Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Leviticus Sermons Continued

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!

Things Left Undone” (Lev 5:1-13; 6:17-23)

Watching the Patriots dismantle the Jaguars last night, I couldn’t help but think that Tom Brady would make a decent Levite: Unshaven with perfect skin, nearly perfect in execution, sacrificial in his approach to the game. Of course this month everything I look at looks Levitical. Which is the point. As you know, I’ve embarked on a reality sermon series from the arcane Old Testament book of Leviticus, which means that rather than simply talk about it, I’m trying to live it out 24/7 for the month of January—albeit as a 21st century Christian—me and 21 others from this congregation. It hasn’t been easy. As Kim, one of the Levites, wrote on Wednesday: “I sit here defeated. I am one week in and a failure. Even when I try to do it right I not only fall short but fall down. I am a poster child for grace. I need it and I need it bad.” Granted, such feelings are in part the law’s intent. Yet there is also an upside. As Nick, another Levite, added, “There is a connection between closeness to God’s Law and closeness to God Himself. I have heard many in our group tell how much they have learned about God, how much more they fear Him, and how much closer they feel to Him.” On a lighter note, obedience can bring unexpected happiness too. As Ian wrote, “I have just discovered that Slim Jims contain chicken and beef, yes, and all manner of questionable soy-based products, yes, but NOT pork. You have no idea how happy I am right now.”

It has been an enlightening journey thus far—one that you’re invited to follow and participate in yourself online. Our tribe of Levites diligently posts their exploits daily on both the church blog and the Living Leviticus Facebook site—you can access both through the church website (www.parkstreet.org/living_leviticus ). Because this is a reality sermon series, we want full congregational participation. Your comments and observations matter. So if you haven’t done so already, please check out the blog and join the Facebook group and add your insights. And ask your questions too. Leviticus raises plenty of those, as Andrew makes clear in this day one pep talk…

Reading through Leviticus, and especially the first seven chapters’ regulations regarding animal sacrifice, you quickly note that the type of sin covered is regularly categorized as unintentional or inadvertent. In its verb and noun forms, the word denotes an error or mistake, something you did which you did not mean to do or may not even have been aware you did in the first place. The picture is commonly one of a sheep that has strayed, having lost its way. Yet Kristen, another Levite, rightly struggled with this concept of unintentional sin. She wrote, “I’d always learned that ‘unintentional sin’ was a contradiction in terms. There can be a difference between what is objectively wrong and what carries moral guilt. You certainly can do wrong actions unintentionally—but sin is always, always, always knowing and intentional. If it isn’t knowing and intentional, it isn’t sin.”

Well, not exactly, at least not according to Leviticus. According to Leviticus, sin is sin whatever you know it or not. There is a righteousness woven into the fabric of the universe that when violated requires atonement. Justice demands it. The wrong things we do by mistake or by accident are still wrong. And thus, because the goal is holiness, Leviticus provides a means for dealing with the mistakes. Chapter 5 gives several examples of these mistakes. There’s the eyewitness to injustice who keeps his mouth shut when he should have spoken up. Not getting involved is not loving your neighbor. A second example has to do with brushing up against a dead carcass or touching an animal that moves on the ground. Coming in contact with the unclean things of this world can defile you even when you don’t realize it. Watch enough violence in the movies or play enough violent video games and your whole aversion to violence diminishes. A third example has a person promising to do something and then failing to follow through on the promise. We do this all the time. I’ll call you tomorrow. I’ll see you next week. I’ll take care of it don’t worry. And then, oh, I forgot. I meant to but something came up. Leviticus says all of these things rip at the righteous fabric of personal and community life.

I committed an unintentional sin this week. Didn’t mean to do it. An important pastoral duty required immediate attention and the minister who normally does these sorts of things was out of town. Usually this would be no problem. We have plenty of pastors who could fill in. And any of us would have done it if nobody else could, but the problem this week was that the nobody was everybody. The other pastors’ own schedules were unusually full, there was nobody else who could fill in. Still, somebody needed to do it which meant that somebody’s commitments were going to have to be completely reshuffled. We figured that the fair way to decide this would be the Biblical way; namely, draw lots, which in our case meant pull a name out of a hat. So I wrote all our names on cards, including my own, and proceeded to draw Dan Verrengia, our Minister for Pastoral Care, which meant that he would now have to cancel all of his counseling appointments for the rest of the week in order to take this other responsibility.

Personally relieved, knowing that now I’d be able to finish this sermon, I emptied the contents of the hat into the trash, and discovered to my horror that in fact I had neglected to write my own name on a card by accident. I wasn’t in on the drawing. It was a mistake. An unintentional sin.

For me, my knee jerk reaction in such cases is first to feel bad, but then to mitigate that bad feeling through rationalization. Here’s where labeling something an accident or a mistake proves helpful. If is was an accident, unintentional, then it’s not really my fault. It’s no big deal. And any other month I might have let it go at that. After all, I did have a sermon to write. But as this is my Levitical month, and Leviticus clearly declares every sin a big deal, I knew that my workaround would no longer work. To call something an accident does not get you off the hook. An excuse is not the same thing as atonement. Still, the good thing about unintentional sin is that it does get you preferential access to atonement. Make a mistake and in Leviticus there is a remedy for it.

