Grant us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will.

In the revised common lectionary, we almost never have Leviticus in our readings. We have this very small portion we heard this morning, every 6 years, and we have parts of this same chapter for Easter 5A and Epiphany 7A (and we don’t even always have 7 Sundays after the Epiphany). I can say the book of Leviticus generally is a little dry, but if you miss these 3 Sundays in the 3-6 year cycle, you never hear Leviticus in church. How little we read this book is ironic because Jesus quotes it a LOT. Within the Pentateuch, which are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, also called the Torah, Leviticus is considered the most important for the Jewish faith. It is the central portion. This is where you find almost all of the 600+ laws that are important to an observant Jew. This is, in fact, where you find the original command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” that appears in our Leviticus reading and in our Gospel for today. The one from which Jesus, in a different gospel than the one we heard this morning, draws out the question: “who is your neighbor?”

This particular passage from Leviticus is from what is called the Holiness Code, which is essentially all of chapter 19. קָדוֹשׁ in Hebrew means “holy” or “sacred”. And the word wonderfully punctuates a beautiful undercurrent theme in this passage. “You are holy as I the Lord your God is holy.” And the end of each passage is punctuated with either “I am the LORD your God”, or “I am the LORD”. This iteration serves like a mirror. You might want to check it out, read the entire scripture passage. It will remind you of the ten commandments on steroids. To our ears, the punctuating at the end of each thought may almost read like a non sequitur. “Do all these things, x, y, and … I am the Lord.”

But here is the important thing here, what that reminder “I am the LORD” is doing at the end of every command:

It is not that humans do things that God commands just because it is God commanding us. Divine command does not (or perhaps I should say it should not) stand over us like an external compulsion, that we must do simply because God is more powerful than we are. With each command, we are reminded that TO DO THIS THING is TO BE IN RELATION with the Lord, who has invited us into covenant, who has invited us to be in relationship. The same Lord who gives the command is the one who brought us into being, who gave us breath, who spoke to the Israelites in promise; the same who protected them in the desert. With each command concluding “I am the LORD”, we are reminded that we are made in the image of God; that because God is holy and we are in God’s image, we too are called to be holy, AND therefore we are holy. So who we are, and what we do, must be in sync with one another in order to flourish in the life God created us to have. There is not something that we do, there is no hoop to jump through in order to be holy or sacred. Instead it is woven into the existence of our relationship with God, the knowledge of God, the desire to please God, because God is holy, THAT is what makes us holy. And yet … surprise! Plot twist! … to be in relation to God, to be holy, is to DO the works of God.

Being made in the image of God compels us to love what God loves. We may feel pretty isolated and sometimes alone in this time of Covid, but loving never goes out of fashion and in fact our faith transcends and works through difficult times of Covid, difficult race relations and political unrest, loving God and loving neighbor. The good news is that we are not left without help to do this loving AND we are given salvation by God’s forgiveness through Christ Jesus when we don’t. Thus, the biggest help that we have is that we are made in the image of God and that we have Jesus.

Being made in the image of God is to be holy and this compels us to lean into stewarding the earth and caring for all our neighbors and all God’s creatures now more than ever. As Teresa of Avila said we are to be Jesus’s hands and feet in the world. However, we are really are God’s holy hands and feet in the world. We are holy as God is holy means that we are to love the things and people that God loves. Jesus’s distillation of the passages of Leviticus elevates love of neighbor to the level of the Shema (which is the Hebrew direction to love the Lord your God).

Let us take heart that there is help. We are made in the image of God and we have forgiveness when we don’t when we don’t love. It seems easy at first, but I think loving neighbor is only easy in the abstract. It is only easy when it’s cheap and doesn’t have emotional cost much from us. It is only easy when loving is, say, giving some money to the poor or homeless and then we feel better about ourselves. Instead it is much harder to be the tree planted by the water, the one whose love is life giving. I find the closer the person is to me, sometimes the harder it is to truly love that person. Also it is hard to love ALL the time. And even more so, there is a saying which I find very accurate, that God loves everyone you hate. Yet, you are holy as God is holy. And God finds other people holy and sacred too, even those we hate. It is perhaps past time to really lean into the hard work of loving. And there is forgiveness and salvation when we are not up to the task, when we slip. And still … we are a sacred, holy people participating in God’s world. If we are holistic about this then, to honor the relationship we have with God, EVERYTHING falls under the rubric of loving God with all we have. Then, If we truly love God, then we love neighbor; if we love God, we love all created beings. If we love God, we love the planet and care for it, …. for the Lord is holy.

AND the reverse is true, that to love all those is to love God.