Sunday, October 23, 2011

Holy God!

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Leviticus is not a name that engenders much applause among forward-thinking Christians. The third book in the Bible, in some ways the crown jewel of the Torah, with its elaborations of the Ten Commandments, is one that a number of us find nauseating because it has been hurled so frequently as a weapon against sexual minorities. But there are some things that are not so rough in the Book of Leviticus—not so rough, that is, unless you are really ethically challenged. Leviticus sees a deep connection between the nature of God and profoundly ethical behavior. The headline of the whole work is, “BE HOLY, FOR I THE LORD YOUR GOD AM HOLY.”

More than any other word we could think of, “holiness” expresses what we mean by “the sacred.” It is not something that is owned by one religious tradition. In his book The Idea of the Holy, written many years ago, German theologian Rudolf Otto noted that holiness is peculiar to the sphere of all religion, and is only secondarily transferred to the sphere of ethics as well. It is the experience of the holy that blasts the neat categories of the rational and puts us in the terrain of the inexpressible. We have come to use the word “holy” to mean completely good. Well, that’s not quite accurate. The holy is the real innermost core of any religion. Only in relation to that core can actions and behavior be said to be “holy.”

It is important to get our minds straight on what the holy is, because frankly it is not on the list of the top things that most Americans want to be. Or think they are. But the truth of the matter is we are created to be holy. Or, to be more precise, we are created with the capacity of being Godlike, else it would make no sense for God to issue the command, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Sometimes I muse about where we human beings get that idea. Of course, the tradition is that God actually spoke in revealing terms laying the notion out plainly. And that may well be. But you have to allow for the possibility that God could speak on and on about holiness—or this, that, and the other—and it would all be for naught unless human beings had the capacity to hear it. And that is to say that we carry around with us the idea that it is possible to be different from what we would be if we were just left to our own devices and desires. Left in the wild, so to say, we would revert to basic mammal behavior, looking after ourselves, our young, and our own kind, with loyalties only to our den, our pride, our herd, our flock, our warren. Left to ourselves, we could quite easily behave more as reptilians than gods. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is perhaps still the classic narrative of what happens to a community of humans that, with all constraints of civilization removed, goes down into the sinkhole of savagery. Boys will not only be boys, but savage boys if left completely to themselves.

But let us not make the mistake of thinking that there is anything necessarily godly about civilization itself. We continue to make that mistake by thinking and believing that anything that controls human behavior, that produces ostensible progress, that shapes human community is necessarily a good thing. We ought to know better. Crowns and thrones perish, kingdoms rise and wane, civilizations come and go. And while all that is happening there is in the center of human experience an impulse to live differently. And while that impulse may not in every instance equate with the current of holiness that comes out of the nature of God, still that impulse keeps surfacing. We humans keep grasping every now and then the idea that we are being called from outside ourselves to live differently, to lay aside some of our most intuitive and automatic behaviors. And the Book of Leviticus testifies that that call is from nowhere other than Yahweh, God, Lord. Yahweh frees and also commands, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

The slice of Leviticus that we heard read today is not particularly hard to get a handle on. Indeed its ideas are very popular with many people, religious and non-religious. Don’t render an unjust judgment. Treat the poor and the rich alike. Do not go around slandering people. Do not hate your own kin. Reprove your neighbor, because you both are a part of the same community and what each of you does affects the other. Don’t be vengeful; don’t bear grudges. Love your neighbor as yourself. Who could take issue with those things? If this were all that is involved in being holy as the Lord God is holy, most of us would sign on without hesitation. We have Jesus to thank for teaching us that it is not so simple as that. Being right with God involves more than being ritually pure and legally flawless. And we have Paul to thank for hammering home the point that the essence of wholeness or salvation is not the keeping of a set of rules, no matter how sensible. We become holy by participating in the divine nature that Jesus embodies, and which through baptism and life in Christian community he shares with us.

And what is that divine nature, that holiness of God that God invites us into practicing and living? You won’t be surprised if I tell you that it cannot be neatly summed up, will you? No, it cannot be, precisely because the holiness of God stretches through all space and time and oozes as well into every cell of your body. We cannot cram it into the category of moral perfection, or even boil it down to right relationships, for holiness is like the source of all the energy in the universe, driving the entire cosmos. We cannot pick out a theme here or an idea there and say that we have laid hands firmly on what it means to be holy, because by its very nature, the holy eludes us. Nor can we reduce holiness to rational ideas or concepts, because what Otto called “the numinous” is trans-rational, mysterious, beyond our ability to describe and prescribe. If we had to choose some basic element by which to depict holiness, it would doubtless be the metaphor in which holiness most often appears in the Bible: fire. Like the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who saw the world itself as an everlasting ball of fire, the tradition sees the holiness of God as a consuming, purging flame, licking up everything opposed to the nature, truth, and faithfulness of God. So we may well scratch our heads and wonder what on earth or what for God’s sake does God mean by “Be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy.”

And yet, among all the ritual regulations and liturgical directions and sexual proscriptions in Leviticus, there is something that arises out of the Holiness Code that beckons us forward and upward in the progression from primal protoplasm to the God-nature shot through with glory. It is generosity. There is something about God that, when all is said and done, is exceedingly kind and generous. The fact that we would even be conscious of such a thing is itself a remarkable gift, for on our best days we realize that this life we are living can be so much better if we are not concerned only with our own safety and livelihood, but with the welfare of others, and that is a godly thing to think. “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; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien, for I the Lord am your God. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; I am the Lord.” That is not all there is to holiness, but that is a key aspect of it. God’s hand is generously open with every gift humanity could possibly want, let alone deserve. And our hands are to be no less open. For we are to be holy, as the Lord God is holy.

And that brings us to the stretch of weeks which we inaugurate today, a season you have become accustomed to if you have been in this or some other church for much time at all. For this is fall, and it is the time when we talk about money and the virtue of generosity and such things. I want to level with you. I do not mind talking about money (Jesus talked more about it than any other single subject). I do not mind asking you to give generously to St. Stephen’s, where we try our level best to do ministry that we perceive the Body of Christ cannot not do. But I mind very much wrapping an exhortation to give your dollars for ministry in some kind of religious sophistry that constantly edges away from the plain fact that ministry costs. The older I get the more I realize that the things that cost much are not necessarily the things that are worth much, but the things that are worth much frequently cost a great deal. The relationships in my life that make my heart sing require gentle tending and nurturing. The things that I do that make much difference in mine and others’ lives cost time and effort. And the causes and communities that actually help make the world a better place for all God’s creatures deserve as much money as I can possibly share. The practice of stewardship is about nothing else than practicing the virtue of generosity–not just in church and to church, but everywhere. It has to do with how you tip the wait staff and how you give your time and whether you listen to someone else’s story as well as to how you give to St. Stephen and the Incarnation. It has to do with the attitude we have—or don’t have—which cherishes our neighbors the way we cherish ourselves, or ought to cherish ourselves. Generosity is the spark of holiness that lights the way for us to live intentionally the life of the One who says, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

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