Be Holy as God is Holy

A sermon based on Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 19, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I read recently about an old-timey revival in 1892 down by the Ohio river. The story goes ol’ Polkie Davis got religion – and as he came into the river to be baptized he took off his shoes but left his socks on. One sock had a big hole in the heel, the other sock was in good shape. When Polkie came out of river the “unholey” sock was missing, left in the soft river bottom. When he excitedly ran out of the water to his wife to share in the joy of his baptism her response was “Lord have mercy, Polkie! You’ve gone and lost your best sock!” 1.

I searched for something funny related to the “holy”, that’s the best I could find. Well, that’s not wholly true. I found this quote by Austin O’Malley “A hole is nothing at all, but you can break your neck on it.” 2.

I am focusing on holy stuff because our Lectionary reading for the morning has God giving the command “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. ” I actually think the story about the holey sock being the only one left is an apt metaphor. Following Jesus’ Holy Way, letting the Holy Spirit guide us to try and be holy as God is holy, not only has us leaving the unholy behind, but, just like Polkie’s ragged footwear, being a love centered Christian has risks and costs that exposes our (pun intended) “souls” like nothing else. See Love – desiring the well being of others– has this counter-intuitive way of causing opposition to love to lash out and inflict pain. The saying about “A hole [being] nothing at all, but you can break your neck on it” is in line with that! Holiness – love incarnate– logically seems to be nothing of a threat, but like a holey sock it somehow exposes our enfleshed souls to risk in this world from those that oppose it.

Getting back to the Lectionary text, today’s reading is a rare one for the Lectionary, it lifts up a section of Leviticus for us to consider. Leviticus is a hard book to read. It’s full of lots and lots of ancient laws and ideas. This particular section is a part of what is called the “Holiness Code.” The rules on how to be holy are laid out and some pretty important rules are listed in our lesson this morning.

As we heard, God commands that a portion of each harvest has to be set aside for the poor:

“you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

We can of course disagree on how to provide welfare to those in need, but this text evidences a command to provide a portion of the blessing of each harvest and the land to both the poor and the aliens in our midst.

In the text from Leviticus we also heard God give other commands on how we are to relate to our neighbors– everyone in the community. We are told that we

shall not steal . . . deal falsely . . . lie to one another . . . swear falsely by [God’s] name . . . defraud []our neighbor . . . steal . . .keep . . . wages of a laborer . . . revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind . . . render an unjust judgment . . . be partial to the poor or defer to the great . . . go around as a slanderer among your people . . . profit by the blood of your neighbor . . . hate in your heart anyone of your kin . . . take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people . . .

These particular commandments regarding holiness are not about actions toward self, in essence they are about taking care of others and doing no harm to them.

Those commandments are followed up with the command that along with loving God, Jesus claims sums up all the laws, and Jesus made it famous by making it an anchor to his teachings and understanding of all of the law. That overriding command is that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself . . .”

We talk a lot about Jesus saying that. And, he got it from here in Leviticus our Lectionary reading for today from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. And he may very well have got the idea that it is what all the law hangs on because that is how this section of the law on holiness is summed up by the author of Leviticus. Taking care of others and doing no harm is the essence of how we love our neighbors. If we think about it that’s what we desire and imagine God is about, taking care and doing no harm to US, loving US. God wants us to be like God who we want to love us.

Which brings us full circle to the first part of the reading, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. ” The word “Holy” is defined as “that which is regarded as sacred or able to convey a sense of the divine . . . ” 3 In other words, Holy is a name for the experiential presence of God, whether it be through a thing, a person or an act. God incarnate here, now.
We are to be holy, because God is holy. This of course fits well with the Old Testament teaching that we are made in the image of God. We are made to be holy, to bring experiences of the presence of God. It also fits well with the New Testament teaching that we are to be like Jesus, who was so holy he was and is experienced as God incarnate.

Seventeen years ago I was near the front of an auditorium where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was about to speak at an interfaith gathering that Marcus Borg put together in Oregon. It was called God at 2000. 4 A number of famous theologians, holy men and women of different faiths, spoke . . . and everyone got a warm welcome and applause. However, when Bishop Tutu was introduced and came out on stage everyone in the place instantly stood up in unison and provided a lengthily ovation that was so inspiring many of us were in tears. . . and the man had not even said a word. In his wake we could sense the very presence of the holy. Desmond Tutu is a very holy man and we all knew it and could feel it. To this day I feel blessed to have been in that room to witness and be a part of that gathering, but most especially that moment when a very Holy person entered the room and we could instantly and deeply sense through him God’s presence.

