You can listen to Sunday’s sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.
I have a theory about the proliferation of megachurches. I can’t substantiate it unless I take on a PhD dissertation in sociology, but based on the conversations I’ve had over the years, I’ve come to believe that megachurches succeed because of two things. First and foremost, they are built upon leaders who are charismatic preachers. This shouldn’t be a shock, since survey after survey of church members tells us that the number one thing we want our pastors to be is a good preacher. What may come as a surprise is the second key to success: rules. Megachurches tend to be conservative and tend to have very clear statements of faith. There is no question about what Willow Creek or Saddleback Church thinks about the Bible or the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. For me, this rule thing comes as a surprise because the Boomers, Gen Xers, and the up-and-coming millenials are all known for their distrust in rules. Look at the way parenting and teaching have changed over the past 50 years, and it becomes clear that we just don’t like people telling us what to do. Except, it seems, when it comes to our faith. When it comes down to whether or not I can be sure I’m going to heaven when I die, many of us want a proper checklist of very specific things that I need to do. Believe in the inerrancy of Scripture? Done. Subscribe to the Penal Substitution theory of atonement. I don’t know what that means, but OK. Don’t drink, dance, smoke, or have sex outside of the bounds of marriage between a man and woman. I might have to swallow hard and cross my fingers, but I’ll try. Give 10% to the church? Make it 2, and you’ve got a deal. Now, punch my get into heaven free card. Thank you very much. Megachurches thrive on rules precisely because of their single charismatic leader. One person can decide how the game will be played. Meanwhile, the squishy denominations like the Lutherans, the Methodist, and our dear Episcopal Church often leave room for people to ask questions and to float around in ambiguity for a while.
Of course, that’s not to say that our beloved squishy churches don’t have rules. It might seem like it sometimes, but in reality, we have all sorts of rules: and I’m not talking about my somewhat unhealthy love for Robert’s Rules of Order or the Rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer. Our rules are lived out in our creeds: We believe, that is to say, we put our trust in or we turn our hearts over to God the Father Almighty, who created heaven and earth… and Jesus Christ, his only Son… and the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. The rules come through our Baptismal Covenant, which Keith alluded to last week. We promise, with God’s help, to continue in the traditions of the Church, to repent when we fall into sin, to share the Good News of God in Christ, to strive for justice and peace, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
That last rule is perhaps the most important. At the very least it is number two. When Jesus is asked by the teacher of law what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to Love the Lord with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love his neighbor as himself. It is probably the most often quoted piece of scripture in the world, but did you notice that we heard it this morning, not from the lips of our Lord, but from the giant book of rules called Leviticus. I won’t ask you to raise your hands to say if you’ve ever actually made it through the entire book of Leviticus, but it is probably fair to say that most of us haven’t actually read it all. We know the highlights because they get trotted out every time a religious leader discusses homosexuality: Leviticus has some very clear things to say about that, as it does about the official dish of South Alabama, fried shrimp, and the wearing of cotton-poly blended shirts. Leviticus is the butt of many a religious joke and Facebook meme. We know lots about Leviticus, but we know very little of Leviticus. A problem that is made worse by our lectionary, which is just as afraid of it as the rest of us are. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the book of Leviticus is guaranteed to be read only once in the three year cycle. On Epiphany 7, Year A, we hear Leviticus chapter 19, verses 1-2 and 9-18. We skip the parts about how to properly consume an animal sacrifice and stop short of the laws on cross-breeding animals. Some congregations will have the chance to read from Leviticus later on in Year A. If they’ve chosen Old Testament Track 2, sometime in early fall, they’ll hear Leviticus chapter 19, verses 1-2 and 15-18, which you’ll notice is just a shortened version of what we heard this morning. Despite my theory on megachurches, the RCL must be convinced we want nothing to do with rules.
But thanks be to God we get something from Leviticus once every three years, and double thanks that it is this great passage from chapter 19. Talk about setting the bar high for the life of faith, this lesson from Leviticus issues a serious challenge to those who think that the moral life is only about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. We’ll come back to the love your neighbor piece in a minute, but let’s start at the beginning. The LORD begins this set of regulations with these words, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Can we go back to that 10% thing? I’d be happy to reconsider that. Be holy!?! Are you kidding me? The truth of the matter is that God isn’t kidding. You can be holy because God himself is holy, a word which doesn’t really mean what we think it means. To be holy in the ancient sense meant to be set apart, or to be other. God is so completely other that any attempt we make to describe him in human terms falls short of who God is. As people made in the image of God, we are likewise called to be set apart, and the closer we get to God the more other we will become. Those rules I mentioned before from our Baptismal Covenant, they are rules that help us to be fully who God created us to be: holy.
The Levitical rules go on to define how a group of holy people ought to live in community. It probably doesn’t describe how anyone actually lived ever, but it is the ideal. If we were able to become truly holy, this is how we would live. We would care for the poor. The example of gleaning, leaving the edges of your field unharvested, is foreign to most of us [whose last name isn’t Little or Ochs], but the underlying message is clear. How can you take the gifts and talents that God has given you and use them for the good of the wider community? What are the fruits of your vocation that you can leave open for the needy? For some, it means making sure that some of you business expertise is put to use by on a not-for-profit board of directors. For others, it might mean doing pro bono work: a doctor seeing patients at the local migrant labor clinic or a lawyer giving their time to legal aid. Still others might offer their hobby as a means to empower a stranger as in a pilot who gives of her time and expense to fly patients to their appointments through Angel Flights, or the woodworker who makes a beautiful piece of furniture for a charity’s live auction. Each of us has some God given ability that we can glean for the good of the community around us.
As we all know happens in Leviticus, the rules go on and on. Rules about honesty. Rules against thievery. Rules about fraud. Rules about how we treat the disabled. Rules about how justice is rendered. And each rule ends with a refrain that reminds us of that high bar. “I am the LORD.” These rules aren’t meant to feel oppressive. We aren’t called to throw up our hands in frustration. Instead, the law reminds us to call upon the help of the LORD. Or, as our Baptismal Covenant says it, “I will with God’s help.”
Which brings us back to that most important rule. The one that we find in that Baptismal Covenant. The one that Jesus says is in the top two. The one that we find first in Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As Jesus reminds us in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in the Hebrew, the idea of a neighbor isn’t limited to the people who live in your immediate surroundings, but rather it is the people with whom you cross paths in life: family, friends, coworkers, employees, grocery store clerks, pest control specialists, you name it, they are your neighbor and the call from God in Leviticus, from Jesus in the Gospels, and from the Church in her covenants is to love them as we love ourselves, and to care for their well being the way we care about our own.
Leviticus is a tough book, so tough that we generally avoid dealing with all its rules, but rules are important, dear friends. Rules are important because they help set us apart, bring us closer to God, and make us holy. May God give us the strength to love, even when it is difficult; to care, even when it is burdensome; and to live into his dream, even when we can’t see it for ourselves. Amen.