John 4: 5-42
About a week ago, a friend of mine and former intern at this church, Jessica McCrea got her first tattoo. I know because she posted it on her Facebook. After serious reflection, she decided to have on her forearm the words “Nevertheless, she persisted.” For those who do not understand the reference, approximately 1 month ago there was a debate in the U.S. Senate about cabinet nominations. Democrats were opposing some appointments and Republicans were in favour. Some would say there is nothing special here, just politics as usual. However, at one point, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech was terminated against her will by the leaders of the Senate. When asked why they used an arcane rule to stop her, Senator Mitch McConnell answered: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
These few words have stricken a very sensible chord with numerous women. Many can see themselves and their personal experience in these words because they have been shushed, quieted or told they are too much, they are not enough, they are doing it wrong, they are disturbing established rules… Many still remember to be instructed early in life that little girls needed to be seen, not heard. Many has been “advised” by a group of men to smile a little more and dress differently if they want to get something achieved. And when it does not work, these men usually come back and say, “We told you, but you did not listen to us. You had to be stubborn and do it your ways. Well, too bad for you. This is what happened to those who refused to be a good little girl.” The expression ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ has become for strong women everywhere a new mantra, a new slogan of resistance for those who are called nasty and loud for just being themselves.
We come to today’s passage from the Gospel according to John with all this cultural and societal baggage. Ha! The story of the Samaritan woman. It’s a classic for churchgoers. We believe we know it so well that that we barely pay attention to it anymore. Jesus and his disciples are on their way back to Galilee after a short trip in Judea. They have to go through Samaria and we know that Jews did not share things in common with Samaritans. It’s a hot day. In the village of Sychar, Jesus decides to rest by a well. The disciples go for food. Then, Jesus sees a woman and asks her to give him something to drink. By doing so, he crosses gender, ethnic, political and religious borders. What a great story!
Maybe… It is just that we have been told countless times that the Gospel according to John is different from the other ones. The first three Gospels focus their attention on chronology and events of Jesus’ life. The fourth Gospel is all about symbols, allegories and metaphors. Just last week, we met Nicodemus who taught he actually had to go back inside his mother to be born again. By this story, we are led to understand that we need to look beyond a literal interpretation of Scripture. However, only a chapter later, when it comes to the story of the Samaritan woman, we seem to forget all of it and we revert to read this Gospel at the first level.
It was about noon. A Samaritan woman comes to draw water at Jacob’s well and we say aha! This woman should not be there in the middle of the day because back then water was usually drawn during cooler times, like mornings and evenings. This must mean that there is something wrong with this woman. She must be an outcast from her village. She must have a shady past. She most have been shunned. Even if, like I said before, the Gospel of John is highly symbolic; it is the one in which Jesus said, I am the Light of the World; previously Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus during the night and remain in the darkness because he does not understand his message; and at noontime, where there is the most light, the Samaritan woman meets Jesus and discovers he is a prophet, it does not seem to matter. Even if there are millions of reasons to go back to a well during the day, like she ran out of water sooner than planned, she broke her water jar or she was too busy to come early in the morning, it does not seem to matter. She is not where we expect her to be. She is not behaving according to the norms of her society. There must be something wrong with this Samaritan woman.
Usually, when someone looks for a justification, our bibles could be very helpful. Verses 17 and 18: Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have right now is not your husband.” And once again we say aha! I knew it. She is a woman of little virtues. Even if King Solomon might have had 700 wives and 300 concubines, no respectable woman would have had 5 different husbands and living with another without being married. Even if the Second Book of Kings, chapter 17, tells us that after the Assyrians invasion, Samaria was colonized by people of five foreign nations, worshipping five different gods and during Jesus’ time, the Samaritans were closer to the Jews without being in essential agreement – 5 husbands and 1 not quite married with – it does not seem to matter. Even if in ancient times and still today there are plenty of reasons for someone to have multiple relationships during one’s lifetime, like her husbands died, she has been abandoned, divorced or being an unattached woman forced her to live with a man who could protect or provide for her, it does not seem to matter. She is a nasty woman without morals. She is a whore. She is a prostitute. She needs to repent and change her sinful ways and only a man called Jesus can save her.
The Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well most likely had a past… like all of us have one. We all have moments in our lives we would prefer to forget or erase. We can also assume that the Samaritan woman was not necessarily rich, powerful or highly educated as today’s women can be. She knew her status in her community. She had been told the rules of her society. She had been instructed not to talk or interact with Jews males. Nevertheless, when the opportunity for an open conversation about the hot-button topics that divide Jews and Samaritans from one another shows itself, she persisted. She disregards expectations and cultural norms in order to embark with Jesus on a journey of discovery.
When the disciples come back with something to eat, they cannot believe what they are seeing. They are dumbfounded that Jesus would speak to a Samaritan woman. While they are still scratching their heads about their master’s behaviour, the disciples do not notice she already had left everything behind and she is sharing of the new life she has just found. Nothing predisposed the Samaritan woman to speak about faith or proclaim the good news. There were many reasons the leaders of her village could have invoked to ridicule or silence her. Nevertheless, she persisted and the Samaritan woman became the first missionary in the Gospels.
We often believe that one characteristic or story can define an individual. Sometimes we think that life would be simpler if everyone could be identified, organized or put in a few predetermined boxes. We like to assume that all the ENTP of this world thinks this way and the ISTJ behave that way. That is where stereotypes come from and we all know from experience their limits.
Jesus seems to understand that the Samaritan woman is someone more than what people believed or expected. For this reason, he sees her. She exists for him. She has worth, value and significance, a treatment different from which the Samaritan woman is accustomed.
Today, as we are reading this famous passage, we are challenged to ask ourselves about who we do not see. Who are we defining by one single visible characteristic? Who are interrupted, shushed or silenced by our society or in our churches? Sadly enough, the list could be very long: those who are racialized, disabled or homeless. What about linguistic minorities, recovering addicts or women who simply want to take their rightful place in a men’s world? Our call is not to develop politically correct policies or wondering if we have the time or means to include more people in our structures. Our call is to reach out to people beyond stereotypes and clichés. Our call is to connect and build bridges with individuals who are not necessarily meeting our expectations or corresponding to our desires. Our call is to help every human being, not to become what we want them to be, but to achieve the full potential God gave them.
The Samaritan woman we meet in the Gospel according to John is the spiritual matriarch of all the nasty, loud, persistent and fearless women from across the centuries. In a world that would like nothing better than silencing her, she stands her ground. She crosses boundaries. She defies assumptions. And by doing so, today she gives hope to all the nameless people of this world because nevertheless, she persisted. Amen.
John 3: 1-17
Like most of my colleagues, I try to remain current with the actual state of the Church and its possible future by reading many books and articles. For some reason, it seems these days that I only come across texts like “the 5 mistakes congregations keep repeating”, “7 lessons for ministerial success” or “the 10 characteristics of thriving churches”. These articles are usually well written by knowledgeable people. However, I personally struggle with these reflections because they tend to reduce religion, faith and spirituality to a simple list of visible actions, decisions and characteristics. We know that life in itself is complex and there are many aspects of our existence that are not tangible or can be experienced by our human senses. We cannot touch or hear love, but it surely exists and we can witness its manifestations in our world. In the same way, God cannot be seen or tasted, but we believe the Holy One is present in our midst and works through and beyond our structures, processes and human intellect. Despite the attempt of a few religious leaders of our world, God cannot be boxed, controlled or restricted to only one way to be the Church.
In the Gospel according to John we meet one of those men. Nicodemus was an important person of his society. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, which can be described in today’s term as a mix of our Supreme Court and a legislative body overseeing religious affairs. Without a doubt, Nicodemus was considered a power elite among his people, a leader and an educated man who was chosen to identify acceptable religious structures and norms. In short, he was Mr. Big Shot and he was surely used to being listened to and obeyed.
