Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “holiness

Holy Leviticus! Justice is True Holiness

Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel at CDF Alex Haley Farm
built as an ark of safety for children

There are some verses from Leviticus 19 that we don’t often hear, in part because the verses we do often hear have been decontextually weaponized and which, even when contextually comprehended, speak more to ancient biases than to actual biology. Yet just as Jesus the Son of Woman is fully human and fully divine, so too are the scriptures in which we prepare for and encounter him, the scriptures he interpreted and reinterpreted when necessary with an, “It is written… but I say unto you…”

In that spirit and with that permission we turn to the beloved, and also oft-cited, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and the equally familiar–if you came up in a black church–“You shall be holy for I the Holy One your God am holy.” Can I get a “holiness is yet right”? Between “you shall be holy” and “love your neighbor” hang all the law and the prophets, to borrow a phrase. Pray with me if you will, on the subject, “No Justice Without Love, No Love Without Justice.” 

Let us pray: May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself is the end of the teaching in this passage of Torah. And while Jesus gave us a vivid exegesis of the passage, the truth is it was always self-explanatory as his debate partners knew full well. Their question was not what does it look like to love your neighbor, but who can I exclude from the God-given charge to love my neighbor, and still be holy. (Yes, I am an Episcopal priest preaching holiness from Leviticus. God is a wonder to my soul.) See, I believe that Leviticus, the heart of Torah, has gotten a bad rap and is in need of rebranding. Leviticus is a holiness text and:

  • Leviticus is a community organizing text.
  • Leviticus is a public health text.
  • Leviticus is a get right and get your people right text.

You shall be holy for I the Holy One your God am holy. What follows that autobiographical declaration is a twelve-step plan to holiness in the idiom, vernacular, and culture of the Iron Age. (Don’t count my steps; it’s a metaphorical number and as a black preacher I really only need three anyway.) I thought I just might, for the time that is mine, translate this way to holiness into the idiom, vernacular, culture, and dialect of this anti-Christic neo-fascist white supremacist violently lethal misogynistic transphobic homophobic anti-Muslim, anti-brown immigrant and refugee – Norwegians and Swedes welcome – punitive poverty police state. Because none of that is holy. 

What is holy: When you all reap the harvest of your land, it shall not be completed to the very edges of your field for harvesting, and thegleanings of your harvest shall not be gathered. Your vineyard you shall not scrape bare, and the fallen grapes of your vineyard you shall not gather; you shall leave them for those oppressed through poverty and for the alien who resides [in your land]: I am the Holy One your God. [All translations of the biblical texts are mine.] Translation: You shall use your economic resources to relieve poverty and hunger. You shall not extract every drop of profit from your enterprises, rather you shall make it possible for others to benefit from your wealth and success. You are not entitled to all of the fruits of your labors when other folk are going hungry. Companies that don’t pay taxes to contribute to the wellbeing of their neighbors and community while paying poverty producing wages is not love of neighbor, and since corporations are now people, they are subject to the same call to holiness. Our tolerance and maintenance of poverty is not love and it is not holy.

What is holy: None of you shall steal… I am God Whose Name Is Holy. Translation: You shall not steal anything or anyone. You shall not steal people’s land­–and I know full well the biblical framers gleefully endorsed the theft of Canaanite land and their subjugation while bemoaning their own enslavement and serial occupation. You can’t have it both ways beloved. You shall not steal. No exceptions. And none are needed because the previous verses guaranteed that the poor would eat as long as the rich were eating so there would be no need to steal to feed yourself or your family. 

Let me translate further: You shall not steal land or lives or livelihoods. You shall not steal nations or their resources. You shall not steal drinkable water or breathable air. You shall not rob the earth of life or livability or species. You shall not steal wages or rob workers of their health, healthcare, or dignity. You shall not steal children or their childhoods, or their innocence. You shall not steal hope or dreams. You shall not steal! The theft, despoliation, and plunder of God’s children particularly on this land, from attempted genocide to enslavement to chain gangs to Chinese labor to Japanese internment, to convict leasing, to child-napping and caging is not love and is not holy.

