Seven Questions: 2

You gave me seven questions to address in sermons, and this morning I will respond to the second one: How do we make the circumstances of our everyday life lead us to holiness?

We don’t talk much about holiness, do we? We are much more comfortable speaking about living our faith or seeking to embody the love of God. Holiness talk makes most of us uncomfortable because we immediately think of sour-faced, holier-than-thou people who keep a halo by the door and seem to draw deep satisfaction from reminding us how far from perfect we are.

You could have asked me, “How do I make the circumstances of my everyday life lead me to holiness?” and I’m glad you didn’t, because our focus in matters of faith and spirituality already tends to be too narrowly individualistic. One of the songs in our hymnal urges us in four verses to Take Time to Be Holy, as though holiness were something one can add to one’s schedule like 30 minutes of exercise or a doctor’s appointment.[1] The rest of the song, with the exception of the repeated opening phrase, is actually quite helpful in suggesting practices that can sustain a life of faith – I just wish the writer had not entirely neglected the communal nature of our faith.

In Israel, talk about holiness begins with the unambiguous summons of God at Sinai:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.

They were a bunch of cheap laborers who had just escaped the oppressive machinery of Egyptian brick production for a taste of sabbath, and at Sinai the Lord God who alone is holy claimed them as God’s own, a holy nation, a people set aside for the purposes and intentions of God, a people with a mission.

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” is the theme of Leviticus, and it’s all about the proper order of things, how to have holy priests and holy sacrifices and holy offerings and holy festivals and holy shrines and holy bread and holy everything. Leviticus is all about taking great care in knowing and maintaining the boundary between what is holy and what is not. It’s all about not mixing things that shouldn’t be mixed and protecting the purity of the sacred from contamination with the profane.

And then you read Deuteronomy, and in Deuteronomy you find that quite different matters are given weight and attention. There you read,

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, don’t go back to get it. Leave it for the immigrant, the widow, and the orphan. And when you beat your olive trees, don’t strip what is left. Leave it for the immigrant, the widow, and the orphan. And when you gather the grapes of your vineyard, don’t go back to pick the ones you may have missed. Leave them for the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow.[2]

Holiness is not limited to matters of purity, it is also about the right ordering of social relationships. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that your God is passionate about justice for the poor. Be attentive to faithfulness in every dimension of your life together. Holiness is not about doing holy things in holy places during holy times. Holiness is about being a holy nation, a people claimed to manifest on earth the glory of the Holy One, a community that reflects in its life together the very character of God. All of the Old Testament is about this demanding relationship and the constant temptation to abandon it for the convenience of idolatry.

In the Babyonian exile the question became, how can we maintain our identity as God’s holy people without the land, without the temple, without priests and sacrifices and festivals, and without political power? How can we maintain our identity as God’s holy people when we have been stripped of all markers, except our stories and our songs?

How do we make the circumstances of our everyday life lead us to holiness when the circumstances aren’t favorable to the pursuit of holiness? What can we do to maintain our identity as a people claimed by God in a context where the gods of distraction are in charge and the masters of the sound bite rule?

Daniel suggests that we learn to say No. Daniel was a young man when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon told his palace master to find the best talent among the exiles from Judah, smart, strong, good-looking young men who graduated top of the class and were competent to serve in the king’s palace. They were to be taught the literature and language of Babylon, they were to be given a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine, and after three years they were to be stationed in the king’s court. The palace master did as he was told, and among the young men he chose were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. And the first thing he did was give the palace interns new names, Babylonian names: Forget who you are and learn whose you are now. Daniel he called Belteshazzar. And this could have been the end of the story: super power assimilates God’s people – resistance is futile.

But Daniel – the name means ‘God is my judge’ – "Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine."[3] He and his friends asked for a ten-day experiment: they would eat only vegetables and drink only water, and at the end of the period the palace official could compare them to the rest of the interns. That’s what they did, and in our day you know that you could watch the whole thing as a reality show on Babylonian tv, anyway, after ten days, Daniel and his friends were not only the smartest in the bunch, but also the best-looking.

How do we maintain our identity as God’s people when it is under pressure from every side? Daniel would say, “We remember whose we are, and we find practices that sustain our identity.” Daniel said No to the royal rations of food and wine.

The circumstances of our everyday life will not lead us to holiness, they are simply the circumstances in which we must remember our identity as a people who have been claimed by the Holy One to participate in the mission of Christ. We must engage in practices that allow us to stay mindful of who we are, rather than swallow the royal rations of the masters of our exile.

We are far from home, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know where we belong. Christ has made us his own, and in our baptism we were claimed as sons and daughters of God and we ourselves claimed that new identity as ours. We are holy, not because of anything we have done, but because we belong to Christ. And because we are holy, we are called to live holy lives.

As Paul says in today's passage from his first letter to the Thessalonians,

You learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. (…) Concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more.[4] Do what you know is pleasing to God, and do so more and more. Love one another, and do so more and more.

The circumstances of our everyday life will change, but our identity as God’s own will not, nor will our calling to embody in our life together the love of Christ, for the sake of the world. We are not far from home, because we know where we belong: every Sunday we gather at the table to receive and share bread and wine, the royal rations of our Lord.

We Disciples say that we are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, and I think it’s a beautiful little oddity that holiness and wholeness sound so very similar. Both speak of our being claimed for the purposes of God, and every time we gather at the table we remember and proclaim Christ’s work of reconciliation that makes us holy and whole.

And after we’ve eaten we turn, not to protect the purity of the holy meal from unholy contamination, no, but to help extend God’s hospitality into every dimension of our life together. One in Christ and therefore one with each other we gather around the table and practice a new economy, one that isn’t defined by greed; we practice a new politics that isn’t defined by grasping control; we practice a peace that isn’t defined by bigger guns; we practice the new life that is holy, whole, and true in every way because it is rooted in generosity, mercy, and faithfulness.

We refuse to eat the junk food of the masters of our exile, because every Sunday we are invited to the royal banquet. And that’s why we can sing a better song than Take Time to Be Holy. We sing, Y’all Take a Day Off to Remember Who You Are. Y’all Take a Day Off to Celebrate Whose You Are. Y’all Take a Day Off to Get a Taste of Home. And we sing it to the tune of SABBATH.


[1] Chalice Hymnal #572, words by W. D. Longstaff, 1882

[2] Deuteronomy 24:19-21

[3] Daniel 1:8

[4] See 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12