Francis Flournoy was a Kentucky farmer with an opinion. Day after day, he tended to the crops on his fields in the hills of Kentucky. Night after night, he thought about his new country. Day after day, he worked tirelessly. Night after night, he thought fearlessly.
On his Kentucky farm, among the rolling hills, Flournoy could look out and see the entire world. While sitting on the front porch, he could see the geopolitical dynamics of the world’s powers at play. On the back of his horse, he could see the intricate interplay of the world’s economic systems. Flournoy lived and moved and had his being at a crucial time in American history; at the turn of the nineteenth century.
If there’s one thing Flournoy understood, it was land. He had tilled the land his whole life, he had given his blood, sweat, and tears to it, and so he properly understood its value. And he knew, the land next door to Kentucky needed to be allied with France.
So, he wrote an oped to the Frankfort Guardian of Freedom, a local magazine. Well, an oped is being kind. It was an open letter to the French government, particularly it’s emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, on behalf of this private, American, citizen. This open letter asked the French to establish a new colony west of Kentucky. In 1803, when Flournoy wrote his open letter, this French-owned land was a wild and unsettled area owned by France, known as the Louisiana Territory.
Flournoy’s letter attracted some attention. Particularly the attention of Kentucky’s Attorney General, who indicted him for violating the Logan Act. Enacted in 1799 by the fifth Congress, and signed by President John Adams, the Logan Act forbids private citizens from engaging in diplomacy with foreign governments. Flournoy found himself charged with committing a felony for his open letter to the French government in the Frankfort Guardian of Freedom.
Later in that same year of 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory in an act called the Louisiana Purchase. This purchase removed France’s territorial claims on this content, making the indictment against Flournoy moot, in the eyes of Kentucky’s Attorney General, and so charges were dropped.
But not before Francis Flournoy, a simple American farmer with an opinion and mind for geopolitics, went down in history as the only person to ever be indicted for violating the 1799 Logan Act.
His story surfaced for me in articles I’ve read recently. A particular radio report I heard noted that no one has ever been tried, much less convicted, of violating the Logan Act. I found it absolutely fascinating that a law could be 220 years old and have no case law behind it; no history to it.
Stories about the impacts of the law are interesting, sometimes even fascinating. Who doesn’t love a “who done it?” story or a John Grisham novel. But laws themselves are rather boring. Who would get a copy of the US Code to read for fun? Much less, who would read Leviticus for fun; a book of the law often compared to the US Code? For Leviticus is understood to be full of dry, boring, laws.
Indeed, this might be the first sermon you’ve ever heard preached out of Leviticus! While it sounds dry and boring, like most laws, inside is a captivating story that we’ll explore this morning.
So, let’s read some laws together out of Leviticus chapter 19.
Leviticus is full of laws; Laws that are about governing behavior and setting standards and expectations. Where someone violates the law, like Francis Flournoy, there are consequences to those actions. And so, the law is, generally, a tool of negative reinforcement: we’re afraid of the consequences of breaking the law, so we choose to follow it out of respect and fear.
That’s the traditional view of biblical law: fear that God would come down with curses and dire consequences for failure to uphold the law. It’s true for us with respect to the laws of our country, for we don’t want to go to jail or pay fines. And sometimes, it’s true for us as Christians, fearing what will happen if we fail to live a good, moral, life; in other words, if we fail to obey the teachings of Jesus and the Bible.
I sensed that fear when I saw a billboard recently. Perhaps you’ve seen it on the interstate, too. It says, very simply, “Real Christians obey Jesus’s teachings,” followed by a toll free number.
When I saw it, I wondered, which teachings did they mean? Some of Jesus’s teachings seem easy, like love each other, be a peacemaker. Others are more difficult, like don’t get divorced, sell everything you own and give it to the poor, open your home to strangers. Surely, these folks don’t mean all of Jesus’s teachings?
Turns out, they do. Their website makes it quite clear that they call for obedience to all of Jesus’s teachings, even the ones that sound kind of crazy, like sell everything and give it to the poor. They talk of Jesus’s teachings like laws, lest, in breaking Jesus’s laws, we face consequences of separation in our relationship with God. For them, failure to uphold the law of Jesus causes us to experience less of who God is and know God’s love in a diminished capacity.
For them, Jesus’s teachings are a form of negative reinforcement. They are behavioral standards by which we are to abide, lest we face the consequences. Like Francis Flournoy and the Logan Act, we must uphold Jesus’s law out of fear of the consequences of breaking it. At least, that’s what this website suggests.
Maybe we disagree, but let’s consider how we live our lives for a second. Very often, we’re concerned about doing the wrong thing. We’re worried about our behavior and wondering if it jibes with what the Bible teaches. Growing up in church has taught us that we’re supposed to be good people, lead moral lives, set the example, do the right thing. And when we fail to live up to that standard, church has also taught us that we run the risk of, at best, God’s disappointment with us and guilt in that relationship or, at worst, God’s vengeance set against us.
And so, many Christians focus heavily on what it means to practice morality, to be good, to do the right thing, because we fear falling out of God’s good graces. The teachings of Jesus, then, become a law no different than the Logan Act or the rest of the US Code.