You shall not steal and you shall not lie. None of you shall deceive, and none of you shall lie to a compatriot. And none of you shall swear by my Name to a lie and so profane the Name of your GodI am God Whose Name Is Holy. Lies are incompatible with love and incompatible with holiness. I just don’t believe that lying liars and their lies will ever be the oracle or instrument of God. I know some of us were raised that the worse thing you could do was to call someone a lie, not even a liar, but a lie, even when it was true. But I’m grown now and I’m going to call a lie a lie and a liar a liar.

The lies that come between us and the true holiness that is love of neighbor are legion. The lie of whiteness, white supremacy and its idol, white Jesus, have made it impossible for some folk to love their neighbors and for some folk to love themselves. The lie that human beings only come in two diametrically opposed forms has kept parents from loving their children, and precious queer and trans children from loving themselves or even loving their very lives. It ceases to be a limited understanding or misunderstanding of human biology and sexuality when you refuse and ignore the science because that’s not how an Iron Age writer with his own biases thought God thought about human flesh. 

The lie that patriarchy protects women has robbed women of their autonomy, agency, health, and lives. The lie that war leads to peace has scorched the earth and left legions of dead and dying, wounded and refugee. The lie that is American justice has incarcerated and enslaved, raped and pillaged and pimped out and rented out black and brown women and men and children and their labor. These lies are killing us and our children. And then they dare to lie on God and lie in her name. They choose the least loving and most harmful interpretation of scripture, willfully ignorant about and uncaring of its context. They sculpt idols out of their lies who bear unsurprising resemblances to themselves. There is no God and no Christ in these lies. There is no love or holiness in these lies. 

What is holy: You shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not steal, and you shall not keep overnight for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. Translation: You shall not cultivate and maintain a permanent underclass. You shall not further oppress those already ground down by an unjust immigration and migrant labor system. You shall not use the undocumented status of your workers to pay them poverty cycle wages under the table while stealing a kickback out of that. You shall not enrich yourself and your corporate shareholders at the expense of the health and wealth of your employees. This point is so important that the passage circles back to it again and again. There is no holiness or love of neighbor without economic justice. 

What is holy: Translation:You shall not mock the deaf and, you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind… You shall love every human person and every human body. You shall marvel at the diversity of God’s creation. And you shall not just not hinder or injure your sistren, bindren, and brethren, but you shall actively work together against their harm and exclusion.

What is holy: You shall not render justiceunjust…you shall judge your compatriot rightly. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. Translation: You shall not call what is just unjust and you shall not call injustice justice. You shall not railroad the immigrant and the indigent. You shall not call desperate migrants rapists and gang members. You shall not throw babies in cages and make a profit off of their suffering. You shall not deny a rape victim justice with a “boys will be boys” and “let’s not ruin this nice young man’s future.” You shall not treat black folk like targets in a shooting gallery. You shall not kill our children, our sisters, our brothers, our mothers, or our lovers. You shall not lock up black and brown folk for selling the weed that you and your kids smoke while investing in the marijuana conglomerates of your friends and allies. You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not just stand by when black blood is flowing in the street. Holiness demands justice. Love demands justice.You shall not standby. Love won’t let you stand by. Holiness won’t let you stand by. 

What is holy: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. We know these words but most of us know them out of context. In context it is: You shall not hate in your heart your compatriot. Rebuke –yes rebuke!– your compatriot, and do not incur guilt on their account. You shall not take vengeance or nurture anger against any of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Translation: You shall not hate the haters. You shall love those who don’t love, those who by every reasonable standard would seem to be undeserving of love. You shall love and rebuke. Love them and rebuke them. Love them and not call them names. Love them and not start a twitter fight with them­–though it may turn into that–I’m talking to myself here. Love them and rebuke them. Rebuke Donald Trump. Rebuke Franklin Graham. Rebuke black preachers who hate black women while using their bodies and their money. Rebuke preachers who hate gay folk. Rebuke white supremacist Christianity. Rebuke bad preaching and worse exegesis. Tell the truth about the love of God and her call for us to love our neighbor as a demonstration of our holiness, her holiness, because we understand that she who is our God is holy.

