Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Case Study

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!

So, are you sick of Leviticus yet? As you know, 21 people from this congregation spent the month of January living by the book of Leviticus, and we chronicled our adventure on Facebook and on the church blog (both of which can be accessed through the church web site). I initiated the experiment partly so that I could stock up on sermon illustrations, but mostly to try and make sense of what God meant when he said in Leviticus “be holy because I am holy, keep all my laws and decrees.” As Christians we may be used to asserting that since Jesus fulfilled the law, we’re free to disregard it somewhat, but that still doesn’t account for all the crazy laws that showed up on the books to begin with. For instance, if you haven’t watched it on Facebook yet, Andrew made this video about affliction in the house.

Now we covered household affliction back when we looked at infectious skin diseases in chapter 14. Here’s something you might not know: the word translated household affliction or mildew is the same Hebrew word as infectious skin disease. Interesting. Here’s something else. In the case of household mildew, as you just heard Andrew read, God was the one who put it there. This may explain why the stuff is so hard to remove. But it still leaves the question as to why God would put it there. As I argued regarding infectious skin diseases, it may be that mildew served as some sort of object lesson about how impurity gets into everything. It’s the closest mention we have in the Bible to cleanliness being next to godliness. But here’s the thing. If your house was found to have spreading mildew, you had to tear it down and haul it away. Even though God planted it. It’s like the police giving you a ticket even though they drove their car into yours.

A member of our congregation stopped by last week and laid it out plain. “I don’t get the Old Testament,” he said. It’s as if the Bible presents two totally different pictures of God. On the one hand you have a Lord who gets cranky about the littlest things, seems punitive to the point of petty, and condemning things that would hardly raise an eyebrow in our day. But then turn to the New Testament and suddenly he’s playing nice, eager to shower the people with love. In Leviticus eating unclean food gets you cut off from your people, while in Matthew Jesus wonders why the religious leaders are making such a big deal about food. In tonight’s passage we read “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth,” but then in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, no, what I meant was turn the other cheek. “Come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden,” Jesus says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” But in Leviticus coming to God cost you a head of your best cattle twice a day. And that was just the cost of getting into the tabernacle. Catch one of those ordained infections and that’d cost you a month’s pay. And don’t even think about deliberately sinning. There was nothing you could do to remedy that. Living near the tabernacle was like living next to a nuclear power plant. You appreciate all the free energy, but one wrong move and you’re doomed.

Take tonight’s passage. A man from a mixed marriage mixes it up with a pedigreed Israelite. In the heat of the scuffle, the biracial man lets loose a cuss word with God’s name in it. Violation of Ten Commandment number 3. Immediately the foul-mouthed man is hauled off to Moses. We’re not given the details on what the man specifically said, only that he “blasphemed God’s name with a curse.” Now when I was growing up, saying a cuss word with God’s name in it got you grounded, but here in Leviticus the ground gets you. Moses waits for the Lord to pronounce sentence, which the Lord does, saying: “Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin,” verse 15. “Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him.”

Brian, one of our Levites for the month had this response: “Dag yo ... that’s pretty durn serious. Put to death? Stoning? No wonder why the Israelites and even modern Jews took such reverence in avoiding uttering the Name of the Most High. Unfortunately, somehow this has failed to translate so well to modern Christians, and maybe more aptly to me. Do I have the same reverence to God in all things? In my work? In my driving? In my relationships with those that I love and love me? Not really.”

Here’s one of those places where you’re really glad there’s a New Testament. In Leviticus, God commands that the blasphemer be taken outside the city limits so as not to pollute the population. Everybody who heard the man curse laid their hands on his head, ostensibly to testify against his sin and allay their own culpability. They then picked up stones and killed him. It’s a troubling passage, radically different from the one in the New Testament where Jesus cautions those eager to stone an adulterous woman that they’d best check their own records first before throwing any rocks. This despite Leviticus’ command to stone those caught in adultery.

