Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Honest Scales

Starting now texts of Daniel Harrell's sermons preached at Historic Park Street Church on the Boston Common will be posted here. The audio files can be downloaded at the Park Street Church site. Feel free to interact!

Honest Scales (Leviticus 19)

As most of you know, some of you first hand, 21 people from this congregation spent the month of January living Levitically. Since as Christians we don’t always know what to do with this part of Scripture devoted to animal sacrifice and infectious sin diseases, I decided to preach a Leviticus sermon series in an effort to make sense of what the Lord God meant when he said “keep all my laws and decrees.” However, rather than just me doing all the talking, I thought I’d try a reality sermon series and involve folks in an experiment whereby we would live for a month by the book in order to learn from it.

I got the idea from a volume entitled The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs, an editor with Esquire magazine. Jacobs, a self-described agnostic Jew, determined to abide by all the strictures of Scripture, Old Testament and New, as literally as possible for an entire year, just to see what happened. In an online interview, Jacobs was asked whether he found living by the Bible hard to do. He said, “It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. This project affected everything I did—the way I ate, the way I walked, the way I talked, the way I dressed. The way I interacted with other people—even the way I touched my wife. It was an extreme religious makeover.” Of course for Christians, extreme religious makeovers are what we’re all about. Though dead in our sins, by God’s grace we’ve been raised to new life in Christ and filled with his Spirit. For us, living by the good book should be the good life.

However, living by the good book is hard to do. Holiness is a high standard. Still, the way I figured it, if we could manage Leviticus as Christians, the rest of the Bible should be cake. The only catch was that participants had to be willing to live Leviticus publicly as a means of opening up a congregational conversation. We set up a Facebook page and used the church blog to do this, with text, photos and videos (it’s all still up there) and sure enough, the conversation stretched not only throughout the church, but as far away as Sweden, Israel and South Africa. Much of the conversation had to do with the challenge of interpretation. As AJ Jacobs noted, “The prohibition against mixing wool and linen comes right after the command to love your neighbor. How can ethically advanced rules and bizarre decrees be found in the same book? And not just the same book, but on the same page. It’s not like the Bible has a section called ‘And Now For Some Crazy Laws.’ They’re all jumbled up like a chopped salad.”

How do we take these commandments written to a rescued nation of nomads roaming the desert and practice them in our day—especially as Christians for whom the Old Testament has been reinterpreted in light of Jesus as the Messiah? The most common tack is to say that “Jesus fulfilled the law so I’m free to disregard it.” Wear my wool blends. Eat my bacon. The problem is that when you turn to the New Testament, some of the commandments you thought you could ignore appear to be still in force. For instance three times in the book of Acts Gentile converts are told that while they don’t have to be circumcised (baptism now counts as the mark of God’s grace), they should still abstain from anything sacrificed to idols, from eating or touching blood, from meat that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” The prohibition against sexual immorality we’re familiar with, but no more rare steak? Clearly, Christ’s fulfillment of the law was not a total exemption from keeping it. Ergo the challenge.

If January taught us anything, it taught us how much we take God’s grace for granted. Because holiness can be so hard, we default to simply admitting we’re miserable sinners, get our grace, and then get on with living our lives the way we were going to live them anyway. But if Leviticus only succeeds in making you feel bad for being such a lousy Christian, you’ve missed it’s point. Leviticus isn’t in the Bible merely to show you your need for grace. It’s in the Bible to show you what grace is for. Remember, the Israelites themselves were already chosen people before God ever gave them the law. The law’s purpose was never to save anybody. Rather, its purpose was to show saved people what a holy life looks like.

Still, you read a passage like Leviticus 19 and wonder, what’s so unholy about getting a tattoo? Chapter 19 may read like a chopped salad, yet it provides the best synopsis of what Leviticus as a whole teaches. A summary sweep of this chapter will help you understand how not mixing fabrics can be served in the salad alongside loving your neighbor. Now generally I’m not much for alliterative sermon points, but some alliteration might be useful here. Most commentators divvy up Leviticus 19 into four parts which I’m calling covenant, community, Canaan and conformity. The first section, through verse 10, focuses on covenant loyalty; the covenant being that arrangement between God and his people at Mount Sinai: Basically the Lord says, “I’ll be your God. You be my people. I’ll take care of you. You be holy like me.” Any mention of Mount Sinai naturally begs mention of the Ten Commandments, and sure enough, all Ten are reiterated in this chapter: worship no other gods, honor parents, keep Sabbath, no useless oaths, no stealing, hating, coveting, sexual immorality or lying. To be loyal to the covenant is to live by the covenant.

