Sermon: The Divine is in the Details

On the day of the 2014 Annual Conference, host congregation Summit Presbyterian Church welcomed visitors to their morning services.  Pastor Cheryl Pyrch has kindly shared her sermon from that day.  Presbyterian churches join many other Christian denominations in the Revised Common Lectionary, a 3-year cycle of prescribed set of readings.image-1-f255b6fa

The Divine is in the Details, Leviticus 19: 1-18

Since today we’re hosting the Annual Conference of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, “Climate Justice: Faith in Action,” I’d like to make an observation about climate change. A personal observation, not a scientific fact or a frightening statistic:   climate change has taken a lot of the fun out of shopping. And eating. And traveling. We used to just shop for stuff that we liked and bought as much as we could afford, maybe more: from cars to shoes to blenders to laptops and cell phones and hamburgers and books and TVs and houses and coffee. Or, we went bargain hunting, which has its own thrill: from buy more save more sales to 10 for 10 dollars at Acme. But now when I pick up that $1 can of solid white tuna —something I like and a bargain— I think: overfishing. The warming and acidifying oceans. Drats. I can’t enjoy hamburgers like I used to, knowing how ecologically expensive they are. Buying a new phone or computer or kitchen blender is a mixed experience, knowing that it’s going to a landfill eventually.   Recently I read about a preaching conference happening in Denver and thought I’ve never been to Denver, how fun, and the church will pay for it: but flying is very carbon intensive, and —truth be told— I don’t think flying to Denver will make me a better preacher. These are just a few examples, you get the idea. Those carefree days are over.   Now, green shopping can be fun: who doesn’t enjoy the frisson of righteousness that comes from getting an energy star appliance or a very expensive lightbulb. But let’s face it: shopping, eating, traveling is not the same as it used to be. It’s not the same because we’re learning that our way of life is hurting God’s creation, the poor, and those who come after us. We’re learning the details of our lives matter for folks who live in Bangladesh and the Sudan, and for our children and grandchildren.

Now you may be thinking, wait a minute —it’s not all about turning off the lights or meatless Mondays. It’s not all about driving a Prius or turning down the thermostat. Fighting climate change means changing national policies, investing in wind and solar, and getting people on the streets to show politicians we care. And I agree —good legislation covers a lot of hamburgers. Climate change has added fun to organizing.   But laws and regulations depend on the fine print. Turning people out to a demonstration depends on small decisions by many people on how to spend their time, and their money, and their brain power. Details matter.

Which brings us to our scriptures. We hardly ever read Leviticus in church — I believe this is the only time it comes up in the lectionary. There are good reasons for this. Leviticus is a book of instructions given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, according to the narrative, much of it about ritual or cultic purity. The instructions tend to be very specific and seem bound to ancient times and places, often oppressive to our ears —although some Christians take the few verses about homosexuality very seriously. If you disobeyed my instructions and read beyond verse 18, you quickly ran into rules about mixing seeds and fabric and how to atone for having sex with another man’s female slave (which does not include justice for the woman). Much of Leviticus isn’t edifying, at least not without deep analysis and interpretation.   But we also have bad reasons for avoiding Leviticus. Many of us were taught that Jesus criticized the law and accused other teachers of being legalistic. That he told his followers to just love God and love people. And indeed, as the early Christian movement began including gentiles, they let go of much Torah instruction —just as Jews were re-interpreting such instruction after the destruction of the temple. But Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to turn their backs on the law. In Matthew he tells them he came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it, and interprets and expands on it as any good rabbi would. In our scripture this morning, he’s talking with some Pharisees —Matthew calls it a test. They’re not looking for new insight —they’re looking to see if he’ll answer correctly, in line with the best thinking of the day. And he does: “The first and greatest commandment is this: “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.”

On these two commandments “hang” all the law and the prophets. The two great commandants are the framework, the scaffolding for the law and prophets. The law and prophets are how we carry out the Love of God and neighbor. The two great commandments do not make the rest of the law unnecessary.   They aren’t sufficient unto themselves —they need to be fleshed out through other instructions.   Granted, neither Christians nor Jews apply Leviticus as is —and there’s plenty of differences within both traditions about the meaning of these scriptures.   But Leviticus shows us that when it comes to loving God and neighbor, the divine is in the details.

Let’s look at one example. God tells the people not to reap to the edges of the field, or to gather the gleanings of the harvest. God tells them don’t strip the vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes —but leave them for the poor and the alien. A form of income redistribution. This may seem not to apply to 21st century Philadelphians, but it does. For in our country we’re stripping the vineyards and reaping beyond the edges of the field: by growing corn, corn, corn and more corn, largely for cattle and cars; by using oil-based fertilizers galore; by plowing under farmland for developments while paying farmworkers paltry wages. We’re losing soil and sucking up the water in our aquifers faster than they can be replenished. We’re stealing from the next generation and the poor, who will find it hardest to eat when food gets scarce. And when we go along with the system, even when we’re well intentioned, we’re complicit in theft. What we eat and who we vote for matters.   We may disagree on the best diet or the best candidate or the best farm bill or any number of details. But they matter. It’s in those details that we live out our discipleship.

But back to my complaint. In an age of climate change, those details take the fun out of a lot of things. It’s hard to let go of a more carefree and liberal approach to food, to possessions, to life. Worrying about those details can even take the fun out of us: it’s easy to fall into a rigid self-righteousness, and no one wants a preachy vegan at their dinner party (I know, even though I’m only veganish during Lent).   Change is hard — which is why I may go to Joelle Novey’s workshop this afternoon, Talking About Climate Change as if Feelings Mattered, because I have feelings about this. But Leviticus also reminds us that following in the way of God also brings joy.   God says to the Israelites “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” God is offering them, and us, a share in holiness if we follow God’s ways. Of course we’ll never be holy or pure like God, but we can reflect the justice, the goodness and the love of God by following God’s instructions.   And in doing so we’ll find joy, sometimes even fun, but certainly joy. Because when we share, when we remember the poor, when we honor the earth, when we speak truth rather than lie when we give, judge fairly and refrain from slander, we love God and reflect God’s holiness.   The Heidelberg Catechism asks: what is the chief end of man? And it answers: to love God and to enjoy God forever. In those details we love God and enjoy God forever.