Sunday, April 28, 2013

Wholly Holy People

This morning's sermon was preached at Bellevue United Presbyterian Church where I am serving as seminary intern.

Today's Scripture Texts:
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
John 13:31-35



“Holy, holy, holy. Lord God, Almighty.”
Holy. Holy. HOLY.
We sang it earlier this morning in what is for many, a favorite hymn.
God is holy.
God is holy and He tells His people that “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
God is holy and His people will be holy.
There’s a great song by the Clarks called, “Born Too Late.” In it, the singer ponders if he can ever be as great as people like VanGough or Shakespeare: artists and painters who set the bar for everyone else yet to come. They are the gold standard of what they do.
He talks about being a saint like Teresa or praying like Jesus. The singer is looking to great artists, writers, musicians and even people who are called holy as people he wants to emulate. But there is an overarching feeling of, “But I could never be that great.”
He sings, “I was born too late” as a way of communicating a feeling of missing out and not being able to participate in that kind of greatness.
This song is a good example of how easy it can be to fall into thinking that we were “born too late” or we just can’t possibly live up to being holy. It is a bit intimidating to read “You shall be holy because I your God am holy!” That seems like something only someone like Moses could do. Someone who physically talked to God face to face and did grand things that were recorded in the Bible.
Holiness can feel like an insurmountable task. These passages about being God’s holy people and bringing glory to God can feel overwhelming, even unreal. We may feel like singing, “Teresa will I ever be a saint?” because we feel so far away from the standard being set.
It’s hard sometimes to identify with the people Moses delivered the law to. That was something that happened a very long time ago when things were different. Most of us don’t have grainfields or vineyards these days. The closest I can come to that is a sad little herb garden and 4 chickens in my yard.
But that doesn’t mean this passage should be left in the past tense for us.  We weren’t “born too late.”
It may look different in our daily life than it did thousands of years ago, but the heart of it is the same.
God isn’t putting forth some sort of unreachable goal. Holiness isn’t an action, it’s a distinction. It’s a distinction that God’s people as a whole are called to.
The word “holy” is used to indicate something that is set apart from the common or the secular. We are taken out of the ordinary and made to be something extraordinary.
In this section of Leviticus, called the “holiness code,” Moses is relaying to the people of Israel what holiness looks like.  He doesn’t just leave them guessing.  It contains pretty explicit descriptions of how that plays out for them in day to day life.
I’m really struck by what a gentle passage this is in the midst of a book of the Bible that sometimes gets written off as just being stodgy old law. I admit that I myself was less than exuberant about preaching from Leviticus when I saw it as one of the lectionary options for today. Then I read it. It’s a moving piece of scripture.
This passage shows that our holy God is making provisions for the people on the margins: the people who are often forgotten. God is saying that holiness can be lived out in business, in court, in “regular” life. He is calling for justice. For equity. For integrity. In all things. But especially those things that affect other people.
Holy people leave some of their harvest unharvested so that the poor have some way to work for their meal even when there is no other work for them. Holy people are people of integrity and honesty. They love their neighbors and speak kindly both to and about all.
We serve a God who cares about these very everyday aspects of life- who makes provisions for the poor, the widowed, the alien.
He cares about how we treat everyone around us.
It reads like something Jesus would say. And Jesus does echo it in John 13, among other places.
Jesus doesn’t just echo it with His words, but His life is lived out as one who bears this mark of holiness. The Bible passage that was read in the adult Sunday School lesson today is from Philippians 2. That passage says that we should, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [1]
Jesus emptied himself for our sake.  Talk about loving others!
The holiness God is calling us into involves a consideration of the wholeness of everyone around us, even to the point of emptying ourselves as Christ did.
Don’t harvest every last scrap of grain or every grape in the vineyard, God tells the Israelites.  The poor people, the travelers from far away, the widows and orphans and the outcast – they all have to eat too. God is making provisions for them and He’s asking His people to remember them because they matter to him.
He’s not saying that his people have to solve the world hunger crisis to get into heaven, but consideration of the hungry living on the edges of society is a mark of holiness that reflects the holiness of the God we belong to.
Jesus says, “Love one another.”
Of all the grand things He could have told his followers in that moment right after stressing how little time he had with them, he focusses on loving one another.  Jesus says that the mark of holiness – the thing by which people will know who follows him - is this concern for the wholeness of others.
Just like in Leviticus, the mark of holiness, of being God’s “set aside” and “pulled out of the ordinary” is compassion. As Christ loves us and shows compassion for us, likewise we love those around us and that is how we will be different. We will be known as God’s people by our love. (possibly sing “they will know we are Christians”)
It’s not that we can buy our way into God’s good graces by doing some nice stuff. We don’t get merit badges for helping little old ladies cross the street as if we were a boy scout. But there is a way of living that is associated with holiness and it is a way of living that reflects God’s loving-kindness and enduring compassion for all people. It is a selfless life. It reflects God’s justice and honesty.
This mark of holiness is distinctly practical and involves small moments – little things that can be easy to miss if we get too wrapped up in trying to solve too much at once by our own power.
A holy life is one lived with careful consideration of the basic needs and humanity of those around us. And it’s more than just noticing bad things and saying some nice words about them.  It’s considering how all of your actions affect those you come into contact with on a daily basis, even if they are in the periphery of your vision.
Acting in this way – or any other way for that matter - is not what makes us holy, but it is the sort of life that holy people live. The church is to be a wholly holy people: living evidence of the claim God has on their lives.
Our response to God’s love and compassion and his holiness is to care about those same things that He cares about. Which means that those of us who have more means than others around us might have are to, out of our abundance, care for those less fortunate and to use our resources with integrity and a sense of justice.
This is not a requirement for receiving God's love, but it is a response to the love that He has already shown: a response that gets the attention of the rest of the world and distinguishes God’s people as something different. Christians aren’t meant to blend in.
One of my favorite movies is “Toy Story.”  For those who haven’t seen it, the movie is a story about toys.  Sorry if that’s a spoiler for anyone. In this movie, whenever the real people are out of the room, the toys walk and talk and have all sort of goofy adventures.
The toys in the movie all belong to a little boy named Andy. They all believe that it’s a great honor to be Andy’s toys and to be the ones who get to play with him and bring him joy. Andy loves his toys too and in order to make sure everyone knows who they belong to, he writes his name on the bottoms of their feet with a marker.
            Great big childish letters. . . A. . . N. . .D. . . Y.
            The toys know they are loved because of that inscription on their feet.  They are set aside for an important purpose. Their lives have greater meaning because of the name that has been written on their feet.
            Friends, as disciples of Christ, we are set aside for an important purpose: bringing glory to our holy God.  Jesus’ name is evident on us when we show concern for others. The way we live our lives in response to our holy God is the mark of holiness.
The wholeness of others matters to those who are holy because it matters to our Holy God. And our holiness brings glory to our Holy God! God sets aside his people: he makes us holy. Not just holy, but wholly holy.
ALLELUIA! AMEN



[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Php 2:3–7). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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