A sermon delivered by Chris George, First Baptist Church, Mobile, Al on February 20, 2011.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-12, 17-18, 33-34
A few months ago, I read an engaging book entitled, “The Lost City of Z.” Written by David Grann, the book traces the story of the legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett who, in 1925, disappeared with his son while looking for an ancient lost city in the Amazon. I was amazed by the boldness and courage of this man, willing to walk into dense jungles that had rarely, if ever, been visited by other explorers. Like Lewis and Clark during their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase, Fawcett also went to map new territory. Along the way, he discovered breathtaking waterfalls and many creatures that had previous been unknown to the outside world. Along with nature’s miracles, he found some familiar faces as well. Huge hordes of mosquitoes and countless insects would descend each night to torment the expedition. But, it was a price he was willing to pay to have an adventure. There is something exciting about the idea of going somewhere where few have been, isn’t there?
This morning, we have the opportunity to visit some rarely explored territory. For I would venture to guess, even for life-long Christians, the pages of Leviticus are some of the freshest in your entire Bible. We rarely travel to this outpost. Pencil marking, notes in the margins, and highlighted passages fill the books of Genesis and Exodus. But, when we turn on the page to Leviticus, we discover that we are suddenly leaving our comfort zone and venturing into the unknown.
Leviticus is a graveyard for New Year’s Resolutions. For each January, many resolve to read through the Bible in a year and cruise through Genesis and Exodus. Then, each February, the many become the few as people try to trudge through the book of Leviticus.
Leviticus is the Bermuda Triangle of the Bible, many go in but few will ever make it through.
Leviticus is like 4am, we know it is there, but we never really want to see it.
To illustrate the point, a Jewish rabbi once told his congregation, “I know few of you have read from Leviticus and my sermon next week will be on that book. So, to help you better understand, I would like you all to read the 28th chapter of Leviticus before next week.”
The following Sabbath, the rabbi started his sermon by asking, “How many of you have read Leviticus 28?” Seeking to please the rabbi, every hand in the room went up.
The rabbi smiled and said, “Leviticus only has 27 chapters. I will now go on with my sermon about on the sin of lying.”
Although I am not going to ask anyone to raise their hands, I suspect few of us in this sanctuary have read through the entire Book of Leviticus. Leviticus represents not only one of the least read, but also one of least preached on books in the Bible. Sermons on Leviticus are almost as rare as snow in Mobile. It can happen, it just doesn’t.
For congregations and clergy alike, this book is often dismissed as a historical record of ancient purity codes which is both boring and outdated, right? And yet, if we are Baptists, if we are “People of the Book,” we cannot completely ignore the difficult texts. We cannot conveniently dismiss problematic passages or simply skip some of the scriptures. Instead, we must have the courage not only to read the easy passage, but also to wrestle with the hard passages.
It may not get any harder than Leviticus. We are reading a book that contains incredibly detailed accounts of what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable according to the ancient Jewish Holiness Code. The laws range from obscure to obvious, from common sense to bizarre, from wise to just weird. People are told never to plant two different kinds of seeds in the same field and never to wear a garment made of two different types of fabric. People are warned against eating fruit from a tree that is less than five years old. Many types of meat are forbidden completely and no meat may be served rare. In the category of strange, people are told never to consult with witches or wizards. Men are told never to cut their hair or trim their beards. Finally, and perhaps most troubling, the “blind” and “lame”, the “hunchback” and the “dwarf” are not allowed to approach God’s altar.
So, let’s be honest, Leviticus is a strange book in so many different ways. We don’t have to try to explain or endorse every message included in this text. Our goal in reading is not to justify an ancient code of ethics. But, instead, we should be willing to try to understand and to look closely seeking God’s wisdom in the most overlooked book in the Bible.
Our scripture text this morning begins with a verse that may help us better understand the purpose of the Book of Leviticus. God tells Moses to deliver a message to all the people of Israel. The first words of this message are not a declaration of a new law, but instead an invitation to a new life and a new way of life.
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
In a real sense, the entire Jewish Holiness Code and the Book of Leviticus is written as an attempt to fulfill this calling and achieve this purpose. All the laws of Leviticus are written not as a burden on the people, but rather a blessing to the people. The idea is quite simple. If you want to live a holy life, you will follow these guidelines.
Although you and I may disagree about the details, we may not understand or feel called to obey every nuance of the ancient Jewish Holiness Code. We still worship a holy God and are called to be holy people. Moses addresses the whole of Israel, not just the priests or the hired holy men. Moses says to everyone, “You shall be holy.” And Moses calling to Israel in the past, is God’s calling to all people in all places at all times. We are commissioned to be holy people, because we are committed to following a holy God.
The Call to Holiness may sound strange for many in the modern world. Holiness requires us to sacrifice for others, to life selflessly instead of selfishly, to set ourselves apart and embrace a different set of values than those in found in our society. See, far too often, in our world, we are not encouraged to follow the pursuit of holiness, but instead the pursuit of happiness. We sold a lie that that purpose of our lives is to achieve happiness. Anything that does not make us happy is viewed as a threat. Happiness, not holiness, is considered the ultimate end. Material possessions promise to bring it. If we buy the right things, we will finally feel fulfilled. Sadly, do you know the most common cause of divorce in our country? One partner simply says, “I am not happy.” Marital vows that promise fidelity in good times and bad, in joy and sorrow, are forgotten, because all that matters is a person’s happiness. Even in the church, the most popular ministers and messages do not touch upon holiness, but an individual’s happiness. Altar calls are not invitations to “carry the cross” or “follow Jesus,” but instead to find happiness.
