Friday, December 26, 2003
A Sermon About Sacrifice
Easter Sunday, 2003
Rainier Congregation, Seattle
[Flannel Christian], Speaking
Sacrifice. It is what brings us here today. It is what brought Jesus to Jerusalem, the Jews to the Passover table, and Job to his knees. The whole Bible is chock-full of sacrifice—God seems to be constantly asking for sacrifices, people are always offering sacrifices, and if there is some sort of problem it’s surely related somehow to insufficient sacrifice on somebody’s part or is solved by more sacrifice by somebody. Heck, the defining event in our religion is one big sacrifice, meant—we’re told—to end all sacrifices.
Someone looking at our religion from the outside might think this is either the most fickle of gods or the most self-deprecating people—either way, not an attractive community. It’s just so depressing, so demanding, so… heavy. Where did this all start? Let’s go back to the first, or if not the first then certainly one of the most outstanding instances of sacrifice: Abraham.
Now, we all know the story: God tells Abraham he will be the father of many nations, but Abraham and his wife can’t seem to get pregnant. Finally, surely when they’ve nearly given up hope, they conceive and give birth to a little boy, and here’s God’s chance to make good on the promise. They name him Isaac, and little Isaac grows quickly and strong, and makes his father and mother very proud. Then one day God and Abe are chatting, and while nobody really knows exactly what was said, Abe definitely comes away from it shaken, and tells his wife Sarah that God asked him to make Isaac a sacrifice. Both Abraham and Sarah know what this means.
Animal sacrifice was pretty common in those days, and in the worship of everybody’s gods a lot of innocent animals were slain. Surely the idea of human sacrifice wasn’t a new one—but the idea of sacrificing your own child must have seemed absolutely batty! Now, the Bible doesn’t say it, but I can’t imagine Sarah being too hip to this idea, and I’m pretty sure that she made Abraham go back and ask God if he heard God right.
Isaac? You want my son, Isaac?
And God answers nonchalantly, Yep. As if God’s ordering fries with that. Then God goes back to dealing with all the other stuff on God’s plate—there’s a lot to do, after all, when you’re God. You can’t spend all day yapping with some guy who doesn’t listen well, right?
So Abraham goes back in disbelief. He can’t understand. What is this about?
Now right about now you’re used to hearing people say what a great guy Abraham was, and what faith and courage he showed by choosing to sacrifice his son. You’re not going to hear that from me. I think that at the point that Abraham chose to kill his son because he felt directed to by God, Abraham made mistake, a big one. As soon as Abraham resigned himself to just following orders, there’s no claim to courage or faith. Now, I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt, when I say that he must’ve gone back and asked God a second time. But any faith or courage he might have had ought to have compelled him to challenge even God if that god is asking him to do something not just unloving, but so obviously evil.
Now, this was back in the beginning, and I suppose Abraham didn’t have any role models to go by, and the story of Job hadn’t even happened yet, to show that first of all not everything that happens is God’s doing AND that not everything that happens is fair. So Abraham didn’t have a lot to go on. I can give him that much. But surely he knew better than to walk his son out into the desert with the intention of killing him to satisfy some voice in his head.
And I don’t think any God worth believing in would disagree with me on that.
So, Abraham does the best that he feels he can, and makes arrangements to go out with his son and a servant. They set out, at some point Abe asks the servant to stay behind, and he and Isaac climb the hillside. Isaac gets suspicious, there being nothing to sacrifice, and surely must have gotten more than a little suspicious when his father ties him up and lays him on the altar. Imagine the scene—this innocent son, who just the day before had made his father proud by wrestling the billy-goat out of a thorny shrub without either getting a scratch—being laid down by his own father, on a sacrificial altar. He’s gotta be pretty scared, right? And Abraham is looking around for God, thinking that there’s no way God would be late for this kind of thing, right?
So Abraham raises his knife, looks around, speaks frighteningly loud and says something like, “God, here I am, about to give my own son,” and saying under his breath, “I hope you see this and know how loyal I am to you.”
Now imagine God walking in on the scene—thinking that’s funny, seeing Abraham out here this time of year. He should be in the valley planting crops. And what is that he’s doing? What is that in his hand? … there… wait… what? And God runs as fast as God can…
There’s Abraham, raising his arm for the blow and out of nowhere comes God leaping from behind the bush and grabbing his arm, practically tackling him, God’s eyes fixated on that ornamented knife. And Abraham, besides having the wind knocked out of him, is scared to all get-out. I mean, how often is it that you’re downed like a wide-receiver on Super-bowl Sunday by God?
And there’s Isaac wriggling on the altar trying to get free and more than a little freaked out by his dad, and there’s Abraham near tears himself so confused and hurting, and God who is probably a mixture of confused and downright livid!
“What are you doing?” God asks.
“I’m doing what you told me to do!” Abraham says.
“What are you talking about?”
“You told me to make Isaac’s life a sacrifice to you!”
“What?! I didn’t want you to sacrifice his life, I wanted Isaac’s life to be a sacrifice.”
Ah-ha. You can almost see the light growing brighter above Abraham’s head. “Wha-… you… but… I… you… what?”
