Holy Is as Holy Does

Sermon: Holy Is as Holy Does

Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,15-16; Matthew 5:43-48

Date: February 19, 2017

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

 

         Question: When was the last time you felt Holy?  One of the blogs I read regarding the Leviticus text asked that excellent question.   When is the last time you felt holy? Happy? Yes. Busy? Yes. Excited? Yes. Even deeply moved? Yes. But holy?”[1] The blogger pointed out that we tend to think of “holy” as something reserved for people like Mother Theresa or Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who spend their whole lives helping others. 

         So maybe asking when you last felt holy seems odd.  Is this next question easier?  When was the last time you felt “Holier Than Thou?” Probably the last time you watched the news and felt yourself getting tweaked over what was being affirmed or denied.  A ditty from my childhood comes to mind: “There ain’t no flies on us, there ain’t no flies on us.  There may be flies on the rest of you guys, but there ain’t no flies on us.”  That could be the “Holier Than Thou” theme song.  There’s an epidemic of “Holier Than Thou” going around, and we are not immune.  (Amen?)

           “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” Leviticus says.  Commandment received.  But we sense immediately that if in our zeal to be holy we become “holier than thou” we have failed somehow.  It’s a tricky business, being holy, aspiring to holiness.  Seems like trying to be holy can go off the rails in the blink of an eye. 

         Yet we can be holy, the way scripture lays it out.  In one important sense we ARE holy the minute we slide onto Planet Earth—because we are made in the image of God, whose nature is Holy.  There is holiness at the center of our being, a seed of holiness embedded in the flesh of our life like the pit of a cherry.  We ought never forget that kernel of holy at the core of our being and the core of every other human being. 

         We are holy, in that sense.  And we also aspire to be holy—“You shall be holy” implies the aspirational side.  There are similarities in the way Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God—it’s here now in our midst, and yet to come (yet to be made complete and fulfilled).  God’s holiness is complete (perfect); ours is a work in progress.  One of my commentaries notes that “God’s holiness acts both as a model and a motivating force in the development and maintenance of a holy character.”  Being made in the image of God is about moral possibility, moral potential as well as our essential beauty. 

         The good news is that occasions of moral possibility, of potential holiness, abound.  For instance: “Let’s say you have a leaky faucet, and you call a plumber to come and fix it. The plumber arrives, fixes your faucet, and gives you a bill. You gratefully write out a check and hand it to the plumber. Do you feel holy? Probably not. It would most likely surprise you to discover that this is exactly how this week’s [Scripture] evaluates your behavior in this situation.”[2]   You paid the laborer a just wage, not making them wait hungrily for what they earned.  That’s holy.  It’s in the several descriptions of holiness in Leviticus, a little piece of the Holiness Code in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

         If you donated food to the food bank in addition to acquiring your own groceries, that’s holy.  If you handed a dollar or a sandwich to someone on the street without checking their ID first to find out if there were here illegally, that’s holy.  Such simple acts fulfill the holiness commandments that have to do with providing for the poor and the alien among us.  OK, now when was the last time you felt holy?  See?  It’s not so impossible to be holy. 

The Holiness Code of the Old Testament covers a lot of ground.  The areas of life in which holiness is required include eating, sexual behavior, social ethics, worship, family relations, offerings, observing holy festivals, and land ownership.  There is moral possibility in the way we shape our lives in virtually every aspect of life.  The Leviticus text we heard today is the part that particularly applies to neighborliness.  Faith and ethics are not exactly the same thing, but they are intimately related.  “Faith must demonstrate its authenticity by the way it operates in the ordinary affairs of life.  The religious life of faith must have ethical outcomes if it makes a claim to authenticity.”[3]

This is, of course, Religion 101—it hardly bears repeating except for the pesky fact of hungry, homeless, sick, rejected and suffering people in the very midst of hundreds of millions of religious people.  So I guess we just have to keep reminding each other of our aspirations to holiness with regard to neighbors, brothers and sisters, fellow citizens, immigrants, the poor, the rich, the friend, the stranger. 

I want to tease out a couple of these verses of the holiness code that seem particularly timely, hopefully without downplaying the foundational importance of feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and protecting the vulnerable.  When I read this lectionary text in preparation for today, one verse I might have skipped lightly over in previous years was the second half of verse 11: “You shall not lie to one another.”  I expect we have all taken note of the chaos that ensues when a leader, in whom a great deal of trust is placed by design, lies with dazzling frequency.  There was a time when such masterful mendacity might have dissuaded religious people from voting for a candidate, but truthfulness seems suddenly to have been deemed less important than other values. 

Lest lying become so “normal” that we fail to notice it, a quick review on the perspective of the Abrahamic religions vis a vis lying.  Kimberly Winston wrote a helpful summary in an article on Religious News Service.[4]  I commend it to you; here are some excerpts.  Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, representing the Jewish tradition, says, “Words matter profoundly in a tradition that says God created the entire world through speech. We are told in Genesis Chapter 1 that we who are created in the divine image should strive to be divine in our use of speech. That means every word we utter should reflect our values, and one of the highest of those values is truth.” 

Theologian David Clouthier, articulating a Catholic Christian tradition, says, “[Lies] harm a person’s relationship to God, because God ‘is the truth and wills the truth.’ The catechism quotes Aquinas, who says that people ‘could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another.’ Lying fundamentally disrupts our relationships to one another in a society. Society would crash if we lost confidence in truth-telling.” 

