My sermon this Sunday:
When I attended St. Hilary Elementary School as a kid, being holy wasn’t exactly a compliment. If someone said “Oh she’s so holy” it probably meant that you weren’t going to get picked first for kickball, though you might get called on first in religion class.
It essentially meant your faith was showing and everybody could see it.
In the language of the schoolyard “She’s so holy! was code for “she doesn’t really belong with us”.
While fifth graders at St Hilary’s weren’t exactly Leviticus scholars, they did get something right. Holiness is about belonging. Specifically it’s about belonging to God, being caught up completely in the relationship that is God.
The Scriptures in our first reading from Leviticus are called the Holiness Code.
The ancient Hebrews understood that God wanted to restore relationship with people – fallen as they might be. And they had to deal with the fact that the Divine Presence had settled right down in the midst of humanity, and had offered a covenant of love with the Jewish people.
And that was a little … terrifying. The authors of texts like Leviticus believed that if you were going to be able to survive the divine Presence, let alone invite it in, you’d have to mold your entire life to fit that divine relationship. Leviticus’ Holiness Code gets at what it means to shape a life that would allow the divine Presence to enter and to stay.
Now if you were to carefully list every aspect of human life and how it should be lived in a way pleasing to God, you’d get something the size of the Torah. Regard at it like a legal document and you have a list of possible infractions so vast as to paralyze the perfectionist.
But lift that law off the page and place it in a human heart that desires to belong entirely to God and you have someone like Jesus.. Regard it as a life lived in freedom and dignity and you have what the ancients called Holiness.
My question for you today is: do you want to be Holy?
Because that will determine whom you choose to belong to.
Because we do have a choice. Do you choose to belong to God, in all the variations that love relationship can be lived? Or do you choose to belong to something else? Because we are relational beings. We don’t get to belong only to ourselves. The question is to whom do we choose to belong?
Jesus makes it clear in his Sermon on the Mount that even the most defenseless people, whose lives seem to be entirely controlled by others, can say to the Powers that seek to control them: You Don’t Own Me. I belong to God. I am Holy.
Now on first glance, our Gospel looks like terrible advice: don’t resist evil? Welcome violent abuse? Allow your possessions to be plundered? Allow your body to be used by others?
But what Jesus said was something more along the lines of “don’t resist evil with evil, with violent opposition. And his examples of how to do this were tailor made for the landless peasants who followed him up the Mountain, people who lived under the oppression of both Herod and Caesar.
So let’s look at these through a lens that comes from theologian Walter Wink, who has written extensively on disarming the Powers that would steal us away from God.
In the call to turn the other cheek, the slap is the backhanded strike used to publicly belittle an inferior. Turning the cheek after the first blow means the abuser doesn’t get to hit you the same way – and those things mattered in the violent pecking order of the time. If the oppressor wants to continue with the humiliation, he has to stop to consider which hand he is using, change the meaning, acknowledge the challenge, while everyone is looking. It’s a statement about dignity that everyone can see.
If someone is suing you for an article of clothing, that means that you don’t own anything but the clothes on your back. If they win your coat, that means that they have taken your underclothes, though your outer cloak would hide that fact. It’s not a particularly lucrative award, but such suits did humiliate, and harass and impoverish until one was so indebted that they were forced to give up things like their ancestral lands. In the face of this, Jesus says give the one who would take your underclothes, your outer cloak as well. Then all will know what has been stripped from you. It’s a statement about extortion that everyone can see.
You’ve been just forced to carry someone’s possessions for a mile – Roman soldiers had the right to impress people into that kind of service. But just a mile. Offer to carry the pack another, and the soldier runs the risk of getting in trouble with his superiors. Perhaps he’ll be confused by this strange invitation to extend the oppression, and rethink the wisdom of the first mile. It’s a statement about exploitation that everyone can see.
Walter Wink suggests that these three examples are ways of lovingly messing with the enemy, of giving the oppressors a chance to be shamed and embarrassed by their evil, and perhaps to repent. We see this again in the work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
For the oppressed peasants of Jesus’ day, these acts of Holiness all them to say to their oppressors: I don’t belong to you or to Herod or Caesar. I am a child of the God who makes the sun and rain to fall on everyone.
This is after all how Jesus lived his life and died his death. Jesus’ freedom tended to make the authorities squirm. In his passion we see the backhanded slap, the stripping of clothes, the impressing of bodies into service to carry the cross. And we also hear him pray: “Father Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
Belonging to God means making a way for your enemy to encounter the divine Presence as well.
And in this, Jesus does the Holy in a whole new way, a way that simply won’t cooperate with the violence of his enemies – so much so that capital punishment is met with resurrected live.
That is a relationship of Holiness that utterly changes the ground it walks on.
And it’s one that we really need, now more than ever.
Because we all face Powers that can lay claim to us – anger and revenge, addiction, alliances that benefit us at the expense of others, the fear of failure. These slap, and strip and impress us into servitude of something other than love.
Walter Wink calls the nonviolent way of Christ, a third way between the typical choices of flight and fight. I think it also makes for a nice new Holiness Code, one that includes practices like:
• Find a creative alternative to violence
• Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
• Meet force with humor
• Break the cycle of humiliation
• Die to fear of the old order and its rules
To which I would add the old standby’s: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
And be Holy for your God is Holy.