Monday, February 24, 2014

Leviticus and Love

There’s an intriguing photo online of a man with a tattoo of Leviticus 18:22 on his arm. Leviticus 18:22, a chapter before the reading from Leviticus that we read today, states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” As the person who made the photograph go viral noted, it’s a shame the man who had Leviticus 18:22 tattooed on his arm was evidently unaware of Leviticus 19:28, a few verses after today’s reading, which states: “You shall not tattoo any marks upon you.”


When it comes to biblical law, everyone picks and chooses, even the people who would consider themselves to be biblical literalists. We do, too, and I struggle with today’s reading from Leviticus because I really, really like it. It rings true to me about the desire of the God I worship and who knows and loves me. And I’m not used to liking Leviticus. I’m accustomed to saying that it is rooted in its time and place and culture, and that we should not use it as a guide for our faith. What I expect to find in Leviticus can be summed up in that photo online: laws that have been incredibly harmful to people about sex, gender, slavery and violence; and laws that are just sort of quaintly irrelevant to us today—tattoos, food laws, mixing two kinds of seed in a field or two kind of fabric in your clothes.

But there is more to Leviticus than what we are used to hearing. It’s not all about sex, stoning, and food. It’s about becoming holy by imitating God—or at least by imitating God as experienced by this particular people in this particular time and place. That call to holiness mirrors the end of the Gospel text where Jesus calls on us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. One goal of the faithful life is to be like God—humbly—not thinking that we ARE God, but in the process of seeking to align our wills and actions and desire with those of God, to become holy, to become blessed, to be at one with the divine.

So what are the hallmarks of God in this passage from Leviticus? God is generous, God is honest, God is kind, God is just, God loves. And so we are holy, we are like God, when we are generous, honest, kind, just, and loving. And the way we become holy is entirely about how we interact with our neighbors. If we have a field, we leave some of the harvest to be gleaned by our neighbors who are in need; when we have business transactions with our neighbors we deal honestly--we do not defraud, we do not steal. When we sit in judgment, we are swayed neither by earthly power nor by earthly want, and distribute justice. We love our neighbors enough to reprove them, and we refuse to take vengeance upon them when they wrong us.

So how can we embrace this vision of justice without being just the polar opposite of someone who prooftexts using other verses of Leviticus?

Well, we’re Christians. We follow Jesus. And that means that we view the law—and all the Hebrew Scriptures—through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus. We great every Hebrew Bible law with the words Jesus uses today: “You have heard that it was said…” and then we listen to Jesus’ answer. We prioritize what Jesus prioritized. Jesus had nothing to say about tattoos; he had nothing to say about homosexuality; he had a lot to say about justice and love.

There are two clear links between today’s text in Leviticus and in Matthew’s Gospel. The first is love. That sounds trite and easy and overdone, and as I was working on this sermon I kept thinking to myself, “Come on, you can’t just say it’s all about love, that’s like punting on third down!” but it’s not, really. As the collect today says, “O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.” The climax of what we hear from Leviticus today is that all of these instructions from God about how to interact with our neighbors stem from loving your neighbor as yourself.

Following the law through justice, generosity, honesty, and fairness is the living expression of love. Loving your neighbor as yourself means being able to put yourself in the other’s shoes and if you have a field to imagine what it would be like to be in want; if you sit in judgment to imagine what it is like to come before the judge; to imagine what it is like to be the victim of slander and gossip. And if you are in want, to know that the food left in the field is yours out of love; that justice is yours out of love; and on and on. And in the Gospel that moves from just loving your generic neighbor to actively loving your enemy. Not only are we called to be just and generous and honest with the people who reflect those virtues back to us; we are called to be just to those who treat us unjustly; to be generous with those who are miserly to us; to be honest with those who lie to us.

And the second link between the Gospel and Leviticus today is the admonition towards holiness or perfection; as in the Gospel verse: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I struggle with the idea of seeking perfection—I’m too Lutheran in my theology—simul justus et peccator, at the same time justified and a sinner, means that we know we’re never perfect, we’re always sinners, and are only justified through God’s grace. That is indelibly the center of my theology. So how can Jesus be asking us to be perfect? The Greek word translated “perfect” is teleios; the root is telos, or end. The implication of the Greek word teleois has to do not with being flawless, but with having reached your end; being complete and mature. Be complete, as God is complete. If holiness is being like God, being holy means being spiritually complete. Still a sinner. Still imperfect. But complete because the parts of ourselves that are lacking are filled in by God. And that is the ultimate blessing.

This passage we hear from the Gospel today is towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. Which begins with the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God….”

The Beatitudes aren’t just about divine karma—suffer now and get rewarded later. It is about how it is through what the world perceives as weakness that we become blessed, holy, like God. How it is in the absence of something that God fills us to completion. Because our holiness derives not from ourselves but from God. God says, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Not “You shall be holy if you do all the things I tell you to do.” We are holy, because God is holy. We are complete because God is complete. That is our telos, our goal. We are holy, because we can’t help being holy, because God is holy.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Justice as Sacrament

The Gospel stories we tell during the season of Epiphany are often about some visible manifestation God’s presence as Immanuel, God-with-us. The Magi following the star find the child revealed as King; at the baptism of Jesus the Holy Spirit descends as a dove; Jesus performs his first miracle by changing water into wine at the Wedding at Cana; and the season after Epiphany always ends with the Transfiguration of Jesus upon the mountain, flanked by Moses and Elijah. Each of these stories is almost sacramental in the way that we teach how sacraments are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” There is some outward visible thing that is the manifestation of God’s presence and grace.

