The Adventurous Lectionary – The Seventh Sunday of Epiphany – February 19, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
What does it mean to be “holy?” What does it mean to be “perfect?” And, should we ever apply these terms to ourselves? On occasion, my wife refers to me as a “saint” in public, and though I am a “good guy,” I usually blush and say something self-deprecating. I know my weaknesses. I know my inner thoughts. I am aware of my private behaviors that would be embarrassing if made public. As the Psalmist says, my sin is always before me, even though no one else may notice it. Yet, this Sunday’s aspirational scriptures challenge us to be both holy and perfect.
Fifty years ago, President Johnson launched what he called “the great society,” providing a social safety net, intending to uplift vulnerable Americans of all ages. A few years before, Martin Luther King spoke of the “beloved community,” where justice, compassion, and equality were the norm; in which people realized that their destinies were intertwined and our well-being depended on others’ successes. Both leaders were recapitulating the spirit of today’s scriptures, along with I Corinthian 12’s vision of the body of Christ, in which we celebrate the success of those who flourish and feel the pain of those who struggle, and in which we are one because of our loving diversity.
Leviticus 19 is pure politics. It is about what it takes to be a great society. Moses, the religious and political leader, challenges the people to be holy and then gives them a list of what constitutes holiness in the body politic – a social safety net mandated for the poor, honesty (regulations) in business dealings, fair labor practices, truth in advertising, and respect for the vulnerable. Relationships were at the heart of the politics of Leviticus 19. Holiness pertained to the inner life, personal behavior, and the legal-governmental system.
It has been said, “you can’t legislate morality,” but that is precisely what Leviticus 19 does. Behaviors are guided by laws that benefit the whole community. Laws influence behaviors which over time influence character and attitudes. A community is harmed if there is poverty and dishonesty in business and if the poor are left behind while the wealthy flourish. Today, we might expand community holiness to include the ecosystems and the non-human world. Holiness invites us to be stewards of the earth and not just consumers.
Leviticus doesn’t give us a definition of holiness, but it shows us what it looks like. The holiness of Israel will set it apart from other nations. Today, some people speak of “American exceptionalism” and I am all for that, provided it means being exceptional in morality, in the conduct of a robust and wise foreign policy, in caring for the poor of our nation and the world, and in respect for the non-human world, leading by political and economic example toward a sustainable and green economic order. As the hymn from Katherine Lee Bates asserts, “and crown thy good with brotherhood [and sisterhood] from sea to shining sea.”
Jesus calls us to be “perfect as God is perfect.” This phrase is confusing if we take it out of context rather than seeing it as the culmination of a list of behaviors that includes financial generosity, pacifism and non-resistance, recognition of God’s care for those we assume are evil, and praying for our enemies. In contrast to Leviticus, which is political in nature and pertain to an emerging nation, Jesus’ words are to a small and powerless community, in which it is easy to give up hope and want revenge. Jesus proclaims that God is present in the lives of the oppressor and enemy, and that although we are politically powerless, our love can be transformative. Still, the guidance Jesus’ words provides to individuals can shape our individual involvement in transforming the social order.
Psalm 119 is a prayer of alignment. Let my heart be open to God’s way. May I follow God’s statutes, found in my relationships and the inner core of my being. May I be holy as God is holy, embodying God’s vision in daily life and political decision-making.
The reading from I Corinthians reminds us to care for what God has given us. Don’t destroy God’s temple, that is, don’t deface the holiness and divinity in yourself or others. Let God’s Spirit come forth in your life, and support the emergence of this Spirit in others. Support relationships and institutional structures that make it easier for people to make the right choices and experience abundant life. We need to see these words as both personal and corporate – care for yourself and care for others through institutional involvement.
Paul also notes, “let no one boast about human leaders.” These days, that seems obvious. While the impact of the current President’s policies is ambiguous at best, more than any recent president, his personal conduct, revealed in videos, sexist and racist language, unfaithful relationships, tweets, and business arrangements, leaves nothing to boast about. There is nothing we need to emulate, or should emulate, but we can aim higher. We can pray that the President gains a compassionate and wise heart, and that he asks for forgiveness from those he has harmed. We can pray that our leaders, both from the left and right, be ruled by a spirit of compassion.
Today’s readings join the personal and political. They affirm the importance of a wise social order. They challenge us to raise the bar on our ethics and relationships. They ask us to aspire toward holiness and perfection, knowing that our aspirations and the energy to achieve them are gifts from God.
Bruce G. Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, Centerville, MA. He is the author of forty books including The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh, A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-first Century Clergy Self-care, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, and Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org