Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
February 16, 2020
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 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.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
A bishop heard that one of his priests had a reputation for spending very little time in prayer and spirituality and too much time enjoying the good things in life. So he decided he would make a personal visit to the priest. The priest, suspecting what the visit was all about, embarked on his own strategy. The bishop arrived in the afternoon. The priest met him, they chatted for a while, and then he invited the bishop to join him in thirty minutes of meditation ending in prayer. After that the housekeeper brought them supper which consisted of a fried egg, a slice of dry toast, and a cup of black tea. After some conversation about the challenges of ministry in the parish, the priest asked the bishop to return to the chapel for Night Prayers, after which they both retired to bed.
At two in the morning the bishop was awakened by the priest summoning him to the chapel for prayer. He was awakened again at 5:30 a.m. for meditation and morning prayer. After that, the housekeeper brought them breakfast, consisting of a boiled egg, a piece of dry toast, and a cup of black tea. Then the priest asked the bishop to accompany him as he visited the local Catholic school and several sick and elderly members of the parish. They skipped lunch, shared midday prayer, and headed out again, visiting several families till they came back to the church for evening meetings with the parish council. After Evening prayer and meditation in the chapel, the housekeeper brought them supper, which consisted of a bowl of soup, dry toast, and a cup of black tea. The bishop told the priest that he was very happy with the visit, encouraged him in his ministry, and said he would now return to his own home.
The next morning the housekeeper scolded the priest. “We never get a visit from the bishop and then when he finally came, you treated him so poorly! I could have prepared the most wonderful meals for him, but look what you made me cook – eggs, dry toast, and black tea!” The priest smiled and answered her, “Ah my dear, did you never read what Jesus said in the gospel? “Such devils can only be cast out by prayer and fasting!”
I participated in a memorial service this past week in Greenville, MI. Before the service I was talking with a person who I hadn’t seen since high school, someone who graduated a couple of years after I did. After checking in on what we were doing in life and the paths we had travelled, my acquaintance said something usual. He said, “I always resented you when we were young.” I was somewhat taken aback. He continued, “You were always such a good kid. You never got into any trouble. You always did things well. Whenever I got in trouble my mother would ask me, ‘Why can’t you be more like Artie Ritter?’ I just couldn’t didn’t want to be that good.” I felt a little uncomfortable and quickly assured my acquaintance that I wasn’t that holy. I told him that if he didn’t believe me, he should talk to my wife. But I wasn’t quite sure whether or not I should be proud or embarrassed to be considered so holy.
You are witnessing a first this morning. In my 35 years of preaching I have never once preached a sermon from the book of Leviticus. I’m not sure what drove me to such daring this morning. Perhaps I just decided that it is time. Leviticus is one of those books of the Bible that most Christian seldom read or study. The book addresses the people of God, freed from Egyptian slavery but not yet ready to claim the land that God had promised to their ancestors. The book of Leviticus looks ahead to the time when God’s children receive that land of promise and it instructs those children in just how God wants them to live in that land.
I wonder however, is there a Biblical book with a worse reputation? In her commentary on our reading today author Kathryn M. Schifferdecker writes that one of her students once said, “I never realized I could fall asleep on a treadmill until I did so while trying to read Leviticus.” She adds that many a resolution to read the entire Bible, from cover to cover, has foundered on Leviticus’ arcane details about sacrifice and skin disease. Even if you’ve never read the book of Leviticus, you’ve heard other people talk about it. You’ve probably heard what other people said who have read it and because of their opinions you are now positive that you don’t want to read it.
The book of Leviticus contains dozens of very specific prohibitions of very common behavior. Much of the book has to do with sacrificial ritual and regulations that were emphasized by the temple priests and scribes. Holiness was a matter of great concern to the priestly writers of Leviticus, not because of a need to earn favor with God but because holiness was an attribute of God. In order for the holy God to dwell among the people, a certain order had to be maintained to produce holiness. God created the world with the capacity to be good and goodness is maintained when God’s creative order is sought in our own behaviors.
There is probably something in Leviticus that each of us could use to justify a certain behavior or judgment and there is something in Leviticus that would convict every one of us for doing something that we find perfectly acceptable.
Many of the verses of Leviticus include complicated prohibitions about sexual behavior and dietary restrictions. But there is a lot more words that tell you what specifically what you can’t do. Leviticus prohibits trimming your beard. Leviticus prohibits tattoos. Leviticus prohibits clothes with two kinds of fabrics – there go all the yoga pants. Leviticus says not to eat shrimp or lobster or perhaps the scandalous things of all- bacon! Leviticus scorns any offering made to God that doesn’t include salt. I’m glad the ushers have already passed the offering plates! Leviticus prohibits working on Sunday, tearing your clothes, letting your hair go unkempt, and mistreating foreigners. When the book of Leviticus is used to argue about behavior or to justify condemnation or judgment, it quickly gets messy. Which verses should we honor and which can we ignore? What good are all of these rules anyway?
We know that Jesus had a lot of respect for the book of Leviticus. When asked what he thought was the most important commandment, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy saying, “Love God with all your heart and soul and strength.” And then he quickly added his favorite verse from Leviticus, “And love you neighbor as yourself.” I think Jesus understood what the book of Leviticus is all about. He wasn’t merely lifted verses to support his own interpretation of sin and evil. He understood that the central message of the book wasn’t about tattoos or eating bacon or getting a haircut. Leviticus is really about holiness. That is clear from the first two verses of our Scripture lesson this morning, “Speak to my people and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” We try our best to be holy because God is holy. We move toward holiness, not through extreme self righteousness and memorizing black and white rules. We are holy when God’s holiness shines through us in our words and our deeds. We are holy when God makes a home with us.
In the book of Leviticus we are taught that God is invested in every aspect of our lives. Holiness isn’t our own work that earns our salvation and gains for us the approval of others. Holiness is the transforming work of God within us. Everything matters. Every word we speak contains God’s holiness. Every choice we make reflects God’s holiness. Every bite of food expresses our oneness with God. God lives in our relationships and in the patience and sacrifice and forgiveness offered within them. God is present in our worship and our meditation. God is present in our daily work and play. There is no such thing as a sacred part of life and a secular part of life. Leviticus instructs us that it is all one big communion with God. God and holiness are in everything we do in life.
The book of Leviticus is not an enjoyable read. But it is more than that previously described list of sometimes arcane rules and customs. It is a profound theological statement about life with God. The laws and rituals of Leviticus are grounded in the reality of who God is and who God wants us to be. We are to be holy, because God is holy. We can’t achieve holiness ourselves. It is the work of God in us, for the sake of Christ and through the power of the Spirit.