So why does the Old Testament God sentence the blasphemer to death while the New Testament son of God cut the adulteress mercy? The answer is found in both Testaments. In verses 17-22 of our Leviticus passage, God frames blasphemy in the context of what is known in Latin parlance as lex talionis, the law of retaliation. Or better, the law of proportionate justice. “An eye for an eye” was a metaphorical way of saying let the punishment fit the crime. Few if any people literally poked out another’s eye if their own was lost. But lex talionis did assure proper recompense and compensation. For instance in Exodus, a servant loses an eye and as compensation is granted his freedom. Lex talionis saw to it that punishment never exceeded what was deserved, as revenge would dictate, nor would it fall short, as indulgence would desire. The only instance where lex talionis literally applied was in cases of premeditated murder. Verse 17: “Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death.”

But why does the blasphemer lose his life? Shouldn’t the punishment have been curse for curse? Should not God have simply badmouthed the blasphemer back? Leaving aside that to be cursed by God is to die, note that by Leviticus places blasphemy alongside murder, implying that to curse is to kill. Verse 16: Anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD must be put to death. And then verse 17: “Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death.” God puts showing contempt for his name on par with murder.

The best analogy in our day to this danger of speaking contemptuously might be the current Roger Clemens steroid circus. If he’s lying about steroid use, it’s one thing for him to lie to the media and to baseball fans, but quite another to lie to Congress. The blasphemer in Leviticus didn’t just say a cuss word, he cussed God. The punishment of the lie has to do with whom you lie to. Remember the New Testament story of Annanias and Saphira? They cheat the nascent Christian community in a real estate deal and then lie about it. Peter confronts them, “How is it that Satan has so filled your heart? You have lied to the Holy Spirit. What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to people but to God.” And with that Annanias and Saphira drop dead. Jesus could forgive adultery, but he said that anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven. In a way it’s the reason that perjury is such a serious deal. You not only lie under oath, but the oath under which you lie is an oath you took in God’s name. The shadows of Leviticus loom. No wonder Jesus said simply let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no and that anything more comes from the devil.

Wait a minute. If eye for an eye still applies. Why then does Jesus argue the opposite? “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. Turn the other cheek.” What’s that about? Understand that what Jesus repudiates here is not proportionate justice, but vigilante justice—the wrong of “taking the law into your own hands.” The very thing that those people with rocks in their hands tried to do with that adulterous woman. She gets mercy from Jesus as well as instruction to go and sin no more. OK, but then what does Jesus mean by “do not resist an evil person?” Is self-defense a sin? No, I like the way the Good News Bible translates it better: “do not retaliate against an evil person.” Because our hearts and our hurts deceive us, we cannot do justice justly as individuals. The injustice we suffer blinds us to the injustice we inflict. And thus Peter writes, “As Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, follow in his steps. …When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Paul concurs, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.

And as Leviticus 24 frightfully demonstrates, God will repay. He will execute justice against those who show contempt for his name. But if you think the Old Testament is harsh on this point, the New Testament is more severe. Turn again to the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone insults his brother is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” To curse is to kill. In Leviticus, curse God and get stoned. In the Sermon on the Mount, curse anybody and burn in hell.

Dag yo ... that’s pretty durn serious.

And it is. Words have power. The Bible enjoins us in worship to “bless the Lord,” which when you think about it is an odd notion. How can one confer blessing on the one who is the source of all blessing? The answer may imply that to curse God is such a powerful thing it could actually have an effect on the Almighty himself. If this is true, then the power it has to injure those made in God’s image is exponential. No wonder the Bible has so much to say against saying too much. The apostle James compares the tongue to a bridle and a rudder. A little bit and horses go where you direct them. A little rudder and huge ships change course. In the same way the tongue is just a little thing, but it can do big things. “The tongue is a fire,” James writes, “a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” You can come to church, angry with someone, sing the songs and say the prayers but then leave as angry as before. It’s as if your relationship with God has no implications on your relationship with each other.

