Proper 25, Year A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Why preach on Leviticus? What do we modern Christians have to do with all of the primitive boundary-making that fills this book? Weren’t the ancient Israelites just making laws to define themselves as a people, to set themselves apart from the nations who threatened their identity? What does that have to do with us? Didn’t Jesus show us that we have a loving God, not a fearsome God who needs to be placated with obscure rituals? And we’re not obsessed with purity anymore, certainly? We don’t talk in terms of things being ritually “clean” and “unclean …” We’re too sophisticated to fear what seems out of place in nature. We’re no longer frightened beings who see lightning strikes as acts of God. We have science to light our paths. We don’t need to obey a detailed list of rules in an attempt to control a universe that we don’t understand….
Or do we? How about this headline from the news just this week: “Infection Protection: New CDC Ebola Guidelines Stress Gear Ritual.” After those two nurses came down with Ebola in Dallas, the Centers for Disease Control created “an almost ritualistic approach” to protect health care workers. "We need to increase the margin of safety," they pronounced with gravity. All healthcare workers must undergo rigorous training in exact ways of putting on and taking off gear in a systemic manner. Reading about the new regulations, they sound an awful lot like those detailed instructions in Leviticus.
Indeed, Ebola is bringing out the fear of contagion in all of us. The idea of this disease that infects us through disgusting bodily fluids, that oozes blood and melts our organs—it reaches us in the deep, dark places of our fears. They say that there are three kinds of universal human disgust: 1.) the primary disgust that is triggered by bodily fluids (sharing spit in the communion cup, for example, or stepping in dog poop); 2.) the socio-moral disgust for strangers, for those people who are “different,” who don’t belong in our circles; 3.) the strong animal-reminder disgust that occurs when we are reminded of our own deaths. All three of these kinds of disgust are triggered in us by the Ebola virus. Blood and guts, foreigners, and death: they stir up deep repulsion in us—the kind of repulsion that naturally leads us to purify, to set boundaries, to try desperately to make things right and clean again.
David Brooks described this week the parents in a Mississippi school who kept their kids home just because the school principal had traveled to Zambia, an African country untouched by the Ebola outbreak. There are all kinds of people turning up in public places in crazy homemade hazmat suits. We are now quarantining people who arrive in the United States from infected countries. I’m not saying that many of these precautions aren’t necessary. I’m merely pointing to the link between fear, rules, and boundary-making. As Brooks writes: “[What we are experiencing with Ebola] is a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand… People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid.”
Can you admit to your fear—or at least your disgust—over Ebola for a moment? Let it float around in your mind as you join me in giving Leviticus another chance. First of all, let us understand the Israelites' picky little laws in the light of our own attempts to save ourselves from contagion. When we are facing death and disgust, we all clean, and we all circle the wagons. But more importantly, today’s section from Leviticus points to a deeper reality than the uncleanness of shrimp. Today’s reading from the Holiness Code is about living out a proper relationship with God and with others in the midst of the very kind of fear and disgust that we are feeling. It’s about creating community stability in the face of our human struggle to control the dangers of this world.
“I am Holy,” begins the Lord God in our reading. “I am different, set apart! I am different not just in my power, but in my love. In the power of my love, I “brought you, my people, out of the land of Egypt” when you were slaves. I am the God who frees every captive, the God whose Love never ends. And because you are made in my image, you are holy like I am. As you are in relationship with me, you will set others free, as well. That is who you are. You will love one another and all of the creation that I made, as I love you. This divine self-definition and command is at the center of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is no wonder that the rabbi Jesus quotes it as the center of his own Good News. We are to act justly with one another because God is just. We are to be in relationship with one another because God’s very self is relationship. We are to love our neighbor because loving the other is the very essence of our God.
Moreover, this love that we are to have for our neighbor is not some kind of vague, abstract love. This holiness that we are given is not some hazy, saintly aura. According to our text, we enact God’s holy love when we pay fair wages to those who work for us, when we don’t profit off of the backs of the poor, when we forgive a grudge, when we give away part of our earnings to those who are hungry and alone. As one modern rabbi writes, an example of the holiness of loving neighbor can be as simple as promptly writing a check to the plumber who has just fixed your leaky faucet, aware that in so doing, you are participating in God’s love for the world. Leviticus brings home to us that love and holiness consist of small, real, and tangible practices. It’s like Pastor Walt Wangerin’s story about the time that he was trying to profess his deep and abiding love to his wife. “I don’t need all your grand words,” she told him. “If you love me, just make up the bed every morning!”
When Ebola came to Dallas this month, one Christian congregation was given the chance to act out of the freeing holiness of God. You see, Louise Troh, the fiancée of Ebola victim Eric Duncan, had been coming to church at Wilshire Baptist in Dallas. When she was put in quarantine, waiting to come down with the deadly disease, the people of Wilshire Baptist decided that the holiness of God called on them to reach out to her in love, not to withdraw behind safe boundaries. They agreed that it was OK for their pastor to visit her. They made her casseroles. They were not afraid of letting their pastor go to her and then come to shake their hands at the church door. “This is what we do,” everyone agreed. “We reach out in small concrete ways to our neighbor in need.”
Leviticus does not have to be used to bind and to belittle. Fear’s need for rigid boundaries and self-preserving purity does not have to control us. The call of our loving God for us to be Holy as God is Holy can free us from the fear that imprisons us. One loving act at a time.
 Richard Beck, Unclean, found at http://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2012-06/unclean-richard-beck.
 David Brooks, “The Quality of Fear,” found at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/21/opinion/david-brooks-what-the-ebola-crisis-reveals-about-culture.html?_r=0.
 David Brooks, Ibid.
 See Fred Gaiser’s interpretation of this passage, found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1004.
 Walt Wangerin, Jr. As for Me and My House: Crafting your Marriage to Last (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990).
 Gaiser, Ibid.