One night, Nicodemus goes to meet a young rabbi from Nazareth called Jesus. Nicodemus’ goal is not necessarily to debate him or evaluate the accuracy of his faith. On the contrary, he seems to have developed some sort of respect for Jesus by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do (miracles) apart from the presence of God.” For people like Nicodemus, the equation is quite simple. If you can do miracles, you are sent by God. No miracles, not sent by God. How hard is it to understand?, he might have said. Jesus replies that miracles are nice but one has to learn to go beyond them. Human beings cannot truly experience the realm of God with their human senses. We cannot see, hear or touch God’s kingdom. One has to become able to engage our world completely differently, almost as he or she was a new person, as if one was born anew or from above.
I only can imagine our poor Nicodemus listening to Jesus with a very perplexed face, before finally saying, ‘What are you talking about? Born again… like the full adult me... going back inside my mother and then… Are you serious? It does not make any sense.’ Obviously Nicodemus failed to understand what Jesus was saying… as most of us do when faced with similar questions. We live in a scientific and technological world which tells us that everything has an explanation and everything eventually can be understood. We do have today scientific terms and information for what was considered previously a miraculous healing. However, on occasions, when we are confronted to the darkest side of humanity, unexplainable succession of events or senseless tragedies, we often wonder how can these things be. Why did she develop a cancer and not me? Why did he walk into that specific store, at that specific time? Why did they give exactly what this group needed to achieve its goal? Most often, even if we analyze the situation with our minds, use the best technology or ding in our Bibles for some sort of divine explanation, we simply do not know. We cannot put our finger on it. It does not make sense. How can these things be?
Nicodemus struggled to understand Jesus’ message because he let himself be stuck with one level of thinking and could see beyond it. For him, and for countless others in our world today, faith and spirituality is essentially a question of knowledge, doctrines and dogmas. Religion is the visible and quantifiable results of learned behaviours, beliefs and practices. How healthy is your congregation? Just count the number of people who show up for worship on Sunday morning or the amount of money in your bank account. How hard is it to understand?, we might say. However, today’s text reminds us that, yes statistics, money and accomplishments are important, but we also need to look at faith and spirituality from a different angle. Religion is also a question of relationship and spiritual growth. Revelation and inspiration can lead to a new vision and understanding of life. The new world Jesus came to announce can also be experienced through a beautiful musical prelude in church or a few minutes of meditation at home.
Believing in the existence of God ought to be more than acknowledging miraculous signs, visible proofs, extraordinary events, supernatural accomplishments or fantastic phenomena. Our faith and spirituality also have to be anchored in a trustful and faithful relationship with God that often goes above words. It is this hunch, this intuition, this gut feeling that leads us to do things that do not make sense otherwise. Faith is to believe that something can be without receiving any proofs in exchange. It is accepting to live in the “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure” and yet still moving forward. It is accepting that each time we struggle with a difficult question, we might not find one single answer, but discovering many more difficult questions. It is accepting that there is such a thing than a mystery that is beyond our understanding and our wisdom.
For most of us this is really difficult to accept because it forces us to exist in a state of tension between the destination and the journey. It is like going on a walk on a beautiful warm afternoon. There is a part of us that wants to reach our destination or look at our FitBit to see if we getting closer to our 10,000 steps. There is another one that just wants to stop once in a while to look around, take a picture or talk to someone we cross. Even if we tend focus more on our point of arrival than how we got there, both elements are important and essential to our well-being. In the same way, God’s kin-dom becomes a reality when we both practice and live our religion. Jesus’ words make sense when we learn them and go beyond them in our daily lives. We can become a better person, a new person, a renewed person when we are ready to accept to look at life with both our knowledge and experiences.
When Nicodemus went to meet Jesus, was he expecting to encounter essentially an interesting teacher who performs impressive stunts? Was Nicodemus profoundly transformed by his conversation with Jesus? Did Nicodemus actually exist and approach Jesus? I don’t know, but it does not matter to me. Beyond the words of this story, I believe there is a God always looking for ways to reveal self to those who accept the challenge to engage the world from a different angle. Amen.
