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Back in the late 90’s, radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger became widely known for her controversial views on homosexuality. To support her claim that homosexuality is a mistake of nature she frequently quoted the Book of Leviticus. In response, one of her critics wrote her an open letter which then became shared by thousands across the internet. The following is an excerpt from that letter:
Dear Dr. Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.
I do need some advice from you, however regarding some of the other specific laws and how best to follow them.
Needless to say, the propensity for some people to quote the book of Leviticus in support of their anti-homosexuals views has given the entire book of Leviticus a bad rap. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever preached a sermon from Leviticus before today which is unfortunate because some of the most foundational principals of the Christian faith are based on laws found in the Book of Leviticus. For example, when Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment of all he first quotes the Book of Deuteronomy “ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength.” And then he adds what was perhaps his favourite verse from Leviticus “And you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Love your neighbour. The heart of Jesus’ ethical vision for life is drawn verbatim from the Book of Leviticus.
Earlier this week, when I took a closer look at today’s scripture reading the thing that jumped out at me was the way it begins with a dialogue between God and Moses. “Speak to all the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Now we might not be keen about the thought of being holy. It always seems to be just a hair’s breadth away from being holier than thou. And we might think the only really holy people are folks like the Mother Theresa or the Dali Lama and that feels like a big stretch from where we are, but this passage suggests holy who we were created to be. And it’s not the only place in scripture that suggests this. The book of Genesis declares that we are made in the image of God. I think that somewhere deep in the fabric of our souls we know that this is true. We’ve known it all along. We’ve just forgotten it.
So if this is the case the question becomes how do we live a holy life?
We may think we live a holy life by going away on retreats or spending great long periods of time in contemplative prayer. I for one would say those things certainly help in the endeavour of being holy. But if the Book of Leviticus is right, there is no way for us to live out of our holiness outside of being in community. There is no way for us to mirror holiness without benefitting our neighbour.
God, the book of Leviticus insists, is invested in every aspect of our lives. Everything matters. Every word we speak. Every thought we have about one another. Every choice we make. Every ritual in which we engage. Every bit of food we eat, all of it expresses our inter-connectedness and the sacred nature of all of life.
Good for us to notice that in the midst of this pandemic that has shown us our connectivity like nothing we have previously experienced, food supply has become an major issue.
And it’s food that we are going to zero in on today as we continue to explore everyday spiritual practices to help uplift ourselves and others.
In Leviticus 19: 9-10 we hear these words: When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your harvest bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that later on in the Book of Leviticus we are commanded to love the alien as ourselves.)
I don’t think I had ever taken notice of the word “gleaning” found in this passage until several years ago when my friend Sean Graham from Cove Church told me about an organization called Gleaners.
The gleanings from a harvest are those fruits, vegetables or grains that get left behind in the field by the reapers. To glean a field is to recover the leftover crops which in some cases are simply what is missed when the harvest was brought in. In other cases however they were intentionally left for the poor and the alien as directed in our scripture reading today.
It’s interesting to note that right after we are told that portions of our crops are to be left for those in need, there’s a series of laws related to stealing and dealing falsely with others. Not because the gleaners might steal your crops if you are a landowner by the way but because you might be stealing crops from the gleaners, taking food out of the mouths of those that need it, by not leaving food for them after you have gathered up what you need.
The Gleaners organization, is a modern day expression of the commandments in Leviticus to take what you need and leave what you don’t for others. Except they take the commandment even further than just leaving what isn’t needed for others in the fields. These Gleaners, made up almost entirely of volunteers, gather up produce that might otherwise be wasted. They clean, chop and prepare it for dehydration and packaging and then it is distributed around the world either as a soup mix or a dehydrated snack to countries in need.
The entire operation is very clear that they do what they do because their belief in God commands them to do it. They know that they can’t be holy as God is holy without helping their neighbour in very concrete and practical ways.
Now I have to confess that there are things about the model of gleaning described in Leviticus and to a certain degree practiced by the Gleaners organization that I don’t like. I don’t like the image of widows, children and aliens pouring into the fields after the reapers have left hunching over on bended knee to pick up the leftovers. I don’t like the thought that it’s the leftovers that we sent to hungry people on the other side of the world. But I also know that if you are starving and you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from, you will take it from wherever you can get it.
So perhaps the bigger issue for us to reflect on from today’s passage is how we as a society do steal from one another what is an inherent human right by virtue of our individual and collective holiness which is the right to basic food.
It reminds me of a sermon I heard Rt. Rev. Bob Smith preach down at First United about 30 years ago. He asked the congregation to consider how many coats we had hanging in our closets. Then he asked when was the last time we had worn every one of those coats. Then he said if you don’t wear even one of those coats because you don’t really need it then you have stolen it from someone who does need it.
We live holy lives by loving our neighbours not just by being nice to them but by making sure they have what they need to survive and thrive. Organizations like Gleaners, the Food Bank, First United and other places that provide meals for the hungry are all places where the humanity’s holiness is made manifest. The more time we spend feeding the hungry the more we realize that in the long run it’s systemic changes that are needed in our society so that no one ever has to eat another person’s leftovers.
In the meantime, we are called to practice holiness by taking only what we need and leaving what we don’t for others.
This week’s spiritual practice is to think about someone you know who could use a meal or two and then either making extra food and sharing it with them or taking them out for a meal or giving them a gift certificate. Or you might want to buy extra food and donate it to the foodbank or make a donation to First United or to the Gleaners organization or to other places where food is shared and people are treated with dignity and respect.