February 18, 2017

Just A Little Pressure…


Texts: Leviticus 19:2: “Speak 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.”

1 Corinthians 3:17b: “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that Temple.”

I feel just a little put upon by the readings this morning. I wonder whether you do, too. There is a high expectation placed on us. There are qualities ascribed to us without our consent, qualities that we are expected to live up to. Things are being said about us that we may not like.

The readings we have today span about six hundred years of history in the scriptural record. We have a set of instructions from the Bible’s first lawbook, the book of Leviticus. Scholars think Leviticus was probably written after Israel returned home after an exile in Babylon; it was a way of restoring and restating the identity of what it meant to be a nation chosen for a unique relationship with God.  And we have a text written by Saint Paul decades after the events of Easter morning.

At least six hundred years of history happen between these two writings. But both of them share this basic thought about us: There is something about us, something true by virtue of our relationship with God, that we don’t get to have veto power over. It’s true whether we want it to be true or not.

And this is what it is: We are holy. Yes, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, we are holy.

We are holy despite the things we say to other drivers when we are sure they can’t hear us.

We are holy even though we can point to at least a half-a-dozen things we might have done more generously, or said more kindly, or thought more charitably, in just the past week.

We are holy even though we have a hard time saying all the words in the creed and sometimes aren’t even so sure about the Book of Common Prayer.

We, fellow-ministers, all of you, and me, too, we’re told today in ways we don’t get to disagree with that we are holy.

It’s a good moment to stop here for just a moment and ask yourself: If you really took this fully on board, if you actually found yourself accepting the notion that you are in the world as a holy person, would you be doing everything you are doing right now? Would it maybe cause you to look a little harder at some of the things you do, or say, or at least hope no one else notices?

From the outside, all of us seem to be pretty decent people. We are generally peaceful, pleasant, well-mannered folks. We treat each other well; we say mostly nice things about each other.

But this idea of holiness goes much deeper than that. It goes much deeper than the surface of our lives. Holiness is a faith idea closely tied to another idea that lives somewhere on the border between concept and emotion—and that idea is purity.

For the people of ancient Israel, a great deal of the expectation to live as holy people was caught up in the effort to live pure lives. And that meant that a great deal of time and effort—and meaning—was invested in figuring out what was clean and what was not, and how to get pure again if somehow your purity got spoiled.

So if we take on the idea that we are holy people, somehow it means taking on the idea that we are pure people. And again, there’s a good reason to stop for a moment and ask yourself: Do you feel pure? Does that seem like an accurate description of the state of your heart, or of your mind, or of your soul?

These ideas may seem a little out of touch with the lives we live in the age we live in. I don’t feel as though my own weak efforts of purity of thought can last much beyond listening to the morning headlines on the radio these days.

But if you don’t think these ideas still have real power to move us, to get us riled up, just think for a moment about how often the loudest voices in our public discourse these days favor a particular word when attacking their critics. They’re not called wrong, or misguided, or foolish: The word most often used as a mark of contempt is “disgusting.” When something is disgusting, you are saying that it’s impure—that it’s unclean.

That’s a word we respond to strongly. The idea of purity is still a strong motivator. We may not think of it so much in spiritual terms anymore, but we sure expect everything in the grocery store to have sell-by dates.

So how pure do you feel? How much do you feel that idea of “holy” applies to you?

One thing we know about Matthew’s gospel is that it was written for an audience of mostly Jewish folks who were new converts to the Christian idea. They came from a heritage in which conversations about law and purity made up for a lot of what went into becoming holy people.

Matthew’s Jesus takes that on this morning, and teaches as a rabbi would teach a congregation. He takes on the authority of a teacher to show that he knows what the rules are, and that he has the wisdom and the authority to restate those old rules for new circumstances.

The old rules were about either/or rules: clean and unclean, neighbor or enemy. But for God’s community, the new community  Jesus is calling into being, what it means to be holy will mean something else: It will mean to be forgiving, to be merciful, to be generous, to be self-less.

Maybe we would not be so ready to have the secrets of our hearts exposed to inspection and evaluated for purity. But the standard Jesus sets before us is different. The “perfect people” Jesus is asking us to be can be pretty imperfect in lots of ways. What makes them followers of God’s call—what makes us followers of God’s call—is the degree to which we show charity and generosity, forgiveness and forbearance. Because what we are taught is that those are the only qualities of character that can change the world for the better.

So yes, we are holy people. We are becoming the perfect people Jesus invites us to be and hopes we will become. So long as we extend those qualities from our imperfect hearts out into the world, we will be the temple, the sanctuary, of God in the world. Amen.