“May we be holy as The Lord our God is holy.” Amen.
Growing up in a church with the word “Bible" in its name, I was often encouraged to get on a daily reading plan to read the whole Bible in a year. This is certainly a meaningful spiritual practice, but I wouldn’t recommend my strategy: reading straight through from Genesis. Genesis and Exodus were pretty fun, mostly collections of the stories I knew from Sunday school. Then I reached Leviticus, the source of today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible. I read long descriptions of how to slaughter which animals for the different types of sacrifices and I struggled to understand the relevance of what to do with infected cloth. Leviticus, you see, is primarily a priestly handbook for temple practices. My resolve to complete the reading plan withered, and I retreated to occasional excerpts from the New Testament – big picture stuff.
However, if we glance at Jesus’s words in today’s gospel reading, we might be surprised to find him pointing us right back at Leviticus. Rather than making a new proclamation, he identifies a core commandment by quoting verbatim from Leviticus: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). In doing this, he invites us into the Jewish practice of wrestling with the Torah so that we might live out God's will for our lives as a community and as individuals.
What is the context for our Leviticus passage? We find ourselves quite literally at the heart of the Torah: we’re in the center of the middle book. Our excerpt comes in the middle of a section known as the “Holiness Code," spanning chapters 18 through 20. While the rest of Leviticus is primarily concerned with priestly practices inside the Temple, the Holiness Code applies to all of the people of Israel as they go about their daily lives.
The core of this holiness code starts out our passage: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). That sounds a bit intense for me. The word seems so untouchable, and rightly so, for it means “set apart.” I can connect a bit more with the paraphrase “Stand out in the way that I stand out.”
I confess that I have often had a twisted understanding of what it means to be set apart. Particularly because I recently graduated from a twisted place called Yale. At Yale, I found myself in a world bathed in prestige. My freshman year acquaintances, for example, included the two-time national Latin championship winner, the World Debate champion, and a violin prodigy/published neuroscientist/charity founder. Everyone was brilliant, accomplished, interesting, and also fun. While I, as a rural public school kid, felt like a phony in this context, my response was to try to make sure I found ways to get prestige for myself. This influenced my decision to go for a Master’s Degree in my four years. I wanted to be a person worthy of elite society.
This impacted my other relationships. My friends from home started to seem boring by comparison. People who weren’t at the top of their field didn’t seem worth hearing from. As former Yale professor and outspoken Ivy League dissident William Deresiewicz put it, “We were the best and the brightest, as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright.” In other words, far from a beloved neighbor who I love as myself.
In Leviticus 19, we see a very different picture of what it means to stand out. To highlight a few commands:
Revere your father and mother. I am the Lord. (19:3)Whether a ritual purity matter like not mixing fabrics or a human dignity matter like providing the poor with food, the grounding is the same: “I am the Lord.” The structure of this passage, and indeed of the whole book of Leviticus, has a profound impact: Both the commands regarding ritual of religious practice and commands regarding daily interactions lead us to the same thing. We are sharing in the holiness of God.
Keep the Sabbath. I am the Lord. (19:3)
Don't make idols. I am the Lord. (19:4)
Leave food for the poor and foreigner. I am the Lord. (19:9-10)
Make just judgments. I am the Lord. (19:15)
Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (19:18)
Don't let animals breed or mix fabrics. I am the Lord. (19:19)
Don't eat food with blood. I am the Lord. (19:26)
Love the foreigner among you as yourself. I am the Lord. (19:36)
When I think of being “holy” in the context of talking about God, I often set apart my time engaged in formal worship, like our service now. In the sense that these moments are set apart from the rest of my week, they are indeed holy.
I’ve found holiness harder to experience outside of those contexts. Last year, for example, I was teaching English at a school for students diagnosed with conduct disorders in Neukölln, a lower income neighborhood of Berlin with a high immigrant population. I was trying to help kids to learn the language that could allow them to see beyond their neighborhoods. Perhaps, I thought, this constituted “loving my neighbor.” But the “as yourself” part was hard coming directly out of my Yale bubble, where just about everyone wants to and can excel at academics. On a good day, most of the students in the seventh grade would just ignore me. On a bad day, I had to forcibly stop a student from playing with knives in the kitchen. They hardly felt like my Yale peers, and I didn’t respect them as much. They definitely did not respect me and my Ivy League education.
My worshipping (“holy”) community was relegated to a different sphere of my life. I attended a hip church in the "nicest" part of town. I met with a small group with artists, project managers, and university students. In short, I was compartmentalizing my pursuit of the holy.
And yet in this compartmentalized worshipping community, I found myself, a foreigner, being welcomed as a full member. Despite my initially broken German, they listened intently to what I had to say. I lived in an apartment with the small group leader and his wife, and they took me around to small gatherings of their friends and even small family gatherings. Sure, there were moments of cultural confusion, but I could handle those because I felt welcomed as an equal, both inside and out of church.
Slowly, the wall dividing the holy and the secular in my own life became more porous, and I started focusing on building relationships with my students, respecting them as people who were just as valuable before God as I am. Rather than spending break time trying to tweak my lessons so that I could think of myself as a great teacher, I went and chatted with the students. I asked the most difficult 7th grader to teach me to play Ping-Pong. Sometimes I had to recalibrate this attitude, reminding myself of who I was through prayer, but I saw my life at the school transition from the fulfillment of duty to the building of a community.
In this experience, I learned an important lesson about experiencing the Holy: loving my neighbor as myself is one of the best ways to participate in God’s holiness during the mundane bits of everyday life. Indeed, there are very few undertakings we can do, particularly in our urban academic setting, that don’t touch others. But just as the Israelites were set apart as “holy” against the norms and practices of the ancient Middle East, we too have implications that go against our cultural norms. Does loving fellow students as ourselves mean loving their academic success as much as our own, even when on the same curve? Does it mean taking a stand for systemic injustice, even when we didn't create the system that we benefit from?
I had the chance this weekend to return to Yale for the first time since summer 2013. There were two moments when I recognized people from a distance. The first was when Justices Alito, Thomas, and Sotomayor walked by on their way to the Yale Law School Reunion. The second was Juanita, the homeless poet who once shared her poetry with me in exchange for a meal. The justices were escorted by Secret Service, with people on the street flocking to take pictures, while people pointedly avoided eye contact with Juanita. A later verse in Leviticus 19 (19:36) says to love the foreigner among us as ourselves, yet the discrepancy I saw yesterday showed a way in which our society is not yet holy.
As we transition to the Lord's table, we take time to communally acknowledge the fact that we are never perfectly holy as God is holy, and recommit to loving God and loving our neighbor. We do this in the prayer of confession: “We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Sometimes, we actively commit a wrong by harming our neighbor - “by what we have done.” Other times, we fail to live out the positive commandment to seek to love our neighbor, and thereby become implicit in our neighbor's harm: “by what we have left undone.” Through the Eucharist, we’ll commit to renewal as we mysteriously participate in Jesus’s act of neighbor love in his death on the cross for us.
In all of this, as we worship together and are sent out into the stress, excitement, and monotony of our daily lives, we are being made holy as God is holy.