We’ve all been cut to the core by hurtful words. But we’ve all done our own share of hurting too. I used to teach a graduate school course in learning theory and would employ dialogical give and take method in doing it. One day the topic of “anger” came up and I asked the class for a definition. A student responded with “mad.” I quickly retorted, “Well yeah, duh, it’s easy to throw out a synonym, but is that really a definition?” To which she seethed, “Then how about this? Anger is that feeling you get when your professor mocks and belittles your attempt to participate in front of the entire class.” Uh, yep, that would be anger.

Proverbs declares, “He who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles.” And then “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” And one more, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” It’s been said that the reason God gave us two ears and one mouth is that we might listen twice as much as we speak.

“Listen and understand,” Jesus said, “it is not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, but it is what comes out of your mouth that defiles.” Watch your mouth and you’ll see the spiritual temperature of your soul. Speech serves as a reliable thermometer for what’s going on inside.

Early on in the Leviticus experiment, Kristi realized that, “Following Jesus is difficult indeed. And I’m finding that G-d is much more patient with me than I’d ever imagined. And because of that patience, He doesn’t just wipe me out right now, but enables me (when I don’t prohibit Him) to actually follow His commands. Yesterday I had dinner with a friend, and in the course of conversation I almost “went about as a slanderer among my people”. Because of the many references to speech in Leviticus, I’ve been focusing on what I allow myself to say. I certainly do have a tongue that “is a fire, the very world of iniquity”. It “defiles [my] entire body, and sets on fire the course of [my] life. BUT, even as those slanderous words were on the tip of my tongue something stopped them. I’m sure that this small victory is partly thanks to Leviticus. I’m becoming aware that when I slander/gossip, when I speak against another by saying things about them that will damage their reputation in another’s eyes, I not only sin against that person, I also “defile myself.

“Listen and understand,” Jesus said, “it is not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, but it is what comes out of your mouth that defiles.” Watch your mouth and you’ll see the spiritual temperature of your soul. Speech serves as a reliable thermometer for what’s going on inside. But speech also serves as a reliable thermostat for controlling what’s inside too. “Whoever guards her mouth and her tongue,” Proverbs declares, “guards her soul from trouble.” Watch your mouth and you’ll see your soul. Watch your mouth and you’ll save your soul too.

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.

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.


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!

“Appetites” (Leviticus 17-18)

Well, our month-long experiment in the book of Leviticus has ended. The bacon is frying and the razor blades flying, though as far as I know, none of our Levites-for-the-month have taken to bed with their mothers. While we may toss Leviticus 19’s prohibition against shaving out the window now that it’s February, chances are good that we will still keep those laws in chapter 18 forbidding incest. But why? Why incest but not shaving? On what basis do you ignore one commandment while obeying another? This has always been the hard part when it comes to Leviticus. Shoot, it’s the hard part when it comes to whole Bible. Traditionally a distinction has been made between what’s considered cultural—applicable to a particular place, time and circumstance—and what’s considered universal and therefore applicable regardless of place, time and circumstance. Sometimes this works. Clearly for Christians, Levitical burnt animal sacrifices are now moot due to Jesus’ supreme sacrifice on the cross. But Leviticus 19’s injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself” still applies—explicitly affirmed by Jesus who labeled it the second greatest commandment, second only to loving God with your whole being.

Perhaps this is the way for us Christians to make the distinction. Keep everything in Leviticus which the New Testament expressly affirms while ignoring that which Jesus clearly fulfilled, condemned or rendered obsolete. For instance, according to the book of Acts, all foods are now clean. Circumcision has been displaced by baptism as the sign of God’s covenant grace. Jesus censured the Pharisees’ obsession with the Sabbath, condemning any practice that comes off as legalistic performance rather than heartfelt obedience. However Jesus said nothing about the Levitical prohibition against mixing fabrics and seeds. And yet we wear poly-cotton material and eat hybrid corn. Jesus also said nothing about child sacrifice. Does that mean that’s OK too?

You see the problem. Perhaps to be safe, we should simply obey everything in Leviticus that the New Testament doesn’t specifically nullify. The apostle Peter wrote, Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written (in Leviticus): ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” Likewise Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail from the law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.” “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” You know, maybe having 21 people live by Leviticus for a month was a mistake. If holiness and obedience are our callings as Christians, maybe we all should be living by Leviticus every month of our lives. You’re probably thinking, “Oh man, maybe I should have stayed home and watched the pre-game. I think I’ll just let God’s grace be enough for me.”

