Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 19, 2017
“Another Week of Chaos”
Leviticus 19: 9-18 – Common English Bible
When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest. 10 Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.
11 You must not steal nor deceive nor lie to each other.12 You must not swear falsely by my name, desecrating your God’s name in doing so; I am the Lord. 13 You must not oppress your neighbors or rob them. Do not withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight. 14 You must not insult a deaf person or put some obstacle in front of a blind person that would cause them to trip. Instead, fear your God; I am the Lord.
15 You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly. 16 Do not go around slandering your people.[a] Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed;[b] I am the Lord. 17 You must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you don’t become responsible for his sin.[c] 18 You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
Jesus said, “Everyone then, who hears these words of mine and acts on them, will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rains fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.”
The house stood because, when it was time to harvest, they left grain on the edge of the field for the poor. Because, when they gathered up the grapes, they left some behind for the immigrant. Because they did not lie to each other. Because at the end of each day, every laborer was paid what was owed as their wage. Because they didn’t mock or insult the disabled or put a stumbling block in their way. Because they didn’t stand around and watch while their neighbors blood was shed.
The rains fell and the floods came and the winds blew and beat, but the house didn’t fall because it was built on rock.
Then Jesus said, “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rains fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall!”
The house fell because all the grain was taken and all the grapes were plucked; nothing was left for the immigrant and the alien. Resentment grew for being expected to take care of the poor. The house fell because when it was time to cut the budget, it didn’t affect those hoarding all the grain and grapes. The first item was to gut Medicaid and Medicare and social security. Next it was the schools, services for the disabled. But the budget had to be cut in order to afford the expense of deploying 100,000 National Guard troops outside vineyards, to catch immigrants gathered on the edge of fields, and coming out of churches, to catch them and separate their families. And lie about it. And then slander the people who tell the truth – calling them enemies of the People.
The rains fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall. Oh, how great was its fall.
The wisdom story of two houses – one built on rock and one on sand. Jesus used this story to finish a very long and very thorough description of love for one’s neighbor. Starting with Blessed Are and then reinterpreting a series of “You have heard it said,” such as, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I say, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” You might call it a sermon in which Jesus used Leviticus as his text. It is a terrible falsehood to condemn the Old Testament as a book of Law and Judgment and the New Testament as a book of Grace and Love. The law is a description of the conditions for love. Love is not a feeling. Love is a verb. Love is what you do. And it includes things as impossibly big as “do not oppress your neighbors” to as astonishingly specific as “don’t insult a deaf person.”
And the point Leviticus makes throughout, all of these actions represent the holiness of God. These are not burdens to fulfill but descriptions of the love of God, to be lived through every person of faith. We are told: Be holy as your God is holy.
In fact, that is how Leviticus 19 begins: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This was not a word for the priests and those in high authority but specifically for “the whole congregation of the people of Israel.” And if you act in this way, you shall be holy, just as God is holy.
While it may seem so, holiness is not an impossible standard. It means “Your will, not my own.” We could think of it as “surrendering.” It doesn’t mean giving up but rather not trying to stand alone. Watching the news it would seem that the forces of intolerance and ignorance are attempting to wear us down and tire us out through the shock and awe of chaos. Our mistake would be to try to go it alone because on our own, we might indeed wear out. But standing together among the whole congregation of the people of God, our house shall stand and each individual in it.
Surrender might sound like giving up. And after just 4 weeks of this administration and all of its non-stop chaos, some of us are about ready. Surrender might sound like the ultimate verboten “weakness.” But surrender is joining together, finding strength in solidarity – because it’s true, we will not last if we rely on ourselves as individuals. And we can only be holy because God is holy.
The “holiness” spoken of throughout Leviticus is not an individual human achievement. Only because God is holy, can we be holy. “Your will, not my own.” But we must be clear: pursing holiness means “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” And specifically, that means: Leave behind grain for the poor. Don’t gather up all the grapes. Leave some behind for the immigrants. Pay your laborers. Don’t insult the deaf. Don’t lie or slander people. Don’t hold a grudge. Don’t stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed. I am the Lord. Be holy as the Lord is holy. And if so, your house shall stand.
Watching the news, in some ways it looks like the house is already crumbling. And the solutions offered to fix the house are to double down and pursue every initiative that will further weaken the foundation – instead of supports for immigrants, innovative new restrictions against them; instead of supports for the poor and elderly, punishments for the crime of poverty; instead of breaking down barriers for the disabled, complaints about laws to protect them… And lies and slander. Pointing fingers and assigning blame. Then whipping that blame into suspicion and hatred of our neighbors.
Just look at the list of items in Leviticus that make for holiness and see in how many ways we are going in the opposite direction. How long can the house stand?
On one of the preaching blogs a few weeks ago a fellow preacher asked, must we have to respond every week to something new the president has done or said? His point was that doing so means the president is dictating the content of our sermons. Ironically, however, letting scripture determine the content of our sermons every week (as it should), scripture has not allowed us to ignore what happens in the world every week. It seems like God will not let us off the hook for the content of the holy word, the sacred scripture. This text from Leviticus was set for this Seventh Sunday after Epiphany long ago. I didn’t have to go looking for a counterpoint to the news today. It found us.
And it insists, as the rains fall and the floods rise and the winds blow and beat against the house: You MUST love your neighbor as yourself. You MUST love your neighbor as yourself. We MUST keep insisting on this. Every week, no matter how chaotic. If every week something is done or said to contradict this, we MUST proclaim again “Love your neighbor as yourself” which is the fulfillment of: Be holy as the Lord is holy.
But lest we point out the sliver in our neighbor’s eye instead of the log in our own, there is that little matter of hate. In verse 17, we might find ourselves comfortable in our role of protest and resistance: to “rebuke our fellow citizens so we don’t become responsible for their sin.” Pointing out injustice. It’s just that pesky sentence before it… “You must not hate your fellow citizen in their heart.” Or hold a grudge or plot revenge.
Leonard Pitts wrote an incredibly powerful column this week. A proud member of the UCC in Florida, I heard him speak at our General Synod. He often writes incredibly poignant columns and this one was no exception entitled “Mr. President: Who the hell do you think you are?” On point in so many ways about being accountable to the people. On point except in one way that is terribly tempting to all of us (or maybe just to me): Describing the president as having a furry orange head. Certainly worse things have been said. And of course Mr. and Mrs. Obama and their children were described as apes and worse. But we simply cannot harbor this kind of sentiment for our fellow citizens. We must love your neighbor as yourself. We must pray for them. Describing Mr. Trump’s physical attributes. Slut shaming Mrs. Trump. It’s tempting and fun. It’s a way of letting off steam. And it is not holy. It takes away from the just cause of immigrants and refugees. And they are not served.
Every day I have to think about what I say and post and ask if it is becoming of the holiness of God. For in every way, we must insist upon the love neighbor as our self. And if we do, our house shall stand. And the cause of the kind of open, inclusive, just and compassionate world that Jesus proclaimed will move forward without detours off into claims of false victimization, like “Everyone is being so mean to me.” No, Mr. President. You’re policies are mean and harm the very people loved by God – specifically named in the Book of Leviticus: the poor, immigrants, those who are deaf and blind, laborers. Anyone who is our neighbor.
No matter the context of that week, we must persist in proclaiming: love your neighbors as yourself. That is the only way our house shall stand while the rains come and the floods rise and we are beaten and battered by the winds of diversion – look over here while our neighbors are dragged away over there.
And so, now off to another week of chaos, ready to try to live this commandment again. And again next week, if necessary. And again, and again. Be holy as our God is holy.
 Matthew 7: 24-28
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world