[Sermon given on Sunday, July 15, 2018]
I made a lot of mistakes when I was first ordained. One of my most memorable mistakes was when I decided to teach the Nicene Creed to 5-year-olds. To be clear, the mistake isn’t in teaching the Creed to a bunch of toddlers, but how. Things were going reasonably well until we got to the end.
“We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” I told the group in front of me. “What do we think this means?”
“Father Marcus, why is the church holey?” asked a particularly imaginative toddler.
“What do you mean?”
“Why does the Church have holes in it? My mom gets mad when I play outside in my nice clothes because she’s afraid I’ll get holes in them.”
“Ah, I see,” I replied. At the point, I had learned how to enter the world of children.
After a moment of silence, the boy said something that I think came straight from heaven. “Does that mean I am ‘holey’ too?”
We say it every Sunday – “we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” It is what the Church believes itself to be. Questions about what it means to be “one” or “catholic” or “apostolic” are worthy of exploration, but today I want to focus on what it means to be holy, particularly because the writer of Ephesians, probably not Paul, says that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him.”
Whenever the word “holy” is used in a religious context, each of us conjures up in our own imaginations ideas of what this means. Often, holiness has a flavor of purity, something like perfection. The idea of holiness as perfection is problematic for many reasons because, if that were true, then there is no way the Church be holy, because last I checked, the Church isn’t perfect.
Part of the problem with understanding holiness is in thinking about it as a private possession. Holiness is not something we do alone because it isn’t something that belongs to us alone. Holiness is God’s possession.
When God chose the Jewish people, brought them out of slavery, and made bearers of God’s presence, God made them holy and gave them proof. To prove that God was with them, God gave them Torah – the Law of God that spoke God’s justice and compassion into the world.
When the Son of God – light from light, true God from true God – became incarnate in the world, he, the Word of God, gathered a community around him, a movement of love and justice. He made them “holy” by his presence.
If the Church is holy, it is only holy because of the continued presence of Christ in our midst. Whether in the Sacrament on this table or in the sacrament of our relationships, Christ is the one who makes us holy.
But the question still stands – what does it mean to be holy?
I grew up in a church with a very clear sense about what it meant to be holy. For them, holiness is about perfection and purity. I remember hearing sermons that were long lists of dos and donts and feeling like I could never quite reach the standard. It was not quite said this way, but there was almost a feeling like God’s love – what we call “grace” – had levels. God had a basic level of love for everyone, but, depending on how well you followed the list of rules, you could qualify for gold or platinum level grace. God’s love was like a cable provider.
What’s even worse is that this grace was something to be protected at all cost as if were fragile and something to be put on display, but never used. We weren’t supposed to hang out with certain people and we were only supposed to listen to or watch certain kinds of music and television.
This kind of holiness – holiness as perfection – is exclusive. Rather than connecting us across our fragile human relationship, this kind of holiness polices and protects their borders. It claims moral superiority over others. It erodes the connective tissue of our human community. It isolates us from one another.
That kind of holiness has precedent, but I don’t believe that this is what we mean when we say that the Church is “holy.”
A few years after we moved to North Carolina and began attending the church where I would grow up and be nurtured in the Christian faith, my grandmother moved from New Jersey to the town where we lived. She also began attending this church.
My grandmother is the kind of woman for whom no one is a stranger, at least not for long. I went college about 25 minutes from her house, so it wasn’t uncommon for me to go home on the weekends to eat with her, and I always seemed to have friends in tow. She didn’t care. She was the kind of woman who would offer a meal to anyone who asked – rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, Christian or not, drug-addicted or sober.
One weekend, a friend wanted to learn how to fry chicken, and since my grandmother had a rare gas stove in the south, we went to her house to do it. Anyone who would offer up their kitchen so that three undergrads could learn how to fry chicken in oil over a barely-controlled open flame should qualify for immediate sainthood. I’ve said this before, it was my grandmother’s kitchen where I first learned hospitality and grace. It was at her table I first learned about abundance and community. It was at her feet where I first heard truth and story.
Although she came out of a church with a narrow definition of holiness, she inhabited it differently. For her, holiness wasn’t about exclusion and perfection, but about illumination. Holiness wasn’t about isolating us from one another but bringing us into contact with one another so that the grace of God could be magnified into spaces and lives where it is needed the most. To be holy is the reflect God with clarity – as much clarity is humanly possible.
The holiness of God has room for the mistakes we make. We aren’t any less “holy” or “loved” because we make a mistake. We are called to inhabit an alternative way of being in the world, a way of life that reflects the Kingdom of God, but we aren’t called to some exclusive, morally-superior way of living. To be holy is to have your life echo the songs of the Reign of God, it is to sing a symphony of grace into a world swirling with songs of hate, and division, and scarcity.
In Christ, God makes us holy, not so that we can lord it over others, not so that we can claim to be better than anyone else, but precisely so that we might show others the way home. God chose us to be holy so that we might be bearers of grace into a grace-starved world. God chose us to be holy so that in our feeding of the poor we might show forth God’s abundance, in our welcoming of the immigrant and the stranger we might show forth God’s welcome, in our forgiving of those who have wronged us we might show forth God’s pardon, in our celebration of those whose lives look and sound different from our won we might show forth God’s wisdom, in our grace-filled communication with one another, even in times of conflict and tension, we might show forth God’s compassion. Our holiness is meant to show that God’s grace is gratuitous, it makes no actual sense, and yet God goes it and God gives it anyway. Our holiness reveals that God isn’t about building borders and walls because God’s grace tends to let in all the wrong people.
When the writer of Ephesians says that “God chose us… to be holy…” they are saying that God selected us for this assignment, let my light be seen in your light. Let God’s love be seen in how you love your neighbor. Let God’s compassion be seen in how you treat those who are different. Let God’s nurture be seen in how you provide for the poor. Let God’s justice be seen in how you fight for the oppressed. Let God’s mercy be seen in how you treat those who have sinned. Beloved, let God be seen in you.
I want you to think about the last e-mail you sent or the last phone call you made. Was it filled with grace or was it filled with ego? Was God visible at all in it? What about the one before that and the one before that?
What about the last time you went to restaurant or to the checkout counter at the grocery store. Is God visible in the way we treat service workers?
What about Facebook? What about the way we treat our families and loved ones? What about the way we treat folks we disagree with? What about the way we treat ourselves?
Does our way of living draw people to Christ or do they repel them?
In a way, that young boy was right all those years ago. The Church is H-O-L-E-Y. We don’t build walls and barriers. We tear them down to draw folks of all types and stripes into relationship with God. Jesus Christ makes us H-O-L-Y so that, in him, we might kindle the light of God’s grace in the darkest corners of our world, in order that people from far and wide might look up and see that life – abundant life – is within their grasp, and then choose to take it.