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
We live in a time when information is easily accessible. We have at our disposal to an incredible amount of knowledge literally at our fingertips. And yet, at the same moment, our world seems to be plagued with fake news, alternative facts and algorithms deciding what we read and see. If we are not careful, we can end up in some sort of echo chamber that sends us back what we already believe. With this new reality, it has become difficult to discern who is telling the truth from who’s lying. Last week I preached on the book of Leviticus; this week it will be Deuteronomy. Maybe someone here wonders if these biblical texts really exit or if I made them up. This whole social climate makes me think of the movie The Matrix. I will not show you a clip of this film this morning. Just to explain it in a nutshell, the main character is a computer hacker played by Keanu Reeves who believes there is something wrong with the world but he is not sure what it is. He meets this strange character played by Laurence Fishburne who tells him that he has to make a choice. He can swallow the blue pill and go back to his normal existence and believe whatever he wants, or he can swallow the red pill and discover the truth, as unpleasant as it might be.
Choosing between the blue pill or the red pill. Choosing between the harsh truth or a reassuring lie. Choosing between what is right or what is easier. As strange it may sound, this capacity to choose one option over the other is a building block of our free societies. Our ancestors have fought so today we can elect our governments, move freely across this land or decide our religious affiliation or none. From important decisions like our careers to the most mundane ones like the size of our coffee, we have the right to choose and our choices have a deep impact on our existence. When we make a good one usually our lives improve and we gain some benefit from it. And the same way, bad choices bring generally more problems, hardship and difficulties. We may like to blame our work, family, age, upbringing or church, the fact remain that in the wide majority of situations, we are the ones who decide which path we follow.
This is the main message Moses tries to convey to his people in today’s passage from the book of Deuteronomy… which really exists in your Bible. This ancient biblical text is built around three very long sermons Moses supposedly delivered to his people just before their entrance into the long-expected Promised Land. After highlighting everything that God has done during the 40 years they spent in the wilderness, Moses makes a final appeal. As they are about to walk into the land given to their ancestor Abraham, the people of God have to choose the core values that will define their new existence on the other side of the Jordan. They can pick life by following God’s ways and commandments or they can choose death by focussing on adversity and conflicts. The choice is theirs to make, but they must decide. As Master Yoda famously tells Luke Skywalker, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Of course, as we listen to this passage today, I am assuming that all of us, presented with the same question, would choose life over death. Usually, people in the full possession of their faculties do not select what can bring negative outcomes. We desire what is the best for us, our loved ones and our community. However, this option is not as easy as it seems because it requires more than sitting back in our lazy boys and enjoying the fruits of our wise decision. Choosing life means keeping God’s commands in everything we do. Choosing life comes with an understanding that our whole existence has to be anchored in God’s ways everywhere we go. Choosing life often requires to give to the poor, fight for justice, care for the hurting, treat others fairly, share with the less fortunate and have the courage to accomplish whatever it takes to make a difference in this world.
50 years ago, some people living in this neighbourhood got together to form a community we call today Kanata United Church. For many years, they met at a community centre and in schools. They were active in their community. They focussed on outreach. They laughed and have a great time. I heard many funny anecdotes that should be collected and put together. Then came the moment when they had to decide if they should erect a building. They had to choose between two clear and different options. From what I have been told, it has not been an easy process. They were many meetings and consultations. The choice was theirs, but they had to decide. Eventually, half a million dollars was borrowed, the construction last approximately 2 years and on February 22, 1987, this church was dedicated to glory and mission of God.
