Unharvested Edges

Posted on Posted in Teri's Blog

 

The Rev. Teri Daily

 

A sermon on Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18 and Matthew 5:38-48…

 

Some things have a bad reputation—whether they deserve it or not.  My list of top contenders when it comes to “things that get bad press” includes politicians, fruit cake, pit bulls, licorice, lawyers, and the state of New Jersey.  And add to that list the Book of Leviticus.  There are two volumes of books that many children decide at one time or another in their lives to read cover to cover—the encyclopedia, and the bible.  Most of us who tried to tackle the encyclopedia on numerous occasions growing up found ourselves very familiar with aardvarks but knowing almost nothing about angelfish.  Similarly, many of us have read the stories of creation, Adam and Eve in the garden, and Noah and the great flood.  Fewer of us have read straight through the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt, and only the heartiest of souls have slogged it out all the way through the social, ethical, and cultic laws of Leviticus.

Maybe the road block we encounter is purely an issue of length—twenty-seven chapters is no short story.  Or maybe it’s that the laws in Leviticus don’t seem all that relevant to us today—after all, what harm is there in eating shrimp, don’t most of us wear clothes made of a blend of fibers, and why can’t different kinds of cattle share a field (it actually seems like a peaceful, idyllic thing to do)?  Or maybe it’s that some verses from Leviticus have been used to exclude and condemn many among us, and so we fear opening up any of its verses for further study.  Whatever the reason, we often end up brushing aside the entire book of Leviticus.  In fact, despite the fact that Leviticus is said to recount more words from God’s mouth than any other book in the bible, we only read from Leviticus on Sunday morning twice during a three-year lectionary cycle.  And so when Leviticus does come up as a reading, I always feel compelled to preach on it.

Today’s passage from Leviticus comes from a section of that book known as the Holiness Code; it’s a section of the book focused on what it looks like for God’s chosen people to live a pure and holy life; it is a block of scripture that some see as the heart of the Torah.  In fact, it literally forms the core of that sacred scripture—Leviticus is at the center of the first five books of Hebrew scripture that make up the Torah, and the Holiness Code forms the heart and soul of the book of Leviticus.  In this part of Leviticus, we catch a glimpse of how a people who were bound through a covenant with their God lived that covenant out with God and with one another.  And looking past or maybe through some of the seemingly irrelevant codes of Leviticus that hardly resonate with most people today, the gist of it all is absolutely timeless and simple:  Be holy, because your God is holy.  Be holy, because your God is holy.

So, what does it look like for Israel to be holy as God is holy?  According to today’s reading, it looks like leaving some of the harvest for the poor and the alien, and not gathering all of the grapes on the vine or those that fall to the ground.  It looks like honesty, rendering to others what is due them, treating everyone with integrity despite social situation or personal preference for one person over another, holding one another accountable, forgiveness, and love.  And if this is how God calls Israel to be holy like the Lord is holy, then we can learn a lot about who God is from these instructions in Leviticus.  Leave some of the harvest and the fruit for the poor and the alien—for your God is a God of abundance, who cares alike about each and every one of us, rich or poor, Israelite or foreigner.  Treat everyone equally, showing no partiality—for your God is an extravagant God who causes the “sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  Love your neighbor as yourself—for your God is a God who loves the world so very much that God does not hold back even God’s own self from God’s people.  See, our holiness is not about following a set of rules just for the sake of it.

Our holiness is important because, in a beautiful but broken world, it’s a reflection of God’s goodness and God’s holiness.  In the words attributed to God in the book of Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  In Jesus’ words from the gospel of Matthew: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It is the same sentiment.  In fact, what Jesus is doing in this section of Matthew is reinterpreting Jewish law for his own time and place.  He doesn’t do away with the law; he remains in conversation with it even as he reshapes it.  That’s how tradition works.

Today’s passage from Leviticus instructs the Israelites to love their neighbor—to care for their kin, the poor, the strangers.  Jesus widens the definition of neighbor in Matthew to include even the enemy.  Jesus says it is not enough to seek retribution only in proportion to the wrong done; one should also turn the other cheek and give your cloak as well as your coat and walk a second mile.  This is what being a reflection of God looks like, Jesus says.  (It’s worth noting that this is not a “giving in to evil”; it is a form of non-violence resistance.) [1]

Just as Jesus did in his day, we, too, are to reinterpret scripture for our own time and place.  So if what we see in Leviticus is a picture of what it looked like to be a holy community in ancient Israel, and if what we see in this passage from Matthew is what it looks like to be a holy people in first century Palestine, then what does it look like for us to be holy as God is holy?  What does it look like for us, as children of God, to carry on the family tradition?  Most of us don’t have fields.  And not all of us are in the same position when it comes to money and possessions—perhaps we find ourselves barely scraping by, worried about money each and every day, afraid that if we were to give up the gleanings of our fields it would be hard for us to put food on the table or buy the things our children need for school.  Maybe our time is so tight that we fear giving up one more night, afraid it would mean not doing the things we consider essential to our life; there seem to be no gleanings left from our day, our week, our month to take the time to walk yet another mile.  Maybe our heart has been hurt and we fear for those around us, so much so that the idea of loving and praying for enemies seems like an impossibility.  We don’t have the kind of emotional reserve that it takes to love that way—there just doesn’t seem to be anything left that can be gleaned from our hearts.

Perhaps, here, it’s important to step back and take an honest look at our lives.  In this world based on consumerism, on the illusion that we always need more than we have, a world where we are living on the edge when it comes to our wealth and our time and our heart—it’s easy to start believing that we can’t leave the edges of our fields unharvested.  But is that really true?

This passage from Leviticus tells the story of an extravagant, impartial, self-giving love—a love strong enough to make even us holy and loving and “perfect” too.  It tells the story of the deep well of God’s abundant love, a well that we can draw from when our own resources are bone dry.  That’s really the only way our souls can become a reflection of God’s infinitely wide soul.  Just imagine… What could happen in the world if we truly believed our life was full enough to leave edges that others could harvest?

 

[1]  I owe this thought to the Working Preacher Sermon Brainwave Podcast #525, https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?m=4383&pdc=3.

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