Lev. 19: 1-18
A Time magazine article published on Friday, May 31, 1963, which stated that Karl Barth, theologian extraordinaire of the 20th Century “recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians ‘to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’”
That was great advice for 1963 with:
the election of George Wallace as Gov. of Alabama;
The U.S. embargo of Cuba;
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference kicks off the Birmingham Campaign and MLK writes his Letter for the Birmingham Jail;
Medgar Evers in murdered in Jackson, Miss.;
MLK delivers his I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; and
Nov. 22 John Kennedy was assassinated.
A great, rare, and a terrible year of upheaval.
And 40 years earlier when Barth first uttered his “newspaper and Bible” maxim, it was 1923. Another great, rare and terrible year of upheaval:
Vladimir Lenin suffered a stroke and threw the Soviet Government into chaos;
the bloody Irish Civil War ended;
a military coup in Bulgaria outs the prime minister who is then killed;
the Russian Civil War ends;
The Treaty of Lausanne settles the boundaries of the Republic of Turkey, bringing to an end the Ottoman Empire after 24 years.
Hyperinflation in Germany undermines security leading to young Adolph Hitler’s attempted overthrow of the Bavarian government; President Warren G. Harding dies of a heart attack and Calvin Coolidge is sworn in.[i]
And I’d say it is perfect advice for 54 years later in 2017. “Interpret newspapers from your Bible.” Understand the unfolding events of our culture and of our world with insight of and the values of our Bibles.
Last week we read from the Gospel of Matthew from the famous Sermon on the Mount and were reminded of the bedrock principles of Jesus, teaching us, Jesus’ followers specifically how to live.
This morning we hear from the source of many of Jesus’ foundational ideas, the Levitical ordering of Hebrew life, of Hebrew economic principles, and of the Divine desire for our blessed community. And we hear these foundational principles in the light of our unfolding cultural movements.
And if we are prone to believing that we have outgrown the early Hebrew teachings of Leviticus, we should remember that Jesus held them in very high regard. When someone asked Jesus to tell them the greatest commandment of all Scripture, he answered from Deuteronomy, “love God with all your heart and soul and strength,” and then, without missing a beat, he added this from Leviticus, “and love your neighbor as yourself.” So Jesus read Leviticus carefully. Shouldn’t we do so as well?
If we were to try to summarize the one major point of the book of Leviticus, it would be that it strives to teach us how human holiness is fashioned in the likeness of God’s holiness. It is a user’s manual about how to develop a holy individual life; and how a group of people, a congregation, can come to be a witness to the holiness of God.
Perhaps you aren’t even drawn to the idea of holiness. That would be understandable for in our culture, probably the first phrase that people think of when they hear “holy,” is “holier than thou.” Holiness has come to mean self-righteous to the extreme. But if we throw out this word, this pursuit of righteousness, Jesus would tell us we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
And if we listen carefully to the text, it isn’t even an option for us. Verse 2 reads, “2Speak 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.
Everyone is called to be holy. But let us realize this is not a demand that we become the world’s next Martin Luther King Jr. or the next Mother Teresa. Holiness is how a faithful one acts in everyday places, everyday activities, and everyday relationships.
As our Leviticus passage teaches us, you are holy when, harvesting your crop, you leave some of the grain along the edges of property unharvested, so that an immigrant and refugee Ruth, or someone like her, can glean the abundance of God and go to bed that night without hunger.
Holiness is not always about making grand sacrifices to God or risking your life to save another. Holiness is simply not telling a lie, even one that seems harmless.
Holiness is being a fair employer who pays employees on time.
Holiness is not making life more difficult for someone with a disability, or standing by unhelpfully when a neighbor needs your support.
Holiness is not gossiping, not slandering, not holding a grudge.
