“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2)
Like many people this weekend, I found myself with a sharp knife in my hand, gouging an eye out... of a pumpkin. The face I carved on my jack-o-lantern has triangle-eyes and a triangle-nose because straight lines are easier to carve out of pumpkin flesh than circles. The only distinguishing feature of my jack-o-lantern is that it boasts an unambiguous and widely beaming smile - without any sign of a jagged, menacing tooth or a grimace. It had been some years since I’d carved a pumpkin, and I had forgotten how much of the guts of the pumpkin there are to be removed. I wanted to do a clean job of it, so I was scooping and scooping the stringy flesh, and the glistening off-white seeds out until the inside of my pumpkin was smooth, and you could feel the spoon running over the gentle and distinctive ridges in the hollowed out space, where the candle would be placed to make the jack-o-lantern glow.
Halloween customs are only one step away from religious ritual with good reason. And around this time of year we let our inner Dr. Frankenstein have a bit of free rein; and we flirt a little with pretending to be God. In our imaginations, at least, we commune with the dead; we indulge outlandish fantasies about who or what we want to be if we could be anyone or anything we want; and we bring creations into being with our own hands, deciding what they should look like and how they should act. One of my nephews, I hear, is becoming a dinosaur for Halloween this year, although I am not sure that this means there will be a noticeable difference in his behavior. Perhaps he will roar a little more loudly than usual.
Halloween is not actually meant to get us thinking too much. But in a certain frame of mind, you might wonder, as you scoop the flesh from a pumpkin to empty it out, what kind of attitude you want to give it when you are done with it. You could also wonder if this is what God did with you and with me when he fashioned us with his hands. I much prefer this way of thinking (that we were crafted by hand) to the thought that we were assembled factory-style by robotic angels, and customized after-market. Except that you quickly begin to hope that God’s process might be the reverse of pumpkin carving: you hope that God is filling up, rather than emptying out; that God is sculpting, rather than hollowing; and that God’s precision of design is significantly more adept than your own.
The Gospel reading this morning - which has nothing to do with Halloween - would appear to be a dream of a reading for any preacher, since it contains those wonderful words, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Golden Rule! What day isn’t made better by a reminder of the primacy of this rule? What life isn’t improved by adhering to it more closely? What injury can’t be helped by hewing more nearly to this rule? We call it golden for a reason!
But there is a danger in our easy readiness to luxuriate in the warm perfection of the Golden Rule. And the danger is that we may begin to believe that it is, in and of itself, a perfect summary of the Christian faith; faith’s only indispensable tenet; and the sole key to our salvation. In truth, however, nearly all religions that I can think of embrace this rule, and there is not much that is distinctively Christian about it. The Golden Rule does not, in fact, encapsulate the Christian Gospel - although I am willing to assert that it remains indispensable to our faith.
Remember that the injunction to love your neighbor as yourself is the second commandment, not the first. The greatest commandment, Jesus agrees with the entire biblical and rabbinical tradition, is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. To love the Lord your God, this is the first and great commandment. And, hard as the second commandment may be to keep, this first commandment may be even harder for us.
I have often thought that the second commandment is crucially linked to the first commandment, precisely because there are few better ways to demonstrate your love for God than by showing your love for your neighbor. We need the second commandment if we are to have any hope of abiding by the first, I have thought. But the further we go into this century, the more I wonder about that order of dependency, as explicit faith in God becomes less and less common, and our ability to love our neighbors as our selves seems ever more elusive, despite having all the means in the world to do it. Maybe the less we believe in, and therefore love God, the harder it becomes to find a reason to love our neighbors. Maybe the second commandment really is dependent on the first, because without a divine injunction to do so, can we really just take it for granted that human nature will lead us to the inevitable conclusion that it’s best for everyone if we choose to love our neighbor? The newspapers present very little evidence to suggest that this is so.