Yet if this month taught us anything, it taught us how much we take God’s grace for granted. Jesus stands ready to forgive us our sins and love us just as we are, does that mean we should strive to give him ample opportunity to do so? Paul skewered that logic in Romans 6. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” he rhetorically asked. Dumb question. In Christ we are dead to sin. “How can we live in it any longer?” To which we answer: Easy! This was why the law was given to begin with. It’s purpose was never to save anybody, but to guide the people God had saved by grace already into a life worthy of their salvation. God mercifully delivered his people out of Egypt and told them to “be holy because I am holy.” He then gave them the law to show them how.

Which brings us back to Leviticus. If giving it was designed to show you how to be holy, keeping it does require you to decipher its principles and make the transfer to contemporary culture. If not mixing fabric and seeds was a means for preventing the Israelites from mixing it up with Canaanite pagans and their idols (who mixed up everything), maybe in our day obedience means not mixing God up with money. Jesus did say that. Or if attention to sown seeds and worn fabrics and food was a way of showing the Israelites that God was involved in every detail of their life, maybe for us it means recognizing that holiness remains a part of our work and our dress and our eating. Ian, one of our Levites, 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.

In Leviticus 18, the problem of determining what means what has become a very contemporary and contentious issue. Ask people on the street about the book of Leviticus and if they know anything, they likely know chapter 18. Or at least verse 22: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” For those unfamiliar with the noun, an abomination is not a good thing. Verse 22 gets grouped with other acts similarly tagged as detestable: Incest. Child sacrifice. Bestiality. Most people still agree that these acts are repugnant enough. There’s also adultery. But adultery has become so commonplace that most people wouldn’t call it abominable. Unfortunate maybe. Approaching a woman during her monthly period? Hard to see how that’s an abomination. Undesirable, but not abominable. What about homosexuality? Along with incest, child sacrifice, bestiality and adultery, homosexuality warrants a second mention in Leviticus 20, there as deserving of death.

Lisa, one of our Levites, wrote on the Living Leviticus Facebook site, “Many of my gay friends (who haven't commented on my experiment yet) probably shudder at the word Leviticus whenever they see it mentioned. Why is that, do you suppose? Could it be those two damning verses?” Her question elicited this comment from a gay man in Washington DC: “I can attest that I often question my faith because of the trauma I received at the hands of Christians. Many of my gay brothers have no faith as a result, with dire consequences [such as] rampant addiction, emotional dysfunction and selfishness. If you call yourselves Christian, why are you so focused on aspects of Judaism to which Christ supposedly freed us from being obliged and from which even many Jews do not observe?”

Here again is the rub. Are these sexual “thou shalt nots” in Leviticus 18 and 20 culturally bound or universally applicable? You should know that in Leviticus 17, the focus shifts from Israel’s worship life to its ethic. Or as we like to say it in church, from Sunday to Monday. Leviticus 17 condemns contact with all things bloody because of the connection of blood to life and atonement. This informs the prohibition against sex with your menstruating wife. Interestingly, the ban on blood is one of those that the New Testament affirms. In Acts 15, converts to Christianity are instructed to abstain from consuming blood. They are also instructed to abstain from sexual immorality, referring, it seems, to the same Levitical injunctions set side by side here in chapters 17 and 18.

From the moment God saw that it was not good for man to be alone and brought Eve onto the scene, sex has been a part of what it means to be made in the image of God. Sex unites a man and a woman together as one, mirroring the inter-relatedness of the Trinity. As such, sex is holy, its power designed for the marital promises it both evokes and keeps. Marriage and sex are together so holy that they are employed as the metaphor for the relationship between God and his people as well as for the union between Christ and his church. Through marital sex, people made in God’s image participate not only in God’s intimacy but in his creativity too. Love, loyalty, fidelity, joy and children—these are the things marital sex was made for. It is a holy thing. And since God called his people to holiness, that meant being holy about sex.