Engy Abdelkader, a Muslim theologian, quotes the Quran: “Beware of lying! Verily, lying leads to wickedness and wickedness leads to the Fire.”  She goes on to say, “A lie places distance between the teller and God, disrupting the peace and the blessings promised by knowing God. But ask God for forgiveness — directly, as Islam has no intermediaries — and the relationship will be restored.” 

Protestant minister Rev. Paul Rauschenbush quotes Proverbs: “The Lord detests lying lips but he delights in people who are trustworthy.”  Rauschenbush says bluntly, to lie is sin. Lying flies in the face of our vocation as God’s witnesses.   “You have to name things what they are because that is what witnessing is. That is what it means to be a prophetic witness in the world — to name what is true.”  All the Abrahamic faiths make exceptions if telling a lie will prevent a great evil—like lying about whether Anne Frank is hiding in your attic during WWII.  But generally, I think you get the gist.  Lying usually does not lead to greater holiness.  Being holy as God is holy has to include a practice of truth-telling.  And, I think, a practice of truth-telling about the vital importance of telling the truth.

This leads me to another intriguing commandment in Leviticus 19, “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” [Lev. 19:17b]  The NIV translates this, “Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.”  A commandment to reprove and rebuke!  Now who’s feeling holy?  The point of this verse, of course, is not to license internet trolls, but to recognize that one person’s misbehavior can have serious consequences for the health of the whole community.  Lying, for example, weakens society by undermining confidence in truth-telling that is essential in neighborly relationships.  If you let lies go unchallenged in a “live and let live” sort of spirit, you do no favors for the mendacious person or for the community in which we all dwell.  This is why a holy person is sometimes called upon to reprove another person.  Peter Gomes recalls the covenant his local church used to recite monthly, which said, in part, “We will exercise a Christian care and watchfulness over each other, and faithfully warn, rebuke, and admonish our brethren as the case shall require…”[5]  This phrase amidst promises to walk together in brotherly love, praying for each other, sharing each other’s joys and sorrows, etc. 

Now here, it seems to me, there is a conundrum.  Holiness requires telling the truth, and perhaps reproving or rebuking those who lie with audacity, or those who tell lies that have very harmful consequences in society.  How does one pursue holiness along this vein without instantly going off the rails and landing in “Holier Than Thou” territory?  I’ve been seeing a ton of reproving and rebuking going on (and have participated in some of it)—but there’s no doubt in my mind that if such reproving just lets one revel in a sense of one’s own obvious moral superiority, it’s not quite Holy. 

Oh, it’s tricky business, this aspiration to holiness.  

How does one aspire to holiness without becoming “Holier Than Thou?” One key is, naturally, humility: we may be wrong.  Another key, even more important, I believe, is in what Jesus said in his hardest teaching: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” [Matthew 5:44] The purpose of reproving or rebuking a neighbor is not to defeat that person but to rehabilitate him or her, draw them into holy community.  Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about this principle brilliantly. 

“We must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win his friendship and understanding. At times we are able to humiliate our worst enemy. Inevitably, his weak moments come and we are able to thrust in his side the spear of defeat. But this we must not do. Every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate.”  King’s sermon turned then to a direct address to his opponents: “One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” [6]

         Love is the true North Star of Christian faith.  If one ever gets lost in the details of aspects of holiness, you can come back to love as the main guiding principle and read other commandments as details or specifics.  Pursuing holy ethics in unholy ways backfires.  Chris Stedman tells a story about a time in his life after he had ditched his Christian faith because his church rejected gay people, and he was feeling burned and hurt as a gay man.  He was in an angry phase, drinking a lot, carousing.  One night he and a friend—both drunk—came across a little church as they were reeling down the street.  The church sign had the church name and the sermon title—something about grace or forgiveness.  The sign had a glass cover, clouded with age.  Without a second’s thought, Chris kicked it in, breaking it into dozens of shards.  He writes, “Staring down at the broken glass splayed before my feet, I saw fragments of my face staring back at me.  I didn’t recognize my reflection.  I had once been kind and quiet, goofy and gentle—now my face was splintered, creased with anger and self-righteousness.”[7] The sight of his own splintered reflection was sobering.

         We need to be on guard, beloved.  Pursuit of personal holiness and communal righteousness is not only appropriate, but commanded.  “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  “Perfect” in that context means “whole,” or “mature.”  That is, Jesus says, keep growing toward holiness.  But don’t let a will for holiness be driven by hate or a desire to defeat one whom you perceive as an enemy.  Such a pursuit is a distortion of God’s purpose in us and for us.  If we see or hear ourselves acting badly even for the best of purposes, let it sober us and turn us back toward wholeness and maturity.

We must remember that God’s image is “ineffably etched in the being”[8] of the best and the worst of us, thanks be to God.  And “in the evening,” as St. John of the Cross said, “we will be judged by love.” 

 

 



[2] Ibid.

[3] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, p. 1132

[5] Gomes, Peter J. The Good Life: Truths that Last in Times of Need San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002, p. 144

[6] King Jr., Martin Luther, sermon titled “Loving Your Enemies” https://www.onfaith.co/onfaith/2015/01/19/martin-luther-king-jr-on-loving-your-enemies/35907

[7] Stedman, Chris Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious Boston: Beacon Press, 2012, p. 101

[8] Op cit, King, “Loving Your Enemies”

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