Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Holy Love

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!

Holy Love (Leviticus 19)

Given the sad event of last Sunday night in Arizona, my guess is that many of you now wish you’d come to church instead. Alas for Patriots fans, it was pretty disappointing. The Super Bowl loss surely wasn’t what I needed just coming off of last month’s Leviticus experiment. January had been disappointing enough. As you have probably read and heard if you followed the Leviticus experiment up on Facebook or the church blog, you know that for most of the month’s Levites, trying to keep Levitical law was a lesson in futility. Leviticus jammed our failure in our faces like the defensive front four of the Giants. All I can say is it’s a good thing it’s Lent. At least that way we can feel disappointed about our failure and call it a spiritual discipline.

In regard to the Lenten-like weight of Leviticus, Brandy, one of our Levites for the month, wrote: “My usual response to Leviticus—and to many of the situations in which God has placed me in recent months—has been to say, ‘This is unfair, this is so hard; why are you making me do this? If you weren't just trying to be unkind to me, you’d make this much easier.’ The trouble is, sin is always waiting for that opportunity to come in when I open the door to saying that I shouldn’t have to do what God says or be where he tells me to be. Whether it’s through depression and despairing thoughts, or the chance to engage in sexual activity that I shouldn't, or the chance to be mean and judgmental instead of loving, or the chance to neglect my responsibilities at work or at home; when I am fighting God instead of submitting to him, not only am I increasing that distance between us that robs me of my peace, but I am also making room for wrongs that always come at a cost. God may exercise mercy toward me, but there will still be consequences for that choice to resist him.”

If January taught us anything, it taught us how much we take God’s grace for granted. As with the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel, Jesus stands ready to forgive our sins. But Jesus also is clear that once forgiven we should go and sin no more. “Be holy because I am holy,” is the way the Lord puts it in verse 2. The standards on the other side of grace are high. Remember, the law’s purpose was never to save anybody or make anybody holy, but instead to show saved and holy people what a holy life looks like. God saved his people out of slavery in Egypt and set them apart by grace. He then gave them the law to show them how to live the life they’d been set apart for.

Of course for us Christians, determining which parts of the law still apply is a challenge. Sure, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross renders burnt offerings moot, but what about eating blood or mixing seeds? Prohibitions against child sacrifice, incest and dishonoring parents would still seem relevant, but if those, then why not shaving? How do you decide what to obey and what to ignore? Where do you draw the line? Well, since we tackled that last Sunday, this Sunday, I’d like to tackle the opposite problem: How it is we ignore what we know we’re supposed to obey. Actually, identifying the Levitical commands we know we’re supposed to obey is easy. It’s easy because there’s only one of them. Leviticus 19:18—“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said that as long as you love God too, keeping the command to love your neighbor automatically keeps everything else. Paul and James took Jesus one further. They said that as long as you love your neighbor, that also counts for loving God. “Whatever other commandment there may be,” Paul wrote to the Romans, “they’re all summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” James called it the royal law. John made plain the connection between loving your neighbor and loving God when he wrote, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”

Given the huge implications of keeping this single command to love your neighbor, it’s little wonder that a lawyer once asked Jesus, “Now who exactly is my neighbor?” Most of us know Jesus’ answer, or at least we know the story Jesus told as an answer: “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 bad. You hear Jesus describe the religious people who passed the needy man by, and you think, “dang, I do that.” Jesus then rubs salt in your guilt by having the hero be a traveling Samaritan, a despised enemy of the religious folks not to mention the man in the ditch. This Samaritan took pity on the injured man he was supposed to hate back and helped him above and beyond what anybody would have been expected to do.

It’s always interesting to note that in telling this story, Jesus never answers the lawyer’s question. The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus answered, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” The lawyer wanted to draw a line. But Jesus dissolved all lines. By centering his reply on the loving acts of a Samaritan, whom faithful Jews would have considered a heretic, Jesus underscored the fact that proper boundaries and right belief never substitute for compassionate action. “To love your neighbor” is not about defining the object, “neighbor,” but about doing the verb, “love.”

Symbolically set at the midpoint of the Pentateuch, “to love your neighbor,” serves as the pinnacle command of all Torah. Again, Jesus, Paul, James and John all affirm this, making Leviticus 19:18 the most important command of all Scripture. Obedience is not optional. Therefore during my Levitical month especially, it behooved me to make sure and comply by loving my neighbor. But since I don’t think Jesus meant for me to wait until I happened by someone beaten and robbed, I decided to go with the traditional definition of neighbor; namely, the people who live nearby. Now we all know that we live in a culture (and certainly a city) where our neighbors are mostly unfamiliar to us. I have tried to get to know my upstairs neighbor since we all share a house, but I think still she’s a little weirded out by my being a minister. She refers to herself as “the pagan” in my presence, and generally tends to pass me by on the other side, for fear I’ll evangelize her or something. But actually this was OK for January since Leviticus forbids contact with pagans anyway.

