What’s clear in America is that not everyone loves every president. More often than not we elect our top governing official by the narrowest of margins and given our somewhat obtuse system of the Electoral College it’s possible for an elected president to lose the popular vote but still hold office. That happened as recently as 2000. Even in the most lopsided of recent elections, a significant minority of citizens cast their vote for the person who did not win. Yet, in spite of strong opinions as to the politics and ideology of a particular president, and one’s support or opposition thereof, I believe it nearly impossible to find an American who does not hold the office of President of the United States in high regard. We may, at varying times, have strong disagreement, even disgust, for the policies, decisions, and direction of the person in the office; but few, if any, deride the office itself.
Presidential Libraries then provide a glimpse, albeit glossed over and somewhat sanitized, of both the person and the office. While they were created to be a repository of the papers and historically significant documents of a presidency, they are better known as part museum and part living monument. A “Bucket List” item of mine is to visit all 13 and I began this week with a trip to Boston and the JFK Library on the campus of the University of Massachusetts.
As a self-confessed political junkie, most things about politics interest me, but it’s the presidency that fascinates. I’m intrigued by a combination of the pomp and circumstance, the hints of royalty and secrecy, along with the complexity and depth of demand put on one individual and the overwhelming responsibility of the office. The most accessible way for a commoner to venture into those realms is in hindsight through the doors of a library.
JFK had his flaws and faults – that’s undisputed. He was president during an incredibly tumultuous time in our country’s history and as the youngest person elected to the office, he ushered in a new generation of leadership in our country. Yet behind the glamour and days of “Camelot,” he faced challenges and obstacles which have become defining moments of our national trajectory. From Vietnam to Civil Rights to the Cold War to the Space Race – in his short tenure as our Commander in Chief, the full gamut of challenges reared their faces.
Yet, I believe, that despite his youth, he displayed a depth of wisdom and insight beyond his years, as is evidenced in his inaugural speech, for tucked behind the famous “ask not” homiletical pinnacle are these simple sentences:
All of this will not be finished in the first hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
But. This simple conjunction signals a shift in direction or mood or cadence. Kennedy apparently recognized that much was expected of his young administration with its vitality and fresh faces. Home from a victorious war, ready to take the reins of leadership, much was expected and hoped for of what would become to some, “the greatest generation.” Yet like a man betrothed, Kennedy knew it best to keep expectations low for fear that discontentment would set in before the honeymoon was over.
In a nod to moderation, but not retreat, he escalates momentum. His words build from a hundred days, to a thousand days, to over 1400 days, to even a lifetime – BUT, he intones, well never get there if we don’t take the first step. The journey may be long, arduous, full of setbacks and disappointments, and we may not live to see our destination – but let us begin.
Regardless of political affiliation or party loyalty – it’s good rhetoric. Kennedy’s speech of 1280 words, less than most sermons preached from this pulpit, was the shortest in recent history – by design and intention. Kennedy was fearful of speaking too long, of being perceived as a “windbag” and as a theme, he wanted the country to know that the “spirit of the Revolution still is here, still is a part of this country.”
I wonder if that’s true today, 50 years later, that the spirit of the Revolution is a part of this county. It’s hard not to wonder what it was like then – during the days and years leading up to the Revolution—when one wanders the streets of Boston. On our short visit we walked the “Freedom Trail” and visited the Old North Church, Paul Revere’s home, the USS Constitution, and saw the Bunker Hill memorial and it was not simply moving, but challenging and compelling as well.
At what point did a critical mass of people decide that settlement in the New World was progressing just fine, BUT it was time to break away and declare their independence from British rule? At what moment did the colonists decide that leadership must not come from across the Atlantic, BUT from within the ranks of the settlers? At what juncture did the early Americans decide that there future might be secure and predictable with King George, BUT that they were willing to take the risk to venture on their own? Simple words, conjunctions, which changed the course of American and world history.
Simple words came to Moses that changed the course of human history. Our text for today is basically the script for a speech God has prepared for Moses.
In what is clearly among the most ignored books of the Bible in the Christian church, Leviticus is composed of almost exclusively those simple words of God.
The first 16 chapters and the last chapter make up the Priestly Code, with rules for ritual cleanliness and sin-offerings. Chapters 17–26 contain the Holiness Code. The book is largely concerned with "abominations", largely dietary and sexual restrictions. The rules are generally addressed to the Israelites, except for several prohibitions applied equally to "the strangers that sojourn in Israel."
Speak to the congregation of Israel. Tell them, Be holy because I, God, your God, am holy.
"When you harvest your land, don't harvest right up to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings from the harvest. Don't strip your vineyard bare or go back and pick up the fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am God, your God.
"Don't deceive anyone.
"Don't swear falsely using my name, violating the name of your God. I am God.
"Don't exploit your friend or rob him.
"Don't hold back the wages of a hired hand overnight.
"Don't curse the deaf; don't put a stumbling block in front of the blind; fear your God. I am God.
"Don't pervert justice. Don't show favoritism to either the poor or the great. Judge on the basis of what is right.
"Don't spread gossip and rumors.
"Don't just stand by when your neighbor's life is in danger. I am God.
"Don't secretly hate your neighbor. If you have something against him, get it out into the open; otherwise you are an accomplice in his guilt.
"Don't seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people.
BUT "Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God
Now, of course, we know where Jesus found the Greatest Commandment! Tucked away in the muck and mire of a book of injunctions no longer practiced by Christians are these 10 verses of social and moral ethic amidst a sea of dietary and cleanliness prohibitions. The greatest of which is set apart by a simple conjunction. But…love your neighbor as yourself.
What we might easily miss in those last verses leading up to the crescendo of ethical love is that the boundaries expand. The NRSV uses this language:
You shall not hate any of your kin;
You shall not reprove your neighbor.
You shall not bear a grudge against your people.
From kin to neighbor to people. Concentric circles of relationship ever expanding our horizon of social responsibility – beyond family, beyond friends, beyond acquaintances, and beyond fellow citizens. It begs the question: where does our responsibility end?
For a church this has practical implications. Should we focus our energy and resources in downtown Wilmington? Great Wilmington? New Castle County? Above the canal? Delaware? Delmarva Penninsula? East Coast? East of the Mississippi? The United States? North America?
Leviticus seems to be saying, yes, all of the above, and don’t stop there, BUT, love your neighbor as yourself. Be holy, for I God, am holy!
Those two admonitions linked, merged even, to one compound injunction: love neighbor—be holy. Be holy. Two simple words we don’t hear much in a Presbyterian church.
We get lots and lots of speeches and rhetoric about caring for the least of our sisters and brothers, or advocating for the ignored and overlooked, or Good Samaritan type stories – but “be holy?”
It could be that “love neighbor” and “be holy” are two sides of the same coin. It could be that our lives with God and others is a practical expression of our holiness. Becoming holy is becoming more like God. In some churches they talk about “sanctification” – the process of becoming more and more like God, of becoming holy. God, in essence is saying, “in company with me, you shall grow to be like me!” We become, it’s fairly obvious, what we worship!
So the work of being holy is just that: work. It’s swimming against the tide of prevailing human ways. It’s all of those “don’t” in the speech from Leviticus, it’s the part after the conjunction, and it’s all means of living a life closer to God.
Sanctification, becoming holy, living a life closer to God is a long and lengthy process. It’s work without immediate results or satisfaction. It’s arduous, has setbacks and disappointments, and is full of pitfalls. It takes time to chart a course to change not all of human history – but just one human’s history.
All of it will not be finished in one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in one thousand days, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.
But let us begin.