for a second mile, for more than Roman law mandated, is also a way of turning the tables and taking power. The second mile is then my choice, my free offering, not something I am being forced to do.
Finally, if we are prepared to love our enemies, so not just our kin and those like us, and even to pray for those who persecute us, which does not mean a prayer for them to drop dead by the way, then we are taking responsibility for them, we are saying that we have a positive power over them. What these examples say in fact is that we are never really powerless if we trust in God and in God’s power to transform people and situations.
That transformation can of course come at a cost. Let us not forget that the acts that Jesus describes were not just symbolic for him. As we will hear again on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday Jesus will be flogged and struck on the head by the soldiers before his crucifixion, he will have to walk more than a mile carrying his cross, the soldiers crucifying him take all his clothes away, and, in Luke’s version, one of the last things that Jesus will say before his death, is to ask God’s forgiveness for those who are killing him. Jesus lets this happen to demonstrate God’s power over life and death. Because it is only when we have confidence in God’s power in and over our lives that we will be willing to risk beginning the process of transformation Jesus invites us all to be part of.
When Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48) this is not so much a command as an invitation to conform not just to the very best human ideal but to a divine one. The word translated as perfection, telios, really means more complete or whole. It is an end-goal that we can only reach after completing a process of transformation. It is this process of becoming holy or whole that enables us to love both our neighbor and our enemy. As John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, describes it, “Holiness is not a bare external religion, a round of outward duties. Gospel holiness is no less than the image of God stamped upon the heart.” Good Christian behavior is not the cause, but the result of becoming holy, of allowing ourselves to be transformed into the image of Christ, who is the image of God. What it takes is a choice, a personal choice to be dedicated or set apart to serve the living God both wholeheartedly and single-mindedly. In Paul’s words it is about us placing our whole lives on just one foundation, Jesus Christ.
Later in the service I am going to commission the vestry and officers on your and God’s behalf. This does not make them particularly holy – sorry guys. I doubt if they are blameless or all already capable of living according to strict moral or ethical principles, because none of us are! What it does mean is that they have agreed to be set apart for this ministry and to dedicate themselves to the service of God and God’s people in this place – I hope you knew that was what you were doing! Of course we don’t really need a separate commissioning service for any lay ministry, as we have all been set apart and dedicated to God and God’s service at our Baptism.
So the good news is that regardless of whether we are powerful or powerless by the world’s standards, we can all still be holy. What counts is God’s power, not ours. What we have to do is to accept Christ’s invitation to be transformed from within. What we have to do is to declare our trust in the one we worship. What we have to do is to accept the challenge to be shaped by faith. What we have to do is to desire to do God’s will. What we have to do is to follow the example of the one we follow and through whom we know God, Jesus Christ. Then all of us, whether in positions of power and privilege or weakness, can, in Wesley’s words, reflect outwardly the image of God stamped in our hearts and reflect God’s extraordinary love into a world that needs it so badly. Amen