Sermon
October 27, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Leviticus 19: 1-4, 9-18
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God.

When you reap the harvest of your land, 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.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Matthew 22:34-40
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


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Sermon: Be Holy

For the theme this morning I’d like to think about the opening words of our first lesson: The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

We sing about “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we might exclaim “Holy Cow” or something less Midwestern, and we like to observe holidays, which come from Holy Days, even if the connection is sometimes lost in the celebration. But what does this word “Holy” really mean? What is required of us when God commands: “You shall be Holy”?

In our hymnal you’ll find a hymn with the title: Take Time to be Holy. It was written in 1882 by William Longstaff. It must express a cherished ideal to have survived in the hymnal for over a hundred years. It was the only hymn he ever wrote and expressed his personal creed:

Take time to be holy. Speak oft with thy Lord; abide in Him always and feed on His Word. Make friends of God’s children. Help those who are weak, forgetting in nothing His blessing to seek.

Take time to be holy. The world rushes on; spend much time in secret with Jesus alone. By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be; thy friends in thy conduct His likeness shall see.

Take time to be holy. Be calm in thy soul-Each thought and each motive beneath His control. Thus led by His Spirit to fountains of love, thou soon shalt be fitted for service above.

The hymn answers the command “Be Holy” with a commitment to set aside time for prayer, devotion, self-examination, study of the scripture, church fellowship and service. The question of holiness is related to the question of a disciplined quest for purity of heart, for religion that is more than an outward observance of rituals and norms, for religion that flows from an inner communion with God.

To answer the command “Be Holy” is to enlist the power of Christ in a struggle with our inner adversary - with the impulses and urges of compulsion, selfishness, greed, revenge, and everything the scriptures sometimes call the devil, the flesh, or simply the world. It’s a persistent theme in the life of the church, even back to the letters of the New Testament like First Peter where we read:

Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct… Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.

So the command “Be Holy” has a personal, inner dimension, a demanding discipline to exercise self-control over impulses and attitudes that would lead to behavior unbecoming a disciple of Christ. It looks to a transformation of the self so that the soul becomes a little piece of heaven on earth.

Some who have attempted this transformation with great seriousness of purpose and deep awareness of their own temptations have felt the necessity to pull out of society and live alone or in small communities of like minded souls.

This impulse is what lies behind the motivation of people to leave family and friends and enter monasteries where a life of simple holiness can be pursued with few distractions - although that is a highly questionable premise, since most of us carry our distractions with us, and people can even be competitive about simplicity and poverty.

It is also the motivation behind utopian communities or groups like the old order Amish with their plain clothes and black horse drawn carriages. Holiness, in this view, also means separateness, separation from a profane world where Christ is not honored and where the ethic of love is seen as a sign of weakness.

But a personal inner dimension does not mark the boundary of what God expects with this command to be holy, and the outer, social dimension is actually more to the point of our first lesson this morning. Listen again to parts of the lesson:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths.

When you reap the harvest of your land, 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.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.

You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

This passage indicates that holiness must be displayed in every aspect of practical life - from the family to the field to the workplace to the courthouse. This holiness does not simply seek a transformation of the self, but also of society; it looks for signs of heaven in the hustle of the world.

People like the Amish understood this, but they didn’t think it was possible beyond the boundaries of a small, close-knit community of like minded souls. They knew how hard it was even in that kind of community, so what hope is there for the world of unbelievers?

But that is the world we live in, and we cannot fulfill the command to be holy by retreating from everyday life into some religious community or sanctuary. Holiness for us means working to transform everyday life by a quality of behavior that is guided by the generosity, justice, and goodness of God.

We live in a world that is under the shadow of terrorists - people who gather in their training camps and then fan out into society to spread fear and terror in unexpected ways and unexpected places. They give us a little glimpse of what hell must be like.

You and I cannot confront them directly, but we can be part of our own network of holyists - people who gather to train in the ways of being holy and then fan out into the world to spread holiness and love in unexpected ways and unexpected places. How can we use our resources and opportunities to give the world a little glimpse of heaven?

The challenge to be holy falls squarely on our shoulders - because we are the church and we are the world - we embrace this dynamic of gathering to accept the command of holiness and then scattering to fulfill it in the many areas where our daily life and work take us. The real work begins when we leave this place - let us leave equipped with God’s command: Be Holy!
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