Doug Heard once told me that when he was ministering at Kanata United Church, he has been asked if he had a church. His answer was, Yes. Then, after a few seconds, he followed up with, Oh, do you mean if we have a building? What is a church? This morning we sang the hymn The Church is Wherever God’s People are. We are the church of God; we are Kanata United Church; and these walls and this roof that sometimes leak are the visible representation of a group that collectively chose life over death. During the past 30 years, 436 people has been baptized in this sanctuary. We celebrated the life and memory of 198 individuals, 6 during the first few months of this building. Over 30 years, people have tried to understand how to follow God through sermons, prayers, Sunday school programs and group studies. Over 30 years, activities like our Book Fair has created connection between members of this congregation, either in the portable and during one very busy weekend. Over 30 years, groups from our community like Girl Guides, Al-Anon, Music schools, Camp Awesome and Chinese after school programs have found space and a warm welcome. The bricks, studs and shingles that make this building has become through the years a source of life for a whole community.
And all of this ain’t over. As Moses tried to explain to his people a long time ago, choosing life is not a once-in-a-lifetime event good forever. This decision is not the end of a process, but just the beginning of an ongoing journey. Each year, each day, each moment of our lives, we are confronted with decisions. We are constantly asked to support one cause or another, to select the music we will play, to discern our priorities for the next few years, to repair a building or to sell it, to decide between the blue or the red pill, to choose life or death. Unfortunately, I am sorry to tell you this process does not get easier with time. And because we are human beings we make mistakes. Sometimes we make the wrong decisions for all the wrong reasons. However, the good news for all of us is that we can always start again. Yesterday’s bad choices do not have to be a burden we carry for the rest of our lives. Every moment contains hope for a new beginning and the opportunity to make a better decision. Regardless of the circumstances or the perspective of the future, we still have choices in front of us.
Before entering into the Promised Land, the people of God were reminded by Moses that they had to choose, not necessarily between two options, but between two lifestyles. This choice was the same 50 years ago, 30 years ago and is the same this morning. In front of us, there is life and everything that comes with it. There is also death and everything that comes with. The choice is ours to make. Thanks be to God and amen.
Matthew 4: 1-11
I like to repeat that we live in a complex world. Very often we struggle to understand decisions that have a real impact on our lives. Why does the price of gas suddenly increase by 5 cents, a large company that makes profits still lay off 5,000 employees or one drug is covered by our health care plan but not another? We do not know for sure. Those decisions are usually made by faceless managers or corporations that are sometimes completely disconnected from our reality. No wonders we seem to be attracted these days by some sort of champions who hold simple discourses and present easy solutions to all our problems. In exchange of our votes, they claim they will defend our rights and shake up the system. Sometimes we believed in their 3 simple steps to save us all. When elected, they come back to us to say, ‘Who knew running a country is so complicated?” No really! You don’t say!
I do not want to disappoint you, but Church people are usually not better. We also can be seduced by shortcuts. How many times have we heard congregations saying, ‘to attract the younger families we desperately need for the survival of our church, we need to call a young minister”? Would we believe it is such a great idea if banks told us, ‘To attract younger families, our plan is to hire only younger bankers.’ In the same way, today is the first Sunday in Lent and probably you were asked what you are giving up this year: chocolate, coffee or smoking… If there is not wrong with this (and maybe actually good for our health), do we really believe this little deprivation would make a huge difference in the big cosmic order of things? Are we just trying to find some sort of pacifiers to ease our conscience or convinced ourselves we are not that bad? You know… I may tell racist jokes here and there, follow questionable business practices at the office or occasionally lie to my spouse and my best friends, but since I gave up Facebook for 40 days I guess I am okay. Sometimes, we let those shortcuts and easy solutions distract us from the real issues to the point we forget who we are, what are our values and what is our call in this world.
