Saturday, February 19, 2011

Epiphany 7A

I recently read an article that examined how the small American town of West Chester survived the Great Depression of the early 1930s.  This little farming community was hit hard by falling commodity prices, which ironically meant that at the very same time many of its own inhabitants were without enough to eat, local farmers were forced into bankruptcy, prematurely slaughtering their animals and ploughing cornfields into the ground because they couldn’t sell their produce.  The writer of the paper identified some of the main strategies this community relied on, and I was intrigued to discover both a sense of self-sacrifice that led people to share the little they had with those worse off than themselves, as well as a marked inequality even amongst the destitute – as black residents were forced into even more desperate strategies than their white neighbours, such as the hunting of rodents.

Like elsewhere throughout the world, unemployed men in West Chester went door-to-door, begging for odd jobs, and often worked simply for the food they needed to keep their families alive.  Even government projects designed to soak up the massive unemployment often paid unemployed men in food rather than cash.  Agencies such as the Salvation Army ran soup kitchens and bread lines, local families pooled together for the support of orphaned children, and sent food and desperately needed cash to other parts of the country that they deemed worse off than themselves.

I was reminded of this by our first reading, from the Book of Leviticus, that focuses on the relationships between people that hold a community together.  In this early period of the history of Israel there were of course no dole queues, no Medicare safety net or age pensions, and the social glue that held the community together and provided safety and security was only what could be found in the network of obligations that held people together within kinship structures and cultic practice.  But Leviticus goes further, and describes a foundational obligation that goes way beyond the boundaries of family or religion, a fundamental obligation that holds human beings together because of who we are as creatures made in the image of God.

‘Be holy’, God says in this passage.  ‘Because I, The Lord your God, am holy’.  ‘Be perfect’, Jesus tells his followers, including us, in today’s Gospel reading, ‘even as your Father in heaven is perfect’.  In other words, as creatures made in the divine image, our lives are supposed to reveal the divine pattern on which we are constructed.  It’s a common ancient supposition.  That the true parentage of something or somebody can be discerned because the child resembles the parent – and so to turn it on its head - what you reveal in your life, in your actions as well as your words, shows who you take after and reveals your true parentage.  If, as we claim, we are God’s sons and daughters, then our lives are supposed to reveal God’s holiness. 

But then Leviticus does something radical, takes a further step that echoes down through the centuries until it is picked up by a rabble-rousing first century Jewish rabbi who uses it to re-interpret the Law for a generation who have lost their roots, a generation who have got used to seeing the Law more as a tool by which the ruling classes, the scribes and Pharisees, can lock in their own privilege.  And Jesus picks up this vital clue from that dullest and most unreadable of all the Old Testament books, the Book of Leviticus that – unlike the priestly class – assumes that God’s holiness is not a question of being ‘set apart’ or ‘unique’ – not a question of avoiding ritual contamination by coming into contact with the poor and the grubby – but that sees God’s holiness, and ours, as being about relationship and intimacy, as being about the preparedness to go beyond our own self-interest and to see our own well-being as somehow connected with the well-being of others.  A way of seeing the holiness of God, and the holiness of God’s people, as revealed in our willingness to practise compassion even for those who are defined by their difference and their foreignness. 

‘When you harvest your field or pick the ripe fruit from your orchard’, God says, ‘leave some.  Make sure you leave some behind for the poor, and for aliens who you might think should have no rights at all.’  You see what this is doing?  Not only providing for the most immediate needs of those who have nothing, but also providing the dignity of work, a second harvest.  And why are we commanded to do this?  ‘Because I, the Lord your God, am holy’.  In the self-understanding of ancient Israel, so close to the spirituality of Australian aboriginals, the land does not belong to the person who pays money for it, the land belongs to God, and the produce belongs to God – and the lives of the people who live within the land are connected to the land and defined by relationship to God and to each other.  God’s perspective does not recognise our property rights, or the artificial boundaries by which we decree that some people belong here and others don’t, or that some people may have dignity and that others can’t. 

Leviticus assumes – and Jesus assumes – that holiness is about economics.  What you have isn’t yours to do with as you like.  You are to recognise the claim that others have not only on your possessions, but the claim that the destitute and the alien have on the intangible commodities of dignity and humanity.  I wonder what this would look like if it was actually practised in our Australian society?  For a start, it means that the decisions we make in business or in our own finances are always personal – the decision to spend money on ourselves, or in business the decision to down-size or sell a poorly-performing asset is personal, because it presupposes that our own interests are more important than the interests of others.  Biblical ethics on the other hand presupposes that the bottom line has to be balanced by the well-being of others, that the primary criterion for how we handle our goods and our money is the flourishing of community and the care of the most vulnerable.  And Biblical ethics assumes – an assumption I might say that we all too often implicitly reject – that our own well-being lies not in how much we keep for ourselves, or in how much others do for us, but in how much we work for the well-being of others.

Leviticus, in other words – Leviticus and the rabble-rousing rabbi – teaches us that holiness is about learning to practice the economics of love.  Loving your neighbour as yourself, and learning who your neighbour is.  We might have aliens, but God does not.  We might have enemies, but God does not.  God’s care is utterly wasteful, utterly indiscriminate, even sending the blessings of sunshine and rain without distinguishing between those who deserve them and those who don’t.  The perfection of God is the perfection not of splendid isolation but of relationship and involvement, the perfection of getting the hands dirty, of weeping with the sad and of sharing with the have-nots.  To be perfect like God is perfect means to notice the kinship and the connection we have most especially with those who are utterly alien because of their difference or their exclusion.  To notice that our own connectedness with God and with each other depends on our practicing the building of bridges to those who – even in our own community or our own congregation – are not noticed or not included.

No doubt you have heard the observation that love is not first and foremost a noun, but a verb.  Not something you have, but something you do.  In which case we might ask ourselves – how have I done it, lately? How have I loved – not just the ones who resemble me and who swerve my own interests – but the ones who least resemble me and who are farthest from my self-interest?  Who in my life are the aliens, the barely noticeable people who challenge me silently because of their need and who disturb me because of their different-ness?  How, lately, have I loved them?

Or as a congregation – how have we reached out, lately, to those in need in our community?  How have we broken down the barriers of exclusion, how have we made ourselves less comfortable so that others may feel included?  How have we loved?