Lastly, what is holy: The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Holy One your God. This should require no translation: 

Love treasures children and is incapable of considering them as instruments of deterrence.
Love would wash the feet of detainees not deny them showers and toothbrushes.
Love would provide a refuge for those terrorized fleeing violence at home.
Love would welcome the stranger.
Love would feed the hungry.
Love would comfort the frightened child.
Love would provide water in the desert instead of pouring it out and prosecuting those who leave it for the thirsty.

Love your neighbor as yourself and love yourself. Love yourself. Love your flesh. Love your fat. Love your freckles. Love your edges. Love your bald spot. Love your sag and your swag. Love your melanin. Love your kinks and your kink. Love yourself through your failures. Love yourself too much to let anyone love you less. 

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Holy Oneyour God.

The way of holiness is hard because it is the way of love. And the way of love is hard. Justice is elusive when it is not grounded in love. But we are not left to figure out how and who to love on our own. We bore witness to the love of God incarnate in the womb and at the breast of a mother whose love would stand at the cross and at the tomb. We saw the Beloved love out loud and in public in touch and word. Jesus the love of God incarnate is the way of love and our teacher and guide on the way. Jesus is love incarnate and love in action. It was love that nailed him to the cross and love that held him on the cross. A love that would not die even when the lover’s flesh was dead and buried. A love that transcended heaven and earth and life and death and every other binary burst forth into life from the womb of the tomb, still loving, still teaching, still touching, and because we love to eat, still grubbing, still greasing, still frying fish. That’s love. 

The power to love poured out on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit who moves between us with love, calling us to love empowers us to love those we don’t think we can love, those we don’t want to love, and those we don’t even like. We are the children of the God of love, who loves us to and through death to life. We were bathed in the love of God in our baptisms and we are nourished by the bread of life and love at the table. The tongue-twerking power of the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost gave us the strength to love. But the will is ours. Will we? Will we love? Will we love this world into justice for all God’s children? Amen.

May you love and be loved and do justice from a heart of love. In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who is the Love that covers us and fills us with her Love.


Extraordinary and Everyday Saints

Robert Moore
The African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas

See what love our Creator has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know God. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when God is revealed, we will be like God, for we will see God as ze is. And all who have this hope in God purify themselves, just as ze is pure. 1 John 3:1-3

In the Name of the God who loves us to life and through death back into life:

Beloved, we are God’s children now…as we are, at this very moment. We are God’s children as we are. And we are beloved. As we are. We are loved. I don’t think we can say it or hear it enough especially at the present moment. You are loved as you are, with all of the places you are broken, all the rules you break, you are loved as you are. You don’t have to change to earn or even merit God’s love. You are loved as you are. We are loved as we are. I am loved as I am. This snippet from a non-pastoral epistle is in fact pastoral, far more so for me than the hierarchies of the epistles called pastoral. (Whether First John is even an epistle is a question for another day.)

See what love our Creator has given us, that we should be called children of God. See what love the Womb of Life who birthed us has given us that we might be called her children. See what love the Fount of Creation has for us that we might love ourselves, each other, all that she has made, and collaborate with her in the care of this earth.

See! See that love for you and in you and all around you. Sometimes it is hard to see love in this world, in ourselves, in others whose words, ways, and whims are not lovely, loving or lovable. The imperative, “See!” bids us look, search, seek the love that is in us, that is in the world, and to seek in hope, to seek in faith. Perhaps most of all, to look for the imprint of love on and in the world when there is no evidence of it, when you’ve lost your faith and have nothing to believe in or hope for, even when you’ve stopped believing in love. See! Look for it. That is all you have to do, open your eyes, and perhaps your heart one more time. For God’s love is there, in you, in me, in the world, this world, this broken, crucified and crucifying world, as it is, as we are. See it. See God’s love at work in this too-often loveless world.

The world spends a lot of time telling many of us that we unloved and unworthy of love. But that is a lie. God calls us beloved. We are loved even when we do not or cannot love ourselves. We are loved when others do not or will not love us. And in this gospel—and it is gospel in an epistle that is not an epistle—in this gospel it is an article of faith that we are loved as we are. We don’t have to change who or what we are to be loved. We are enough as we are. Some of us may have had to work to accept that we are loved and worthy of love; some of us may be still doing this work, and others yet to begin it.

Others may wrestle with the beloved status of those who do not love those whom God loves. That God loves us as we are also means that God loves them as they are. Some of us are wrestling with loving folk who hate, loving them while hating what they do and say, teach, preach, and believe.

This breathtaking text is radically egalitarian if you understand its message is not limited to the members of the Jesus movement then or now. The title “children of God” is not limited to Christians in the later scriptures nor to the Israelites in the earlier scriptures; though there are texts in which each group is proclaimed (or proclaims itself) the particular beloved favorite child of God. The notion that we Christians are better beloved by God than our siblings has been the source of much of the pain and violence inflicted on the world and set a pattern for establishing and maintaining other hierarchies, including within Christianity.

The tiny church in the shadow of empire from which this text emerged was a vastly different church than we are. They needed the affirmation of their place in God’s heart in a world that saw them as a heretical Jewish sect at best and a treasonous cabal conspiring against the emperor at worst. Not surprisingly, for that ancient community and those who received and canonized this text along with many of its earliest and some contemporary interpreters, this text only applies to members of the Christian community.

On this day when we celebrate all the saints evoked by this text for the lectionary framers, it’s worth asking who are the saints. Whom do we commemorate today? A post by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Ivy, VA frames it as “the living and the dead, the revered and the forgotten.” The saints are all the holy people of God, made holy by the work and love of God. As we rightly venerate those holy ones whose life and legacy bear extraordinary witness to the love and power of God, we ought not neglect the everyday holiness of everyday folk. I invite you to think of the folk whose extraordinary holiness and everyday holiness has touched your life and nurtured your faith. Who are the prayer partners and conversation partners who heard your questions and supported you in your doubt. Who are the pastors and professors, Sunday school teachers and skeptics two nurtured your faith? Who are the heretics and hope-dealers whose questions you just couldn’t shake? Who are the writers and thinkers whose words echo across the years and centuries power undimmed? Who are your saints?

The church tends to identify the saints as holy people of God within its own midst, among the baptized faithful. At the same time we recognize the holiness is not the exclusive domain any one community. The saints are “the living and the dead, the revered and the forgotten.”

At this holy season I like to think of as the fall “triduum” we celebrate God’s children on both sides of the grave. On All Hallows Eve we celebrated the powerlessness of the realm of death and all it terrors, celebrating the sweetness of life, teaching our children that ghosts and goblins are as empty of power over us as are the costumes in their image. Or maybe we just dressed up, got drunk and gave out candy and ate too much of it. Today on the Feast of All Saints we celebrate the living and the dead and tomorrow we will celebrate and remember the holy dead who yet live on All Souls Day.

These three days are built on the tradition of the Communion of the saints, the interconnectedness of the family of God between the living and those beyond death. We are not only the beloved children of God, we are her children and part of a family that transcends space and time and death. That holy communion, the communion of the saints, is for many of us a lively space in which we commune with our ancestors and those we love who have gone before us whether at a Dia de los Muertos shrine, family grave or in the sanctuary of our prayer. The communion of the saints is one of the often neglected spaces in which testimonies of God’s love abound and extend to us in the love of those who have gone before. Praying to and through the saints is a venerable and often misunderstood practice. Prayer is conversation. Invoking the aid of those who can see clearly from beyond the veil of death is no different than asking those on this side of death for their aid and prayers. Who are your saints?

Beloved we are loved. We are God’s children. We are the saints of God whom others will call holy and on whom others yet unborn will call in prayer. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when God is revealed, we will be like God, for we will see God as ze is. Amen.