Six months ago we did something we never thought we’d do. We took our finger, poked a giant hole into the dirt and planted a seed of hope in this crazy garden that we call New Church Sherman Oaks.
To our surprise, something interesting began to grow. God took our little seed and blessed it, and its roots were slowly strengthened and spread to places way beyond our little back yard. We are so thankful to everyone who supported us by making us your place of worship.
Like most churches, our biggest challenge has been trying to understand this new way of defining church. We struggle because, “This it’s not how we’ve always done it.” Actually, it’s not like anything we’ve ever done before. And we’re good with that.
We don’t have to be perfect. There’s no need to get upset when something goes terribly wrong, because something will. And we don’t have to worry about breaking some time-honored tradition because we don’t have any. Best of all, God hasn’t asked to reinvent the church, but has called us all to define it in the way we live life.
I am grateful that we can gather together, in this way, to learn how to be God’s beloved children, and how to be holy as our God is holy. Which takes us to today’s text. (Leviticus 19:1-2;15-18 and Matthew 22:34-40)
As one of the five books of the Pentateuch, and part of the Jewish Torah, Leviticus is filled with life’s little do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts). This includes things like purity laws, types of sacrifices, and moral holiness. Which is why most people avoid this book like the plague, which has it’s own set of rules in here.
Religious conservatives often use Leviticus to pick and choose verses that defend a certain belief; like sexual morality. Liberals also use it to make their own claims, often to debunk conservative arguments, or to roll their eyes at ancient cultural rituals. But as a whole we seldom read Leviticus for devotional or contextual purposes. And so the gold leaf often remains nicely intact.
I think this is a shame, because, like Jesus, these tough words force us to confront our own opinions and challenge our faith. If anything, they provide the basic guidelines that help us think beyond ourselves, and to be more like the people God intended us to be: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
How many of us wish to plug up our ears when we hear this verse read? Someone once said to me, “It’s as if God is setting me up to fail.” But perhaps God is merely helping us see our real potential. Showing us what we are made of, and what we can actually do.
The Hebrew “קָדוֹשׁ,” and the Greek “ἅγιος,” are often translated as "holy" or "holiness." This suggests a sense of moral purity. The Pharisees certainly were good at arguing this point with Jesus. But the most basic meaning of the word is to be "set apart" or "dedicated" to God, which of course was Jesus’ counterpoint to them.
As we learned last week, we are united and rooted with God, because we are made in God's image. God’s pure love is etched in each one of us. Just the same, God’s holiness is a part of who we are, and who we were made to be. God is in our DNA.
Even with that assurance, we often think living a holy life is impossible to achieve. In many cases it is – given the world today. It’s hard to be holy, but it’s not impossible. As Jesus points out in Matthew’s gospel, I begin to live out my holiness when I begin to love God and my neighbors as myself. Difficult, yes. Impossible, no.
Now, when Jesus speaks of love, he is not talking about just any kind of love. Matthew uses the Greek word ἀγάπη “agape,” which is a self-giving love that is more concerned about the other person than oneself.
Agape starts with God, and God’s love for me. As I begin to love myself as God loves me, then I can see others differently. I can begin to tear down the barriers and walls of division, and love my neighbor without fear, jealousy or anger. Agape allows me to move with everyone else towards a universal humanity that God had always intended.
What this means for all of us is that God’s love for your husband or wife is not dependent on his or her likes and dislikes, job, mood, or any other changeable thing. Nor does God’s love for your brother or sister depend on whether he or she continues to drive you nuts.
And just the same, God’s love for your friends or co-workers does not depend on whether or not they let you down, or stab you in the back. The love God has for you is the same love for everyone. It’s a part of who we are, whether we know it, understand it, or accept it.
As we are united to God through divine love, so too are we united with Christ, the perfection of Divine love manifested. Therefore to be a follower of Christ means we must wear his holiness out in the world.
Holiness, like love, is more than an emotion inside us. It’s visible and tangible, and comes alive when we show kindness to others, or give generously without worrying about getting something in return.
When Christ is alive in us, loving through us, we no longer have room in our hearts for grudges or anger. And there’s certainly no room for hatred or judgment. Christ removes the desire or need to seek revenge or cause harm to other human beings.
Just as Divine love is inclusive and shows no impartiality, so too shall we show justice and fairness to everyone, no matter the cost. No one understands agape better than Jesus.
So when we skip over tough passages like ones in Leviticus, we set ourselves up to miss the small details of Jesus’ ministry that have a big impact on the world. It’s only when we truly understand what God’s love means to us… that we are truly able to understand who we are, what it means to bare the image of God, to be holy like God is holy, in the way we love God, ourselves, and others.
Through Christ Jesus, God’s perfect love comes to us to, in spite of who we are or whatever language we speak. It never gives up on us, or rejects us, or causes us to fail. In fact, the amazing and everlasting love that God has for us is patient, and kind, and will never fail (1 Cor. 13:4-8). And with him and through him, this love will outlast eternity.
We may not love ourselves perfectly, or even come close to being a perfect church, but boy do we try. And yes, we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. When we try to love our neighbors like this, in a way that offers the same kind of slack we cut ourselves, then we become holy children of an all loving, all forgiving, ever holy God.
So here’s what I hope you will think about this week:
Through agape love, Jesus calls each one of us to make a decision to see others as God sees them. If we chose to follow Christ, if we dare to bear his holy name by calling ourselves Christians, then we must act on this decision by truly loving God, ourselves, and one another.
This is what it means to be holy.
This is what it means to love.
And this is what it means to define the church in all that we do.
Bartlett, David, Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox) 2011.
Logue, Frank. Everything Hangs on Love. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2017/10/04/everything-hangs-on-love-twenty-first-sunday-after-pentecost-october-29-2017/
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”