Traditionally, Jewish law contains not two commandments, and not ten commandments, but 613 commandments. Many of those commandments find their source in the book of Leviticus: we heard a few of them today. But we also heard a preoccupation of God’s in the few verses of our reading from Leviticus, when we heard God tell Moses to tell the people of Israel, “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” More than once God instructs Moses to make this point to his people as he delivers the law. Suffice it to say that it will not suffice to say that there is a short, working definition of “holy” that I can provide in order to understand what God is talking about here. God told Moses to take off his shoes at the burning bush because the ground he was standing on was holy. You can read the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures as an account of the Holy God fashioning for himself a holy people: calling them, urging them, tuning them, challenging them, establishing their loyalty and his, asking them to purify themselves, and constantly calling them back to him when they wander. Summarized in a single paragraph this sounds like the basis of a PBS costume drama. Judi Dench could play God.
A similar reading can be given to the New Testament - as a continuation of the divine project for the Holy One to establish for himself a holy people, culminating in the sacrifice on the Cross of Holiness for the sake of holiness. Read the New Testament this way and you see that God did not send his Son into the world to suffer and die in order to teach his people to be nice to one another: the task is not worthy of the Servant. But God, whatever his purposes may be, has never curtailed his project of establishing a holy people, begun so long ago. And the church has understood that this is the project into which we have been enlisted, which we generally consider far more exciting (and hopeful) than earning merit badges for being nice. And part of the wonder of the revelation of the New Testament of Jesus has been the message that God intends to expand and enlarge the body of those who are called to holiness. Indeed, one of the wonders of this new covenant is that it seems to be open and available to anyone who wants to be a part of it.
But what does it mean to be part of the covenant community of God’s holy people? What does it mean to be holy? This question strikes me as dangerous in 21st century America. In too many hands it becomes an argument for purity; and any religion that fixates overly on purity becomes perverse in its self-righteousness and exclusivity.
So maybe Halloween gives us a context to help us see what God means when he tells Moses that we, his people, “shall be holy.” Maybe we need to consider, as we carve out our pumpkins, and decide what kind of jack-o-lanterns they will be... maybe we need to stop and think about God’s intention for what kind of people he meant for us to be - individually and as a community. Maybe we need to realize that in fashioning us, God was in some way also making an expression of himself, forming us, as he did, in his own image and likeness. Maybe we need to contemplate not what was a scooped out, but what specifically was placed within us to give us our potential for holiness. To be cheesey about it, maybe we need to consider what it is that makes us glow.
Two specific sets of expectations stem directly from whatever divine flame illumines our lives: the call to worship God and the call to serve one another. These are complicated ideas which are nevertheless easy to identify when you see them, or when they are absent from our lives. More to the point, worship and service stand in stark contrast to the goals of profit and exploitation that are so much at the heart of our market-driven lives, and which have nothing whatsoever to do with the Gospel or with holiness.
In this church, we are explicitly trying on our vocation to holiness when at that end of the church the guests from our soup kitchen are being measured for winter boots that we are able to supply for them, as they were yesterday morning; while at this end of the church that altar was being prepared for Mass. It’s the kind of thing that ironically makes you want to take off your shoes, for you get the sense that you are walking on holy ground. You understand that this is not the way most of the world conducts itself?
When the Pharisees went to Jesus and had a lawyer ask him which was the greatest commandment, it was intended as a test. But in our day and age the test is meant for us, especially since the second commandment is so easy to agree upon and still do nothing about it. It would appear that the likelihood that we will take the second commandment seriously may, indeed, be closely linked to whether or not we take the first commandment seriously: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This, however, is a lesson that you cannot learn from a pumpkin. Although you may have transformed it, you probably did not do so out of love, and the pumpkin can never love you back.
But if the simple act of carving a pumpkin and placing a small candle inside it to make it glow can turn the attention to the hand of God, that made each one of us, then so be it. Maybe it will also help us to hear again the call to be holy people, called into a holy communion, assured by a holy sacrifice of the promise of holiness. Maybe it will help us to know the Holy One whose breath gave life to all things, whose Presence with us now marks this place as holy ground, whose likeness assures us of the holiness to which we are called, and whose promise can be trusted when he says that we shall be holy, for the Lord our God is holy. And let us hear what our Lord Jesus Christ said, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. And then, God willing, you shall be holy.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
29 October 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia