Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch & The Rev. Doyt Conn
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Matthew 5:38-48
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In The Saint John’s Bible, on the second page showing Leviticus 19, there is a little bird in the margin. It has a rope in its talons running down the side of the text and at the bottom it is attached to a box of text. The bird’s beak points to the place above where the text should be inserted. This is one of my favorite things about this work of art. It is holy and yet, it is human like we are.
At this place, the calligrapher missed two lines. While carefully copying each letter, each word, into this large book on actual calfskin with a true quill pen, the modern day calligrapher simply skipped over two lines and kept on writing. If I remember correctly, a solid day’s work might produce just two columns of text.
Since this handwritten and illuminated text was done just the same as it was in medieval times, the investment in labor and in vellum and ink could not be wasted. Rather than starting over and scrapping the whole page, the solution was to make the correction an element of the artwork like it was done here with the little bird hoisting the line right back up where it is supposed to be.
Like tapestries or blankets or other native craft in which a mistake is always left on purpose to show the work is not perfect, these creative corrections beautifully display that this is the work of human hands. And as we all know, our human hands are not perfect. The Saint John’s Bible has only one set of illuminations in the entire book of Leviticus and they are all from Chapter 19, which we heard from this morning.
Instead of illuminations like we have seen earlier in the Pentateuch filled with vibrant images, color, and movement, these are artistically rendered excerpts from the text. Several key verses are exquisitely illuminated in a variety of colors and I encourage you to take a closer look, possibly during the Up Close and Personal class being offered in the Christie House Library after the (10:30) service today. By choosing to highlight these verses, the makers of The Saint John’s Bible draw our attention to this long, didactic book of the law that is Leviticus. This law, of which we heard a portion, expresses God’s purpose for creation.
It is the Holiness Code. It outlines the application of the Ten Commandments, and for this reason, is very important to Judaism. While we as Christians are not required to follow the Jewish code in Leviticus, there are still certain elements here that are applicable to our lives. And those points are the ones elevated through illumination in The Saint John’s Bible.
Here, in the opening verses of Leviticus 19, the Lord tells Moses, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
These words are chosen and artistically rendered because they are important. They remind us that we are indeed created in the image and likeness of God and that is a call to holiness. “For when we act in holiness, we reflect God to others” (Patella) and that is life in the kingdom of God.
As I see demonstrated in this community all the time, relationship is primary because we strive to live in God’s kingdom. By no means am I saying that the members of Epiphany walk around with a “holier than thou” attitude or an air of sanctimonious arrogance in an effort to be more “holy” than the next guy. I’m not saying that at all.
What I am saying is that we take the spiritual disciplines seriously here. We pray. We fast. We share out of our abundance and go on pilgrimage. We follow a Holiness Code in our sincere effort to be better people and to be better Christians. When we do that well, and when we do it with integrity and faithfulness, we reflect God to others.
The next section of text highlighted in The Saint John’s Bible is verse 18, “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.” (19:18)
This one is a familiar theme and what Jesus cites as the greatest commandment when talking with the Pharisees in Matthew 22.
To explore this a little more, I would like to draw from the writing of Father Michael Patella, who was the chair of the Committee on Illumination and Text for The Saint John’s Bible. He is Professor of New Testament at St. John’s Seminary and will be here with us at Epiphany offering two classes the weekend of March 15 and 16. I hope you will attend.
In his work, Word and Image, he reflects on the interrelatedness of theology, art, and scripture in this Bible. Regarding the use of this passage here in Leviticus, he writes, “Here, it concentrates on one particular human tendency, which prevents us from extending this love. We humans are prone to see vengeance as justice, but it is not. Spite and violence are not the ways of God. If they were, there would be no such thing as an all-loving God; divine action would be pure caprice. Showing and demonstrating that there is a loving order at the core of creation is the whole purpose of the Pentateuch, not to mention the whole of Sacred Scripture.
Without this loving order, everything returns to the great primordial chaos we saw in the first chapter of Genesis. We are asked to leave vengeance in God’s hand because God alone can transform violent emotion and raise it to the level of justice and redemption. Injustice is addressed and rectified, and there may even be punishment involved, but there is no annihilation of the other.”
Jesus draws on these Old Testament principles in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel which we heard a bit of today. It is the familiar “turn the other cheek” passage, which sounds good at first, but has had the tragic side effect of silencing victims, which is clearly not its intent. When we respond to violence with violence, that solves nothing. Likewise, when we allow ourselves to be victimized or abused, OR when we allow those we love to be victimized or abused, that is not what God wants for us.
As Patella says, “We are asked to leave vengeance in God’s hand because God alone can transform violent emotion and raise it to the level of justice and redemption.”
Before Christians, humanity had tribalism and loyalty to family or kinsman. Then, Christians created kindness — and extending it to others; both neighbors and enemies, is our Christian ethos. The Christian way isn’t vengeance, but rather confession. Confession ought to be our “go-to” when we feel anger, contempt, or malice.
A pretty little bird may represent human error in this incredible Bible, but it is a powerful symbol of our brokenness and imperfection. All of us are broken in some way; some large, some small, and we are all guilty of wishing vengeance or harm upon another person. I imagine we all have our breaking point because we are human. Evil is very real and it has the power to take up residence inside the human heart and soul, but love and kindness conquer that evil, especially when lived out in community inside the kingdom of God.
We may not overcome our brokenness or our human-ness, but we can ask God to imbue us with patience, love and kindness when we need it most. God’s love conquers evil.
Have you ever been in a fight or conflict with someone where you sucked up your pride, admitted you were wrong, and invited grace into the conversation in an effort to find resolution? As I experience life, I find myself holding a grudge a little less and seeking reconciliation a little more.
A life of holiness is what God wants for each one of us and that includes many things, among them; honesty, confession, honor, integrity, kindness, love…. What else is in your Holiness Code? And how does that shape the reflection of God that you present to the world?
Patella, Michael (2013-07-11). Word and Image (Kindle Location 2207). The Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.
Patella, Michael (2013-07-11). Word and Image (Kindle Locations 2217-2222). The Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.