Raleigh Mennonite Church
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
The words of Leviticus are caked in sand. They are words read in the aching heat of midday. The words of Leviticus are read between meals of manna, bread from heaven, as monotonous days stretch into weeks and years.
These are words that tell about a way of life, words that prepare a people for a life they do not yet possess.
The Hebrews have escaped from Egypt, led from slavery into the wilderness. But they are here for a while, captives now to the desert and wandering for forty years.
But God is getting them ready, preparing this people for a new life. So God gives the people the Law, instructions for life.
Leviticus is a blueprint for God’s people, a kind of temple the people will construct with their lives, and the cornerstone of this temple is justice. It’s the law that will distinguish God’s people from the place they have come from and the place to which they are going.
The God of Israel is always in the act of dividing things up like this: day from night, waters above from waters below. And now God will divide the people, make them distinct from those around them. No longer like the Egyptians with their golden gods and temples constructed through slavery; no longer like the Canaanites with their child sacrifice and temple prostitutes.
In church we don’t encounter this dividing-up Levitical law very often. And if you’ve ever glanced through the book of Leviticus you might understand why. It’s a strange world, so different from ours. On Sunday morning we don’t spend a lot of time on what to do with a crushed limb, the specifics around rescuing animals on the Sabbath or mixing different textiles. We don’t puzzle over whether or not we should eat bats. And we strenuously avoid graphic descriptions of nocturnal emissions and oozing sores and menstrual blood.
For much of church history, Christianity considered the book of Leviticus irrelevant for our lives as followers of Jesus. When early missionaries translated the Bible often they simply left this Leviticus out, erasing it from the canon.
I’m guessing that the lectionary writers preserved the verses we heard today from Leviticus 19 because they easily fit into New Testament ethical patterns. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But even here, among principles that sound like they might work for us, that make sense to us, rules like pay fair wages and don’t steal and give to the poor – even here some of those strange commandments slip in:
The lectionary leaves out a couple verses, like this:
“When you offer a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord, offer it in such a way that it is acceptable in your behalf. It shall be eaten on the same day you offer it, or on the next day; and anything left over until the third day shall be consumed in fire.”
And we stopped today’s reading before we got to this:
“You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.”
Every once in a while it’s important for us to hear these commands, to get into the strange world of the desert-dwelling Hebrews. Every once in a while we need to be reminded of the kind of life the Hebrews would live when they finally got into the promised land.
There’s a Rage Against the Machine song called “Know Your Enemy.” And that’s the song that would be playing behind the book of Leviticus. The enemies Israel has to know are the cults, the gods of Canaan and of Egypt. But unless you know your enemy, it’s easy to become like them. Leviticus is a chorus chanting out the evils of these cultic practices.
But Leviticus also teaches us that holiness is more than keeping yourself uncontaminated. Instead, purity is a ritual that embeds justice in the body. Purity for Israel was a constant lived reminder that everything matters to God, that God gets into everything.
And right smack in the middle of the book is chapter 19. It forms the crease, the place where the pages fall open. Leviticus 19 is the cornerstone, and that cornerstone is justice. And so it’s here that Leviticus repeats the same words over and over again, more times than anywhere else in the law: “I am the Lord.”
Mary Douglas says these words are like precious jewels, scattered around the pages of the chapter, decorations that cause you to catch your breath when you encounter them, hold them up to the light.
“I am the Lord.”
The laws, the rules, the regulations – all of this is about getting into God’s life, getting inside of “I am the Lord.” It’s a book about getting inside of God’s world, making a world that looks like God’s justice. What the Hebrews knew in Egypt–what they will encounter again in Canaan–are gods of stone and steel, gods set up to exact punishment and reward, gods who are cruel and demanding. Worst of all, these gods are powerless hunks of rock and metal.
That’s not Israel’s God. Adonai, the God who sets captives free, who feeds in the wilderness, who brings the Hebrew to the other side of the Jordan. The law is how to inhabit a life like God’s life.
And in God’s life there is always enough. The edges of the field are full for those who are in want. In God’s life the elderly and the sick are honored and celebrated. In God’s life people tell each other the truth, work out the hard feelings in their hearts, treat those who are deaf and physically atypical with dignity.
“I am the Lord your God,” Leviticus 19 says over and over and over again. “Here it is!” the chapter shouts, “This is what God’s life look like.”
We also find out that God’s life changes form depending on where and when we live. Did anything else sound familiar about the words we heard today?
Keep the Sabbath.
Don’t make idols.
It’s the Ten Commandments, only tweaked a bit, but at the core the same words given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Now those commandments have flesh on the bone, muscle and sinew giving God’s life strength and shape.
Leviticus shows us how God’s law is dynamic, taking on new forms, facing the new challenges of the time and place in which God’s people will live.
Because there are no grapes in the desert. But vineyards are coming. And so are neighbors, neighbors who are different and strange. There isn’t a temple, or animals, but all that is coming, too. In the tents in the wilderness there are no workers, no one to hire to work the fields. But all of that is about to happen. Soon there will be new spaces for God’s life to stretch out, new spaces for justice and mercy to spread into the cracks and the corners.
We’re always in the process of figuring out what God’s life looks like here, how to take these words passed down to us and to understand what they mean today. What are the idols? Who are the enemies? Where do we see the cornerstone of justice? How does our life echo back those words: “I am the Lord”?
The work given to us is to continue to ask those questions, to sit together and work out where and how we are hearing God get into the nitty gritty of our lives. We’re always reworking these words, how to set aside the edges of our field, how to pay the laborer a fair day’s work.
And we get into trouble when we won’t do this work, when we let the words get stale, when we pluck them off the page.
This week a Valentine arrived on the front steps of some of my neighbors in Durham. Two interlaced hearts in swirly font proclaimed “Love your own race!” and “Stop homosexuality and race mixing.” It was a recruiting mission by members of the KKK. I couldn’t help but notice that in the corner, in the same saccharine lettering, were the words “God’s Laws Don’t Forget!”
But that’s what this ugly hate mail was. It was forgetting God, forgetting that the cornerstone of all of God’s law is justice, that you can’t build the house of God’s life without setting this stone first.
In the Bible that’s what happens. God’s people get ahold of the law and they make it ugly. They use it to swindle and cheat. The oppressed become the oppressors. God’s people break God’s law. They forget the cornerstone of justice, and turn their separateness into boundaries that damage and disfigure.
What the KKK doesn’t understand is that God’s law isn’t about remembering or forgetting words on a page, picking out a few verses and throwing them like rocks at those who are different than you. It’s about asking new questions in every age and every generation, of learning to recognize both God’s life and the enemies of God’s love.
So in a minute we’re going to stand up and say the words we said earlier, only this time putting flesh on the bone for our world today, the world of Leviticus 19 no longer for a people waiting in the desert, but for a people now, ready to see God’s life spread into the world.
You are those people, God’s life stretching through you, God’s justice stretching out into the world, God’s love stretching you into the life of your neighbor. You are the ones God has called, the one’s whose lives proclaim, “I am the Lord.”