Confirmation Sunday May 7th 2017
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
“Don’t Eat Dead Squirrels”
A Reading Leviticus Chapter 19 verses 2 & 18:
God said tell the whole congregation of Israel, “Be Holy, because I, the Lord your God am Holy. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord, your God.”
Let us pray: God of Love, Holy God, we ask for your Spirit to be near on this sacred day. Help us to discover “ordinary holiness” in our lives & help us to order our lives around those moments that you might make us more whole, we pray, Amen.
I have a riddle for us: “What do 150 ham sandwiches in brown bagged lunches, 65 students wearing glow in the dark face paint, four bonfires & a pair of dead squirrels all have in common?” Anybody have a guess? 150 ham sandwiches, 65 students in face paint, four bonfires and a pair of dead squirrels? Anybody? Well there are actually two correct answers to this riddle: The first is that all of these activities were a part of our confirmation curriculum this year. Secondly, these are all strictly prohibited in the book of Leviticus.
Leviticus Chapter 11, says do not eat or handle dead squirrels – (more specifically don’t eat animals that walk on all fours on their paws). Chapter 11 goes on to prohibit the preparation or distribution of pork on ham sandwiches on Bridges Runs. Leviticus 6, says to keep the sacred bonfire burning on the altar at all times, to help mediate the presence of God – which we definitely didn’t do on the Bonfire Nights, or on our Retreats. Leviticus also prohibits marking your body with Tattoos (or *modern interpretation* glow in the dark paint). So the moral of the riddle is that according to Leviticus we have utterly failed in our confirmation curriculum this year – that is with the exception of the rule about not eating the dead squirrels – we did well in that arena. I should note, if you haven’t heard the story of the dead squirrels, ask a confirmand or a person in the Nazarali/Smeltz family during coffee hour, it’s a great story.
How about an easier question: “What is a belief or conviction that helps you order your life?” Each year we ask this question of our confirmation class. But this year it has particular resonance, because we are focusing on an oft forgotten Biblical book of Leviticus. I should also give a disclaimer here that every time we had a discussion on the Bible in our confirmation class, we somehow ended up discussing some obscure & perhaps offensive text from Leviticus, “A hand would go up and say, ‘what about this part of the Bible?” And so this, Will Srere, is my final answer to the question “What is the deal with the weirdest books in the Bible, particularly Leviticus?”
Let’s imagine about 1,500 years ago that a group of detailed (if not OCD) Israelite priests get together. And they posed the question: “What are the beliefs, the convictions that help us order our lives?” This was particularly resonant for them because they had spent about 70 years in exile in Babylon. The Holiness Codes of Leviticus were written shortly after they returned to their holy land. After exile the people of Israel had to reorient themselves. They were seeking a new system, to organize how they might reach out to God and how God reaches out to them. And they took this project very seriously, with detailed instructions from what they ate, to whom they dated, to what they wore, how they worshipped & finally how they treated each other.
One commentator compared these Codes to a document that might come out of the CDC – the Centers for Disease Control or the Food & Drug Administration. These priests provided laws of sanitation & hygiene according to the knowledge of their day. So yes, many of these codes and restrictions are not very relevant for today. And yet, there are some fascinating & compelling arguments for keeping Leviticus around.
First of all, let’s unpack our baggage with the concept of Holiness. God comes to the people and says “Be Holy as I am Holy.” And just to be upfront I will admit my own immediate reaction to God’s call for us to be “holy.” First of all “holiness,” yes even for a professional, feels unattainable. Someone telling me to be “holy” feels like a way to control me, my body, or my relationships. It feels like God is far off & there is a complicated system to get enough brownie points in order to hang out with God. Holiness Codes make me feel stressed out about where I fall on the “holiness meter.” In the days when I misunderstood these codes, they also make me afraid to hang out with certain folks who weren’t on the same path to holiness that I was on – what if they messed up my trajectory somehow?!
But what if this is a superficial & gross misunderstanding of God’s call for us to be “holy”? What if “holiness” is more about “wholeness?” Not about self-righteousness or moral purity – but about grace-filled action that makes us more whole? And what if there are imperfect folks who are “holy” because they bring others into more wholeness, more dignity? What if the priests were right, that “holiness” is woven into our everyday mundane life? What if there are messy moments in life that are actually sacred, like being with a person who is dying or drawing near to one who has been discarded by our wider society?