So this left me with our neighbors who live on each side. On our right side lives an elderly woman I've never met (and only seen once). After a snowfall I was shoveling my sidewalk, and I saw that her walk wasn’t cleared, so what better way to love my neighbor than to shovel her walk too? So I did. I also knocked out verse 32 which commands that we respect the aged. Again, loving your neighbor takes care of the rest. On our left side lives a couple who just birthed twin boys. We’ve said hello over the fence in the summer, but that hardly counts for love, so what I decided to do was to have Dawn put together a baby gift and I’d take it over. I knocked on the door and the understandably harried mother answered. She looked at me suspiciously, having no idea who I was, until I introduced myself and gave her the gift, which only made her more suspicious I think since neighbors are not supposed to be so neighborly. Whatever. Check off loving neighbor number 2.

Now I could have stopped there, feeling all righteous and obedient as I did, except that that night, at two in the morning, after Dawn and I had wrestled our four-month-old Violet to sleep and settled down for our own long winter’s nap, the upstairs pagan party girl embarked on a loud bit of pagan revelry. We didn’t know what she was doing, but whatever it was, it clearly involved intoxication, slam-dancing and her Labrador Retriever. She made such a clatter that I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. I swear she was going to come crashing through the ceiling onto our heads. Aggravated and angry, I threw on my clothes, stomped up the stairs and banged on her door demanding to know: “What the heck is going on up here? It’s two in the fricking morning!” Looking totally wasted, she grunted and groaned, though she must have comprehended something because the ruckus stopped. Either that or she passed out. And we haven’t talked since. Though I wonder if she felt some remorse, because she has been taking out the trash—significant if you remember last year’s sermon on my trash problem or have read the annual report.

Later, I did feel bad for yelling at my neighbor. But then I read verse 17: “Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in her guilt.” By telling pagan party girl to pipe down, I was being obedient to God and didn’t even know it!

Verses 17 and 18 actually work together as a couplet with each phrase of verse 17 corresponding to a phrase in verse 18. “Do not hate your brother in your heart” in verse 17 goes with “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people” in verse 18. “Rebuke your neighbor frankly” in verse 17 goes with “love your neighbor as yourself” in verse 18. And “do not share in her guilt” in verse 17 goes with “I am the Lord” in verse 18. The first phrasal pair presents the prohibition: “Do not hate, do not bear a grudge, do not seek revenge.” The second pair presents the positive alternative, “rebuke frankly and love.” The final pair gives the reason for doing the positive alternative: “Otherwise you’ll be guilty and because God said so.” So you see, By telling pagan party girl to pipe down, I was not just being obedient to God, but I was loving my neighbor too.

Only I hated her the whole time I was doing it. To love may include bringing grievances into the light, but only if the goal is not humiliating the person with whom you are aggrieved. You rebuke in order to forgive and reconcile. But few of us ever rebuke with these goals in mind, which is why I think Jesus took it up again in his Sermon on the Mount. “You heard it was said love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” Jesus preached, 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. And if you do hate your brother, just label him your enemy and that’ll make that OK too. It’s the old Torah two-step. Bearing a grudge was now obeying the law. Only Jesus stopped that music and made it clear that to love your neighbor meant loving your enemies too. This is what made the Samaritan the Good Samaritan.

But what if your loving rebuke fails? What if your neighbor scorns your forgiveness or refuses reconciliation? What then? Jesus answered that question with a question. “If you only love those who love you back, what reward will you get?” he asked, “Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your friends, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” No, Jesus says, you be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Which was just Jesus’ way of saying, “Be holy cause because the LORD your God is holy.”

Yet because holiness can be so hard, our tendency is to do our own version of the Torah two-step, the most popular being to treat God’s commands as idealistic. We’ll claim that the Bible sets the bar so high that we’re forced to cry uncle and concede our need for Jesus, leaving any actual obedience out of reach because it’s idealistic. As long as you’ll simply admit you’re a miserable sinner, you can get your grace, and then you can get on with doing what you were going to do anyway. But I don’t think Jesus really intended loving your neighbor or your enemies to be idealistic. Just like when God told the Israelites in verse 16 not to spread slander, I don’t think he meant it’s OK as long as you think the slander is true. Or when he told them to leave the gleanings of their vineyards for the poor, it wasn’t with the caveat, “unless you’re still hungry.” The same with Jesus. Loving your enemies is not idealistic. You can do that. It’s hard, but you can do it.

This is where grace comes in. In the doing. The grace that forgives us our debts against God is what makes it possible for us to forgive others’ debts against us, and when we fail to do it again. Early on in the Leviticus experiment, Kristi posted this piece from Catholic mystic Thomas Merton: “It is not complicated to lead the spiritual life. But it is difficult. We are blind, and subject to a thousand illusions. We must expect making mistakes almost all the time. We must be content to fall repeatedly and to begin again to try to deny ourselves, for the love of God. It is when we are disappointed at our own mistakes that we tend most of all to deny ourselves for the love of ourselves. We want to shake off the hateful thing that has humbled us. In our rush to escape the humiliation of our own mistakes, we run head first into the opposite error, seeking comfort and compensation. And so we spend our lives running back and forth from one attachment to another. If that is all our self-denial amounts to, our mistakes will never help us. The thing to do when you have made a mistake is not to give up doing what you were doing and start something altogether new, but to start over again with the thing you began badly and try, for the love of God, to do it well.”

If reading Leviticus only makes you feel bad for being such a lousy Christian, then 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.

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