We call our parish newsletter The Manifest not because it’s a list of cargo or a list of stuff to do, but because it’s an obvious sign of God’s presence. The reflections and ministry contained in The Manifest are reminders and signs of how God works in the world. I even looked up the English word "manifest" this week to discover that it comes from Latin manifestus which means to be caught in the act. Epiphany is about Jesus getting caught-in-the-act of being divine.

In this week’s gospel, that is less evident—it’s the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. At first the focus isn’t even on Jesus, it’s on us: we are the salt of the earth; we are the light of the world. In what follows, Jesus is speaking again not about himself, but about the Law, the Torah. Jesus is saying (contrary to Paul--if you were hearing this and thinking that this sounds different from what you're used to hearing in church, you're right!) that he has come to fulfill the law and that his followers still have to follow the law; in fact, even just following the law isn’t enough, because—as we will hear next week in the Gospel—it’s not just what you do, it’s what’s in your mind and heart; it’s about your intentions as you follow the law.

To understand this better, turn to the passage from Isaiah. Here we have the voice of God speaking about God’s disappointment in how the people are following the letter of the law but not the spirit. They are fasting outwardly; but not for the benefit of the whole people. This is where we get God’s definition of what God wants us to accomplish in our fasting, in our observance of the law:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?”

The purpose of following the law is justice. Which is very true in Torah—these laws have acts of compassion written into them: care for the orphan and widow wasn’t something to do in excess of the law, but actually written into the code itself.

So what if we saw justice as sacramental; justice as the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace? Then justice becomes the manifest sign of God’s presence in the Gospel today: when wrongs are righted, God is there. When the poor are lifted up, God is there. When the oppressed are freed, God is there.

So how is God manifestly present here at Epiphany? What is the sacrament of justice that we send forth into the world? The quick answer in many of your minds is probably the Wednesday Dinner Program, where we feed over 100 hungry people a meal every week. I’d answer that yes and no… and hear me out as to why…

Feeding someone a meal is not justice. It’s charity—it’s love. And that is not bad. In my Manifest article last week, I wrote about the virtues listed on the floor of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at the General Theological seminary: caritas, or charity/love, is the central virtue from which all the others spring. But justice is something different than love. Justice is changing the way a system works—it’s breaking the yoke of oppression or ignorance or discrimination. I would say that our Wednesday Dinner Program is primarily a work of charity. We feed people. We respond with compassion to the sea of need we witness. And it is part of the Isaiah passage about what life will look like if the people truly follow the law: “If you offer your food to the hungry
 and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness 
and your gloom be like the noonday.” Justice is what builds upon that foundation of loving, compassionate response.

We have a social worker here now on Wednesdays to help connect our guests to some services, which is the beginning of justice, but the only way that our dinner program can really move from being just a ministry of charity and into a ministry of justice is to have every person here—and every volunteer—start asking themselves, “Why do the people who come here need a meal?” And that question—and the answers—move it from being a loving and compassionate response to need to being a just response.

Because once you start asking the question, “Why do the people who come here need a meal?” it reveals injustice. It reveals a system with a lack of mental health services; a system with a lack of quality childhood education; a system of poor parenting and broken families that doom kids to an adulthood of poverty and low wage jobs; a system of racial discrimination; a system that sends soldiers off to war and doesn’t adequately care for them when they return; and on and on. It’s in answering those questions that justice takes root.

And this takes us to a tension between Isaiah and the Gospel today. Isaiah is focused on following the law in a way that does not draw attention to itself—because he is responding to what he perceives as people following the law not out of the love of the Lord but out of the desire to look important in the eyes of their neighbors. The Gospel writes about not hiding your light under a bushel basket. Which is it—are we supposed to do justice quietly in secret, or celebrate it and put it out for the world to see?

We sing “This little light of mine” at the Day School chapel services this year, and “Put it under a bushel, NO!” is always the most enthusiastic verse. Because it is in doing the work of love publicly that justice becomes possible. Justice requires conversion, and conversion requires inspiration. One form of inspiration—not the only one—is seeing someone get caught in the act of being Christly.

Christians get caught in the act of being un-Christly all the time. Far, far better to be caught in the act of being the hands and feet of our Lord. As we do every Wednesday evening. And those acts of love have to be the beacon that inspires justice—both in our own conversations and in our conversations with those outside the church.

All the while, though, we should be cognizant that this Gospel passage is also the basis of John Winthrop’s 1630 “city on a hill” sermon where he created the image of the new World as the shining City on a Hill by which all the rest of civilization would be measured; there is something very good about the ambition of the American Exceptionalism that he set on its course; that this would be the land of justice and freedom that would be an example for centuries to come. If you read Winthrop’s whole sermon, there is actually quite a lot to disagree with—he completely objects to the idea of equality, for instance—but the confidence with which we are called to act boldly in service of justice and liberty is sound. So long as it doesn’t then take us back to Isaiah, where the people have become complacent and arrogant and do the letter of the law—say they are fasting for liberty and justice—when in truth they are doing the opposite. Being the shining city on the hill (or, I might add, living in the glow of the Olympic torch) isn’t about covering up the injustice and oppression in our midst; it is about bringing it to light, and by illuminating it compelling the community to break out of the yoke of “it has to be this way” and discover the liberty of faith: faith that when God is manifestly, sacramentally present, all those questions about why our guests on Wednesdays need a meal are actually answerable. I want our dinner program to be an act of love AND a step towards justice.

So go out this week nourished by two sacraments: the sacrament of the Eucharist where Jesus is manifestly present in bread and wine, giving us strength and fortitude that as we are loved by him we can love others; and by the sacrament of justice. Go out and get caught in the act of love; let your light shine; and let the light inspire the questions—even the uncomfortable ones—that that can guide us from charity to justice. Amen.