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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

February 23, 2014

Holiness and Hospitality

Leviticus 19:1-4; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-17

             “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  This is the theme of the so-called Holiness Code found in our chapter of Leviticus, and the theme of the entire Book of Leviticus, and it hits our ears with a strange sound, this call to holiness.  We are not even sure if we want to be holy, even if we could.  When we say someone is “holier than thou,” we do not mean it as a compliment.  We mean that they are self-righteous and no one wishes to spend too much time with self-righteous individuals.  Yet the call of God to Israel in Leviticus is a call to be holy, because the Lord our God is holy.  But as you read the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus, you soon discover that being holy as God calls you to be holy is really a call to be a good neighbor, to live justly, fairly and compassionately with your neighbors.  This chapter of Leviticus includes one of Jesus’ favorite passages in the Hebrew Scriptures: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

             This is what it means to be holy.  It is a call to live out the law in love and compassion toward others.  It is a call to fairness and generosity.  It is a call to be different, because God is different.  We are called to be holy because God is holy.  Holiness is not a call to be sanctimonious or prudish or narrow-minded or always right.  It is exactly the opposite.  It is a call to humility.  There is no true holiness without genuine humility.

             But in this call to holiness, because God is holy, fifteen times in chapter nineteen we are reminded, “I am the Lord your God.”  God tells us what holiness looks like.  It looks like someone who refuses to defraud a neighbor; it looks like someone who is never greedy, but always willing to share a little more.  It looks like a person who remembers the poor and the homeless, the widow and the orphan.  To be holy is to live in this world joining hands in whatever God is doing in the world.  Mother Teresa said, “Holiness consists of doing the will of God with a smile.”  I love her definition, and it makes me want to be holy!  It makes me want to be more like Jesus, who is holy.

             When Jim Bakker got out of prison in 1998, he did not have a friend left in the world.  Remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker?  They built a religious empire, a luxury hotel and amusement park.  And then everything collapsed for Jim Bakker, and rightly so.  After all, he had defrauded thousands of people by misspending the money they had given to the so-called ministry he built with his wife, Tammy Faye.  As soon as he was convicted, Tammy Faye divorced Jim and married their contractor.  The two of them became a joke, and a symbol of much that is wrong with Christianity in our consumer-driven society.  And among other things, Jim Bakker became a warning to us all that not everyone who pretends to be holy is.

             So utterly bereft of friends, his reputation rightly ruined, Jim Bakker was surprised when his first Sunday out of prison he was invited by Ruth Graham to attend church with the Graham family at Montreat Presbyterian Church.  They sent a driver to his half-way house and the pastor greeted him, seating him in the three full rows the Grahams had reserved that Sunday for their family.  When Ruth entered just before the service, she sat right next to inmate 07407-058, also known as Jim Bakker.  And after church, Bakker was invited to join the Grahams at their Montreat home for Sunday supper.  They gave him a car they no longer needed, and Ruth found a wallet of Billy’s when she saw that Bakker was keeping everything, his identification and money, in an envelope.  When Bakker thanked them and asked them why they had gone so far to help someone who had caused Christ so much scorn, Ruth said, “You were our friend before, and you are our friend now.  We want you to know how kind and gracious the Lord is.”  “You shall be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy.”

             Then this call to holiness tells us, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do the stranger no harm.  The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love the stranger as yourself; for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

             We all remember what it felt like to be strangers in some place.  Whether it was a move, or a new school, or the first day of college, we all remember that unsettling feeling of being a stranger.  I still recall what it felt like the first day of school at the Washington Elementary School, and then all over again as a seventh grader at John A. Wight Junior High, and then once more as a sophomore at Chartiers Valley High School.  (One of the worst high schools in all Western civilization!)  Like Oedipus at Colonus, we have all felt like “a stranger in a strange land.”  There is no lonelier feeling than to find yourself in a place that is new, unfamiliar and strange.  When I moved from Spartanburg to Nashville twelve years ago, I experienced that feeling all over again.  I stood up here on Easter morning and looked out to a sea of strangers, and thought to myself, “What have I done?” 

             I still have dreams from time to time of moving again, suddenly finding myself one Sunday in a totally new city and congregation.  It is always a nightmare, and I ask myself, “What was I thinking?  Why did I ever leave Nashville and First Presbyterian Church?!”

             You see, this place has become home to me, and as Dorothy says in The Wizard of Oz, there is no place like home.  But I do not ever want to forget what it felt like to be new here, to be a stranger in this place.  Let me tell you something: You don’t forget how wonderfully important acts of kindness, smiles and little gestures of friendship are when you are new in a place, and you feel like a stranger.  I still remember John and Frances Tipton taking me out to dinner, with no agenda other than to welcome me to Nashville and their church.  I remember John Eason meeting Josh and Sarah and me in the parking lot on our first Saturday in Nashville, with a map he carefully explained, and taking us on a tour of Nashville that ended with breakfast at Vandy Land!  I recall how kind and caring so many of you were, and shall never forget how much your kindness meant.

             Sometimes I think we forget how unsettling a feeling being new, or being an outsider is, because we harbor a deep fear of loneliness, and we want to forget or push that fear away.  But God is calling you to be holy, like God is holy.  And God has an eye for the stranger who sojourns in our midst.  God has a heart for the alien, the outsider, the newcomer, the stranger.  Jesus treated everyone like a child of God.  He talked once to a Samaritan woman with a rough past, when Jewish men were not supposed to talk to strange women at all, and invited Himself to dinner in the home of the most hated man in Jericho.  Zacchaeus felt like a stranger in his own hometown; that is why he hid up in that broad-leafed sycamore tree to see Jesus.  Jesus befriended a man who was friendless.  “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.”

             I think about folks in the life of our own church family.  It is easy to feel like “a stranger in a strange land,” even in church.  Every smile, every word of welcome to someone you may not know, every introduction of yourself to someone new, makes us more the kind of church that Jesus is calling us to be.

             We are seeking to become a church increasingly marked by gratitude, hospitality and generosity.  They are all related, and they are all marks of holiness, because “the Lord our God is holy.”  The Book of Hebrews in chapter 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares.”  I love that verse of scripture!  You never know who might come through these doors, and the burdens that they bear.

             This church ought to be the most hospitable place in Nashville, for God has been good and gracious to us so much longer than any other worshipping community in this city.  But Eugene Peterson is right: “Standing in church singing a hymn doesn’t make us holy any more than standing in a barn and neighing makes us a horse!”  Welcoming the stranger is what makes you holy.  Caring for the poor is what makes you holy.   Loving those whom Jesus loves is what makes you holy.  Keeping an eye out for the newcomer, the stranger, the alien, the outsider is what makes you holy.  Being a welcoming, hospitable human being, and a friend to the friendless, is what makes you holy.

             Thirty-six times the Old Testament calls us to welcome the stranger, to remember the alien, the widow and the orphan.  That is why hospitality is really a form of worship.  And there is no true hospitality without someone taking the role of the servant.  No one can be a friend to Jesus without being a friend to your neighbor.  So are you a friend of Jesus?  “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.”  Holiness and hospitality … let’s grow in both, and make God smile.

                                                                                     Amen.

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