DECADES HAVE PASSED – how many I’m not saying, but I can still hear the voice of that Swedish Lutheran priest booming out, “Helig, helig, helig är Herren Sebaot. Hela jorden är full av hans härlighet.” Being fairly young when I first head this, I didn’t know exactly what each word meant – but I knew that taken as a whole, it meant big guns. Really big guns. After all the choir had just finished the call to worship: “The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord is his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence, keep silence before him.” And then the entrance hymn – the same one every single week – and some of you know which one I mean, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee,” and this accompanied by the thundering organ and the solemn procession down the aisle, the choir decked in black cassocks topped with snow white surplices, the woman in bobby-pinned-on skull caps, and all the choristers stopping and in a profound bow reverencing the altar on which would sit Very God from Very God before whom we soon would ourselves deeply bow, or genuflect, and then kneel. “Helig, helig, helig är Herren Sebaot. Hela jorden är full av hans härlighet.” Oh, yeah. Big guns. And then some.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord thy God am holy.” It would not be long before I learned what that “Helig, helig, helig” stuff was all about – and being a bit precocious as far as breaking every commandment in the book I was pretty sure I was in deep, deeper, deepest doo-doo as regards all this “Helig, helig, helig” business was concerned. After all, from early on, the Catechism was being drilled into my head – and I was pretty certain that I did not “fear, love, and trust God above all things” (though I actually did have the fear part down pretty well – some days – mostly Sundays). And as far as the second commandment was concerned, one of my claims to fame even in Grammar School was my ability to cuss up a storm with remarkable creativity. Fourth commandment: there were days I despised my parents, I was pro at angering just about anybody in authority in those days (OK – so some of that still hangs on . . . ). I was, however, fairly sure I was OK on the fifth commandment – you know, that one not to kill. And as far as the sixth commandment was concerned, I didn’t know a whole lot about what “adultery” was, but because no one would talk about it, I was fairly certain that it had something to do with that funny feeling in my tummy and elsewhere when I would see one of the well-muscled neighborhood teen-age guys in a tight, white, t-shirt working on his car out in the back alleyway. Holy, holy, holy. Be ye holy as I the Lord your God am holy. The only thing I had in common with holiness – was the bottom of my life’s boat – full of wholes and sinking fast.
And then the day would come when all that business from the Sermon on the Mount – part of which we just heard – then the day would come when I would hear that if anyone struck me on one cheek I was to offer that person the other cheek. You mean, let Melvin Dougherty beat the crap out of me?? And I’m supposed to give to anyone who wants to borrow from me?? Give Melvin Dougherty my lunch money? Oh yeah, and then I heard part of the Sermon on the Mount that’s not in our New Testament reading this morning – Jesus saying: “You’ve heard it said in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” So far, so good. But then Jesus goes and says, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment (ah crap!); and if you insult a brother or sister, and if you say, ‘You fool’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.’” Okey, dokey, then. My goose is, as they say, beyond well done . . . . cinders in the oven. Obviously I was not so hot at this holy, holy, holiness business. Love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me, so that I may be a child of Our Father in heaven. Gulp.
But then there’s this thing this morning too about God making the sun rise on the evil AND on the good alike, and God sending rain on the righteous AND on the unrighteous. (Can anyone say, “Fred Phellps?”) According to Jesus, if you love only those who love you, what do you have? Hey, even the pagans are capable of that. But then Jesus goes and makes it all the more confusing: “Be perfect therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.” Yet one more comlication. And that along with “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” –anyone else here overwhelmed, confused, and cooked besides me????
But you know what? There IS hope and plenteous redemption. Start with the word Holy, helig, sanctus, or in the language of the Hebrew Scriptures kadosh. Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh. You’ve heard me do this, some of you – kadosh – what’s it mean? Odd, eccentric, different. Odd, odd, odd is God – in Leviticus, this kadosh God not demanding human sacrifices like the blood-thirst gods of the Gentiles – but a God looking out for the poor and alien – you shall not reap to the edges of your field – or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You know, Scripture itself testifies that the real sin of Sodom and Gommorah was that those two cities were stingy – rich though they were, they left nothing for the poor or the alien; indeed, tradition has it that they polled their trees so that there be nothing left even for the birds of the air. Interesting . . . . now that’s a weird God that I can maybe handle – maybe – until we get to the rest of it which is the same old dreary commandments – commandments that dear old Jesus interprets so very strictly that there isn’t one millimeter of wiggle room for any of us, all of us murders, all of us adulterers, robbers – even our wandering eyes are adultery, turning the other into an object for our particular kicks and kinks. God may be odd, odd, odd in looking out for the poor, the alien, and the birds of the field – but if we listen to Jesus interpret the Law we’re pretty wretched about fulfilling any of those odd commandments. If we listen to Jesus.
But listen to Jesus we must! Listen to Jesus: suffering, suffocating, dying Jesus – the God who in fact does turn the other cheek to the smiter as was said of old. Listen to Jesus: suffering, suffocating, dying Jesus. “Father forgive them for they know not what they’re doing. Forgive the whole human race – that cannot stand a God who makes the sun and the rain fall on the good and the bad, that cannot stand a God of peace who turns the other cheek rather than slay the enemy-of-the-day, that cannot stand a God who says, you’re all a bunch of lying, thieving murderous thugs, but I forgive you – I die forgiving you. I die loving you. And I rise to give you my peace, the peace of God that passes all human understanding.”
But what about this perfect thing? Sort of a poor translation, a history of bad translation, combined with the lack of a good dictionary. Again, we must listen to Jesus, to suffering, suffocating, dying Jesus who says from the Cross: “It is finished. It is perfect. All is perfected, brought to it’s goal.” It’s now at its end – this whole revelation of God thing – the last word has been spoken – and that last word is forgiveness. “Be perfect,” says Jesus, “as your heavenly Father is perfect. Know,” says Jesus, “that the last word, the final word is forgiveness – of the whole world, of every people of every time and place. Here’s God’s perfect Word – I will turn the other cheek to you, and I shall bless you, and I shall bring you all home to the feast that will not know any endings of any sort.”
Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh. How odd, odd, odd a God. Helig, helig, helig, är Herren Sebaot. Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty – whose perfect, complete, finished Word is Christ and all His Gifts of mercy and peace. Now there’s a God before whom I will bow, genuflect, kneel, before whom I will lie prostrate on the ground. It’s all finished for me and for you. All your sins are forgiven, all your sin is taken away. ALL YOUR SINS – as well as the sins of the neighbor who drives you crazy. Let it be finished.
Actually, it already is.