The man from the nursing home was on the phone. “You better come over,” he said; “She’s refusing food. It looks like she’s decided it’s time to die.”
The care-givers had tried everything to get her to eat. They tried coaxing her, bribing her, arguing with her; they brought her favorite foods, her favorite ice cream, her favorite rice pudding – but she just shook her head and kept her mouth closed.
People who work in nursing homes see this all the time. At some point a person just stops eating; they reach a point where they are ready to die and they just settle into their beds and wait. When this particular call came in, I had only been ordained about three years but already I had seen this happen more than a few times.
Which is why it was so surprising when I arrived at the nursing home and the woman looked up at me and immediately pointed to her mouth. She had had a stroke earlier in the year, which deprived her of the ability to speak, but her mind was clear and it was obvious that she was asking for some food. I got kind of excited and I said to the attendant, “I think she’s hungry!”
“Are you hungry?” I asked; “Do you want something to eat?”
She shook her head.
“Oh – you want something to drink?”
Again she shook her head. Then she pointed at me – and again, pointed to her mouth.
I felt pretty stupid that it took me that long to figure it out. “Oh, do you want communion?” She nodded.
The prayer book has a little service called “Communion Under Special Circumstances” for times like these, when a person can’t get to church and so we bring the consecrated bread and wine to the home. It’s a short little service - you can get through the whole thing in about 10 minutes easy, and usually when you are dealing with someone who is very sick, that’s about as long a service as they want.
But this time was different. She was one of the 8 o’clockers – she knew the old service by heart and it had been several months since she had been able to get to church and hear the entire service. I asked her if she would like to do the whole service, soup to nuts, and she nodded eagerly, so I turned to page 323 in the prayer book and we went through the long version together, skipping nothing.
Her eyes were on me during the whole service, her lips moving in unison with mine as we prayed those ancient prayers – the Collect for Purity, the Great Commandments, all the way to the Prayer of Humble Access. It felt like she was savoring every last word as if this were her last meal – which, of course, it was. She crossed herself in all the right places; she bowed her head at every mention of the name Jesus; and when it came time to feed her that little wafer of bread, soaked in a bit of inexpensive port, she closed her eyes and savored it as if she were dining at the Ritz Carlton. For her, this was tastier than the finest steak, the richest chocolate.
She died a few days later.
When I think of the word “holy”, that is what I think about.
The Episcopal Church is by no means a perfect church. We are vague, we are proud, we are as parochial as the next denomination. But one thing that we do well: we know about holiness. We know what it means to honor the holiness of God.
When God says, in the book of Leviticus, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy,” we get it.
The Hebrew word for this is qadosh. It means “set apart, sacred”; it refers to that aspect of God’s being which is completely other, untouchable, pure. God’s holiness is what makes Moses’ face to shine like a lantern after he sees God passing by; his face, they said, was so bright he had to wear a veil to protect those who looked at him. (Exodus 34: 24-34) Like Moses, we absorb some of the holiness of God when we encounter God in our worship. Moses had his mountain top and his burning bush; we have our sanctuary, and our Holy Eucharist.
While other churches have buildings that look like shopping malls, and sanctuaries that look like high-school auditoriums, we gather in buildings that have been set apart for a sacred purpose; we replicate the architecture of the ancient Temple, with its holy of holies; we believe in consecrated elements: we honor the sacred presence of God in the tabernacle; we douse ourselves with holy water when we enter and when we leave; we come to the altar of God with the reverence of the ancient High Priest.
But for all our reverence and all our sacred prayers, we also know that none of it matters if our holiness doesn’t change the way we live our lives. This is the other, central element of the Jewish concept of holiness: holiness is made real when it is translated into right action. When, in the book of Leviticus, God is explaining what this all means, he begins by saying, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This is the context for the 10 Commandments; and in fact for all 613 commandments in the Torah. Whenever God gives a commandment, he begins by reminding his people of his holiness, and of their holiness. The commandments are proof of God’s holiness; they are God’s way of helping us understand how to be holy; how to honor God’s holiness.
We don’t honor our father and our mother just because God says we should; we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves because it’s good social policy; we don’t refrain from stealing because we want to curry favor with God or avoid God’s punishment. We follow the commandments because that’s what it means to be holy. We are holy people; we worship a holy God; and that means we conduct ourselves in a certain manner. That means we stand for certain principles. That means we have a particular purpose in this world. In this ancient tradition, is impossible to be holy if we are not following the commandments of God.
No wonder, then, that the ancient Jews took the commandments very seriously.
By the time Jesus came along, then, there was enormous debate as to which, of the 613 commandments, were the most important. 613 commandments is a lot of commandments to keep straight. Somebody needed to simplify things: what’s the bottom line? What’s the most important commandment?
Which is why Jesus, in our Gospel this morning, brings us back to the first principle: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is what we do here, in this sanctuary: we bring ourselves to God, leaving nothing behind; we open ourselves to God, completely. Our love for God is expressed in our devotion to his holiness: in the silence of the sanctuary, in the deepest recesses of our hearts.
In our Collect for Purity we say, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…” The holiness of God is found there, in our complete openness – the openness that is made possible when we feel completely safe, as when we are in a sanctuary. We open ourselves to the holiness of God – and that gives us eyes to see the holiness of God’s people. When we encounter the holiness of God, everything else falls into place: how we should live, and who we should live for. We learn to love, because we encounter God’s love; we learn to listen, because we experience God’s listening; we learn to forgive, because we experience God’s forgiveness. We learn to give, because we come to see how everything, already, is a gift from God.
This morning, at the 11:15 service, we are going to baptize a young man named Josh. Josh is a war veteran; he has seen things that no one should have to see. He understands more than most of us how unholy life can be; how far from God we can fall. He has seen the chaos and the destruction that is unleashed when all holiness, all love, all respect for dignity, is lost.
And he knows what we must do to recover our humanity. It begins with first principles. It begins here, in this holy place, in the presence of our holy God. We enter God’s sanctuary; we worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; we ask God’s blessing on the element of water; we pour that holy water over his head; we dedicate ourselves, completely and without reservation, to the holiness of God. And the rest follows from there; the purpose of our lives becomes clear.
It’s all spelled out in the words of the Baptismal Covenant: we will continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship; we will persevere in resisting evil; we will proclaim the Good News of god in Christ; we will seek and serve Christ in all persons; we will strive for justice and peace among all people.
We are not the kind of people that go to church so that we can get our little bit of holiness and go home to watch TV. We encounter the holy so that we remember who God is, and in the process we remember who we are: we are holy, because God is holy. And because of that, we bear God’s holiness into the world. Whether we are carrying consecrated elements to the nursing home, or carrying a casserole to Open Table, or carrying an open heart to people who give us heartburn, we are carrying holiness – God’s holiness – to a world that is desperately hungry for it.
I give thanks be to God that we have been given this great vocation, and the means to accomplish it, through the grace of God and his son, Jesus Christ our Lord… AMEN.