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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48

Sometimes my reflections on the weekly lectionary readings bring to mind a verse, from elsewhere in the scriptures, which is not included.  That verse seems to summarize the themes I’ve been considering and the breakfast discussion that has taken place.

This week it was Philippians 1:6 (high on my list of favorite verses).  In the New Revised Standard Version which our congregation uses, it reads:  “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion . . .”  I first read and memorized it from the King James Version which makes it sound more individualistic:  “ . . . he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.”  I also like the nuances of the New International Version:  “ . . . he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion . . .”  In all versions, God’s work in us, God’s purposes for us, have not yet reached completion.  That’s true whether we’re talking about us as individuals or as the community of God’s people together.  In popular discourse today, we may say, “God isn’t finished with me yet.”  We are all, individually and in our life together, works in progress.

So---how did I get to that verse?  The readings for the coming Sunday include two astounding exhortations.  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  (Leviticus 19:2)  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:48)  I began this morning’s breakfast discussion with the question, “What does it mean to be holy?”  (There was a second question which I’ll mention later.)  We explored a variety of answers, some wondering whether holiness is something attained by only some people, often thought of as saints.  The counterpoint was that we are all saints, partaking of some measure of holiness in every moment.  Mother Theresa was mentioned, thought of as a person of high holiness and sainthood.  Yet those who have read her writings know how deeply she struggled at times with being able to believe at all, falling into times of despair.  The thing we all agreed upon was that we haven’t arrived yet.  We are all works in progress.

Several of us were aware that the Greek and Hebrew words for “holy” mean “set apart.” By itself, it has been interpreted by some as a term which justifies an attitude of separateness from the dirty world and people around us.  It may lead to a sense of superiority.  “I am holy and you are not.”  Being holy is more than just being set apart.  It is being set apart to be used by God as God works in this world.  One Hebrew scholar suggests that the word used in Leviticus means “to be set apart for a special purpose.”  I would suggest that we have all been set apart to fulfill the purposes of the divine spark within, uniquely expressed in each one of us.  The Spirit of Christ is still at work in us bringing to completion what has been begun.  God isn’t finished with us yet; we are all works in progress.

Similarly, the word perfect is a word of movement, movement toward completion.  In fact, the Greek word used in Matthew 5:48 can also be translated as “complete.”  The call is to live up to the purposes for which we were created, and we’re still on the way.  God is still at work in us completing what has been begun.

With that background, let’s look at this week’s readings for further illumination.  They may also invite us to explore some other themes.

The book of Leviticus gets its name from the Levites, the tribe of Levi and its descendants.  The Levites were “set apart” as a priestly class among the Hebrews.  Among other things they were charged with the transcription and teaching of the Law.  We find references to priests and Levites together (see II Chronicles 34:30 & John 1:19).  There’s no need to sort out all the details and distinctions.  Some credit the Levites with recording the Book of Deuteronomy.  Leviticus is certainly the book of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) most focused upon a compilation of laws.

In the Old Testament being holy is directly related to obeying God’s commandments or laws.  The second question I asked the breakfast group was, “What rules do you live by?” inviting the participants also to share thoughts on the significance of rules in general.  Rules, of course, can be used in rigid and judgmental ways.  At the same time, we all, I believe, live by certain principles or rules that we have accumulated through experience, learning, etc.

It can be eye-opening for those who have not dug deeply into the laws of the Old Testament to see what is included.  They are not all a part of a right wing political agenda, and, in most cases, they are seen as emanating from an inner attitude of the heart.

In Leviticus the call to be holy is followed by a list of laws, including a version of some of the Ten Commandments.  “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest . . . you shall leave them for the poor and the alien . . . You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another . . . You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal . . . You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind . . . You shall not render an unjust judgment . . . You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people . . . You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kind . . . You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people . . .”  (Leviticus 19:9-11, 13-18)  Take care of the poor and those with disabilities; be honest and fair and respectful of persons and property; don’t seek revenge.  Makes a lot of sense to me.  Then, the punch line, words we sometimes seem to think originated with Jesus’ as part of his summary of the law:  “ . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (vs. 18)  That, says the writer of Leviticus, is what it means to be holy.

Psalm 119, 176 verses long, extols the law as the basis of holy living, every verse contain a word that refers to the law.  “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.”  (Psalm 119:34)  In Psalm 119, the heart is an important element in living according to the Law.  Earlier, in verse 11, it has spoken of treasuring the law in one’s heart.  It’s a verse some of us learned in childhood, speaking of hiding God’s word in our hearts.  As this week’s selection continues, its petition is, “Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.”  (vs. 36)

The Gospel lesson continues with Jesus' reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments.  They are not just rules to be obeyed literally and minimally.  One is to get behind them to a deeper intent.  Instead of revenge, we are to go further than the demands of those who would do us harm.  Turn the other cheek.  Go the second mile.  (Matthew 5:38-41)  Don’t just love your neighbors (the focus in Leviticus).  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  (vss. 43-44)  Read the passage again and notice the details and commentary that are part of each section.  Remember also that the context was one where the oppressors, the enemies, were those who wielded and abused Roman power.  There were specific rituals of relationship underlying these teachings of Jesus.  He was teaching the power of nonviolence, a kind of cooperative resistance that undermined the authority of those whose intent was to harm.

This time, though, the punch line is “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  It's as if Jesus were saying, "The things I’ve been talking about are ways to be perfect, to fulfill the purposes I have for you in this life.  These represent the high road I would have you take."  What a call!  We’re not there yet, but we can be a work in progress.

Finally, there’s the reading from I Corinthians.  It continues some of the themes in that epistle as we’ve been following it for a few weeks.  There’s the matter of divisions caused by loyalty to one or another leader.  Paul wants the congregation in Corinth to see their life together as a building project.  “ . . . like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.”  (I Corinthians 3:10)  The foundation in Christ, to whom they belong, “not to Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future,” and “Christ belongs to God.”  (vss. 11, 22-23)

There is the related theme of wisdom and foolishness.  The rules we live by, the leaders we follow, are not measured by what the world calls wise.  “If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God . . . ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’”  (vss. 18-20)

Today, however, I particularly notice the words of verse 16.  “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  It was a verse pounded into some of us in our early years.  It was used to teach us respect for the holiness of our bodies, to give rationale among other things for not drinking alcohol or smoking.  That interpretation was very individualistic.  It is more likely that Paul was referring the entire fellowship of believers, what he sometimes called the Body of Christ, as the temple.  The words could also be read as a warning to those who place too much emphasis on a temple made from bricks and mortar, as if God has abandoned those when a beautiful sanctuary or towering temple is no longer available.  The temple that matters is within.

In any case, the point is that the work in progress is a temple.  We are all in the process of living in to our sainthood, our holiness.  Notice that verse 17 says, “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”  Imagine!  What’s being built is a temple!  We haven’t arrived yet.  God is still at work.  God is still speaking.   Can you believe it?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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