Holiness is just not saying “Oh God” frivolously as an exclamation unless you really mean that you want God’s attention in that moment.[ii]
As is often the case when sharing plans for each Sunday’s service, Mary Lu wondered what theme I was planning to preach on today in this Leviticus passage. She asked a keen question. She asked if I was going to focus more on the individual’s righteousness, or the community’s righteousness. I quickly replied that I was thinking more about the individual’s righteousness, but as is often the case, her question had me immediately recognizing how this scripture does apply so rigorously to communities, such as our church family, such as State of Texas, and such as our nation and its place in God’s world.
How is it that a whole community expresses the righteousness that God expects? How do we as a whole body, become holy, as God is holy? Intellectually answering that question isn’t that difficult.
First, we identify which core values God calls us to express and then we find ways at hand to express those values. Again, starting with our Leviticus passage this morning what shall we find?
Verses 9 and 10 teach us to provide from our own fields for the poor, the landless, or the refugee, to share of what we could legally claim as own, but because our desire to serve the needy in God’s name, we provide for their needs, instead.
Verse 18 “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Do you remember in Luke 10, then a lawyer testing Jesus, asks after Jesus lifts up this Leviticus passage, “And who is my neighbor?” That was Jesus’ introduction to the story of the Good Samaritan. “‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead….” You remember that concludes with Jesus asking the lawyer, 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”
To whom today will we show mercy? To whom today will our congregation reach out and snatch from destitution and near certain death? To whom will we show mercy in the midst of this new crackdown, with uneasy silences no longer being tenable, and tough choices being required of all of us.
New Austin Sheriff, Sally Hernandez, announced that “she would reduce her department’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities when they request an inmate be flagged for possible deportation.” Mayor Steve Adler and other city leaders are supporting the Sheriff’s stand.
But on the other hand, Gov. Abbott believes that supporting the federal crackdown is every local official’s duty and demanded Sheriff Hernandez reverse her policy or Austin would stand to lose normal state dollars. Gov. Abbott then proposed the removal of any officeholder who promotes” so called Sanctuary cities.[iii]
Please note that neither Hernandez, nor Adler, nor Abbott, nor any officials I’ve heard in these weeks has asked aloud, the question that should come to us, as the Christian community, seeking to be faithful. To whom will we show mercy? What does God’s love and concern for the refugee have to say about how we should respond to this matter?! What does your heart tell you that we – as a church following Jesus- should do?
Many of us are moved by the story the Gospel of Matthew tells us in chapter 25. The call to simple, daily, but oh so very challenging…. holiness is right here.
1 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger” [This, you will remember, is the title of Feliberto Pereira’s autobiography when he visited us 2 weeks ago]
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”
So, as we speak today, Christians are gathering in many different congregations around Austin, around Texas, all across this nation, in groups like our local Austin Sanctuary Network. A leading local congregation is St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Austin. Reverend Jim Rigby says the church has been helping a Guatemalan mother and her son avoid deportation for about a year.
“To me, it’s like one of those moments where if you don’t open your door, you’re not really a church,” Rigby says. “If you can’t recognize that that’s what Moses was, that that’s what Joseph and Mary were in the story. It’s like if you can’t find your place in history to do the right thing — because it’s not really about religion it’s about love and justice — so when these people show up at your door, if you can’t recognize that moment then I think there’s something really sad.”
Barth said it. “Interpret newspapers from your Bible.” Understand the unfolding events of our culture and of our world with insight of and the values of our Bibles.
This new reality is literally thrust upon each of us individually, and all of us together, as a congregation, following Jesus our Leader.
We must decide, individually and congregationally, how we will respond!
Standing on the sidelines as uninvolved spectators, as we learn in Matt. 25 lumps us with the unfaithful goats. That’s not where I want to be found. That’s not where I want to stand.
Where will you stand?
Where will we, together, stand?
[i] These elements lifted from the much longer lists in articles on “1963” and “1923” in Wikipedia.
[ii] This litany is largely drawn from an exegetical piece by Kimberly L. Clayton in Feasting on the Word relating this Lev. 19 passage. Westminster John Know Press, 2010.