Take Jesus, for example. In today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, we find him in the wilderness. After 40 days and 40 nights of fast, the devil comes to tempt him. Most people have this vision of Jesus saying, “No, no, do not tempt me to do something I would never do otherwise. Go away Satan!” We might like this idea, but when we look at the text the situation a little more complex. First Jesus is invited to turn stones into loaves of bread. Well… Later in his ministry, Jesus took 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and multiplied them so he could nourish a very large crowd. Today, as we are constantly surrounded by poor people, we wish we could have more loaves of bread to feed the hungry. Then Jesus is asked to do something totally reckless and to trust God. ‘Throw yourself down the temple and do not worry because God will send angels to protect you.’ As we look at Jesus’ ministry, we have to admit he did reckless stuff, like openly challenging the religious and political authorities of his time and even on his way to the cross he kept trusting God. Today, as we are asked to make bold decisions and take chances, we often repeat that we have to trust in God. Finally, Jesus is brought to a very high mountain and he is offered to rule over all the kingdoms and countries of the world. This did not really happen during Jesus’ lifetime, but at the end of Matthew’s gospel we can find the Great Commissioning. “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Today, if we cannot claim that everyone, in every country, is a Christian, at least all have heard about Jesus and his message, and we sometimes wish our leaders would read their bibles a little more often.
Jesus is confronted to three timeless problems of humanity: economics, religion and politics. Those of us who want to change and improve this world are sometimes wondering why did Jesus not use all his powers to materialize this kingdom of God of his? After all, what is the point to be the son of God if one cannot correct what is wrong in a simple snap of fingers? What is the point for us to believe in a Messiah that does not seem to be able to deliver on his promises? Why do you still have to wait for this realm of God promised to us more than 2,000 years ago?
Well… maybe this is exactly where lies the real test for Jesus and every one of us. As Jesus prepared himself for his ministry, as we are invited to prepare ourselves to walk a path of discipleship during Lent, we reminded that the point of all of this is not to put a check beside items of a list of good deeds, find a restriction that will absolve us for our wrongdoings or boast on Twitter by writing, “Satan tried to tempt me with lamed offers. What a loser. #Fail”. The test is to resist our desires for quick results, short-lived success and the total fulfilment our needs at the expense of others. The real test is to resist the temptation to believe that following Jesus and a life of discipleship is easy task govern by simplistic answers. Let’s make no mistake here. Discipleship is difficult. We are called to be actively involved in our world. Sometimes it means to roll our sleeves and get our hands dirty with hard work. Sometimes it requires to denounce our democratically elected government or leaders who promote intolerance or two-tier justice. Sometimes it demands to go against popular policies and practices that maintain injustice and inequality in our society. Sometimes it forces us to become more aware of our choice and to stop consuming beloved products that hurt our planet. Most often, the worst part of it, is that no one will notice our actions. No one will erect a statue for us, throw a parade or give us an award. No one will acknowledge the good work we have done. Nevertheless, we will know that we have contributed our little brick to the construction of a better world. We will know we have tried our best, gave everything we could and follow the call God issues to each and every one of us.
In the wilderness, Jesus refuses to use his power in self-gratifying ways or to be influenced by concerns of practical interests or quick results. Today we are called to follow in his footsteps. When it comes to economics, politics and especially faith and spirituality, we are asked to accomplish our ministries without taking a shortcut or looking for easy solutions. It might be difficult or frustrating at times, but invited to do the right things, at the right pace, for the right reasons. Amen.
Leviticus 19: 1-2; 9-18
According to my limited experience, the majority of those who tried to read the Bible from cover to cover, usually meet their Waterloo with the book of Leviticus. The first two books of the first testament are real page turner. In Genesis, we have the stories of the Creation, the Flood followed by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Exodus revolves around Moses’ call to free his people from slavery in Egypt. It ends with Moses coming back from 40 days on Mount Sinai only to discover his people made the Golden Calf. Moses in anger smashes the tablets he received from God (I am not making this up – Exodus 32: 19), go back on the mountain to get another copy of the Ten Commandments and returns to lead the construction of the tabernacle for the Ark of the Covenant. As we really getting in the groove of this action packed narrative, we are offered 27 chapters of random series of laws and obscure background for religious rituals. I am not saying these words are worthless. No. It is just this part of the Bible is confusing for most of us because it presents a different and foreign worldview, far from today’s beliefs and practices.