And thus God speaks Leviticus 18. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.” Egypt represented the Israelites’ enslaved past. Canaan represented their tempted future. As the Canaanites were soon to be expelled from the land the Israelites would conquer, so would the Israelites likewise be “vomited out” if they indulged in a lifestyle abominable to the holy God. Of course for God to label any practice taboo usually guaranteed that the Israelites would soon be diving right in. The more perverse Canaanite culture proved to be (and this before cable and the Internet), the more Israel tolerated and assimilated it. And so just as God promised, the land puked them out. The language in this chapter could not be more condemnatory. No wonder gay people are so offended by it.

And no wonder well-meaning interpreters have attempted to work around it. Some suggest that God’s commandment against homosexuality only applies to gay sex that occurs in the context of pagan temple worship. Others say that Leviticus just means that two men can’t have sex in a woman’s bed. Some Jewish commentators limit the prohibition against homosexual practice to ancient Israelites only since they were the ones God was talking to. And because there’s no mention of lesbians, that must have been allowed. However, in all of the Levitical talk against interfamily sex, there’s no mention of father-daughter incest either. Was that allowed too? Unfortunately, the only workaround that really works is the one that has God not being the God of this Bible. Which is what some people choose to do. In chapter 20 the Lord says regarding homosexual practice, “You must put them to death.” But he says the same thing for adultery and insulting your parents too. There’s enough in Leviticus to offend everybody.

What do we do? It is interesting to note that while there were undoubtedly countless episodes of capital sin, the Old Testament mentions the death penalty actually getting carried out by the community only a few times. One is here in Leviticus 24. An Israelite “blasphemed the name of God with a curse.” The accused was not brought before a jury or even before Moses to judge, but before God himself whose justice is reputedly impeccable. The Lord passed sentence: “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all the congregation stone him.” Later, in the book of Numbers, a man was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. Numbers implies that his Sabbath-breaking was deliberate and intentional. Again the people appeal to the Lord for judgment. And the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.”

Disturbing stuff, especially since it implies that cursing God and breaking Sabbath are as bad as sexual immorality, which also implies that we’re probably all in more trouble than we thought. Holiness is very serious business. If I am comforted by anything, it may be by the fact that God passed sentence instead of the people. That’s comforting not just because God is perfect in justice, but because God can perfectly judge as to motive since he can see our hearts. But then I think of what goes on in my heart and there goes my comfort.

Whenever the topic of homosexuality and Christianity comes up, appeal will be made to the more charitable New Testament ethics of Jesus. In John 8, when confronted by those eager to stone a woman caught in sexual sin, Jesus did not join in their condemnation. Instead he thwarted their judgmental zeal by famously announcing how “he who is without sin should cast the first stone.” Predictably, everyone slinked away. However the story did not end there. Jesus then turned to the woman and forgave her, because she had sinned too, and then he said to her, “go and sin no more.” If in Christ and by his grace we are now dead to sin, “How can we live in it any longer?”

Easy. Some years ago a woman was leaving our church to move to another city. She wanted to come and say good-bye and to thank me for all the church had meant to her. She told me how she had been genuinely transformed by the worship and the sermons, how the community had been wonderful as had all of the ministry they had been privileged to participate in—and not only for her, but for her partner too. While I was glad that Park Street had been such a good place for her to be, I had to ask: “You know that our church believes the Bible teaches homosexual practice to be sinful?” She said, “Yes, and we believe everything you teach and follow it except for that one thing. In this one area of our life, because we love each other and want to be together, we’ve decided to throw ourselves on the mercy of God. And if it turns out that our sin is the unpardonable sin, so be it. We have to be happy.”

At first I was bothered by this cafeteria approach to Christianity, but then I thought, you know, that’s exactly how I deal with my own sins. Unable, unwilling to stop, I compensate by being good in other areas of my life that maybe don’t matter to me as much. It’s like that rich young ruler who told Jesus he kept all of God’s commandments, and Jesus loved him for it but told him that he still lacked one thing: “Sell your possessions and give your money to the poor, then come follow me.” Which you’ll remember the rich man could not do. He had too much stuff that he wanted to keep it. But at least he kept his integrity by walking away. The disciples, you’ll remember, were shocked by this. “Who then can be saved?” they asked. To which Jesus replied, “With God all things are possible.”

