Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, February 23, 2014
“Holiness in the Hood”
[Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48]
The book of Leviticus is rarely used in preaching. Sit down and read it sometime. You’ll discover a lot of “shalls” and “shall nots” and intricate details of Jewish laws. However, this passage transcends all times and places and is remarkably similar to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. No doubt Jesus was dipping into his knowledge of Leviticus.
The Lord speaks to Moses, saying: gather the people and tell them…. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…” How would YOU define holy? [Allow responses.] It’s a word not in great circulation these days… and normally is only associated with God, not people. The word appears in the name of some churches: “Pentecostal Holiness Churches…;” but you won’t find it popping up on Facebook or twitter or in the newspapers.
It’s a sacred concept…like purity. For me it evokes silence, awe, and worship. I want to bow my head down before the One who is holy. It is the custom of people in India to touch the feet of One who is a visionary, or a prophet of God. In our cynicism – can we even imagine a contemporary example of holiness? Who is holy? Doesn’t it seem almost blasphemous to associate “holiness” with a person, rather than with God?
If you listen to the qualities of holiness described in Leviticus, you may be surprised. When you reap the harvest of your land, don’t reap every section; leave the edges of your field un-harvested for the poor, the foreigner or the alien. Don’t gather fallen grapes from your vineyards, but leave them for the poor.
Leviticus cites “economic” practices in the context of holiness, like don’t defraud your neighbor. And an employer should not keep the wages of a day laborer until morning, but rather pay them immediately when their job is done, because many day laborers need that day’s wages to eat their evening meal. To hold their money until the next day would deprive him or her of food.
You shall not render unjust judgments by showing partiality to the poor or to the great. FINALLY, right here buried in the legal documents of Leviticus are the words Jesus teaches the crowds: You shall LOVE your neighbor as YOURSELF. (Lev. 2:18)
Right in the middle of Jewish LAW we stumble on the command to LOVE your neighbor as yourself. That’s mind-boggling. Legal systems don’t process “love” well; love rarely appears in legal treatises and decisions. You won’t hear about love in Supreme Court decisions, because no one can legislate love!
Let’s fast forward to our New Testament Lesson. Jesus doesn’t lower the bar of holiness, but raises it higher. Jesus says: “Be perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48) Perfection is right up there with “holiness”— utterly unachievable! In fact, I often describe myself as a “recovering perfectionist” – because striving for perfection can be an unhealthy addiction, leading to self-righteousness or “holier than thou” attitudes.
Let’s hear Jesus words in Matthew 5 afresh! Many people simply discard Matthew 5:38-48 as irrelevant or unrealistic in our time. Others fear Jesus is wrong, which feels uncomfortable. So we sweep this passage right under the carpet and ignore it.
This passage continues the pattern: “You heard it said, but I say to you…” Jesus says, you have heard it said: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say: DO NOT RESIST AN EVILDOER. Are you kidding, Jesus? People nowadays are carrying revolvers for self-protection and they even shoot first and analyze the situation later. Is Jesus naïve? What was he thinking? People have tried hard throughout the history of the church to dismiss, rationalize or re-interpret these words in ways that are less offensive to the reader.
However, as people who uphold the authority of the Bible, especially the words of Jesus, we need to recognize that “Matthew’s Gospel as a whole and the Sermon on the Mount in particular, insists Jesus means EXACTLY what he says.”
Disciples of Jesus Christ are to love their neighbors AND their enemies just as they love themselves, because we are DIFFERENT than the rest of the world. We are called to exhibit the very character of God. When disciples LOVE THEIR ENEMIES, people take notice. Children of God look different and act differently than others. The goal of discipleship is to “be perfected” in Christ, which is a life-long journey, and perfection is a gift more than an achievement.
Jesus words’ are counter-cultural, counter-intuitive and RADICAL. We’d love to “erase them” from Matthew’s Gospel, because loving our enemies is painful. It’s not natural to offer the other side of your cheek to be smacked. Won’t we go broke if we practice what Jesus recommends?
In each of the examples Jesus cites, LOVE governs the disciples’ proper response at the expense of their own individual rights. Jesus commands non-retaliation in the presence of evil. And in the face of human need disciples are urged to forfeit their own rights to their own stuff.
How could WE as a congregation love our neighbors and our enemies, regardless of their behavior? I have no “concrete answer,” but I am posing the question: How we can bring God’s holiness and perfection to our “hood.”
Holiness is practical, not other-worldly: like leaving fruits and vegetables in our fields, so that the poor and the strangers can feed themselves. One particular church, named Love Fellowship Christian Church in Decatur, Illinois, sponsored a 3-day event called, “Holiness in the Hood” in 2008. They invited everyone in the community to gather in love and unity for a basketball tournament in the church parking lot; where they listened to rap music on the church steps; and enjoyed hamburgers and hot dogs in the side yard. Several hundred people enjoyed free snow cones, popcorn and games of musical chairs. They wanted to build a bridge between the church and the community.
