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You Keep Using that Word (Denim Faith #3)

. 8 min read


23 Aug 2015
Message by Joel
Selections from Leviticus 19

I.
In
that most eminently quotable of movies, The
Princess Bride
, there is a scene near the story’s beginning that (believe
it or not) offers us a starting place for considering these verses from
Leviticus. In the film, a rather bombastic character named Vizzini the Sicilian
has the bothersome habit of repeatedly – and usually inappropriately – using a
particular word. Whenever he is confronted by an opinion with which he
disagrees, or by a possibility he thinks too improbable to entertain, or by the
very suggestion that another person might be his intellectual equal, he
declares – emphatically and
always
annoyingly – “inconceivable!” In the scene in question, after yet another of Vizzini’s
outbursts, one of his traveling companions, a laconic mercenary named Inigo
Montoya, looks at him and says, in a low voice tinged ever so slightly with sarcasm,
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Well,
“that word,” in today’s text – and for that matter in all of Leviticus (it
appears there more than in any other book of the bible) – is “holy.” It is a
word we think we understand, and are pretty sure we don’t much care for.
Perhaps because we are burdened by our common inheritance from those wacky
Puritans, or because of our exposure to a certain brand of fundamentalism, or perhaps
just because we have all been acculturated to a world that is anything but holy, many of us would just as soon
stay as far from holiness as we possibly can.
It’s
not that holiness frightens us so much as it depresses and annoys us. Holy
people have withdrawn from the world into little cocoons of religiousness and
abandoned the quest for the good life. They seem, or so we think, to have no
joy, and what’s worse, they are killjoys. They hate their bodies and think sex
is dirty and avoid it except maybe as an occasional evil necessary for the
propagation of presumably holy children. They don’t care for good food and
drink – neither wine nor beer nor bourbon ever passes their lips – and seem to
live on bread and water if they eat at all. And don’t even get me started on
the religiosity – all the inane “God bless yous,” the pious dismissals of the
realities of pain and suffering, and the endless string of Bible verses they
seem to have prepared for every occasion. Who in his or her right mind would
want to be like that? Who, given the choice, wants to be holy? Or so we
imagine…
But,
as Inigo Montoya might remind us,  “that
word” does not mean what we think it means. Holiness, properly understood, has
only the most tangential of connections to the attitudes and behaviors I just
named.  Holiness is gospel – not just
good news, but really good news – and
it is indispensable both to our flourishing and to the healing of God’s good
Creation.