In Leviticus 18, the Lord says to Moses, “Speak to the people and tell them, “I am the LORD your God.” And then in chapter 19 he says, “Be holy because I am holy.” If the Lord is your God, there are no workarounds to holiness. To submit to God is to submit to his lordship in every aspect of our life, even when we don’t like it. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Jesus is just repeating Leviticus: “Keep my decrees and my laws, and you will find life through them. I am the LORD.”

Infectious Skin Diseases

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!

“Infectious Skin Diseases” (Leviticus 14)

As we Levites were discussing this month’s Living Leviticus experiment over dinner the other night (the exploits of which we hope you’re following through the links on the church web site), we couldn’t help but discuss those issues Leviticus raises regarding sexuality, issues I plan to address next Sunday night. I wanted to give you a heads up since I guess most of you might be watching some football game next Sunday. I would have covered sexuality in Leviticus tonight, but I didn’t want to skip what Leviticus has to say about infectious skin diseases. I’m going out on a limb here guessing that none of you has ever heard a sermon on infectious skin disease before. Am I right? Too bad, really, given our society’s obsession with perfect skin. From oils and creams to sprays, lasers, waxes, herbs, cosmetics and diets, there is no shortage of methods designed to give you a flawless, glowing complexion. For a closer look, two of our intrepid Levites, Mary Frances Giles and Kristi Vrooman, took to town yesterday and have this report.

For Kristi’s video reflections on grace being skin deep, I invite you up to the Living Leviticus Facebook site. Of course if none of these products work on your skin, turns out there’s always perfectskinphoto.com, a software package I discovered that automatically removes zits, wrinkles, cellulite, snot and unwanted facial hair from digital photos before you post them up on e-harmony or match.com. I was also interested to discover that e-harmony sponsors a Christian website for singles where one article asserted that all women in the Bible “knew the importance of having healthy beautiful skin.” I didn’t know that. I was always taught that good looks don’t matter to God. 1 Samuel 16 says, “People look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Likewise, last time I checked, Jesus did not say it was the pure in skin who get to see God, but the pure in heart.

So what’s up with Leviticus? Here, you get a big zit and not only do you get banished from God’s presence but you get run out of town. For two whole chapters God goes on and on about bad skin—everything from a rash to a pus-spewing sore. Get an infectious skin disease and God commanded that you tear your clothes, tussle your hair, cover your mouth and scream “unclean” as you made your way to the city limits. Your NIV pew Bible tries to mitigate this complexion obsession by relegating the concern to “ceremonial” cleanness; a part of the Old Testament’s tabernacle ritual now obsolete. Others suggest that these Levitical injunctions were simply God’s way of managing ancient Israel’s public health. Infections have been known to wipe out entire populations.

But Leviticus says nothing about purity being reserved only for the erstwhile Tabernacle, even though it is true that having a skin infection no longer gets you barred from church—barred from the church nursery perhaps—but not the church service. Moreover, Leviticus does not express any particular concern for ancient health and hygiene, though, again, if you stood to greet your neighbor with the peace of Christ and a hand covered in fungus, you probably received a wave offering in return. The concern in Leviticus for cleanness, an important category of Torah, remains important throughout Scripture. It goes beyond health and hygiene, and beyond the merely ceremonial too.

In the Bible, cleanness and purity are related to holiness. Holiness is that high standard to which God called his people, a reflection of his own character manifest in their interactions with each other and the world. “Be holy because I am holy,” is the way God put it. But to get to holiness, you first had to be clean. Purity or cleanness was the average, normal Israelite baseline. Chosen by God, saved out of Egypt and made his people by grace, purity was their basic identity. They were clean people, made so by God. You see the same thing in the New Testament. Jesus says to his disciples, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” The trick, however, was staying clean. Jesus warned his disciples, “Abide in me and I will abide in you… apart from me you can do nothing.” The same was true for the Israelites. Staying clean meant staying away from those ungodly things that could sully their souls. They were headed for a land flowing with milk and honey, but it was also a land oozing with Canaanite culture, a bad thing when you’re trying to stay clean. They needed to be wary.