Verses 5-8, however, seem to go off on a tangent about peace offerings, but actually it’s a practical illustration of what keeping covenant means. The meat of the peace offering was the only sacrifice that lay people were allowed to eat. Taking the sacred sacrifice from God’s house to your house for dinner was sort of like bringing holiness home. The rules for eating the meat were clear—two days and then toss it out. Why? Because God Almighty said so. Can’t that be enough? “OK, but meat was a luxury and no family could consume that amount of beef in two days and would it be so bad to put the leftovers in the fridge for later?” You know how we can rationalize our disobedience. We do it whenever God’s will bumps up against our own will. One of our Levites-for-the-month, Paul Gardner, described chowing down on some clam chowder only to realize afterwards that he’d broken the Levitical prohibition against shellfish. Paul wrote, “I am failing miserably at the 1% of the law written in Leviticus that I am trying to keep. I can only imagine how bad it would be if I tried following everything. I now have a new appreciation for the wrath of God, though clearly this is not the position that I would want to be in.”

The peace offering was an offering of gratitude, it was a way to give God thanks. Generosity was another way. Gratitude rightly begets generosity and thus verses 9-10 turn to the Old Testament practice of gleaning. When harvesting your field, whatever produce you accidentally dropped was to be left on the ground for the poor and the alien to gather. This allowed the unemployed to enjoy the dignity of work. Moreover, the poor and alien were recognized as sharers in the fruit of the good land that God had given to everyone. Gleaning also allowed the poor to gain access to worship. Throughout Leviticus God provides discounts to the poor when it comes to sacrifice. For those who couldn’t afford an animal, grain offerings could substitute. Gleaning supplied the grain.

Mary Frances, another Levite-for-the-month, wrote how she thought “it was so cool that God made this provision for the poor. I tithe and make regular charitable donations, but I don’t have much ‘extra’ money to give away (at least I don’t think that I do, but God might have a different opinion on the matter), but I wanted to honor the command. I don’t have fields or vineyards either. But I do have a financial ‘harvest’ that is straight from God. So, for January, I decided that my ‘gleanings’ would be all of that random loose change which accumulates in various corners of my apartment and couch and purse and car and is never put to good use. I set out an empty jar, and every few days deposited the loose change into it. I’m proud to announce the grand total, which came to $20.09. I’m not so proud to admit that the $.09 got lost in the seat of my car, so I just settled on giving away an even $20.

“After much mental (and Facebook) debate about whether to hand the money over to a worthy charity that works with the poor or just hand it directly to someone who is poor, I opted for the latter. There was something that struck me about the Levitical model of just leaving the gleanings for the poor to pick up at will. So much of our giving to the poor (and I include myself in this) allows us to write a check and feel good that we have given and done our duty, without having to ever actually interact with anyone who is poor. So, I decided to give the $20 to a man that I often see begging for money across the street from my office. Leviticus says ‘leave the gleanings for the poor and the alien.’ The action is more on the part of the recipient, not the giver. In our current models of giving, we retain control over how and where the money is used, but in doing so, have we taken some much needed power and choice away from those we are seeking to help?”

The next section, verses 11-18, cover those commandments necessary for community. Many view Leviticus as God’s loom for weaving his chosen people into a choice people—a tight knit community of faith, a light and witness to other nations. The threads of love and trustworthiness, characteristics of a holy God, were to be the characteristic fabric of their common life. Lying, cheating, gossip, prejudice, injustice, hatred, vengeance and abuse—these all threatened to unravel that fabric. And thus Leviticus 19 speaks out against them. Yet because simply not lying, not cheating, not gossiping and the rest might be misinterpreted as not doing anything, Leviticus reframes the prohibitions with the positive and active alternative: “love your neighbor as yourself.”

As some of you heard me expound last Sunday night, Jesus cites Leviticus 19:18, along with the command to love God, as the means whereby every other commandment can be automatically kept. Paul and James took Jesus one step further. They said that as long as you love your neighbor, that also counts for loving God. John made the connection between loving your neighbor and loving God when he wrote, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his neighbor, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his neighbor, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”

Given the enormous implications of keeping this single command, it’s little wonder that a lawyer in Luke’s gospel asks Jesus, “Now who exactly is my neighbor?” Taking for granted that the lawyer knew Leviticus, he likely interpreted neighbor to be those Jewish members of his tribe whom he considered his brothers. But Jesus answered with a story that uncomfortably stretched the boundaries of that interpretation: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers…” If you’re like me you hate that story because all it does is make you feel guilty since most days you’re like that Levite and priest who avoided their wounded brother lying by the road. Jesus rubs salt in your guilt by having the hero be a traveling Samaritan, a despised enemy of all the other characters in the story, including the wounded man. This Samaritan took pity on his injured enemy, whom he was supposed to hate back, and helped him above and beyond what even the wounded man’s brothers would have been expected to do.

