You shall be holy
7 Epiphany – 2/19/17
St. Paul’s Alexandria
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
BE PERFECT, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. . .”
Those lines from the poet Mary Oliver would have been a blessing to a young monk in the 16th century. This young man was striving to be perfect, as he believed God was calling him to be and Jesus was demanding in the gospel we heard this morning. Martin Luther had entered an Augustinian monastery, determined to earn his way into heaven. But even there, wrapped in frequent worship, study and contemplation, Martin suffered painfully from the feeling that he was a condemned sinner. Confessing several times a day did not help. Finally, in an effort to free Martin from his scruples, his superior sent him away.
In a memorable scene from the movie Luther, he is ascending on his knees the steps of a great cathedral. Along with him are hundreds of other pilgrims ¾ mostly peasants, people who can ill afford the trek they are making or the silver they drop into the offering plate at the top. You can see on Martin’s face the epiphany he experiences, as he realizes that none of this is necessary, that all has already been forgiven in Jesus Christ.
He sets out to cleanse and reform the Church he loves, but Martin continues all his life to wrestle with Scripture — just as we do. He made peace with the difficult words of Jesus we hear today by deciding that they were meant to show believers the impossibility of meeting God’s high standards and the necessity of God’s grace.
Listen again to what Jesus expects from us. Maybe it will help to hear bits of a modern translation by Eugene Peterson, in The Message:
- Don’t hit back.
- If someone sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it.
- Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer.
- This is what God does: He gives his best ¾ the sun to warm and the rain to nourish ¾ to everyone: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus?
- You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.
If that sounds impossible, consider our reading from Leviticus, part of the Torah’s Holiness Code, which focuses on right relationship with God. Why leave some crops untouched in your fields so that hungry people might collect them? Why not steal, and lie, and put stumbling blocks before others? Why not hate in your heart? The answer appears as a refrain throughout the passage: because “I am the Lord.”
But these are not so much demands as calls to fresh relationship, renewing and expanding the covenant given at Sinai. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” YOU SHALL is imperative — a command ¾ but also declarative, a fact. You WILL be holy, because you belong to me. To be holy means not to be impossibly virtuous, but to be set apart as a people belonging to God, living graciously and generously as God lives. It means not a self-righteous certainty, but ¾ as Luther discovered ¾ a reliance on God’s righteousness.
It means, above all, relationship. It’s no accident that Jesus, later in Matthew’s gospel, will quote this part of Leviticus when he declares the greatest commandments ¾ [those we hear every week at this service]: To love God with all your heart and soul and mind; and ¾ here’s Leviticus — love your neighbor as yourself.
You shall be perfect. You shall be holy. This is not an impossible demand, but an invitation to live out God’s generosity and graciousness, to the best of your human ability.
A little story from our nation’s recent past may illustrate this best.
Julie Otsuka tells this story in her book When the Emperor Was Divine. Just before the boy and his mother and sister were taken away ¾ his father was already gone ¾ Elizabeth next door came to say goodbye. She slipped a smooth, blue stone into his pocket.
The boy kept that stone through the long train ride and later, at the camp where he was imprisoned because of the slope of his eyes and the language his family spoke and because national security was at stake. Elizabeth, the only one of his neighbors who wrote to him, sometimes sent him things ¾ a riddle book, a picture from the paper ¾ and once, a tulip bulb. There in the Utah desert, the boy planted the bulb in a rusty peach can found behind the mess hall. Tamped it down good. Wondered about it all winter. And then one March day, a shoot of green. Later, a burst of yellow. Hope in a barren desert.
I like to remember this story, especially on this Day of Remembrance that recalls the date ¾ February 19,1942 ¾ when an executive order consigned Americans of Japanese descent to internment camps. The family in our story was one of them, as was George Takei ¾ you remember him as Sulu on the Starship Enterprise, and now as the creator of a film called Allegiance, about his family’s incarceration.
But I like this story for another reason: because it demonstrates how possible ¾ indeed, how easy — it can be to live with generosity and graciousness.
“You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles repenting…” says Mary Oliver, and adds, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” And I say,You only have to let the softness of God within you love what God loves.
It can be easy. Elizabeth, in our story, provided simple acts of friendship in a time of suspicion and separation. Loving our neighbor can be as easy as that, as simple as taking part with other St. Paul’s folks in “gleaning” the leftovers at Old Town’s farmers’ market for hungry neighbors. As simple as learning a few words of Spanish or Arabic to address new Virginians.
“You’re kingdom subjects,” says Jesus. “Now live like it. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
You will be holy because the God you belong to is holy. Let those words and God’s grace ¾ not the impossible task of achieving perfection on your own — be your epiphany today.
 “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver
 Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor Was Divine (New York: Anchor Books, 2002).