Oswald Chambers was a different kind of preacher. He is most famous for his devotional text, “My Utmost for his Highest.” His life was not filled with happiness, but trials and troubles. He passed away at the young age of 42, dying of a ruptured appendix in Egypt. He suffered for three days, but did not seek medical attention, refusing to take a hospital bed needed by wounded soldiers. His words are timeless and laced with the wisdom of Leviticus. Defying society’s values, he wrote, ”Holiness, not happiness, is the chief end of man.”
We were created in God’s image to be holy. It was what God calls us to be and to do in our world. And, although we may disagree with some of the methodology in Leviticus, we should never miss this message. If we follow God’s calling and commands, our lives become consumed with wholeness and holiness.
Venturing further into this unknown territory and this rarely read text, we discover an important ancient practice of gleaning that points us toward a timeless principle of generosity.
“When you reap the harvest, don’t reap to the very edges. Don’t gather the fallen grain from your fields or the fallen grapes from your vineyards. Leave them for the poor and the alien.”
In a society obsessed with getting, the concept of gleaning seems foreign indeed. We are called to leave behind something for others. We are not only encouraged, but actually commanded to care and provide for the needs of those in poverty. We are told to set aside a portion of our fields, or in our case, our income to be given to others without expectation of return on this investment.
Gleaning was not only included in the Holiness Code, it was practiced in ancient Israel. Many of us remember the story of Ruth. This poor widow, without husband, property, or even food to prepare a meal, went to the field of Boaz to “glean” the wheat that had fallen to the ground. The Israelites took God’s calling seriously and so should we.
Instead of grasping for every last cent, gripping tightly all that we have been given, we are to share generously and intentionally with those in need.
There is an old saying, my grandmother repeated frequently, “Find a penny, pick it up. All the day you have good luck…” But the gleaning practice teaches us the opposite. It says, “Take a penny, take a dime, take a dollar…Don’t pick it up, lay it down. Leave it behind and you will find a blessing.”
What does Gleaning look like in the modern world?
Perhaps, we can learn from Jan Pope, who writes about her father Ray who was a railroad inspector. She says, “I have many fond memories of my dad, and the final one was in January 1967, after he died at the age of fifty. Walking into the funeral, I noticed a row of impoverished men, dressed in what must have been their finest clothes, sitting in silent, sad attention. These were the hoboes who hung around the railroad station, where Dad worked as a car inspector, and there were there to honor the man who supported them for so long.”
“For years, he had been bringing home square glass ashtrays that he had purchased from these men who had nothing. We also had a large unnecessary collection of flyswatters that Dad had also been buying from these men who had nothing. He always had money for them…He believed that, like anyone else, these men deserved to be treated with dignity.”
Ray spent his lifetime gleaning along the railroad tracks in Minnesota. Although he never had a lot, he always found a way to share with those who had even less. In the process, Ray embodied the Holiness Code and practiced generosity.
We in this place have been given much. Few of us may have land on which we can glean, but all of us have resources we can share generously with those in need. God’s calling this morning is for us to find a way to glean in our world.
As we read this texts, we may discover that Leviticus is not so outdated. In fact the words in this text speak to our world. In these ancient practices, we can discover principles for our own lives.
Jesus certainly didn’t view Leviticus as irrelevant. In fact, he quoted from Leviticus when asked for a summary of the Jewish law. In verse 18, we read words that are familiar because we heard them from Jesus. However, we discover that he was repeating this ancient wisdom. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Do you remember when Jesus used this quotation? It was right before the story of the Good Samaritan. The man asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the classic parable.
Leviticus asked the same question, “Who is my neighbor?” The writer responds in verses 33-34.
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you: you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
So, our neighbor is not only someone who lives nearby, but someone who comes from outside of our community or even our country inside. Our neighbor is anyone and our neighbor is everyone. And, we are called to love even these as we would love ourselves. This calling is a radical expression of God’s grace extended to all people.
What does it mean to love the alien, the foreigner, the immigrant, legal or illegal, as we love ourselves?
In some ways it is an uncomfortable question. In some ways, I wish it never had to be asked. But, if we are to take seriously the text of the scriptures and seek understanding, we must have the courage to ask difficult questions like this one. We must be willing to read and to wrestle.
We may not always find easy answer. Those who venture into uncharted waters often find challenge. We will never understand all of Leviticus and that’s okay. This morning I think we understand a little more. We have discovered a new calling to wholeness and holiness. We have revisited the ancient practice of gleaning and rediscovered the importance of generosity. We have dared to ask difficult questions that defy simply answers. It really has been quite an adventure.
We may never really love the Book of Leviticus, but I hope we have discovered that behind all the laws, no matter how strange, is a Holy God that extends to us Amazing Grace. And, following that God is not only our life’s calling, but also Life’s Greatest Adventure.