Leviticus 19: 1-18; Matthew 5: 38-48
Good morning again on another winter Sunday. Anything other than blizzard conditions and it begins to feel like spring! The Seventh Sunday in ordinary time after the Feast of the Epiphany and on the traditional calendar for “pre-Lent” counting down on our way to Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, ”Sexagesima,” more-or-less 60 days now before us on the journey to the great climax of the story in Jerusalem, the Cross and then Sunday morning and the Empty Tomb.
This season in the meantime, in between time, all about preparation. Bill Minkler reminded me this week of a wonderful little hymn in our old hymnal, Hymnal 1940, in the section of songs for children, about the seasons of the year. #235 (if you still have a 1940 around). The first stanza is, “Advent tells us Christ is near; Christmas tells us Christ is here. In Epiphany we trace all the glory of his grace.” Then the second stanza, “Then three Sundays will prepare for the time of fast and prayer, that with hearts made penitent, we may keep a faithful Lent.” I probably won’t forward this to the Director of Choristers anytime soon! But in any event, in the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday there is the traditional invitation to a holy Lent, which we are to observe “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” We might say that if this is the menu of Lent, on these three pre-Lenten Sundays we set the table. Get things ready.
This morning I want to frame a message by looking at two Biblical words, the one found in the first part of our Old Testament reading from Leviticus 19, the Hebrew word “qadash,” which is translated “holy,” and the other, from the end of our reading of Matthew 5, the Greek word “telios,” which is translated as “perfect.” My seminary work in the Biblical languages pretty far in the rear-view mirror as the decades roll along, but word by word there is still something very rich to think about the work of the translator. Leviticus 19, really the heart of the Mosaic covenant, the Word of God given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, for the people God has chosen, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.” And then as the other bookend, this dramatic and central word from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, for his disciples, the Church, the New Israel of God: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The Hebrew “qadash” is a word that is naturally at home in the ancient Israelite world and vocabulary of what we might call sacramental worship. It’s a “Temple” word. What is taken from flock and field and placed in sacrifice on the altar, dedicated and consecrated, set apart, offered up, received, transformed. The Holy Gifts. As the smoke from the burnt offering rises above the altar, what was of this world is taken up into the very presence of God. Partaking of his holiness. To be breathed in by him in transcendental mystery.
What was of this world is transformed. What was of this world, now purified, sanctified. Set apart by the prayers of the priest at the altar, but only in truth is the offering complete when God in his generosity and love and mercy leans down with open hand and open heart to receive the gift. The commingling of things earthly and things heavenly. Lifted up with human hands, but made holy in the presence of the Lord of Hosts.
Hard to know what word of common Aramaic Jesus used here in the Great Sermon recorded in Matthew 5. Any rabbi or even any Sunday School student at the local synagogue might have heard the echo from Leviticus 19. As God is “qadash,” in Leviticus, so you must be holy. And in Matthew’s Greek, you must be “telioi,” even as God is. The Greek word, given in English, “perfect.” The sense is that of an arrow that has struck its target. Telios. A journey that has reached its intended destination. A goal accomplished. A rough draft that has been edited and revised and now is “perfected.” No further work necessary. Complete. Finished. It is the same word that John tells us Jesus used when he gave himself over to death on the Cross. “It is finished.” The words that come in the moment before the Easter hymn: The strife is o’er, the labor done, the victory of life is won. Alleluia.” “It is finished.” Perfect. No further work necessary. As God, so you. Holy. Perfect.
When one of his con-men companions dresses up like a parson Huckleberry Finn says he “looked like Old Leviticus himself.” In any event--the Book of Leviticus gets its title from the Levites, the priests of the Temple. The whole point of the book, we might say, and again the very central message of the Word of God to Moses is lifted up. As Moses that pivotal day on Mt. Sinai confirms and establishes the Covenant spoken first to Abraham long ago. I will be your God, and you will be mine, my people. That through you all the world will be blessed. A priestly book to guide a priestly people. That as the offering on the altar is set apart to be holy and acceptable to God, to be lifted into God’s presence and to partake of his glory, so it is for Israel, for the people he has chosen for himself. They don’t simply present an offering of grain or turtledoves or sacrificial lambs. From henceforth they are themselves called and chosen as well to be the offering, to come before God’s presence, to partake of his divine essence. To be the instrument by which the broken and sinful world is brought into his holy presence, restored to union with him. God’s Israel.
As Moses opened the mysteries of the Covenant for Israel on the Holy Mountain, so Jesus goes up on the mountain—in this Sermon on the Mount—to renew and refresh and extend the Covenant in his Body the Church. To call and inspire and make it possible. All these examples and commands, from Moses in Leviticus, from Jesus in the Sermon, just the tip of the iceberg. Not simply to be about a long list of do’s and don’ts, but those lists to be signposts, hints, about the kind of people we are called to become, from the inside, out. Changed through and through.
Not about lives where what we do is, as the old saying goes, “good enough for government work.” Not to be just good enough, but to partake of God’s goodness, God’s holiness. That is the challenge, the invitation, the promise. St. Paul in Romans 12: I beseech ye, brethren by the mercies of God to present your bodies, your very selves, a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.
That’s what all this is about in Leviticus, what all this is about in the Sermon on the Mount. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the way we interact with our friends, with our husbands and wives, in our families, with our children and our parents, with our neighbors, in our society and world.
There is a great word in the Rule of St. Benedict, actually one of the most famous of Benedict’s many sayings, when in Chapter 31 he outlines the character and responsibility of the officer of the monastery called the “Cellarer.” We might say, the Supervisor of Materials and Supplies. And when talking about the shed where the farming tools and craft implements are stored, Benedict says, “the Cellarer will regard all utensils and good of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.” Every hammer and wrench, every shovel and plow. As jeweled chalices of the eucharist. Sacred vessels.
An environmental ethic that would inform us when we think about what we pour into our rivers and landfills. Most especially an image that would inform us as we interact with one another. Within the Christian family and in the wide world. To talk about an enthusiasm for justice and compassion. For charity, acts of kindness. As we sort through potluck dinners and coffee hours and meetings and conventions. As we banter back and forth on Facebook. The basis of every word of Moses on Sinai, of Jesus on the Mount. Perhaps what we aim at in the baptismal service when we pledge ourselves to “respect the dignity of every human being.” The giving of our very selves, our souls and bodies, as an offering, to be taken in by God, transformed in him. To take on and to reflect and to become of his divine essence and perfection and holiness.
It is all beyond what anyone could reasonably expect. But that’s what it is. Let your love be unreasonably generous. Let your honesty be unreasonably pure. Let your faithfulness be without limitation. Let your obedience be without a hint of grumbling. Keep your promises even when you are being betrayed. That’s how God loves you. Let your desires and appetites be conformed perfectly to the direction of his heart, without distortion, washed clean of selfishness.
There it is. An intimidating set of expectations, no question about it. And this isn't some state of life we get to simply by trying hard and rolling up our sleeves. It can only happen as he works in us, as we open ourselves to hear his word, to come close, to be drawn in, to be breathed in, to become as incense rising on the ancient altar. “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” Mercy and forgiveness, just to be the stuff you are made of, because that’s what God is made of. Coming close to Jesus as Lord and Savior, to stand at his cross. To be lifted up into his life. To be holy as he is holy. To be perfect as he is perfect. Or as we say as we kneel before Holy Communion, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.