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The meaning of holiness

Nov 2, 2014, Author:

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This sermon was preached by one of our lay worship leaders on October 26. The pertinent Scriptures were Leviticus 19:1-2 and 15-18; Psalm 90:1-6 and 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-4; and Matthew 22:34-40.

As you all know, I’m bilingual, I’m a linguist and a translator and I have indulged in quite a bit of philosophy. So I am naturally wary when it comes to words. Words are not the same as their meanings, and meanings are not the same as reality. The same word can have quite different meanings to different people, and all meanings together may offer only a glimpse on the reality behind them.

Our readings today abound with words that we have to read with caution and deep awareness. Otherwise they will wreak havoc in our minds. I want to focus on a few of them. What does it mean to be holy like God is holy? What does it mean to say that God tests our hearts? What does it mean to love God, and neighbor as oneself? And finally, what does it mean that God is our dwelling-place?

Let’s start with the idea of holiness. “Israel shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”. This is the message that Moses gets at Mount Sinai. And this message is echoed in Matthew 5:48, when Jesus says, “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Holy, perfect: both words have a ring to them that says: here’s a standard. Here’s a bar set for you, a model to aspire to, but it’s so high, so completely ‘other’, that you can’t attain it anyway.

That’s what I grew up to believe. But over the years, I have become deeply, deeply convinced that this meaning is not only false, it is wrong in a moral sense. It is damaging to our souls. It destroys our relation to life and to God. As the author of Leviticus might have put it, it’s an abomination.

What do they mean, then? What do ‘holy’ and ‘perfect’ refer to, if not an unreachable standard of otherness?

Sometimes it helps to look at the etymology of words, their history, if you will. And if we do that, it turns out that ‘holy’ and ‘perfect’ originally had quite different meanings. ‘Holy’ comes from Proto-Germanic ‘hailaz’, which means—‘healthy’. Or ‘whole’, as in ‘wholesome’. You can still hear how they have the same roots.

Likewise, ‘perfect’ comes from Latin ‘perfectus’, which means simply ‘finished’ or ‘complete’.  No standard here: it simply refers to a state where nothing needs to be added or removed, a state that is good as it is.

With that in mind, the admonition to be ‘holy’ and ‘perfect’ in the image of God gets a quite different meaning. We can now read it as an instruction to be whole, to be healthy, to be complete, just as God is whole and complete. To abide in a fullness in which nothing needs to be added or removed.

I grew up thinking that a holy life, a spiritual life, is about renouncing myself and my experience, and becoming some sort of perfectly moral role model. To reject parts of me that didn’t seem proper, aspects of life that didn’t seem proper, and people that didn’t fit into the pious mould. No wonder I gave up on Christianity before I even left high school.

And like so many in today’s materialistic culture, I began thinking that real life is all about seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, and being generally awesome. Which, as you may notice, is simply the flipside of being austere and rigid.

It took me two decades of spiritual questing, and several years of exploring Buddhism and other Eastern religions, to realize what is really meant by holiness. The path of holiness, of repentance, if you will, may engender some sort of godliness down the road. But it starts with brutal honesty: it starts with being completely authentic about oneself. With being whole and complete.

This includes our dark sides. This includes that in us which we find unlovable. For it is only when we admit these sides to ourselves that we can experience grace: the reality that we are being held, completely and wholly, as we are. The entirety of our being is cradled in life itself, and in the Infinity from which all of life wells forth.

By the same token, we also discover that life is complete. Yes, it comes with suffering: with pain, with death, and with transience, as our Psalm teaches us. That is part of what it means to be created. But suffering is not punishment. There is no need to avoid it. When we discover this, we are finally set free from our obsession with good and evil, with desire and rejection. We are able to hold our suffering in the same wholeness in which we are held. This is the very core of the Christian message: in taking on suffering, we find new life.

This may all sound kind of spiritual, but it’s actually very practical, very hands-on. First of all, it doesn’t happen unless we start practicing it. As you all know, the practice that I have found most helpful on the journey is meditation. Which is the same as prayer: an exercise to turn our minds towards the Ultimate. And in the process, we discover that the world is nothing but an expression of the Ultimate, and this discovery yields love for all that is.

Which is why I will work for getting a meditation group going in this congregation, as we renew ourselves. I’ll be quite persistent about this.

Another consequence that may surprise us is this: we discover that we do not have to hide our dark sides or act them out in destructive ways. There are ways of working with them, of making them part of our lives. It is possible to see ourselves and one another for who we truly are.

And as we discover this kind of truthfulness, we realize how much we deny ourselves in our daily lives, and by the same token deny others. And when we become aware this, it pains us, for we have gotten used to being true. We discover that there are limitations placed on us when we seek wholeness. It is in this way that ‘God tests our hearts’: our own insights compel us to stay within the truthfulness we have found to be wholesome.

The most profound consequence of this path, however, is our encounter with the Ultimate Itself. The Silence at our fundaments that we call God. And that is possibly the most surprising consequence of all, for most of us have been taught that God is remote, the totally Other, and that we have fallen away from Him into this world of separation.

Honestly, I have no idea how this idea came about.

I don’t think it’s in the Bible. I haven’t read all of it. But whenever I do, I find images like in our Psalm today. God as our dwelling place, our true home from the beginning of time. We have never been separate from God. Our only problem is that we are untrue to reality. We don’t want life in its completeness: we are partial to what God has to offer. Once we give up partiality, we find the reality of presence.

God is our true dwelling place. But for some mysterious reason, we cannot be alone in this place. In the Christian tradition, we hold that it becomes our home only as we love others.

So as we are going into our renewal, we are getting ready to welcome new members who may be quite different from us, who may not be as we expect them to be. As we do so, my wish for us is that we always remember this: the practice of holiness is to offer everyone acceptance, that is, holy, wholesome love. To be present to who they are.

This is the grounds on which the work of our hands can be prospered.