But there’s also an irony. The ready remedy that Leviticus provides is the remedy that we rarely take. I’m not talking the public sacrifice of a goat or two pigeons, but its modern equivalent; namely, the public confession of our sin and reparations for it. Perhaps for the same reasons of busyness, or our persistent minimizing of the effects of our actions on others, or our own faithless rationalizations, we don’t make things right with God or our neighbor. It takes too much time, and it takes too much courage to do it. Genuine remorse and genuine apologies are difficult things—especially for sinful people. But Leviticus demands that we act quickly to admit our sin, remedy our wrongs and fulfill our obligations. To do otherwise contaminates not just the people we love but also the communities we inhabit.

Leviticus 6 depicts further examples of unintentional sin, one of which stuck me in the gut. Verse 2 mentions “sinning and being unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving your neighbor.” Of course I’m reading this just after I dumped the hat full of names into the garbage. But c’mon, what are the odds that my name would have been drawn? There were 8 names in that hat. Maybe I should just draw again. But I can’t do that. The other ministers have already counted on keeping to their own commitments now. What was I to do? Living levitically, I had no other option. Verse 5: “You must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day you present your guilt offering. And as a penalty you must bring to the priest, that is, to the LORD, your guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value.”

I had to go confess to Dan. I’d done him wrong. (If you’d like to witness my actual confession and Dan’s actual response, watch the video on the Facebook site: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=6151008075 ) Here, suffice to say, Dan concurred that I had sinned (he called it a pretty big one) and agreed that yes, the proper restitution would be my assuming the pastoral duty. And that as a penalty, since sacrificing a sheep would be against the law, I could just take him to lunch somewhere they serve lamb (the priests got to eat the leftovers of the reparation offering).

But you know, even though I now had to readjust all my plans, as well as take Dan to lunch, I felt great. I knew that knowing what I did, letting Dan take the responsibility and cancel all his appointments would have left me with a nagging burden of guilt. Something between us would have been lost. When we know the right thing to do and don’t do it, there’s always a sense of loss; a lessening of who it is we know God has redeemed us to be. We live in a society that helps assuage guilt by labeling it unhealthy and unnecessary. We’re told to forget about it; forgetting too the hurt and harm we’ve caused other people. Leviticus thus demands a purification offering, but notice what gets purified. The blood of the sacrifice is sprinkled on the altar of the Tabernacle—the very symbols of God’s presence. It’s as if God himself has been contaminated by our wrongdoing too. In our sin we besmirch his name. We dishonor our calling. But we don’t have to live with that. We can fix it. Leviticus points the way. Confess your sin and make things right. Repent, restore and reconcile. It’s the right thing to do.

And not only is it right, but as with Ian and his Slim Jims, obedience can bring unexpected happiness. Restitution is a crucial step in repentance, not only because it repays the victim, but because it displays your genuineness. And that’s no small thing. The next day, Dan approached me to tell me he’d take on the pastoral duty. He’d actually decided this earlier, and as soon as he did, the appointments he was going to have to cancel cancelled themselves. God sort of worked things out. Praise the Lord. Though I still have to take Dan to lunch.

But what if I’d left my name out the hat on purpose? What does Leviticus say about intentional sin? You know, the kind of sin most of us commit? For that, you have to turn to the book of Numbers. And the news is not good. There, the Torah says that for those who sin deliberately there is no atonement. That person is to be “cast out …completely cut off and suffer the consequences of their guilt.” The Old Testament sacrificial system had no provision for forgiving intentional sin. You could sacrifice a herd of bulls and a thousand flocks of goats and never squeeze a drop of mercy out of the whole bloody mess. This stern judgment is what prompted the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews to write: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” If it had, Hebrews asks, wouldn’t the Israelites have knocked off the sacrifices? Wouldn’t their feelings of guilt have stopped? But as it was, the sacrifices persisted, and so did their sin—to the point where even God couldn’t stand being around his people any longer. By the time of Ezekiel, God had had enough and left the Temple. If the Most Holy God was ever to dwell among his unholy people again, something would have to give.

This is disturbing. And if your view of God is not a particularly high one; that is, if your tendency is to see God as “the big guy in the sky” rather than the awesome, fearful Most Holy Author of the Universe who dwells in unapproachable light, then chances are you’ll simply write off the whole sacrificial slaughterhouse as a primitive, revolting, barbaric and nauseating enterprise. Which it was. But the reason it was so revolting, barbaric and nauseating was because human sin is revolting, barbaric and nauseating to God. And that’s just the unintentional stuff. We’re all poster children for grace. We need it and we need it bad.

Which is where the gospel comes in. Something had to give, so God gave. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son as the sufficient sacrifice, that he might forgive your trespasses and remember your sins no more. In Christ they are done and died for—the unintentional and intentional both, the deliberate as well as whatever you do by mistake. The enormous mass of cattle blood and guts sacrificed throughout the centuries merely hinted at the enormous sacrifice of himself that God would make to save your soul and change your life. But this does not negate the Levitical law. It only affirms its beauty. Having been saved out of Egypt, the Israelites were already God’s people when God gave them Leviticus. It was by grace they were saved, through faith. The law was given to guide them into maturity of faith, to show them how to live a saved life. More than guilt, it’s mercy that motivates our making amends.

Kristen writes how the whole thing made her think of Zacchaeus, the extortionist tax-collector, who had committed tons of intentional sins. Jesus comes into his house and boom—repentance, restoration of what he unjustly took (plus a hefty penalty), a changed life.” Something that centuries of cattle blood and guts was never supposed to do. Only Jesus. To make this last point a bit more visibly, here’s a closing shot from another one of our Levites, Thomas.

If you have some sin in our life tonight, it’s contaminating you, the people you hurt, and the community you inhabit. It contaminates God too. You need to confess it and make amends. May God’s mercy motivate you to do just that.

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