Sermon for Proper 25 A October 23, 2011 Michael Coffey
This sermon was given at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, Austin Texas,
as part of a city-wide Lutheran pulpit exchange. What a great privilege to be with you today. St. Martin’s is the closest ELCA parish neighbor to First English, and on a day when the Scriptures remind us to love our neighbor it is appropriate and good to come closer as neighbors. It is a reminder to us all that we are a part of something bigger than our own congregation, a part of the church that is more expansive than our Lutheran identity, a part of something distinct and unique and called in the world, a part of something holy. You heard the Leviticus text, didn’t you: The Lord addresses the people saying: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. How’s that been going for you, that holiness thing? Are you feeling pretty holy today? Do you feel like we’re living up to that? Does that sound daunting and nearly impossible? Does it sound unappealing and make you think of religious folks who wear that “holier than thou” frown on their faces? Anybody want to be one of those frowny faced church folks? I thought not. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. The word holy has the sense of being distinct, set apart for a unique, divine purpose. Throughout this section of Leviticus there are a number of laws and customs to follow. Dietary laws, clothing laws, Sabbath laws… You know, Kosher dietary laws for observant Jews require them to keep meat separate from dairy. That’s from Leviticus. No one really knows why it’s there or what it means, but the law is there, and observant Jews have kept it for millennia. Keeping it helps maintain distinctiveness, uniqueness, holiness. Sometimes, groups and clubs have unique logos or handshakes or slogans. It isn’t really the logo or handshake that matters, it’s that they help maintain a distinctive identity. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. What makes us in the church holy, unique, distinct? Is it because we dress a certain way for worship, or practice unique rituals and sing particular songs? They’re all a part of it. But what is it, what is it that most makes us like God, holy, like God is holy, like God commanded the people to be? If you’re one of those frowny faced people, you might think that holiness means separation, disconnection, turning away from the other. Sadly, the church in too many places and for too many centuries, has practiced a holiness that meant just that: separation, disconnection, turning away from the other. It’s a way to preserve your holiness when you’re afraid you might lose it. It’s a way to feel safe if you encounter anyone who is other, different, not like you. Is this what it means? Is this what God’s holiness is? Is this how we are to be faithful people? Separateness, disconnection, and turning from the other? You might guess that Jesus has something to say about this. The Pharisees who struggled with Jesus’ teaching and activity were concerned about being faithful people, they were concerned about maintaining holiness, they were concerned about not losing it. When they challenged Jesus and asked him which commandment was the greatest, they might as well have been asking him: what makes us most holy? And Jesus says, quoting Scripture: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: Wait a minute! A second? Who said anything about a second? They asked which one was greatest! But no, the only way to answer that question, the only way to answer what it means to be faithful people, the only to say what it means to be holy like God is holy, is to give the second with the first: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There it is. You want to know what it means to be holy like God? Not like crinkled brow, squinty eyed, frowny faced people, but like God? It is to love the neighbor. Even in Leviticus, which has a whole laundry list of laws for maintaining holiness that we don’t really understand or even try to practice, even in this book most concerned with distinctiveness and uniqueness and holiness for God’s people, right there, smack dab in the middle, is the reminder to love your neighbor. It’s like saying: Yes, take your life of being God’s people seriously, and strive to be a holy people, but never if it keeps you so separate, so unique, so distinct, so holy, that you ever, ever stop loving your neighbor. Because then you miss the whole point. The whole point of being holy like God the whole point of having a unique identity as God’s people, is so you can excel at loving others, so you can love others with the holy love of God. Not separation, but neighborliness. Not disconnection, but connectedness. Not turning away from, but turning toward the other. For what makes us most like God, is to love the other, to love what God already loves. This is spelled out clearly in Leviticus in love for the resident alien, the poor, the hungry, the handicapped, and the elderly. And for those of us who gather as church, we gather in the name and presence of Christ Jesus. And who would we name as holier than Jesus? Jesus, the one who reached out to all the others, the others rejected, the others suffering, the others who failed, the others in fear, the others in great need, the others so different, the others who doubted, yes, reached out to them with the very arms of God and embraced them all as neighbor, as beloved, as worthy of mercy and care and food. And who is Jesus for us all if not the neighborly love of God for us. If I can coin a new verb: God neighbors us in Jesus. God ends our separateness, and neighbors us. God ends our disconnection, and becomes deeply connected. God ends our turning away from, and turns toward us. If you know this, if you know the holiness of God as the neighboring of us in Jesus, if you know the deep connection to God we have in this life because God desires it and creates it and sustains it, then you know all you need to know. You don’t need 613 commandments. You don’t need 10. But you need more than one. You need the two: Love God with everything you’ve got in your body, mind, and spirit, and love your neighbor as yourself, youself which is already neighbored by God in Christ. All this love talk tends to make us think about feelings and whom we like or don’t like. So we need to hear and remember, that biblical love, divine love, is best understood as mercy put into action. Mercy put into action. Love your neighbor. Have mercy on the other. Act in a way that heals and helps and gives life to your neighbor. This is true with our neighbor next door, and our neighbor that picks our food in California fields, and our neighbor in the Sudan suffering starvation. How do we love our neighbor in the larger realm of this world? We put mercy into action. We seek justice as love for the other who is suffering. We stop separating ourselves in any way from anyone and we act with compassion as best we are able. If anything seems more true now than ever, it is that neighborliness has become harder and harder to live. In our technological consumer culture we separate more than we connect. We build walls more than we embrace the foreigner. We mistrust more than we welcome and enjoy each other. We stare at screens more than we stare into eyes with compassion. If anything makes us not only like God in this world, but also more and more distinct as God’s people, it is our willingness and our capacity to be neighborly in unneighborly times, to love others in their very otherness, to allow the suffering and vulnerability of others to break into our lives. What if it were true? What if what made us most unique, distinct, different from the world, was our willingness and our capacity to be neighborly, connected, and turn toward the needs of others. The neighboring love of God is here, now, in Christ Jesus, for us so that we may be this holy people. The only reason we separate ourselves for part of the week to pray, worship, share in the meal of Jesus’ sacrificial love, the only reason we separate for a little while once a week is so we can connect the rest of the week to the joys and sorrows, needs and gifts, problems and opportunities of those around us. Imagine if people looked at the church, our churches, St. Martin’s and First English to start with, and said: Look at how holy those people are! They are constantly loving their neighbor and mixing it up with strangers and reaching out and welcoming everyone into their neighborly care! And they don’t even frown that much! Could that be what God is like? they’d say. Could that be what it means to know Jesus? they’d wonder. Could that be holiness right here in our midst? It could be. And it is. We have been neighbored by God in Christ, loved, shown mercy, turned from other into beloved. With this great love in us by the Spirit’s power, we love God, we love our neighbor, one flows into the other and they become holy, holy, holy love.