“You Shall Be Holy….”
Leviticus 19:1-3, 9 –19, 33
Chilmark Community Church
September 13, 2015
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Imagine being a somewhat cantankerous collection of tribal peoples newly freed from generations of slavery, trying to find the way through a hostile wilderness, following a leader they aren’t sure that they can trust.
Imagine being Moses, having to lead this motley crew into a kind of freedom they had never known. Imagine being commanded to be the mouthpiece for a hidden God that your people have not learned to trust yet either. It seems to be an impossible task – and yet this somewhat chaotic and disorganized beginning is the foundation of the people who will carry forward the reality that there is only one God – and there will be no other gods for them to consider.
At some point in the wilderness sojourn, God commands Moses to speak to this resistant and doubtful people: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. We notice quickly that Moses is to address, not just pious folks, not just the men, not just the tribal leaders, not just the elders – God commands that Moses to speak to the whole community with a rather astounding command: Tell them they are to be holy!! So – maybe we need to unpack what it means to be holy – – because we are the spiritual descendants of those early wanderers and the command is directed at us too.
If we continue on a bit in the text we read this morning, we find out pretty quickly that being holy is not a matter of praying regularly and correctly. It is not being saintly. It is not a matter of living a pious life above reproach. It is not even a matter of getting to church every week. Holiness has to do with respecting and caring for and honoring one another – especially our elders as represented by our fathers and mothers.
Being holy means not harvesting every last squash or head of cabbage or grain of wheat from your fields. It means leaving some of the harvest at the corners and edges of the field for the poor and the stranger. Our island farms practice this holiness by welcoming gleaners to harvest what is left in the fields after produce for market is gathered in. The gleaners supply the schools and senior centers and the Island Food Pantry with the crops left in the corners and margins of the fields. Bounty for those who might not be able to afford fresh vegetables otherwise.
So many of the commands at the heart of the teachings in Leviticus are practical laws aimed at creating a just and compassionate society. They are as contemporary now as they were when they were first recorded.
The 33rd verse in Leviticus 19 is particularly in the foreground today as we watch the drama of refugees fleeing from Syria and other parts of the middle east into European Union countries: When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. While Hungary moves toward creating walls and barriers to the strangers at their doors, Germany and France and Austria and England and others are opening their doors and their arms and their hearts to receive strangers into their midst. We have no idea of what the future will look like for these countries or for the thousands of souls who are finding rest and respite from war and wandering. It isn’t possible at the moment to see how graceful the receiving countries will be able to be in the face of such challenges. But for the moment, we are catching a glimpse of the face of holiness –the face of God’s holiness in the faces and hearts and arms of those who welcome the stranger. It is possible that we are also witnessing a process of hope and redemption for the world as this drama unfolds.
Armen and I receive a weekly letter from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who is the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. He wrote this last week:
A strong humanitarian response on the part of Europe and the international community could achieve what military intervention and political negotiation have thus far failed to achieve. The response would constitute the clearest possible evidence that the European experience of two world wars and the Holocaust have taught that free societies, where people of all faiths and ethnicities make space for one another, are the only way to honor our shared humanity.
I use to think that the most important line in the bible was, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers,” resonates so often throughout the Bible.
[That command] is summoning us now. A bold act of collective generosity will show that the world, particularly Europe, really has learned the lesson of its own dark past and is willing to take the global lead in building a more hopeful future. Wars that cannot be won
by weapons can sometimes be won by the sheer power of acts of human generosity to inspire the young to choose the way of peace instead of holy war.
This morning’s text began with God’s command to God’s people that we are to be holy because God is holy. It ends with the command to love the stranger as ourselves because we were once strangers in Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim. It means “narrow”.
We do not have personal history of being in slavery in Egypt, but we do know what it means to be in a narrow, confining space that does not permit us to be joyfully and fully and generously human. We all know something about grief, and pain and uncertainty. We know what it is to be fearful at times. We know what it is like not to be able to reach our goals and dreams. We know what it is to agonize over the lives of loved ones. We know what it is like to feel estranged. These are our mitzrayim – our Egypt – our narrow places – – these are our places of being strangers in the world. It is from these narrow places that we learn what it is like to be a stranger. God calls us to remember what it is like and out of that memory, to extend love and compassion to others who are also strangers – because they suffer as we have suffered.
To be holy as God is holy means learning how to welcome and love and make space for the stranger. It isn’t always easy or comfortable, but it is what we are called to do and be. Strangers are everywhere.
The new kid in the classroom, the first time visitor to a church, the new Brazilian family in the neighborhood, the unfamiliar face in the crowd. Sometimes the stranger is close by, dwelling inside us as the frightened or angry part of ourselves that we don’t know very well or want to deny. Strangers, external or internal, are everywhere, waiting to be welcomed and loved.
Rachel Naomi Remen interviewed a Holocaust survivor, Yitzak, at a retreat for people with cancer, for her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. Initially, Yitzak was very uncomfortable being vulnerable with a group of strangers. Yitzak tells Rachel at their final meeting that he took up the matter with God and asked God what this retreat was about. Rachel wanted to know what God said in response to Yitzak. Yitzak answered: “…I say to Him, ‘God is it okay to luff strangers?’ And God says to me, ‘Yitzak, vat is dis strangers? You make strangers. I don’t make strangers.’” To Yitzak, his fellow cancer sufferers were strangers. To God, no one is a stranger. (Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen)
The drama that is being played out in Europe is the human drama. Every human being on the planet has a role to play if we are to create a more just and loving world. God did not speak just to a select few when Moses called the people together. God commanded the whole people to be holy. To God, who is holy, there are no strangers. God calls us to be holy. The healing of the world depends on it.