When I googled “Holiness in the Hood” – there was also an article, criticizing that event. The source was written by “Atheist Revolution” – crying foul because “Holiness in the Hood” included 2 worship services on the front and back ends of the event. “Atheist Revolution” blasted the church’s “evangelistic motives” ….preferring to take “the holy” part out of the hood!
I clearly support the church for having worship services as the book ends of their event, because there is no “holy” without God and there are many neighborhoods, including this one, where the holy has disappeared from the hood. Church people “huddle” inside sanctuaries as if they are storm shelters, rather than taking God’s holiness directly to the streets.
Empty, shut down businesses in St. Pauls are not featured on the cover of the St. Pauls Review, but today on the cover of our bulletin is a picture of a boarded-up business. It’s not a picture of our neighborhood, but it could be.
Is it easier to love people who live in well-kept homes with landscaped yards and bird feeders? Sometimes. But God wants us to carry God’s holiness to the whole ‘hood’– even the trailer parks where trash is strewn in the yard. That’s part of our neighborhood we’d rather ignore.
Extending love to folks considered “unworthy” is a mark of God’s holiness. Being perfect is less about keeping the whole moral code and more about loving people who are broken, addicted, stuck or suffering. Such folks normally avoid church on Sunday mornings. They feel guilty, unworthy, drained or too weak to drag themselves into an environment where people are wearing their Sunday best.
Something akin to “holiness” shines from a 900-page novel called Shantaram, a novel based in India, written by an Australian man, Gregory David Roberts who was sentenced to 19 years in prison for armed robbery. He escaped from prison and lived 10 years as a fugitive in Bombay, where he met a jovial and loving fellow named Prabaker, who invited him to his home village where they had never met a foreigner before. To make a long story short, the main character in the novel, modeled on the writer, describes himself as a “fighter” all his life, who wore a mask of menace and hostility. He writes that the message of his face and his body’s movements was: “Don’t mess with me!” [Although he used a stronger word than that.] But in Prabaker’s village, they didn’t recognize his fighting mask and found everything he did beautiful or funny, loving or playful. The character realized he was being given a chance to reinvent himself. Prabaker’s mother, in consultation with the women in the village renamed him: “Shantaram,” which means “man of God’s peace” – the very antithesis of the way he had lived his whole life up to that point. The novel is beautiful and also extremely violent and full of crime, because Roberts “fiction” arises out of his life experiences.
In Prabaker’s village, Prabaker’s mother and father adopted him and gave him a new identity. He writes: “They nailed their stakes into the earth of my life, those farmers. They knew the place in me where the river stopped, and they marked it with a new name. Shantaram Kishan Kharre. I don’t know if they found that name in the heart of the man they believed me to be, or if they planted it there, like a wishing tree, to bloom and grow. Whatever the case, whether they discovered that peace or created it, the truth is that the man I am was born in those moments… the better man that, slowly, and much too late, I began to be.” (pp. 136-137)
Holiness is lived out in communities & neighborhoods, where people love without distinction, where people share what they have no matter how simple. Later in the novel the main character takes up residence in a slum after all of his money was stolen. Prabaker finds him a spot and gives him a new home “at no charge.” Before long he becomes the medic, cleaning wounds and helping the sick to the best of his ability.
I witnessed an example of “holiness in our hood” this week. A group called “Teens in Christ” meets at 7:30 a.m. every Wednesday morning at St. Pauls High School. This week one of the seniors gave her testimony. In front of her peers she admitted that when her grandmother died, she became very angry and fought with everyone. She was also a victim of bullying. When her world was crashing, her family challenged her to find her worth and wholeness in Jesus Christ. This young woman wouldn’t score high on a grammar test, but her faith was mature beyond her years. That was a holy moment for me.
Our holy God loves sinners. That same God invites us to be holy and perfect: by loving those who persecute us, or slap us on the cheek or sue us, or beg from us or borrow from us. Loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us has a “holy glow” to it.
What if we invited the whole town to lunch one Sunday every month? That might surprise folks, but the idea has a “holy glow” to it. If you are asking the question, how would it benefit us? – You are asking the wrong question. If it brings glory to God, it might spark a little holiness in our “hood.” If we could give without any strings attached, I wonder what God could do here.
Holiness in our Hood would be a beautiful thing! Let us pray!
Kimberly L. Clayton, “Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18: Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. I, p. 367.
Greg Carey, “Matthew 5:38-48: Exegetical Perspective” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 383.
Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003) p. 136-137.