Epiphany 7 Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
There once was a day, when works of mercy and charity were done exclusively by the Church. There once was a day, where if there was any kind of a catastrophe, whether local, or national, or even international; the Church was the one who responded first, who responded the longest, and who responded the best.
There once was a day, when every hospital, every nursing home, every orphanage, every food bank, every place that offered help and assistance to those in need; whether they were sick, or injured, or unemployed, or just down on their luck; was connected in a very real way, to the Church.
Not just that they were connected because they had a pastor or some other church professional on staff; but connected in that everyone from the administration to the staff to the cooks all had a very real connection to the Church. The Church influenced everything from the top to the bottom.
And to be quite honest, the Church did a very good job in doing these things.
So what happened?
Where have all of those Church run organizations of mercy gone? Why does the Church seem to be stepping back instead of stepping forward? Why is the Church often last in responding to disasters; why is the Church’s influence seemingly disappearing in places like hospitals and nursing homes? What has happened to all those opportunities for mercy?
There are without question certainly plenty of opportunities for works of mercy to be conducted. People still get sick; people still get hurt; people still need nursing homes; children still find themselves in need of loving parents; disasters happen on a regular basis, requiring help and aid of all sorts.
If the Church is not doing these things, well then who is?
Well, for the most part the government has stepped in and filled that role. The government has become the administrator of hospitals and nursing homes; the government has programs for the poor and the unemployed; the government can get people and resources to places of disaster much faster than anyone else can.
Is that a problem?
Well not really I suppose. The government has the money and resources to do such things. The Church today is not necessarily in the position it once was to do as much as it once did. So why not just let the government take care of it all and let the Church do its job?
That is after all what Leviticus says on this issue; the Lord says to Moses, and to the people of Israel: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
So the question then is how do you be holy? What do you need to do?
As it turns out, Leviticus is a textbook on how you are to be holy.
First and foremost, you need to be in worship; because that is where the holiness starts and ends. God may be everywhere, but He is not everywhere with His gifts. I have yet to see any baptisms occur at sporting events; the Lord’s Supper was not being passed out at Walmart last time I checked; and the absolution was not being announced at any other places or events that might be taking place this morning competing for your attention.
So we are all here today, so that box can be checked off. We are in worship, where God is present with His gifts of Word and Sacrament. We are holy.
But being holy is not relegated to just an hour on Sunday morning. Being holy extends into the rest of the week.
Now being holy certainly occurs in those moments with God in prayer and devotion, and that may certainly happen at home, in a gym, in the fields, and in the store.
And so, since we have defined being holy as only being in worship and being in prayer and devotion; for many, the role of the Church has morphed from the leader in works of mercy, to the prayer giver for works of mercy. The Church will sit here in the corner and pray for the rescue workers, prays for the caregivers, prays for those in need, prays for whatever seems good and right.
Prayer after all is what the Church does best.
But being holy goes even further than prayer.
Being holy extends into your actions of helping those in need, of being a good neighbor; of keeping the Second Table of the Law and loving your neighbor as yourself.
Being holy means doing acts of mercy for your neighbor; whether it is the neighbor across the street; or the neighbor around the world.
Being holy means the Church and her members operate those hospitals and nursing homes and orphanages and clinics and food banks and clothing distribution centers where people seek help.
Because that is what the Church does. The Church prays, and the Church does acts of mercy, reaching out to those in need.
Impossible you say? Too many rules and regulations and expenses to do such a thing anymore?
True. Federal laws requiring all hospitals to perform abortions will likely push out the last few remnants of religiously affiliated hospitals; just as state law is forcing the Church run orphanages to shut down due to the requirement that children be placed with homosexual couples. Federal law will likely have a similar effect on religiously affiliated nursing homes.
And so the Church is left with a food drive here, and a diaper drive there; with maybe a door offering or a benefit supper every now and then to send money to someone with a particular need.
All the while, we ask ourselves why bother with this work of mercy; what good will ever come out of it? What benefit will it bring to the Church, either today, or in the long term future? Why can’t we just let the government do it; after all, is that not what tax dollars are for?
Well, consider the fallout from verses 9-10: leaving the edges of the field available for the poor to come and take the grain so that they might eat.
It takes a while before anything great comes of it, and many in Israel may have even grumbled that nothing good would ever come of it. And yet, there is the seemingly non-descript incident when while picking up from the gleanings that lay on the ground, Ruth meets Boaz.
God gives these instructions in Leviticus, and they are seemingly mundane and routine, and most people probably glazed over them, or rolled their eyes that they would have to do such a thing for the poor; and yet, God in His infinite wisdom, has set aside this provision, so that Boaz and Ruth might meet.
This is not just some random blind date that God is preparing His people for. Boaz will be the redeemer who provides for Naomi; and it will be Boaz and Ruth who marry and have a son, thus making Ruth the grandmother of King David.
Again, this all sounds nice, but what does that have to do with anything?
Ruth will be the grandmother of King David; thereby securing a place for Ruth and Boaz in the family tree of Jesus.
This seemingly small and unnoticed provision for the poor in Leviticus 19, is the means through which Ruth and Naomi will come into contact with Boaz, who will take them into his own home and provide for them, lifting them out of poverty. But more importantly, it will serve as the means through which a link is provided that leads to the Messiah, who will save His people from their sins.
Works of mercy may be small, they may seem insignificant; and it may even seem easier to just let the government do it anyway.
But works of mercy are the works of the Church; they are the works of her members; they are the works done by the body of Christ here on earth, as we eagerly await His return in glory.
For that work of mercy done by the Church, whether it is a food bank that provides food that may feed a family that was about to divorce; or whether it is a diaper drive that helps an unwed mother provide for the child that she was about to abandon; or if it is a benefit that provides funding for one in need of medical care. That work of mercy is the hand of Christ reaching into the lives of those who need His presence, need His concern; need His love.
The Church may have to be creative in how it provides acts of mercy; the Church may have to be content that it may never know the full effect of its works of mercy; the Church may even be the only one that cares; but works of mercy are what Christ has called His Church to do as we anticipate His return.