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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

2017-02-19 Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5:38-48

The True, Hard Work of Love

Last week was… so weird. It was nice to have the normalcy of Valentine's Day sandwiched in there. Some people love Valentine's Day. Some people loathe it. It makes some go, "Awww," and others go, "Ick." I want to give a shout out to Krispy Kreme for their heart-shaped donuts. They'll make you go, "Yum." My mom and dad, who just celebrated their 61st anniversary last month, went out for dinner. They went on Wednesday. Because the restaurants are too crowded on actual Valentine's Day. True love waits.

Speaking of love, I love the book of Leviticus. I'm weird like that. Some people loathe Leviticus. It makes them go, "Ugh." I get that. But I am convinced that Leviticus is a book of love. Weird, Iron Age, proto-urban, animal-sacrificing love. But love, nonetheless. Leviticus has its faults. And just like those faulty, broken people we try our best to love, you have to accept Leviticus for what it is, warts, boils, itchy-white inflammations and all. Because after all the legal, medical, and household commandments, the final word in Leviticus – as in all the Bible – is love.



Leviticus truly does have its moments that make you want to scratch your head. Or maybe not scratch your head, because that could be a sign of disease.

Leviticus 14:25:

The priest shall slaughter the lamb of the guilt offering and shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and put it on the lobe of the right ear of the one to be cleansed, and on the thumb of the right hand, and on the big toe of the right foot.

(Yes, that's in the Bible.)

It's hard not to get hung up on the mechanics of Leviticus. It gets ridiculously meticulous in its pre-scientific ritual. Forget the smearing of blood on the earlobe – or the easily distracted priest puts it on the wrong toe – and you're toast. It's silly that forgetting one superstitious practice could spell doom. But ask the one second-grader who doesn't get a Valentine how it feels to be forgotten.

We have our own rituals of love, don't we? We have our expectations – some spoken, some not – of the people we want to love and want to love us back. An unspoken word. A forgotten phone message. We don't codify our rituals like Leviticus does. Unless we're a church. Then we have bylaws. But we certainly do know when something's left off, don't we? We know when a step has been forgotten. Well, maybe not when we're the forgetter, but surely when we're the forgetee. We know. We mess up.

So many of the sin offerings and guilt offerings in Leviticus are there because of one simple reason: people mess up. So much of Leviticus isn't "shall nots" – although it does have its share. But so much of Leviticus is about the "what thens?" What do we do when we do dumb things – often unintentionally – when we sin in any of the Lord's commandments about things not to be done and go and do them anyway? When we do stuff that instead of making people go "Awww," makes them go, "Aw, maaaan!"? Makes them look at us and go, "Ick" or "Ugh"? What do we do – as people of God – when (quote) the sin that they have committed becomes known (unquote)? (4:14, etc.) In other words, when you get caught. When you get called out. What do you do with your guilt?

And so Leviticus has these painfully elaborate rituals – not just for the offender to perform – but that include the offended person, too, and even the whole community. You see, Leviticus is built around the idea that you never sin alone. Whatever you do, wrong or even right – whatever we do has an effect. It affects the people you love, affects the people you hate, affects the whole community. And ultimately, what we do affects God. Because God loves us, and wants us to be holy, for "I the lord your God am holy." When we sin against God and neighbor, we break the holy connection. So much of Leviticus is the answer to the question, "How do you put love back together?"



Today's passage, Leviticus 19, starts out,

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

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.


And then, God repeats, five times, this declaration:

I am the Lord your God.

I am the Lord.

I am the Lord.

I am the Lord.

I am the Lord.


In case you forget – and you will – God reminds us, "I am the Lord."

So what does that mean?

Sandwiched in between those declarations of "I am the Lord," are some commandments. Not just ten, but eighteen commandments, possibly more, depending on how you count.

The first one – and the longest – concerns how you treat the poor and the (the NRSV says) alien. Not alien as in from another planet. Not yet, at least. But alien as in, from another country, or as Dictionary.com says, "a resident born in or belonging to another country who has not acquired citizenship by naturalization." (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/alien)

I don't say that because immigration's a political hot-button. I say it because it's today's assigned reading and because it's what Leviticus says. It's the first and longest commandment in the chapter. Remember the poor and the alien. God does. And God is holy. You be holy, too.

Don't steal. (God says that twice.) Don't steal. Don't deal falsely. Don't lie. Don't swear falsely. Because God doesn't, and God is holy. You be holy, too.

Don't defraud your neighbor. Pay your workers what they're owed and don't pay them late. Don't ignore or mistreat the disabled. Because God doesn't, and God is holy. You be holy, too.

Don't be unfair. Don't favor one person over another. Don't go around talking trash about your people. Don't take what belongs to widows. Because God doesn't, and God is holy. You be holy, too.

Don't hate your kin. Don't ignore bad behavior. Don't be vengeful. Don't bear grudges. Because God doesn't, and God is holy. You be holy, too.

And the last commandment, I think, is the last word on our holiness. Jesus thought so, too. Verse 19:18b – You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

There it is. The final word: Love.

Why? Because God loves, and God is holy. You love, too.

Love – is the endpoint of all the other commandments. Restoring love is the point of all the offerings. Love. And when love falls apart, find a way to put it back together.

And lest we think there are loopholes in this law, Jesus ties them up. In case we start to think these commandments apply only to those who make love easy, Jesus makes love even harder. And more lovely.

In Matthew 5, he says:

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?


Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


Wait, did he say, "be perfect"? Perfect, as in guiltless? Perfect, as in always right? Perfect, as in unbroken? Yes he did. But not perfect as in unbroken laws. Perfect as in unbroken hearts.

To God, to Jesus – love is perfection. Unbroken love is perfection. Finding a way to put love back together is perfecting it all over again.




Last week, on Valentine's Day, Krista Tippett, the host of On Being, interviewed the writer, Alain de Botton. De Botton had the distinction of writing the #1, most-read article in The New York Times in 2016. It was called, "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person." Think about all that happened in 2016. Remarkable that this would be the #1, most-read article. I wonder why. I think the book of Leviticus knew.

How different would our relationships be, de Botton says, if the question we asked on an early date was, "How are you crazy? I'm crazy like this," and then understood that the real work of love is not in the falling, but in what comes after?

He said,

"We must fiercely resist the idea that true love must mean conflict-free love, that the course of true love is smooth. It's not. The course of true love is rocky and bumpy at the best of times. That's the best we can manage as the creatures we are. It's no fault of mine or no fault of yours; it's to do with being human. And the more generous we can be towards that flawed humanity, the better chance we'll have of doing the true hard work of love."


The true, hard work of love. Leviticus, in its somewhat clumsy way, is all about the true, hard work of love. Love is truly hard work. But it's also hard work that is true. Love of God and love of neighbor – even the neighbors that make us go, "ugh" – that kind of true love is hard – and it is holy.




Looking at the passage from Leviticus, I realized that you can take the self-declarations God makes, and read them from last to first.

I am the Lord.

I am the Lord.

I am the Lord.

I am the Lord.

I am the Lord your God.

For I the Lord your God am holy.

You shall be holy.


And when you read it this way, oddly enough, I think it drives home the point that we aren't holy because we're so perfect. We're holy because the Lord our God is holy. We're holy because God's love for us makes us holy. God never says, "If you do X, Y, and Z, in order, on your big toe of your right foot, then you'll be holy." God says, you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

God loves us. I have no idea why. But God does. So we shall love God back, and we shall love our neighbors as ourselves. And we will be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.