Sermon preached on 20 February 2011

here is what I said this morning.

The first thing that struck me on looking up the Bible readings for this morning was our first lesson from the book of Leviticus.

I was struck by it not particularly by what it says, though I’ll come to that, but more by the fact that it was being read at all. We don’t read the Book of Leviticus much in church – indeed this is the only passage from that book that we read in church on a Sunday at all.

Leviticus is rather like the Song of Songs – the Lectionary compilers don’t know what to do with it so they just pick out one tiny save nugget to read and squirrel it away on a Sunday that most years doesn’t happen at all. The seventh Sunday of Epiphany scarcely ever happens because usually we are into Lent by now and the readings in Lent are entirely different.

So, you could go for years without ever hearing Leviticus read in church at all.

It seems to me to be so unusual that we get to hear any of it at all that we ought to pay some attention to it.
I remember that when Gene Robinson was here a couple of years go he said something (I don’t remember whether it was in his sermon on privately). What he said was that whenever he went to a group of gay teenagers to speak – something that he was increasingly being invited to do, he would tend to ask them what they knew about the Bible. And the one thing that they all knew, mostly teenagers who would not really admit to reading the Bible much at all – the only thing they knew was a verse from Leviticus that they thought condemned them – “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” from Leviticus 18 – just a few verses away from the passage we got this morning.

How can it be that gay teenagers – some of those in society most statistically likely to self harm, to be subject to violence, and to attempt suicide – how can it be that all that they know about the Bible, our holy book is something from a book we almost never read and specifically that they can recite verbatim a passage which never passes our lips in church?

How can that be?

It can only be the case if we have allowed out Bible to be stolen from us and used to beat the most vulnerable about with it to the point that they are in danger from others and from themselves. And if anything is an abomination, it is that.

How can we rest whilst that is so?

I had a rare moment of synchronicity whilst thinking about what to say this morning. Something popped up in an internet feed that I monitor which was the ideal illustration of what I want to say about Leviticus.
It was a picture of a tattoo. Rather a large tattoo across rather a large shoulder.

I don’t know what you think of tattoos. I refuse to confirm or deny whether I have one. Certainly, St Mary’s now has one of the most up-market tattoo parlours in Glasgow as a neighbour just across the lights.
Anyway, someone online posted a picture of a tattoo this week. And there was something splendid about its stupidity.

Someone had had the great anti-gay clobber verse tattooed across his right shoulder. “A man shall not lie with a woman it is an abomination.”

I think that there are other tattoos that I might regard as rather more attractive myself.
But the point is not the aesthetics of the tattoo. It is that just a few verses later, Leviticus is quite clear – you shall not cut and mark the flesh – tattoos in the Levitical code are an abomination too.

I wonder how he felt when someone first pointed that out to him.

Its the perfect illustration of the practise of cherry-picking scripture for the bits we like and throwing away or ignoring the ones we don’t like.

And the truth is, we do that too. We only have the one bit of Leviticus read in church after all –the one we heard this morning and its a gem.

But we need to have the courage of our convictions over scripture and be prepared to defend the choices we make.
The various abominations and legal anathemas of so much of that kind of scriptural writing are really not for us. No matter how high a regard we have for the Bible (and we read it here with love and passion and commitment). We do have to acknowledge that we do pick and choose.
The trick to reading the Bible is to do the picking and choosing using the brains and intelligence that God has imparted to you and all the best that study and respect and holy common sense can give us.
And if I’m honest, I’m glad that the lectionary compilers picked and chose the reading from Leviticus that we had this morning.

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you should love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord”.

Seems to me there is gospel hidden inside that.

Instead of slamming people with abominations I say that faith is about clobbering them with love.
And I can support that with verses picked out of context if you like.

But I’d rather support it by convincing you that it is true. And I’d rather support it by convincing you that love is the better side of religion. And I’d rather support it by convincing you that Jesus, if this morning’s gospel reading is to be believed at all might have agreed with me.

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” says Jesus. He must have known as we might know that an eye for an eye was a way of limiting violence as much as meting it out. What it meant to people initially was “Only an eye for an eye. Only a tooth for a tooth”. It was a limit on vengeance.

Notwithstanding that, Jesus seems to want to sweep vengeance away just as much as the Levitical priests did.
“You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Those truths are not merely in the gospel. They are gospel.

They are gospel when they take root in people’s hearts and don’t merely live in a dusty book never read. They are gospel when they take root in our world and don’t merely sit on the page. They are gospel when instead of beating people about the head with scripture, we have the fulfilment of the law written in our hearts.
For love is the fulfilment of the law.

And Jesus came not to offer us condemnation. Not anathema. Not to call any of us an abomination.
But to tell us simply that we are loved. And if anything of God is there to knock us off our feet and intrude into our lives and change our actions it is just that.

Love. And love alone.



  1. Great stuff (although we were doing Deeper:Sex @SS tonight, arguably just as exciting! ;)). Reminds me of the point you made that Our Lord summarising the Law and the Prophets as Love God and Love Your Neighbour is both entirely commonsensical and, significantly, typical of liberal reading strategies. In that light, ‘conservative’ attempts to understand Leviticus as possesing an innate division between purely ceremonial and permanantly binding laws smack of ungainly and artificial ‘eisegis’. Although I do sometimes wonder if it indicates progressiveness of sorts those who advocate said readings would, nowadays at least, accept that laws against menstruating women in Holy Places are ‘ceremonial’ rather than ‘moral’…

    And Madonna, Victoria Beckham, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears have all rocked Hebrew tattoos, which is frankly good enough for me 😉 !

  2. Melissa says

    I am grateful that you take the time and energy to post these sermons here.

    Religion here in the bible-belt can be so thin, so anemic, even(though sometimes I wonder, maybe especially) in the Episcopal church.

    Yours is a voice and vision that continue to help me find my way.

Speak Your Mind