About twice a month I go to the Newark Juvenile Center – basically a prison for kids some of whom are around your age. When I go to Newark, I visit with a student in their mentoring program, named Kevin. It can be awkward to meet with Kevin. It can feel vulnerable to walk into a prison, but the word that I would actually use capture our time together is “holy.” We visit, we play checkers, we learn about each other. I learn about the challenges of what life looks like for Kevin on the inside and we brainstorm ways together to make meaning out of our 2 hours a month together. This month we decided to read a book and I challenged Kevin to make a friend – because with the social dynamics of jail – Kevin prefers to keep to himself.
From the outside looking in one might think, “Wow these mentors are making a difference!” But the truth is, there is something important, something that makes me more whole when I visit with Kevin in the prison. We talk about how to pray, and school, we talk about food, and how he passes the time. It is mostly mundane but when I leave, I feel like something holy is happening. Not because I’m a “do-gooder,” but because he is a person of worth & intelligence & humor – and it is an honor – it makes me more whole - to know and to visit with Kevin.
One mantra that I always find myself coming back to, is: “Be Curious Not Judgmental.” This is particularly helpful mantra in prison ministry, on our trips to Nicaragua and on RISE trips. Sometimes when we bump up against something that feels uncomfortable or new, we jump to judgment – the spiritual challenge is to remain curious, recognizing that this is a different culture, we may not have all of the information or understand all of the nuances.
This is also true when we read some of the ancient texts in the Bible. Of course we are free to critique the ways that interpretations of the Bible may perpetuate suffering or oppression. But what would it look like to remain curious about a book like Leviticus? What do we discover when we refrain from judging these kinds of texts as outdated or backwards?
One amazing finding is that this text is actually one of the first places that we get our modern day mantra, “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the text that Jesus comes back to when he is asked about the most important parts of the law.
Another fascinating finding is that in other ancient law codes it was “generally assumed that all free citizens…would look out for their own interests, and it was primarily up to the gods and judges to look out for the interests of others.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 4). This means that for the Israelite community, this instruction to take care of the vulnerable, was a unique contribution. It was a revolutionary idea then, as it is in so many of our communities now a days. You see when we approach a new culture, whether we are in Newark, Nicaragua or reading an ancient text, we can say “Man we do things more efficiently or better than they do!” Or we could ask: “What wisdom do they have that can make us and our community more whole?” Certainly to this day we still need the reminder to “Love God & Love Our Neighbor.” And certainly we can learn a lot about how to better take care of the vulnerable in our communities.
And so just like the post-exilic Israelites, Middle School can be a time of identity shifting, grappling with questions like “who am I?” Or constant social restructuring, asking over and over again “where do I belong?” We can obsess over “who likes whom” & the pressure to discover our passions. Lacrosse, or Basketball or Drama, or Academics? All the while nagged by the question, “Are we good enough to get into the best college?”
What if we could come up with a system that would help us navigate some of these challenging questions? A system that might make us more whole?
So here is a Middle School Manifesto of Holiness
Better yet, a Middle School Manifesto of Wholeness (loosely based on Leviticus Chapter 19):
First of all, God says “Be Whole as I am whole.” When you love your neighbor, it is not a warm fuzzy emotion, it is an action, in fact at times it is uncomfortable. Leave extra abundance in your life as you go. If you have a talent, money, material possession, time, or creativity, use it to help others. You never know when you might be on the receiving end, embracing a gift from another.
Tell the truth. This may seem simple or obvious. But let’s be honest, most of our lives aren’t exactly 100% real. We spend a lot of time on social media portraying our best selves, we don’t post about the messy parts or the worst days.
Find people in your life with whom you can be your true self. Help us build a church where people can be real. Where people know they are loved and cherished by God and their community, no matter who they are, or where they are on life’s journey.
When negotiating social systems it can be tempting to push others to secure our own spot in the social order. But the most “whole” communities stand up for each other. People put themselves at risk, to protect strangers and those in need.
*Lastly when you are stuck in the midst of Middle School chaos, just remember your own personal beliefs from your Communal Faith Statement:
If you are struggling to find meaning, remember, everything happens for a reason.
Stand up for people who are less fortunate, less resourced than you have been.
You can always get better if you try.
Do what is kind & right, then you will have no regrets.
Go with your heart when you’re faced with a tough situation.
Love your neighbor.
And remember that God guides your life, God is always with you.
Lastly, I’d add a bit of Levitical wisdom, “Don’t eat the dead squirrel.”