Sermon: “Being Holy”
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA
13th Sunday after Pentecost: September 7, 2014.
Please join me in prayer…
Lord, let it be your voice that speaks through my mouth, and let our hearts be open and receptive to the Word you have for us here, today. Amen.
One afternoon, a few years ago, a good friend of mine was crossing the street on a marked crosswalk at a stoplight, when a well-dressed man in his brand new white Cadillac SUV zoomed through the red light without stopping as he made a right hand turn. He hit my friend, knocking him to the ground and leaving him dazed. The driver stopped, rolled down his window, cussed my friend out for getting in the way, and roared off, never to be seen again.
We could use this incident to launch into a discussion about social justice, highlighting how those with power and position are often arrogant and believe their position entitles them to special privileges and consideration. We could then contrast this with my friend’s situation: a man of great talent and a good heart, but who, through no fault of his own, has long lived in the margins of our economy. Then asking whether he is any less deserving of consideration or respect than the driver?
But Jesus teaches us to be more concerned with our own hearts than with the hearts of others, even the hearts of those who seem to be self centered, wealthy and reeking of a sense of entitlement. So let’s look instead at how this situation is illuminated by this morning’s readings.
Leviticus 19 is the source for the “Second Great Commandment” that we read in Matthew this morning: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” he focus of Leviticus 19 is found in the second half of the opening line: “You shall be Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy.” Our reading from Romans begins similarly, with the words “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God…”
“Being Holy” is the goal of both Romans and Leviticus; but what is “Holiness”? We often think of it as a state of spiritual perfection that only a few super-heroes of faith (such as Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Pope Francis, or the Dalai Lama) achieve. But, they would all tell you that they are not any more holy than you or me.
Before telling us to be holy, our reading from Leviticus begins with the words “Speak to all the congregation.…” So, Holiness is meant for everyone – we are all meant to seek it, and doing so is not optional, because we are then told “you shall be Holy.”
I see this as meaning that being “Holy” cannot be some hugely difficult and rigorous undertaking – we all can do it, and we all shall.
In both of these passages, it strikes me that “Being Holy” is a simple list of desirable behaviors: not bearing a grudge; not being partial to the poor or deferring to the great; not repaying evil for evil; living in harmony with one another.
These are not goals, and (for the most part) there are no threats of dire consequences for violating them. Rather, they are things to be done on an ongoing basis. Both passages tell us that “Being Holy” is encountered in the ongoing daily practice of our faith. It is action, not a static state. It is an attitude, a way of looking at the world, and a way of living one’s life.
Holiness builds a foundation for deciding what we shall choose to do when challenged or faced with uncertainty. Holiness is the process of learning how to walk more closely with God – a process that continues throughout our lives – and which we cannot complete in life. It is the process of learning how to love our neighbor as ourselves. We can’t just get to holiness and then stop and rest on our laurels. You don’t become Holy, you shall be holy.
Another implication of the phrase “speak to all the congregation” is that being holy is a communal process. The text tells us to speak to the community in its entirety – not to all of its parts individually. It also uses the word “congregation” – a community of faith – rather than using a more generic term like “the people.” It is telling us that we cannot be holy as individuals, or in isolation, or as part of a random assembly of people, but only within a community of faith.
This is a natural outcome of our belief that – through the Holy Spirit – God is already within each and every one of us. Because, if that is true, then our community and relationships with each other are a means of sharing the Holy Spirit with each other. The Holy Spirit binds us together and makes us one. Being holy is the act of sharing the Holy Spirit.
So, those who claim they are persons of faith, but who refuse to practice a communal faith, are dismissing a critical aspect of faith; because faith is built and strengthened through our relationships with others. Unless this happens, we cannot achieve the fullness and purity of faith that we seek.
All of this also means that we are not defined or known by the sense of a separate and unique self that we all carry within us. Rather, our identity, and sense of who we, are relies upon our relationships with others. I am who I am because of who we are, together. There cannot be a “me” without an “us.” In fact, there cannot be a God without an “us.” Be Holy, for I am Holy.
We are individuals, but individuals embedded within, and part of, the society around us. An individual divorced from their society, who has no relationships with others, is a person without direction, meaning or purpose. Who will care, or even know, anything about us, if we don’t participate in life with those around us? We exist, and have meaningful and fruitful lives, because we have a community to embrace us.
Sadly, our Cadillac driver showed no compassion and no willingness to make room for another’s pain. No hint of any feeling of responsibility or remorse for his own actions. It seems that all that mattered to him was him.
He saw my friend as an inconvenience, an impediment to be overcome; an obstacle to be treated with contempt, then dismissed. I suspect the driver immediately forgot about him, and hasn’t thought about the incident since then – unless he found a dent in his bumper. He does not seem to accept that to be fully human means including my friend as part of the family of God to which we all belong. This is what “being holy” means.
So, in hearing my friend’s story. Yes, I am appalled at how he was treated, and angry that the culprit escaped responsibility for his actions. But I am also saddened for that man. He did not demonstrate holiness, did seem to comprehend that every human being is a child of God, just as loved, and just as Holy, as he is.
His actions speak of the larger obstacle that all of us face: our tendency to place barriers between us and our fellow human beings; inhibiting the flow of love and compassion that God has for each and every one of us. We see such walls as helpful, separating us from those who are different or inconvenient or scary. But sadly, such barriers only isolate us from those who are a part of us. Walls only separate us from ourselves, and from God. This is not what “being holy” is about.
Holiness is the discipline of practicing our humanity: fully identifying and walking with our fellow human beings, every minute of every day. Holiness provides a path for God to infuse us with Love. It is a process rooted in Jesus’ ministry of walking with us as a fully human being – experiencing all of the same challenges, joys, hopes, disappointments, victories and losses that we all encounter every day.
All of this is summarized in our reading of the first and second great commandments in Matthew 22. The first, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Is a call for us to enter into full relationship with God.
But the second great commandment “You shall Love your neighbor as yourself” sums up what is being said in Leviticus 19 and Romans 12: it tells us how to develop that relationship with God. You can’t make a goal of loving your neighbor. There’s no goal at all – just a journey – with them, and by doing so, we walk with God, too. This is being Holy.
So, where does that leave our driver. If we had been in the spot my friend was in, what would we do? Would loving him mean blessing his taillights as he raced off?
Leviticus says “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” “To reprove” means “to rebuke” or “to challenge.” Love isn’t for wimps. Love doesn’t mean letting people walk all over you. It does mean making room for them, but always remembering that neither their truth nor your truth, are ever the truth. The truth is always elsewhere – being Holy is a lifelong search for the truth, but that truth isn’t a goal. The truth is in the journey. Being holy requires making room for each others’ truth, and placing others’ needs before your own. Those who rebuke us saying something like “I must tell you the truth in love.” Are not walking in holiness, because they are assuming that their truth is the truth, and are demanding that it be your truth as well. This is never the case, because only God has the truth; and God refuses to judge.
So, when it comes to our self centered driver: Leviticus and Romans and Matthew all agree: we are not to repay his evil with more evil, instead, we are to overcome that evil with good. We are called to love him as we love ourselves.
Being Holy is not a goal, but a process, founded upon the unconditional and undying love we share with each other and with God. Being Holy is a gift freely given to all of us, together. It is not a prize for good behavior presented only to a select few.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)