Growing up, I always thought it silly how the kids from fundamentalist Christian families never got to go to the movies. Their parents didn’t want aberrant values and sleazy ideas getting into their heads. I’d roll my eyes at this puritanical logic back then, yet these days I sit in the movies and find myself sickened at what I’m seeing—the gory violence, the obscene sexuality, the abusive language, the drugs, the deceit—and that’s just the PG stuff. But I never get up and leave. No, just like always, I sit there and soak it all in, ironically amused by the very things that disgust me. And while no movie has yet caused me to do drugs, cheat on my wife, blow away my enemies or careen my car through city streets, surely I’ve been desensitized to these things? My soul has been sullied.

God rightly worried that his chosen people would choose to go with the perverse Canaanite flow, threatening their own identity and witness as God’s people on earth. Thus more than mere purity, God called his people to holiness, a step above the standard cleanness. He called them to be set apart, different and distinct, or as the King James puts it, peculiar. God called his people not to be conformed to this world but transformed by his grace into a counter-cultural community of righteousness and love. Purity was their identity. Holiness was their vocation. Yet because you had to be clean before you could be holy, uncleanness jeopardized everything. Which is why, I think, God made such a big deal about cleanness.

Psalm 24 asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” Answer: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” Purity goes to motivation and intent; it’s what’s going on in our hearts.

Dawn and I were down in North Carolina last week, showing off Violet to the Southern side of the family. My little brother’s daughter Lindsay, Violet’s cousin, is a high school senior and my brother, wanting perhaps to give me some pointers, shared his rules for dating his daughter. It seems that on one occasion, some boy pulled up to their house and rather than getting out of his car and coming to the door, he called for Lindsay by laying on his horn. Lindsay was on her way out when my brother stopped her, telling her in no uncertain terms that any boy who wanted to date his daughter had best respect her and her father by coming to the door and introducing himself. After blowing the horn a couple more times, the boy got impatient and called Lindsay on her cell phone and told her to hurry up. Bad move. My brother got on the phone and gave him a piece of it. Needless to say, that boy and my niece never went on that date. It’s not that my brother minded his daughter going out on a date with this boy, it’s just that my brother wanted him to demonstrate the good intentions of his affections by showing some respect, that kind of regard that signals you think of somebody as more than just a pretty face.

It’s the same with God. If you read Walter’s recent post on Facebook and the blog, you read his citation of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who asserted that purity is all about “willing one thing;” wanting God with a pure heart, with genuine desire. “Father in heaven!” Kierkegaard prayed, “Who are we without you? What is all our knowing, but a chipped fragment if we do not know You.” Yet each day, Kierkegaard despaired, “something is being placed in our way: delay, blockage, interruption, delusion, corruption.” Unclean things that make us unable and unwilling to want God.

I think all of us on this Leviticus project have discovered this to be true on one level or another. There are constant obstacles to holiness. As Ophera bemoaned on the video, holiness is too hard. Yet God does not give up on us. Knowing that holiness is best for us, but unwilling to coerce us into it, his only option is to show us how much we need it so that we’ll want it bad enough to do something about it. How does God do this? Skin infection. If there’s one thing we cannot ignore, it’s our skin. So God decides to use it as an object lesson to teach us what wanting purity and holiness is like.

Now whether you interpret skin infection as a random act of bacteria, the effects of living in a fallen world or God’s direct punishment against immorality is not the issue here. That’s a sermon for another day. The object lesson was not the infection itself, but what happened once you got it. God declared the infection unclean and ruled that you were to be quarantined from the community and from the tabernacle. You stayed outside the camp until you healed up. Now if health and hygiene been the lesson, you’d have thought that once you healed up, you could just come back to camp. But that’s not how it worked. Look at what getting back in required once your skin cleared up: you had to have a priest. Two clean, wild birds. Some cedar wood. A piece of crimson yarn. Hyssop. Fresh water. A clay pot. Some soap to wash your clothes and body. A razor to shave yourself. Three lambs without blemish. Six quarts of choice flour and a cup of olive oil. That was your ticket back inside.