That’s how I grew up. Maybe you can relate. Maybe, this morning, you’re thinking of Christianity in the same way: it’s a set of rules. Go to church, don’t lie, don’t steal, tithe.
If that doesn’t sound like Christianity, or if it does sound like Christianity but you don’t like it, what’s the alternative? What does it mean to be a Christian if it’s not about following the rules to stay in good relationship with God; in other words, to be holy. That’s the pursuit, afterall. We want the same thing that Leviticus declares: to be holy. The law in Leviticus is about being holy as God is holy, just as Jesus’s teachings are about being holy just as God is holy. Doesn’t that mean following a set of standards, a set of rules?
The answer to that question is why I love Leviticus.
Leviticus is a love letter from God.
That may sound odd, for whom would rightly call the US Code a love letter? But, indeed, Leviticus forms a love letter from God to us.
Leviticus contains more words direct from the mouth of God than any other book in the bible. Throughout this book, codified as law, God reveals who he is and what he cares about. In other words, God directly shares more of his heart in Leviticus than perhaps anywhere else in scripture; a love letter from God.
So let’s take a deeper look at the scripture we read this morning to see how God is revealing his heart to us.
Throughout the ten verses we read, God reveals that God cares deeply about the poor, the laborer, the deaf, the blind, and the immigrant (known as the alien often in translations of Leviticus). God speaks of the need for fairness before the law, of justice for all, and of loving each other as neighbors and family.
In God’s heart, the poor are of paramount concern. Rather than allowing them to go hungry, God commands that the people leave the edges of their fields for the poor to come and get the food they need, free of charge. This is gleaning and it’s the inspiration for our gleaning that we just did as we labor to feed the poor among us.
In God’s heart, immigrants are of paramount concern. In ancient Israelite society, as in societies for ages, no one trusted foreigners. They were suspect, they were strange, their culture seemed threatening to the dominant culture, and so people would shun them, ignore them, and even commit violent acts against these immigrants. God says no, they’re your neighbors, too. Take care of the immigrant among you as if he were your family.
In God’s heart, the deaf and the blind are of paramount concern. Ancient societies tended to shun them, even kill them or run them out of cities to live on their own because those with disfigurations and those with developmental disabilities were regarded as punished by God, so many worried that their presence would elicit God’s anger. No, God says, I love them too, and they’re your neighbors.
In God’s heart, the laborer is of paramount concern. Don’t delay in making payments for work done, God says, and be generous about it, for the laborer is your neighbor, even your kin.
These examples from Leviticus are found elsewhere throughout scripture. And they are reinforced by Jesus throughout the gospels and especially in the Sermon on the Mount. They reveal to us that God’s heart is all about love: love for all people at all times and in all places. God’s heart is also about justice: fairness in treatment for all people, especially those oppressed by society, even the ones we tend to shun and even the ones we find scary. God’s heart is about peace, all people living in harmony together, no matter their differences, no matter what, for we are all neighbors and all God’s kin.
This is the message of Leviticus. A message that resonates across scripture and can be summed up by Jesus’s declaration of the first and second greatest commandments: Love God, love your neighbor as yourself, just as it says here in Leviticus.
Holiness is about living in such a loving relationship with God that, through us, God is able to make the world look like Leviticus: a place of justice for the poor and immigrant and laborer, a place of peace between all neighbors, a place of honest love among all people, no matter their differences.
The pursuit of holiness is the pursuit of a just, peaceful, world;:the world a God is striving through us to create; a world we call the Kingdom of God. All it requires of us is holiness.
When we choose to try and follow Jesus’s teachings, like the billboard describes, expecting that to make us more holy and more in love with God, we put the cart ahead of the horse. We must first get to know God by getting to know God’s heart. Then, we will more naturally live out the law, fulfilling God’s expectations on our lives. The beginning of obeying Jesus’s teaching, the beginning of living according to God’s standards, the beginning of holiness, is in worship and our spiritual disciplines. Those are the primary way we get to know God better.
Holiness begins not with ritual or rote obedience but, instead, in worship and devotion.
So this morning, if you’ve been living a life of following rules, wanting to be in relationship with God in that way, stop. God has never been about following the rules to have relationship. No, God says to us today, “simply say to me ‘I want to know you more,’ and you’ll discover who I am.” Commit yourself to worship and spiritual discipline instead.
Or, if you’ve been reading the Bible as a set of rules, looking for regulations about how to live your life, stop. Pick it up again, but this time, read is as a love letter from God. Ask yourself, as you read, “what’s God telling me about himself here?” I think you’ll discover scripture opens up to you afresh and anew.
Renew your commitment to your spiritual disciplines. Make one of those disciplines being here, in church, as often as you can be. There’s nowhere better to experience God than in fellowship with our neighbors.
Holiness is what we’re after: purity of heart such that, through us, God creates a just world.
Holiness comes not through keeping up with a set of rules but through being in love with God. It’s that simple.
That’s, indeed, what it means to be Methodist. We say our three simple standards are: do no harm, do good, stay in love with God.
How well does that describe your life? For that’s the message of Leviticus. Do no harm, do good, stay in love with God. That’s the love letter from God’s heart to us this morning. That’s the freedom of relationship with God. Reach out and tell God you want to know him better this morning.
Are you in love with God?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.