A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
February 23, 2014
Leviticus 19:1-18; Matthew 5:38-48
There is something in us that does not want to be holy. We describe God as holy, and that’s perfectly fine. In fact, it is with great gusto that we sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.” That hymn is so well-loved, and is so central to our theology, it is the very first one in just about every hymn book in the land. But when it comes to describing ourselves, we think we’ll just leave the word holy at the door, thank you very much.
Holy is not a word we toss around very much in describing ourselves. We might not mind being told we are spiritual, but we’d probably prefer to be thought of as something a bit milder like thoughtful or reflective or sensitive or kind, especially when it comes to the way we express and live out our faith.
Yet, there it is, in our Hebrew passage for the day. And the words come from the mouth of God himself: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel,” the Lord says to Moses, “and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…”
Let’s ask for a show of hands. How many of you feel holy? That’s what I thought. It just isn’t in us to aspire to such a thing.
I have mentioned before that I have a friend in Georgia who, though he is a Christian minister, just loves the Hebrew scriptures… thinks they’re far more interesting than the New Testament. In fact, I once heard him give a lecture at a preaching consultation entitled, “Loving Leviticus.” I’ve seen him a few times since, and every time we talk I remind him of his lecture, and I tell him he has not quite yet converted me. It’s hard to love Leviticus, despite Jim Dant’s best efforts, and we can be grateful that in all the lectionary passages for the three-year cycle, this is the only one from Leviticus.
Still, it’s in the Bible, and if it’s in the Bible, we need to pay some attention to it, right? So what do we do with what God says, that we are to be holy as the Lord our God is holy?
Well, consider the context. The scriptures always have to be considered in context. It is possible to lift a verse or two out of the Bible and make it your own, not that you would choose this one from Leviticus probably. But if you do so without considering the context in which it is written, that verse, whatever it is – even John 3:16 – can become your own little pet. You stroke it and feed it, nurture it and take care of it, and in the process use it to support your view of just about anything. And when you do that, you have abused the scriptures… not that you would want to do that, but that is what happens. So do be careful in taking scripture out of context, especially when it comes from Leviticus.
The same is true of today’s gospel reading. The final verse of chapter five in Matthew says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So the word is perfect, not holy. But it’s kind of difficult to differentiate between the two, don’t you think? Moses is told to inform his people they are to be holy, and Jesus tells his followers to be perfect. In both passages, the context has to do with how God’s people are to relate to and treat others, especially those who do not have the advantages that have come our way.
Now let me ask you: considering all that has transpired since these words were recorded, in terms of how God’s people treat one another, how has that turned out? Can we honestly say that we treat others in a manner that would be described as holy?
Lillian Daniel provides an insight based on her own faith journey. She cites this passage from Leviticus, not the admonition to be holy, but the examples that are used to illustrate what is meant by it. “When you reap the harvest of your land,” the Israelites are told, “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.” Why are they told this? “You shall leave them for the poor and the alien,” says the Lord your God.
She says that her attitude toward money – and the context of her comments has to do with tithing – for many years was reflective of what she experienced growing up. Her parents fought about household expenses, “from groceries to car payments to my school supplies and clothes,” she says. “My father was basically unaware of what anything cost, yet now and then he would see a bill or a receipt and become irate.
“To avoid such scenes,” she continues, “I was taught never to tell my father what anything cost. If I had a new coat, I learned in my early childhood to say, ‘I’ve had it for years.’ When I needed movie money, he would give me enough for a ticket ten years ago, and my mother would surreptitiously slip the difference into my pocket on my way out. ‘Why can’t we tell Daddy what the movie really costs?’ I asked. ‘Why can’t we tell him I needed a new outfit for the dance?’
‘Shhh… it will only upset him.’
“From an early age,” she says, “material things elicited in me both inordinate delight and misplaced shame, perhaps because we did not tell the truth (emphasis mine).”
So she grew up equating money and material things with falsehood. But now, she says, it is time to tell the truth. And now that she has become a tither, she says that “with it came a spiritual peace that has shifted me away from the bad habits of my family and into the strange habits of the Old Testament.”1
Do not hear me saying that tithing will make you holy, if for no other reason than this isn’t a sermon about tithing. But telling the truth – better yet, living the truth – will start you on your way, not only to managing your resources more redemptively, but perhaps finding some figment of holiness along the way. And very often, the truth begins with how we treat others, especially those who have less than we do.
Some of you are in the habit of leaving the bulletin in the pew rack when worship is concluded. I know, it may seem strange to you, but I do notice such things. Let me encourage you to take it with you today and not leave it behind, if for no other reason than this… in the privacy and quiet of your own home, get out your Bible and read the passages from today… Leviticus 19 and Matthew 5. Even better, read the chapters and verses that precede them and follow them so you can be sure and appreciate the context of what is being said. Read the words slowly and carefully, and let them soak into your consciousness.
The words of Moses, as given to him by God, and the teachings of Jesus – and we can definitely argue that God gave these words to Jesus as well – have much in common. They have to do with how we treat and relate to others, a way of living that is based on telling and living out the truth. The context is not money, it is faithful living. It is, in the very best sense of the word, being holy.
In that passage from Leviticus, each commandment is followed by the words, “I am the Lord your God.” “You shall be holy,” Moses is told to say to his people, “for I the Lord your God am holy.” Living faithfully, living truthfully, is a reflection of the very nature of God, and when we do that, we are most like the One who has created and saved us.
Jesus carried that truth to the cross and embodied it in ways no other person has ever done. But before he did that, he brought it to the table. So come today to the table of our Lord and reflect on what it means to be holy, to be like Christ, to be like “the Lord your God.”
And don’t worry… you won’t be the only one there, for the One who embodied such holiness will be waiting for you, to take your hand and show you the way. And in doing so, maybe some of his holiness will be yours as well.
As we come to your table, Lord, we do so seeking to be more holy. When we eat the bread and drink from the cup, may the truth of your grace inspire us to live out a truth of our own. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Lillian Daniel, Feasting On the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), pp. 364-365.