Bishop Tutu is a South African civil rights activist, Nobel Peace Laureate, Secretary-General of the South African Council of Churches and a now retired Anglican archbishop. He became a hero to many as an opponent of South African apartheid and a non-violent peace advocate. He is also an author of books including one I read this morning during children’s message and another on forgiveness that greatly influenced me and another that I often read during the children’s message, Children of God, Storybook Bible.

During his lecture in Oregon Bishop Tutu noted that “We were created by God to be like God, for God.” 5. He expanded on this idea in an earlier article that we studied in seminary. 6 In that article he used the commandment we are considering this morning from Leviticus, to “Be holy because God is holy.” He used it to assert and emphasize that we are to act like God would act or be like God would be.

We heard last week St Frances’ idea in our wonderful choir anthem and in prayer that we are to be God’s instrument of peace. That’s the idea, it’s the substance of what Bishop Tutu means. It’s what Leviticus 19 means when God tells us to “‘be holy.” Bishop Tutu notes that since God’s holiness includes a generous and compassionate nature toward the oppressed and poor, the Israelites also had to strive for such a nature in order to be holy. 7. He writes

They had to side with the powerless, the marginalized, because this is how God behaved toward them. They had to reflect this aspect of the divine character, they had to have the same concerns as the God they worshiped. 8.

Since people are made in God’s image and to be like God, we are expected to act in ways that reflect “divine conduct and concerns” 9. I often refer to this as our being the hands and feet and voice of God, which is another way of saying be God’s instruments of peace, of shalom . . . BE. HOLY.

As a people of God we are commanded and expected to reflect God’s Holiness through holy acts toward one another and the rest of creation. Here is how Bishop Tutu puts it:

God’s intention was for all of creation to exist in harmony and peace, as primordially represented by the idyllic existence in the paradise of the Garden of Eden, where there was no bloodshed . . . God’s efforts were directed at recovering that which was lost. –disintegration, alienation and disunity were to become unity, togetherness and harmony.

We are thus exhorted to work for a just order where all of God’s children will live full lives characterized by shalom. Concern for justice, righteousness, and equity is not fundamentally a political concern. It is a deeply religious concern. Not to work for justice, peace and harmony against injustice, oppression and exploitation is religious disobedience, even apostasy 10.

Simply put, Bishop Tutu is asserting that a fundamental message of the Bible is that we are “created for a delicate network of cooperation and interdependence” and must act like it. 11. To do otherwise is disobedience and apostasy, the abandonment of fundamental religious tenets. So we are to work for social change and act Exoduswise – we are to deliver the oppressed and the poor from suffering. 12.

Bishop Tutu encourages social change through “work[ing] for a just order where all God’s children will live full lives characterized by shalom.” 13. We are to work from the assumption that compassion for the welfare of others (especially the oppressed) and working for social change is a Christian mandate.

And from a Christian perspective, God’s ultimate plan is for Christ to unify us as one people and to help bring the world back to the peace and harmony of the Garden of Eden 14. That’s what this holiness code in our lesson today is about— how we relate to others. How we move toward peace and harmony. We are commanded by the God we love – who love us unconditionally– to love our neighbor in the same fashion. We are not to hurt them. We are to provide a portion of our blessings to others’ care. We are to aim our waking hours at the target God has set for us, to love. We are to love as God loves – to be Holy as God is holy.


1. Adapted from a story in The Preacher Joke Book, p 60
2 Treasury of Wit and Wisdom (1958) p 212
3 Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms, p130.
4 There is a book of the collection of presentations called God at 2000 through Morehouse Publishing, 2000, editors, Marcus Borg and Ross McKenzie.
5 Ibid,. p170
6 “Mission in the 1990s: Two Views” International Bulletin of Mission Research, January 1990
7 Ibid at 6
8 Ibid
9 Ibid
10 Ibid
11 Ibid at 7
12 Ibid at 6
13 Ibid
14 Ibid