There is no question that a good bit of Leviticus does not have much to say to modern Christians (which is the reason you hear so little preaching from that book). But there is an extended portion, chapters 17-26, known as the Holiness Code - divine rules for living as a uniquely Godly community - that contains some of the loftiest ethical teaching in all of Scripture. There are commands to honor our parents and the elderly, to be honest in business dealings, to be sensitive to the physically handicapped. It is the original source of Jesus' commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself." It is worth our attention. Listen to a portion of it.
Solid teaching, not only for ancient Israel, but for any society that would be truly moral and just. In the midst of these ethical instructions, we find one of those passages that seems not to apply anymore, those verses saying that when one brings an animal offering to the Temple, all the meat has to be eaten the same day or the next day and that it would be a very serious infraction to eat any of it on the third day (19:5-8). The usual interpretation of the rule is that in a hot climate like the Middle East, meat spoiled rapidly without refrigeration (which did not exist then) and would be unhealthy to eat 48-hours after cooking. But there are two problems with that. First, do you really have to pass a law, especially such a strongly worded law, telling folks not to eat spoiled food? I suspect you could depend on people to figure that out for themselves. And second, what would such a health regulation be doing in a chapter of ethical instruction?
Let me offer another interpretation. If a man brought an animal offering to the Temple, an offering in celebration of some happy event, and knew that it had to be totally consumed in two days, what would he do? Rather than waste the meat (which was a relatively precious commodity in an agricultural society), he would invite more of his relatives and neighbors. He would share some of it with the poor, the beggars waiting on the Temple grounds hoping for such an invitation. By setting the regulation in the midst of ethical instruction, God's message appears to be that there is something actually ethical, something RIGHT, about the simple act of eating with one another.
Down deep, I think we know that. A shared meal binds people together. Any child can tell you that when you share your candy bar with the new kid down the street, it is an act that produces instant friendship (just as two teenagers on a date sipping the same ice cream soda through two straws know that a special bond has been formed). Do you remember the movie, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and the furor caused by the daughter inviting the WRONG sort of fellow for a meal? Eating together means something more than collectively fending off hunger. That helps us understand why ancient Israel was taught to bring the sacrifice and share it - it was a way of making the participants feel that they were linked to each other.
Sadly, there are not many opportunities to do that anymore. The pace of modern life has seen to that. We eat many of our meals with strangers, in cafeterias and restaurants, even jammed together on airplanes. Mealtime becomes like a ride in an elevator - there are other people around but we are expected to pretend not to be aware of them. Families no longer eat together like they used to, and when they do, there is seldom a sense of an important shared experience. Eating has become a mundane matter of refueling our bodies the way we gas up our cars. Too bad. We have taken one more thing which used to be rich in meaning and made it ordinary. No wonder there is so little magic left in our lives.
I wish we could get back to that big deal known as Sunday dinner that we experienced in years past. In a few weeks, we Leiningers will have the joy of visiting with our former parishioners at the Oakdale Presbyterian Church in Clover, South Carolina, to celebrate that congregation's 50th anniversary. One of our favorite memories of our years at Oakdale was Sunday dinner with the Robinson's. The Robinsons are a huge family that gathers every Sunday at Mama's - it is an army of brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and cousins tearing around and screaming like banshees, hearing mothers and fathers yelling at them to watch out for their Sunday clothes and each other's skulls. Every so often, the preacher and his family would be invited to join them. Of course, as the resident "Holy Man" I was the designated pray-er...careful not to go on too long with the blessing. It was wonderful. No one will ever have to explain to any of the Robinson clan what it means to be family; no one will ever have to explain what it means to belong or be loved - Sunday dinner takes care of that.
In a way, that is what we are about to do as we gather at the Lord's Table. The bit of bread and sip of juice will not do much to fend off physical hunger; but the hunger we all feel, the hunger for connectedness, for community, for family, for assurance that we are not alone in this world is surely fed. How does it happen? No one can explain it. As John Calvin said, "I rather experience it than understand it."
Once when a preacher was marrying a young couple, he put the usual question: "Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, to live together in the holy estate of matrimony, to love her, comfort her, honor and keep her..." and so on? The answer was not the usual soft, reserved "I do," but rather, "Yes sir, that's what I came here for."
In a few moments, you will be invited to the Lord's Table as we share our Christian family meal. Our response to the invitation is most often the equivalent of that soft "I do," but this morning we can make it, "Yes sir, that's what I came here for." This morning, do something to reinforce that sense of togetherness that comes in sharing food - as you pass the elements to the person next to you, let your eyes meet, and smile. Smile the smile that silently says, "You are not alone. You are at Sunday dinner now, at the table of the family of God."