II.
Our
first mistake with respect to holiness is our tendency to associate it with
piety or religiosity. We equate these things with holiness and assume it demands
from us some form of cloistered life, separated from the world of work and play
and family and devoted to nothing but praying and Bible reading. We think it
means having all the answers to mysteries like the suffering of children or
natural disasters that kill thousands or genocidal massacres perpetrated by one
ethnic group against another. Make no mistake about it, prayer and knowledge of
scripture are important elements of a faithful life, one oriented toward holiness, and from time to time a wise person
steeped in these activities may indeed have some insight into the difficulties
of living as broken creatures in a broken Creation. But in themselves, these
things are not holiness.
Holiness,
at least as it is understood in Leviticus and the rest of the First Testament,
has considerably less to do with the explicitly religious life and more to do
with the quotidian, or everyday life. The holy life is the life of community
and household and family, the life of farming and commerce, the life of
lovemaking and raising children, the life of eating and drinking. To some
extent, at least, the holy life is less about what one does than how one
does it.
The
Hebrew word translated “holy” is qadōsh.
Qadōsh
is an ancient word with roots in other languages predating
Hebrew by many hundreds of years. As such, it carries a richness of meaning
that is sometimes overlooked or unappreciated. Its most basic meaning with
reference to humankind derives from its primary sense as an attribute of the
God of Israel; the L
ORD is qadōsh,
for the L
ORD is one – not
simply in number, but in quality; absolutely unique and incomparable, radically
distinct from the Creation he has lovingly spoken into existence. The great 20th
century Protestant theologian Karl Barth spoke of an “infinite qualitative
distinction” between God and Creation. In this sense, God alone is qadōsh.
But
if God alone is qadōsh,
then what does it mean when God calls his
people
to be holy because he is holy? Well, with respect to God’s
people, their being qadōsh refers
first of all to their being set apart from
the other peoples and those peoples’ gods to be the L
ORD’s people. To be holy is to be
different
; it is to conduct one’s affairs in a way differently than is
typical among those who have not yet been made part of God’s people. It is
important to understand at this point that the call to be holy is a call not to
an individual or a collection of individuals, but to a community, specifically the community to whom God revealed himself
by name (i.e., as “the L
ORD,” which
is in the First Testament a circumlocution for the divine name). The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and
Jacob, the people who came to be called Israel, were called by God to be a
people, to enter into a form of communal life whereby the way they lived
together and treated one another would be a declaration to the other peoples of
the world of God’s ultimate intention for all
Creation. Holiness, in this sense, is in part the fulfillment of God’s
assurance to Abraham that through his descendants, “all the peoples of the
world [would] be blessed.”
And
this brings us to a second meaning of qadōsh,
one implicit in the Hebrew but more evident in our English word “holy.”  The English word holy, you see, is part of an
ancient linguistic family that includes the words whole, wholesome, heal,
health, and healthy. To be holy is to be whole, to have a kind of integrity of
life that sets this people apart from the alienation and self-interestedness characteristic
of the broken world. It makes a certain sense that the law God gives to Israel
and us is neither capricious nor arbitrary, but
directed toward our flourishing as a
people
. God has given, not
just to
his people but to all
people the abundant goods of Creation, asking only that we use them
responsibly, respectfully, and generously. In a world characterized by the
sicknesses of hatred, violence, injustice, greed, and exploitation, a people
whose uses of Creation reject those ways of being cannot help embracing and
embodying a decidedly more wholesome alternative. 
III.
All
of which is to say that the holiness codes of Leviticus are extremely practical, as the verses we read a
moment ago indicate. A people holy to God must respect, listen to, and care for
the elderly among them. They must preserve the implicit covenant among the
generations, caring for their elders even when it is inconvenient or costly,
knowing that the wisdom and memory of those women and men are indispensible to
maintaining the integrity of the community and its distinctiveness as belonging
to God.
A
people holy to God must devote themselves to serving the poor in their midst,
avoiding every appearance of exploiting them and making sure that they have an
share of the goods of Creation sufficient to make possible their flourishing. They
must show hospitality to the aliens and strangers among them, treating them
like kin and remembering that their own existence as a free people with a land
of their own was God’s doing, and not theirs, for it was the L
ORD who delivered
them from bondage in Egypt and gave them a law to shape their common life.
A
people holy to God must be a truthful people who deal fairly with each other
and always have each others’ backs. Neighbors must act lovingly toward one
another, avoiding every hint of violence and seeking each other’s good, rather
than their own advantage. Employers must deal fairly with their workers and
give them a good wage.  Merchants must
deal honestly with their customers, charging fair prices and using honest
weights and measures.
And
perhaps most important of all, a people holy to God must live ever mindful that
their lives and everything about them are gifts from God. As such, they must
treat the Creation from which they draw their life with respect and gratitude,
remembering that it is God’s, not theirs, and that it has purposes beyond those
to which they might put it. They must assure that no one in their membership
becomes so desperately poor that they are at risk of losing their dignity or
doing without the goods of creation they need, and that no one becomes so
outrageously wealthy that they are tempted to think of themselves as “self-made”
or in any way better than others, or that their wealth becomes an occasion for
envy within the community.
IV.
It
is vital that we keep in mind that our consideration of Leviticus is far more
than an academic exercise, for the call for God’s people to be holy has never
been revoked. We, as followers of Jesus and members of his body by baptism are
called to be holy; not to be perfect nor pious, but to live our lives together
in such a way that we serve and encourage each other and present to those
beyond our membership a glimpse of a better, more wholesome way of life, the
way of life for which we and they have
been made.
But
where do we start? If we indeed want to be a holy people – a whole people – how do we go about it? We
have an outline, not only in today’s text, but throughout scripture, but what
do the words written there have to do with us, and how do we put them into
practice?
Beyond
the obvious answers to that question – showing up for church and investing
ourselves in fulfilling our membership vows, participating in the community
closet and action church and open table – one thing seems to me especially
important. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, spoke of “Christian
conferencing” as being among what he called the “instituted means of grace.” He
believed that regularly gathering with one another for honest conversation
about the most practical matters of life – how we make and spend money; how we
conduct ourselves at work, in our households, and in our marriages; how we
understand and use the goods of creation; and how we interact with the most
vulnerable members of our society – would serve to strengthen and encourage us
in the pursuit of holiness.
Our
world is very different from the world of Leviticus (or, for that matter, from
the world of John Wesley), most pointedly in the excessive value we give to
individualism. But unless we dare to meet and be truthful with each other, asking
and answering difficult questions and sharing both encouragement and gentle
correction, we are not likely fully to become the kind of community God has
called us to be. And as long as there exists in our society a “people-of-God-shaped-hole,”
evils like racism and other bigotries, injustice toward the poor, legal
corruption, and ecological destruction will persist and grow stronger. The
world we inhabit needs us to be a holy people. It need us to show what an
abundant and joyful thing holiness is – to show, if you will, that holiness
“does not mean what [they] think it means.”

God
has given us the means to become that people and promised to be with us along
the way. It’s good work, and it’s a great gift, and we ought to get started.
Thanks be to God.