This summer when we were doing our 90-Day Bible Challenge, many of our readers dreaded reading Leviticus. We read all the fun stories of Genesis and Exodus, and then for chapter after chapter of Leviticus we had to read about how to make sacrifices, what numerical formula to use for different kinds of worship of God, the differences between burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings. All the momentum of reading came to a screeching halt. In fact, a seminarian once said of Leviticus, “I never realized I could fall asleep on a treadmill until I did so while trying to read Leviticus.”[i]
For the most part, our wariness of Leviticus is warranted. But the reading we get from Leviticus today is from the chapter that likely helps us understand why all the other monotony is so important. You see Leviticus focuses on how to be in right relationship with God. All those repetitive instructions are meant to do what our reading today finally gets to: to tell us we can be holy because God is holy. All those instructions about worship are meant to enrich our relationship with God – to help us see what being holy before the Holy One looks like. But this particular chapter does not just focus on that vertical relationship with God. Chapter nineteen of Leviticus introduces something new – our horizontal relationship with one another. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This too is what holiness looks like.
Of course, this should sound familiar. In our gospel lesson today, when Jesus is asked what commandment is the greatest, Jesus pulls from his Jewish roots and the lessons of Hebrew Scriptures. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” a text straight out of Deuteronomy, and, he says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” a text straight out the Leviticus text we read today. As people of faith, we balance the vertical and the horizontal – one cannot be true, full, or authentic to one without the other.
That concept is so simple, our eyes can begin to glaze over like all readers of Leviticus. Love God, and love neighbor – got it! Simple enough. But there is nothing simple about this summary of the law and prophets. All we need to do is look around us and see how hard these commands are. Seven months into a pandemic, with cases rising again, our nation in political upheaval around issues of racial injustice, and a national election that has us so divided we cannot even conceive of loving anyone who advocates for the “other” candidate – whichever the other one is for you. With each passing month of this pandemic, coming to God in reverence and praise sometimes feels impossible because all we feel is anger, frustration, and fatigue towards God – not holiness. And forget about loving our neighbors – unless, of course, we mean loving our neighbors who agree with us, who are willing to bash the other side with us, who have done enough discernment to know our political position is the holy one. As each day gets us closer to this election, Leviticus’ words about not slandering others, not seeking vengeance or bearing grudges, makes loving all our neighbors seem impossible.
So what do we do? With all these feelings of impossible holiness, do we give up or stop trying? In facing these feelings, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Made in the image of God, human beings share in God’s holiness. God has placed within them what they need to do God’s will. God has furthermore placed them in communities of support, giving them teachings to guide them in their life together. Wherever sinfulness comes from and whatever drives [sinfulness], [sinfulness] is less fundamental to human nature than holiness. People can be sinful, but the Lord their God is not sinful. People can be holy, for the Lord their God is holy.”[ii] All the things that feel impossible now – loving God fully (despite our misgivings) and loving our neighbors fully (the ones we actually love and the ones we love to hate) is possible because we are made in the image of God – we share in God’s holiness.
I think that is why I am so grateful we are in stewardship season right now. As we gather financial commitment cards today, we are claiming something about the resources God has given us. We are taking our resources and investing them in our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationship with one another and our neighbors beyond these walls. We commit to giving not because we are capable of generosity alone – we give because our God and this community inspire faith-filled generosity. We look at a world that seems impossibly flawed and messy and say, “Yes. I am holy because the Lord my God is holy. My giving is a sign of my sharing in God’s holiness.” Giving may not feel easy in this time of upheaval, in this time of economic turmoil, but giving is our way of saying, “I cannot do this alone, but with this community I am committing to faith-filled generosity. I trust Hickory Neck will walk with me as I claim my holiness.” Even though we are scattered, even though some of us are visiting this campus today, either for a quick drive-thru or a full service, and some of us cannot be here until a vaccine is available, we celebrate the holiness of one another today, the holiness of our God, and the holiness of our neighbors – all our neighbors. Only in seeing that holiness can we be liberated to live lives of faith-filled generosity. Amen.
[i] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18,” October 25, 2020, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4626 on October 22, 2020.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 195, 197.