For many different reasons, the Book of Leviticus is viewed as something negative that is better to be ignored in our churches. Since it deals with Jewish rituals, regulations and priestly directives, many Christians argue that the council at Jerusalem, recorded in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15, lifted the obligation to follow the Law of Moses. Our Christian faith should not be defined by arcane details on animal sacrifices and skin disease, or restrictions about the amount of materials that can be woven in a single piece of cloth or the presence of tattoos on our body. And yet, sometimes the same Christians drag a verse or two from Leviticus into the 21st century and claim that it applies directly to our time. Of course, there is the infamous chapter 20, verse 13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death”. These are the words of God that ought to be obeyed, they claim between two bites of bacon. This sort of hand-picketed use of carefully edited passages of the Bible had led people to see Christians like us as a bunch of hypocrites that follow God when only it is convenient or fit our own agenda.
Today’s text comes from chapter 19 which is part of a larger section scholars call the Holiness Code. The people of Israel are instructed to maintain holiness in their community with an oft-repeated refrain: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy”. As we hear this statement, we might be afraid that we are in for a very long legalistic session of everything we shalt not do and how to cross every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’. However, as we actually read the text, we discover that it is not as rigid or narrow-minded as we expected. In fact, many fundamental elements of the Ten Commandments are found here: do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not lie to one another, do not take revenge against your neighbour, do not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind… We might be tempted to say this is not holiness; this is just common sense.
Too often, we make the mistake to equate holiness with perfection or some sort of superiority. We believe holiness is all about making grand sacrifices in the name of God or speaking pious prayers filled with approved theological formulas. We believe that it is reserved for some hermits living in caves or specially inspired individuals, but not for us, ordinary and common people. However, the book of Leviticus reminds us that it does not have to be the case. Holiness should be understood as a desire to follow God’s ways with coherence. We are told that everything we do and every part of our lives matter. There should be no distinction between what we might call religious or secular concerns. Every building block of our existence matters. What we eat, how we do business, how we care for our planet and our relationships with our family, neighbours, and strangers are important. Holiness is accepting that God’s presence permeates all the aspects of the extraordinary and very ordinary moments of our lives.
Holiness cannot just be a mere feeling or a positive disposition toward another person. It has to be much more than simple piety or keeping religious observances. Holiness must be based on the way God regards and deals with us. We make mistakes on a regular basis; we confess them honestly and God does not hold a grudge against us. God forgives us unconditionally. We are all different from one another; we profess various creeds and statements of faith and God does not have favourites. God loves us all. Some of us are rich, others are poor. Some have high education while others barely know how to read and God does not rank or categorize us. God welcomes and values all. For us, to be holy as the Lord our God is holy, is to base our whole existence on the same principles. When people do something we do not agree with, we can stay away from slander or gossips. When we meet a stranger, a refugee or an individual with ‘a name that does not come from here’, we are invited to treat them fairly and equally. When our society disregard or forget the poor and the destitute, we are called to be involved actively in our society for the well-being of our neighbours.
Holiness cannot be achieved by remaining all by ourselves in our beautiful sanctuaries. It cannot be reached by trying to put a check besides every verse of a lengthy book. It has to be more than an outward keeping of regulations. Holiness is a way of life. It is a philosophy, a disposition, an attitude of the heart, a series of guiding principles or core values in which our actions and decisions are grounded. I often repeat that we cannot claim some beliefs on Sunday mornings and go in a complete opposite direction during the rest of the week. We cannot state that God calls us to love one another and then discriminate against some of our human sisters and brothers. We cannot profess our love for God’s creation and then invest our money in corporations that destroy it. To be holy as the Lord our God is holy requires us to sing the same tune every day and wherever we go. It is acknowledging the interconnection between all parts of God’s creation. It is learning how to weave together worship, justice, charity and love. Holiness consists as understanding our lives as a unified whole that is to be used to answer God’s call to create a better world for all.
The book of Leviticus is more than a collection of ancient and historic rules and customs in which we can pick and choose what would enhance our agendas. It is an invitation to live our lives with integrity. In everything we do, in every decision we make, in every moment of our existence, we are called to be grounded in God’s ways, in God’s vision for our world and in God’s love for humankind. To put it simply, all of us is called by God to be holy. Amen.