The story illustrates Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount where he preaches, “You heard it was said love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” referring to Leviticus 19. Except that nowhere in Leviticus 19 does it say to hate your enemy. It does say don’t hate your brother, which I think got twisted to mean that as long as you don’t hate your brother it’s OK to hate your enemy. But if you do hate your brother, just label him your enemy and that’ll make that OK too. You know how we can rationalize our disobedience. We do it whenever God’s will bumps up against our own will. Jesus and Leviticus both bump back by making it clear that to love your neighbor means loving those shunted to the edges of society, especially those persons we tend to ignore and perhaps even abuse for political, economic or physical reasons—the poor, the alien, the aged, the disabled. It means loving your enemy too. This is what made the Samaritan the Good Samaritan.

Verses 19-31 shift to mixed seeds, mixed fabrics and mixed animals. This third section contains those commandments necessary for surviving the depraved Canaanite culture that polluted Israel’s promised land. Not mixing fabrics and seeds was a way of reminding the Israelites not to mix it up with Canaanite pagans and their idols (who mixed up everything). It lies behind Jesus’ later warnings against mixing God and money or God and Caesar. As for shaving and tattoos, those were pagan practices too. To be counter-cultural people meant standing out, going against the status flow. Nick, another Levite, hasn’t shaven since January 1. He writes how wearing a beard “has definitely set me apart and in doing so has opened up all kinds of opportunities to talk about my faith in God. It has also made me more mindful of God’s commands and aided me in living a more holy life.” I think I might keep my beard.

Regarding the rest of the verses in this section, as far as I know, nobody in our group seduced a slave girl or degraded their daughter by making her a Temple prostitute. There was, however, a close call with sorcery and telling fortunes, something Leviticus prohibits in verse 26. Sokol, another Levite, writes “Last night I was confronted with a ‘fortune cookie’ (albeit it is more a statement cookie nowadays). I know it is a bit extreme perhaps, but I said NO to the fortune cookie last night.” One of the things that impressed us all about Leviticus was how concerned God is for the details of everyday existence. If you can’t be faithful in the little things, what chance do you have when it matters? Holiness permeates everything. Ian, another Levite, wrote that while a month of Leviticus produced “no earth-shattering moments, there was definitely one clear overarching aspect to it all, namely: I never before realized just how good I am at detaching God from my day-to-day life.

The concluding verses, 32-37, remind that conforming to God’s holiness means showing compassion and fairness toward others. There’s a temptation for a chosen person to become a conceited person, treating God’s favor as favoritism and thereby treating others judgmentally and with contempt. Verses 32-34 prohibit taking advantage of the aged and the out-of-towner, groups who remain vulnerable to mistreatment today. Leviticus commands we fear God by rising in the presence of the aged, which meant always giving up my seat on the subway, something I was surprised to see so few people doing. On one Friday afternoon, Dawn and I attended the symphony where the majority of attendees were retirees. So I stood and figured I’d have to stand for the whole concert until finally an elderly woman behind told me to please sit down.

Chapter 19 ends with commandments to be honest in business. In contemporary parlance, we might interpret this as God’s fair trade decree. While attending the Jim Wallis talk this past Tuesday night, I sat behind another Nick in our congregation, a b-school grad who is working hard to practice Biblical ethics in his own business start-up in Roxbury. He’s developing software to teach poor people to better manage their money. Two other Christian Harvard Business School graduates, run a for-profit fair-trade coffee company and donate 100% of the net profits to a Christian ministry working with the poor in those coffee-growing countries. In a day when subprime lending greed has fueled and burned out the American economy, and the disparity between rich and poor widens, the CEO of Costco, Jim Sinegal, pays himself 12 times what his typical floor worker makes, compared to most CEOs whose pay is 500 times what their employees earn. Howard Schultz of Starbucks refuses to cut employee health benefits to pad the bottom line. “We’ll cut the sandwiches before we go against our commitment to treating each other with respect and dignity,” he says. And these guys aren’t even Christians.

Ethics apply to the customer too. I ran out to grab some lunch last week while working on this sermon and the cashier gave me 50 cents too much in change. There was a long line waiting behind me as I stood there for a second, wavering. Fifty cents? What does that matter? Who cares? You know how we can rationalize our disobedience. But then I remembered Leviticus 19:13, “Do not defraud your neighbor or rob her” and explained to the cashier her mistake. She looked at me dumbstruck, as did the people behind me in line. Fifty cents? She must have said “thank you” ten times. I left thinking that Leviticus has it right. Holiness permeates everything.

In Leviticus 19, God says “I am the LORD” 15 times, more than in any other single chapter of Scripture. Leviticus gets its authority from the moral authority of God who is the Lord. If God is your Lord, then to submit to Him as Lord is to submit to him in every aspect of our life. “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.” If you’re struggling to figure out how to do that, live by the book of Leviticus and in time you too might sing with the Psalmist: “How I love your law… how sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! I gain understanding from your precepts; and therefore hate every wrong path.

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