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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Deuteronomy 34:1-12 AND Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 OR Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 AND Psalm 1:1-6, I Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46


In this week’s lectionary reading from Leviticus, the Lord says to Moses, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  (Leviticus 19:1-2)  Wow!  Really!  You’ve got to be kidding.


I suspect that most of us don’t often think of ourselves as holy, certainly not holy like God.  What does it mean to be holy, anyway?  We batted that question around a bit at breakfast this morning---before we even looked at any of the texts.  The wisdom, and biblically-informed understanding, was astounding.  By refusing to first examine the texts, or perhaps just because of the “earthiness” of the members of this group that gathers weekly for breakfast, the answers didn’t float away into the clouds.  Our understandings of holiness were tethered, sometimes perhaps a bit tenuously, to everyday reality, in some cases shaped negatively by the rigidity and self-righteousness of church experiences earlier in our lives.


Rather than try to recreate the breakfast discussion, I want to take note of some common dictionary definitions and biblical understandings, before plunging right into this week’s texts.


A common understanding of “holy” is captured when it is defined as “religious and morally good.”  Being holy is living according to the rules.  A second definition puts it this way: “exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness.”  Holiness and perfection are sometimes connected (and abused) biblically and by some churches whose theology adheres to a particular interpretation of sanctification and perfection.  Someone who is considered “holy” may even be “venerated as or as if sacred,” “sacred” sometimes being viewed as a synonym of “holy.”  Such people are may be considered “saints,” the Catholic Church having a whole process for identifying them.  A “saint,” in that process, is, among other things, someone associated with two miracles after their death.  When the Bible speaks of “saints” it literally means “holy ones.”


One final definition from the dictionary: “having a divine quality.”  It’s there already in the words from Leviticus:  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  The holiness to which the people are called in that verse is an attribute of God.  Being holy is, in some way, partaking of the very nature of God.


The reading from Leviticus is, in fact, part of what has been called “The Holiness Code.”  Chapters 17-26 of Leviticus differ in style from the rest of the book.  Without getting into detail it appears to be a collection of laws that define what it mean to be holy as God is holy.  They take, as we (and portions of the Bible) often do, a moral approach to being “holy.”  Remember, though, that this holiness is rooted in a deeper reality, losing (or finding) ourselves in the essence of God’s being.


The particular selection of verses in the reading reminds us that being holy involves our relationships with our neighbors.  “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.  You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor . . . You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin . . . You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Twice in this list, the words, “I am the Lord,” are interjected.  (Leviticus 19:15-18)


The Gospel reading from Matthew looks back to this connection with neighbor in Torah, when Jesus is asked which commandment is the greatest.  Jesus says, “'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind' and "a second it like it:  'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  (Matthew 22:36-40)


In Luke’s version of this encounter, after Jesus’ response the questioner wants to know, “Who is my neighbor?”  (Luke 10:29)  Jesus uses the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) to make the point that our neighbor is not just the person who lives next door to us---with whom we may or may not be on friendly terms.  However one interprets the nuances of the parable, two things are quite clear.  1.  The definition of neighbor stretches beyond usual boundaries to include those with whom we might normally refuse to associate, Samaritans in this case.  2.  Being a neighbor involves giving compassionate help where there is need.  (Luke 10:36-37)


So---I come to the theme suggested in the title of this week’s blog entry.  Holiness is found, among other places, when we find God is the middle of our relationships with one another, including our neighbor in the broadest sense of the word.  There is a biblical story about a burning bush before which Moses is told, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  (Exodus 3:6)  I would suggest that standing in the presence of another human being is standing on holy ground.  There are many experiences in life that can probably be defined as “holy,” but perhaps the highest is when we experience intimate loving and caring in human relationships.


Paul often gives thanks for his relationships with Jesus’ followers in the churches to which he writes, encouraging them to care for one another.  Among his more moving expressions is that found at the end of the reading from his first letter to the Thessalonians.  “ . . . we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”  (I Thessalonians 2:7-8---It may be worthy of note that later in the letter---I Thessalonians 4:3-12---he writes of sanctification and holiness, perhaps in terms that sound a little legalistic to us but including the reminder that “you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.”)


Only one of the three remaining lectionary texts fits neatly into the “holiness” discussion.  Psalm 1 is notable for its contrast between what might be called a “holy” person and an “unholy” one.  They are defined by their embrace of “the law of the Lord” or their scoffing at it.  I don’t find the sharp contrast as instructive or comforting as I once did, but it does suggest holiness is defined, at least in part, by the direction in which we try to aim our lives.  It is more about willful choices than minor misdeeds.


Psalm 90 is more a cry for compassion:  “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.”  (vs. 14)  It ends with this petition:  “Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.  Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands---O prosper the work of our hands!”  (vss. 16-17)  Can we see here a hint that God’s holiness may somehow be expressed in “the work of our hands”?


The reading from Deuteronomy gives us the story of Moses’ death.  (Deuteronomy 34:5-7)  He died looking across the river into the land he would not reach. (vss. 1-4)  We don’t need to go back to the story about how he lost that opportunity to reflect on the fact that life usually ends with some tasks and aspirations not achieved.  It is sufficient to realize how the moments of memory shared with the gathered community can be moments when it feels like we are standing on holy ground.  Every human life has its holy moments.  It is particularly moving, in this case, when we are told, “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.”  (vs. 7---What I wouldn’t give for some of that unabated vigor.)  “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  (vs. 10)


We’re coming up on All Saints’ Day.  What if we looked around at one another and at neighbors near and far and said, “Holy, holy, holy”?


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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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