“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
What a BIG commandment. An impossible commandment! How could we little human beings ever raise our holiness to match God’s? And yet, we just heard: “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 a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor; I am the LORD” (19:15-16).
The whole of Leviticus chapter 19 – from which our first reading is taken – makes the commandment to be holy, for God is holy,BIG, BIGGER, BIGGEST until it becomes an extension, an expansion, of all Ten Commandments, a long, improvisational jazz solo on them. “You shall not steal,” becomes: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field;…you shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes; you shall leave them for the poor” (9-10). And, “You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until the morning” (13). Again, “When an alien resides with you in the land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you – for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (33-34).
Such BIG commandments. Impossible? Or, so obvious, so timely, so compelling, that even a little child could wrap their hands around them? Maybe Jesus – in our gospel reading – will make the task more manageable. After all, he is asked to go right to the heart of the matter. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matthew 22:36) Simple: “You shall love the Lord your God” (22:37). Except, Jesus continues, you shall love God “with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment” (37-38). Really? How is it possible to love with every fiber of one’s being? Except, Jesus goes further: “A second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets” (39-40). Exactly what we heard commanded in Leviticus: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin. 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” (19:17-18). And so we’re just left with BIG, impossible commandments. What do we do? How might we wrap our hearts around them? Our souls and minds? Our very selves?
There’s a clue in the repeated refrain in Leviticus that follows each set of commandments: I am the LORD your God. It’s hard to catch in English, but the word “LORD” – even when spelled with all capital letters – represents a name, not a title. God’s proper name. That mysterious, grammar-bursting, divine sentence name disclosed to Moses from the burning bush. I AM WHO I AM. A song from the Iona Community in Scotland might help. “God beyond all names, never fully known, Mystery of Mysteries, calling us your own.”
What if we heard God’s commandments instead as personal gift, the gift of God’s personal reality? What if we re-read Leviticus and Jesus this way: You shall be holy, for I – I AM WHO I AM – your God am holy; for I AM WHO I AM never renders an unjust judgment, slanders others, profits by blood, hates or takes vengeance. What if holiness is a holy gift the holy God gives away in creating us – each of us – rather than an impossibly high barrier we must surmount by our moral striving?
A paragraph from theologian Sallie McFague might help. “Since, for the Christian, God is always incarnate and present, there is no place on earth, no joy or wish that any creature experiences, no need or despair that they suffer, that is not a possible route to God. Wherever reality is seen as hopeful, joyful, and loving, God is there; whenever reality is experienced as despairing, cruel, and hopeless, God must be there also. If God is love, then where love is, God is; where love is not, God must needs be.” McFague concludes:“In nature’s health and beauty, I see God; in nature’s deterioration and destruction, I see that God is here also. In the first case as a Yes and
in the second as No: in the first case as a positive affirmation of God’s glory through the flourishing of creation; in the second, as a negative protest against whatever is undermining God’s creation.”
Even as I repeat these words about God from Sallie McFague and really mean them and hope they help you, I still need something else. Something else on this last Sunday in October 2020 when the world out there and its problems loom so BIG. Such BIG disruptions and ruptures, assaults and anxieties. At the same time, every little task in my little COVID-diminished world in here seems BIGGER and more exhausting. I haven’t felt this stressed out by my teaching – all remote via technology, of course – since the first year or two of my career. Maybe you feel that way, too, about your work or your parenting or your participation in civic life. I used to breathe deeply and practice mindfulness while commuting to school by car or bus. That no longer happens between the kitchen and the study of my little house.
I need to imagine those two great commandments. Find an image for them. Wrap my hands around them. Transform their adult work into child’s play.
And so, I’m going to set aside adult, theological reflection and turn to a Godly Play lesson – the kind the children of this parish engage. I wish we were all sitting around in a circle at St. Paul’s and I could just tell you the story the way it’s meant to be told. I tried really hard to figure out a way of incorporating a live Godly Play lesson within the confines of a ZOOM church sermon, but didn’t succeed. You’ll mostly have to use your imagination as I describe in words what’s meant to be visual and tactile.
Imagine a large, shallow box of sand. The sand of the desert. Imagine wooden figurines of the people of Israel walking through the desert as they escape from slavery in Egypt. Imagine a replica of Mt. Sinai in the back corner, where God comes close to Moses and gives him the commandments.
Here’s how the Godly Play curriculum sets the stage.
“The people of God went through the water into freedom. They were free, and Miriam led the dancing!
“Now that the people are free, they can go anywhere they want to go and do anything they want to do. Where will they go now? What is the best way?
“God loved the people so much that God showed them the Ten Best Ways to Live. Sometimes these ways are called the Ten Commandments.”
Imagine that: God’s commandments and freedom!
The materials for the Godly Play lesson on the Ten Best Ways come in a red, heart-shaped box. [See first image that follows.] Imagine that: love and God’s commandments!
Inside the box are a collection of tablet pieces to be set out one by one in the sand. First a tablet that reads: Love God; then a second, Love People. Together, these tablets form the top two thirds of a heart shape. [See second image.] Ten additional tablet pieces – one for each of the Ten Commandments, the Ten Best Ways to Live – get placed behind the heart. Three behind Love God: don’t serve other gods; make no idols to worship; and be serious when you say my name. The fourth tablet, keep the sabbath holy, goes in the middle between Love God and Love People. Finally, lined up behind Love People, the remaining six: honor your mother and father, don’t kill, don’t break your marriage, don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t even want what others have.
But the heart is not complete. There’s a missing piece of the puzzle, the task of the Ten Best Ways. Love God and Love People must rest firmly on the foundation of: God Loves You. [See third image.]
What is the greatest commandment? You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. All your neighbors. People. Plants. Animals. Earth, air, fire, and water. Love words and the truth as neighbors; the arts and imagination.
But just as important, maybe more: What is the greatest encouragement? The greatest empowerment? God loves you. God loves me. God loves all that God has created. People. Plants. Animals. Earth, air, fire, and water. Words. Truth. Art.
Imagination. With such BIG encouragement, such BIG empowerment, we are free to be holy. We are free to love our neighbor as ourself.
John L. Bell, “God Beyond All Names,” in Come All You People: Shorter Songs for Worship from the Iona Community (GIA Publications, 1994).
Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Fortress Press, 2001), pages 136-137.
Jerome W. Berryman, “The Ten Best Ways,” in The Complete Guide to Godly Play, volume 2: 14 Presentations for Fall (Morehouse Educational Resources, 2010), pages 73-80.