February 19, 2017; 7 Epiphany, Year A
Preached by the Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman
What an absolute delight to be with you this morning. Some of you know that I grew up in this church. St. Paul’s played a huge role in shaping my faith. I’ve never met many of you personally; but as a church, I carry you with me in my heart all the time.
I am in town because I have written a book called Queer Virtue. I’m not going to talk about it now because we’re doing a big event at Good Shepherd Lutheran on Friday night. If the book interests you, I really hope you’ll come. For the purposes of this sermon, here’s what you might want to know: I think Jesus calls us to pay attention to the ways that we pit ourselves against each other, and when we realize we are doing this, he calls us to disrupt, or queer, whatever is at work in that antagonism. I think that this is part of our purpose, part of what it means to be children of God. What occurs to me is that the book has deep roots here, in the place where I was born and raised. Let me try to explain what I mean.
Yesterday I took my partner Alicia up to White Rock. We stopped by a small creek to have our sandwiches, and as we clambered across the stream bed my Arkansas roots kicked in and I began instinctively looking for rocks to skip. It wasn’t til I bent over to pick up my first rock that I even realized I was doing it. The rock was perfect. Flat, small but not too small, round. It jumped out from the others as if it had been specially set apart for me. I found a place where the creek widened a bit and sent the rock skimming six times across the surface to the other side. Who else here knows the satisfaction of a successful rock skip?
This is one of the gifts of being from Arkansas. When we were kids, we didn’t have any money, so we didn’t have a lot of stuff. My mother taught us to find joy in simple things that you stumbled upon unexpectedly, often in nature. The way my heart leapt when that rock caught my eye? It speaks volumes about what I got from being her daughter, and being a child of Arkansas.
Our passage this morning from Leviticus starts with the injunction, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The word “holy” means “set apart.” As the people of Israel wander in the desert, God calls them to be set apart from the other nomadic tribes around them. There are two ways to think about what this means: on the one hand, being set apart can be interpreted as being different from others in an oppositional way. We are here, and we live like this, and that separates us from you, over there, who live like that. One has to be very careful about this approach, because it is easy for “we are different” to morph into “we are better.” This leads to ideas about holiness that pit people against each other, and that’s a problem. On the other hand, being set apart can be about living a kind of intentional life, modeling behaviors that others can stumble upon, be amazed by, and – hopefully – pick up. This is what it meant for the people of Israel to be a priestly people, or as Isaiah described them, a light to the nations.
Leviticus preaches both of these perspectives on holiness, and it doesn’t even try to reconcile the tension between them. One minute Leviticus grabs you by the heart, calling you to honesty and generosity and love, like in the passage we just heard. The next minute it smacks you in the back of the head, orders you around, and condemns you as an abomination before God. And y’all? It’s low bar. I doubt very much that there is a person here this morning who has stayed squeaky clean in the eyes of Leviticus.
So what does Jesus say? He affirms the entirety of the law, but when asked to prioritize, he emphasizes an internal posture, and he calls it love. Not love as a gooey emotion, but love as a hard won discipline.
His words here have become so cliché that it can be hard to imagine what it would mean really to live them. “Turn the other cheek,” “go the second mile,” “love your enemies.” The line that always sticks in my craw is this: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect? Seriously? I’m not perfect; and I don’t particularly want to hang out with people who think they are. This is language that seems tailor made to pit us against each other. Heck, it makes me feel pitted against the bible, against God.
So I did a little research and I stumbled upon something that made my heart leap with joy. Turns out the Greek word that is translated “perfect” is teleios. If you know your Greek philosophy, you may recognize this word. Aristotle and others used it to describe the end or purpose of a thing. So Jesus is basically saying, “Your roots are in God, who formed you. So finish the work: be the person God created you to be.”
In this passage, Jesus uses specific commands, specific examples, to tell us what the essence of our telos, our purpose, is. What I notice is that in every one of these examples, there is some kind of adversarial relationship at work. And Jesus’ commandment is crystal clear: our job is to shut that adversarial energy down. When someone comes at you trying to create enmity between you, trying to goad you into defensiveness, or fear, or self-protection, refuse to participate in it. Jesus knows – we all know – that hatred and violence breed hatred and violence. As children of God, and followers of Christ, our job, our end, our purpose, is to stop that cycle. That is our telos. That is what it means to be holy, to be set apart, as our God is holy.
There’s nothing easy about this. You know, a lot of times when people emphasize the loving side of Jesus, they cast him as this nicey nice guy. The implication is that folks who try to follow his example are soft and weak.
But I have to say, practicing this kind of love is about the hardest thing I do. Emphasis on the word “practice” because I sure don’t get it right most of the time. When you’ve been hurt, maligned, damaged, baited – taking a deep breath and responding differently can take Herculean strength. You have to take the focus off the outrageous, hurtful behavior of that other person. You have to focus inward, and tether yourself to God, to the people and places that have formed you. You have to ask yourself, “who do I want to be here?” And then you have to be that. And it’s hard. But I also know, and maybe you do too, that when someone is able to do this for me – taking my cutting, sarcastic, enraged energy and responding with love – it is about the most generous, healing experience I know.
I have spent my entire life trying to comprehend what it means to be holy – and especially, to be holy, to be set apart, in a way that is healthy. My earliest experiences took place in this church. My mother was a singer, and choral music was for her a direct avenue into the sacred. Her ashes are interred in the brick walk right on the other side of this wall, and it has always brought me such comfort to know that some part of her still feels the vibration whenever the organ plays. Queer Virtue tells the story of how my mother enrolled us in the children’s choir as soon as we were able to stand and hold hymnals. Ed Salmon was our priest, and as was the custom then he faced east, back to the congregation, to say the Eucharistic prayers. Week after week I sat right here, with an insider’s view into the mysterious goings on at the altar. This was exactly the moment when the Episcopal Church was deciding whether to allow ordain women to the priesthood, and my proximity awakened my earliest sense that just as my mother belonged here in the choir, I belonged there at the altar.
My mother died when I was 15 years old. Another story that I tell in the book is about Max and Libby Meisch, who took me and my brother in while Momma was in the hospital. Their five kids shared two bedrooms, and they cleared one of them out so that 15 year old Liz could have her own private space to be and to grieve. Here in this sanctuary I learned about holiness as a kind of rootedness in God. The Meisch’s modeled holiness as something that grows out of that rootedness, an extraordinary love that makes life better and more possible for other people.
You are modeling that kind of life right now. Being well received back home is something that no queer person takes for granted, and that goes double for the faith communities where we grew up. While I know that there are people here this morning who are excited about Queer Virtue, I do not doubt that there are people here this morning who disagree with me about my interpretation of scripture. I do not doubt that there are people who are unsettled simply by the title of my book. Yet here we are together, and your warm welcome speaks volumes about the kind of church you are.
This is the holiness that God invites us to enter, to be. There is tremendous dissonance in our world, and it can be very hard to know how to respond in a healthy way to the violence and chaos that we as a species are breeding. This moment, right now, is a foreshadowing of our telos, a small snapshot of what our lives are supposed to be about: We declare ourselves a people tethered to God, and we make a home for one another, a home that is set apart, precisely because it has called us together. Amen.Download the Sermon PDF