Now all of these things had ritual meaning. The priest served as the intermediary between you and God. But note that the priest was not a doctor. He only checked whether you had healed up yet. God did the healing. Once healed, the priest killed one of the birds, then dipped the live bird into the blood of the first bird (all mixed with the water and the cedar and the yarn and the hyssop in the clay pot). He then took the hyssop and sprinkled you with the mixture before releasing the live bird back into the wild. The reason the bird was wild was so that it wouldn’t come back. It was sort of like a scapegoat with wings, transporting your uncleanness far away. The cedar and the crimson yarn, both colored red, further symbolized blood as life and atonement. The fresh water was literally “living water” and the clay pot represented our own frail, jars of clay-self. The hyssop plant worked like a sponge, soaking up the life and washing you with it, reminiscent of the way we pray every communion Sunday, “wash me with hyssop and I will be clean.”

You weren’t done yet though. After all that you still had to wash your clothes, shave and bathe, and then wait seven days, echoing creation. You could then come back into camp, but no getting near God until another seven days passed. On the second seventh day, you washed and shaved off all your hair, which made you look clean as newborn baby, another important symbol. On the eighth day, a day in the Bible that always signals heaven and new creation, you finally entered the Tent and offered your reparation offering of lamb, flour and oil. The whole ritual indicated the massive and glorious movement from death to life, new birth, resurrection, a new start. You moved from the realm of impurity outside the camp and were first restored to your community and then to God. You get clean and then get holy. It’s a trajectory that the book of Hebrews picks up on in chapter 12: “Make every effort to live in peace with all people and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”

Now I hope you’re a little overwhelmed by this. Hopefully you’re thinking, “who in their right mind would go through all of that?” But then again, when you’re infected with sores and cut off from your friends and your God, wouldn’t you do whatever it took to get well and make things right again? You would want that with all of your heart, you would crave with the purest desire the very thing that was best for you. You’d want it so bad that no obstacle could get in your way—no matter if it took fifty wild birds and a whole cord of cedar, you’d want to get clean and holy. Thus endeth the lesson.

Unfortunately for the Israelites, they never really learned the lesson. Instead, they confused the ritual with reality thinking that by going through the motions they could control their own righteousness. The prophets tried to set them straight. Micah famously thundered against their obtuseness, sarcastically asking, “With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? He has showed you what is good. What does the LORD require of you? To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Similarly Jesus chastised the Pharisees who refused to heed the prophets’ correction. “You hypocrites!” he said, “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence.” Another one of our Levites for the month described growing up in one of those fundamentalist families where he wasn’t allowed to go to movies. However he was allowed to watch the same movies at home on his VCR. All that mattered, it seemed, was how you looked to others. Just keep that cup and dish clean.

Psalm 24 asks: “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” Answer: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Purity is a big deal because it goes straight to motivation and intent; it goes to what’s going on inside. But precisely because of what’s going on in our hearts, we still try to fake it. Which is what makes Leviticus so important. By getting at our skin it gets under our skin and exposes us for the fakes and the failures we are. But isn’t that really a good thing? When you see yourself as you are, covered with sores and living life on the outs, all you want is to get clean and get right with God. As Kierkegaard prayed, “Father in heaven! What is a man without You! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know You! What is all his striving, could it even encompass a world, but a half-finished work if he does not know You: You the One, who is one thing and who is all! So may You give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may You grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing. Oh, You who gives both the beginning and the completion, may You early, at the dawn of day, give to the young man the resolution to will one thing. As the day wanes, may You give to the old man a renewed remembrance of his first resolution, that the first may be like the last, the last like the first, in possession of a life that has willed only one thing.”

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.