“I wanted Isaac’s life to be a sacrifice to me. I wanted you two to dedicate your thoughts, your actions, your love and your courage to me, and to doing my work in this world! I don’t care about sacrifices, I care about lives.”
Can you feel that? Isn’t that exciting?
You see, God was using that misunderstanding to change Abraham’s view of what sacrifice was, and what it meant to offer something to God. It wasn’t just to kill or to futter something away in God’s name. What good does that do anybody, the least of all God? God’s idea of sacrifice was to take that thing—a life, someone’s trust, the earth under your stewardship—and to work with it to make it grow and nourish and make beauty and encourage others to do the same. God was taking Abraham from where he was, and where his culture was, and where his worldview was, and offering him a new perspective, a worldview thereto unimaginable by Abraham or Isaac or even Sarah. God was right there giving a new law: a law I find it helpful to call Love.
Now, the Bible for a long time is the story of people continuing to misunderstand that. The Hebrews see lands they like and think its God’s will that they kill the people who are currently living there. Or to wage war on neighboring nations in either defense or aggression. Or to accumulate and concentrate wealth and nurture the assumption that those who have wealth and resources and opportunity do so because they are more beloved of God, are more faithful or just or right.
If one reads the Bible at all closely, you’ll see a whole different story woven throughout even the First Testament. Like I mentioned earlier, Job’s story lays it out pretty clearly that the righteous don’t always prosper, and the wicked aren’t always punished, and that no one can dare to say that they know the mind of God based on earthly rewards. And each and every Biblical prophet said over and over again that the true worship of God was not sacrifice at the temple, but charity toward the poor and forgotten, the widow and the orphan, the beggar and the criminal. And this is the amazing thing—there are so many prophets saying this same thing over and over and over throughout the centuries, there’s only one reason they need to be saying this so much: because no one was listening. People continued to misunderstand the idea of sacrifice.
Now, Jesus, I think, is right in line with these prophets. What’s important to Jesus? Temple worship? Sacrifices? Public prayers and libations to the priests? No! What was important to Jesus was the behavior toward the lost, the forgotten, the despised, the hated, the reviled, the revolting. Not just the widow and orphan, but the leper and the convicted murderer, too, with whom he hung on the cross.
But just like those other prophets, Jesus was speaking to a people that thought they already knew what God wanted, and were comfortable doing their clearly identified duties and obligations to the temple and the priests, and considering themselves pious. Jesus was speaking to the Jews. But the Romans could have listened, too. And once again this son of God was put out as sacrifice. Only this time, God couldn’t come rushing in at the last moment. These people’s idea of the will of God put Jesus on the cross. And years later, when Paul would be retelling the story to the scattered Christians abroad, he would call it a sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
I’m not sure Jesus would have agreed with Paul there. You see, Paul never met Jesus, and he very often even disagreed with the followers that had actually spent time with Jesus. So I’m not inclined to take Paul’s word unless it’s with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, except for Acts, we don’t really know much about the early Christian communities of people that might have actually met and listened to Jesus, or have been led by people who did. But what we do know is significant.
We know that for them the death of Jesus was not nearly as important as his life. They seemed to have grasped this idea of sacrifice as a dedication of one’s life, taken hold of this idea of faith as dedication to a principle, not as something you “have”, as Paul thought of it. Now, don’t get me wrong, Paul was an amazing guy and did a lot for both Christianity and the world, but he had just as much to do with the theology he taught people as Jesus did.
For the early Christian communities the notion of sacrifice was transformed in the same way it was for Abraham, and that was exciting. They felt God taking them and turning them one-hundred-eighty degrees, so that the way they looked at the world was totally different. It was so exciting that they couldn’t help singing and dancing and telling other people about it. The world wasn’t a place of scarcity—of competition for resources or hierarchies of power or worthiness—but a place of abundance: the more love one felt, the more there was to feel. The more people participated in joy, the more joy there was. The more people at the table, the more food there was for everyone. The more empowerment they showered on disempowered people, the more powerful they seemed to become. And even the notion of power was different—instead of the ability to affect other people, “powerful” began to mean the ability of other things to affect you! The whole world was alive with loaves-and-fishes stories, of healings and of people rising from their own deaths. It wasn’t magical or mysterious—it was the power of the message of Jesus, the wonder of Love and the transforming power of Faith.
You can imagine how incongruous the images of the cross and crucifixion might have seemed to them. Good Friday wasn’t the big day. What they had to celebrate was the three years prior to Jesus’ death AND the third day afterwards. What we have to celebrate is that, too.
Today is the day we celebrate Life—one life in particular, but if Jesus were here right now I bet he’d point out that each and every life in this room, and in this city, is a worthy sacrifice to God. That Easter isn’t just the morning when he rose to meet the world anew, but the morning in which we can, too. That he worked to remind us what God had in mind with the idea of sacrifice—way back even to the very first time God asked for one. Forget the high-church hullabaloo, and remember what your own hands can—or can choose not to—do.
Today is the Christian New Year: time for reflection, resolutions and rededications. And whether our goals be to tithe more faithfully, or each one reach one, or stop more often to lighten the days of the homeless or forgotten—on our own streets and abroad—don’t sacrifice lives, but make your life a sacrifice.