Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Outgrowing Old Sacrificial Systems

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 22:1-14, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

That is one mighty powerful story from the Book of Genesis. Mighty disturbing, too, I know. It’s one of the central texts of the Hebrew Bible to be heard by the Church at the Easter Eve Vigil, on the holiest night of the year. But I will confess to you that we here at St. John’s avoid it like a skunk at a lawn party: for that night, we select readings that we like to put in the hands of children to dramatize—and while violence abounds in video games and movies, this case study in blind devotion is a tough one to ask children to grasp. Or adults.

And until, and unless, you allow some latitude in interpreting the point of this story, it doesn’t place God in a very, well, Godly role. The point made is the sharp end and the razor edge of that knife in Abraham’s hand. Who is Abraham and what is he doing? Who is this God, and what is he doing?

All the stories in the Book of Genesis demand being heard as stories that reveal the nature of God and the purposes of God, and as stories that reveal the nature of Israel and the purposes of Israel. These stories enlist individuals—today it’s Abraham and Isaac, while barely mentioned are the young men handling the donkeys, and in the far background is Isaac’s unmentioned mother Sarah.

Their purpose is to get us to relate to them, to elicit empathy, admiration, outrage, insight, revelation, so that we become fully engaged in the story. A frequent approach to Bible study with such a story as this one is to ask people in the circle, “Which of these individuals do you resonate with most?” Imagine the self-revelation in saying, I relate to Abraham… or I would pick Isaac. Far easier to select the donkey-handlers (or the donkey, for that matter) all of whom look upon this dreadful scene and wonder, What is going on here? And then get to look upon the transformation of this pending crime scene into an encounter with sheer grace.

For the purpose of God, insist all the stories in the great anthology of Genesis, is to form a people, a nation, a partner in covenanted love and obedience. And the purpose of Israel will be to stand as an embodiment of righteousness, an example to lead all peoples into covenant faithfulness to God.

What God is doing on Mount Moriah, goes the traditional answer, is testing the faithfulness of Abraham. Ruthlessly. This offends us, and it should, for this is not the character of God we encounter in Jesus Christ. Or is it?

Doesn’t Jesus undergo just such a harrowing test of his devotion? Isn’t that the breath-taking impact of the line Celia sings in the Exsultet on Easter Eve: “How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.”?

A critical mind might object, “Wait: you’re saying that two thousand years pass and still we’re dealing with a God who requires the sacrifice of a son… but now it’s his own Son? And this is an improvement? This is evolution?

From the Bible’s point of view, yes, there is progress here. The story of Abraham and Isaac, from ancient Israel’s pre-history, shows what life was like before Israel had the Law to guide and shape its moral vision. A father—without consulting a mother—could expose his son to a most dreadful death, at his own hand, believing that such obedience was the requirement of God. The Law would outlaw this. But before the law, this kind of ultimate sacrifice is known to have happened, and to be part of the religious practice of at least one of the competing ancient Gods in the Middle East.

So time-travel from our first reading to our second reading. Let’s say two thousand years have passed. During those centuries, the law has developed in Israel, has shaped Israel. From those core ten commandments from God’s mouth to Israel’s heart, the law has grown to more than six hundred statutes, many of them regulating what it meant to be righteous before God. Some of these rules expanded the moral vision of Israel (for example, requiring the humane treatment of immigrants), but many strike us today as being obsessed with ritual purity and the rooting-out of impurity (dangerous ground for any religion to stand on, witness how certain categories of people have been excluded under these rules, including women and homosexuals).

But now, St. Paul announces, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has shaped a new creation, a new covenant, based not on law but on grace, the undeserved love of God. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

“And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. He went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide.’”

One way to interpret our thorny story from Genesis is to recognize that from the beginning we have been under grace. But grace was not a familiar category of human experience, given Abraham’s instinct to raise the knife first, raising his sights second—almost a second too late!

And it’s not too flip to observe that the moment was far from gracious for the ram. You can tell that the story teller in Genesis comes from a later time when the great temple in Jerusalem was awash in the blood of sacrificial animals. Ritual purity was understood to require the sacrifice of life. By comparison to two thousand years before, grace could be seen in that the victim was four-footed, not two-footed. There’s progress.

And in the new creation that St. Paul announces, there’s no place for continuing this industry of animal sacrifice. Think of the many encounters Jesus had on this very subject, urging people to raise their sights, not their knives. It is because of Jesus, Paul declares, that we are no longer under law and its required killing of countless victims. Jesus has put himself in their place, in our place; has become the scape goat, the sacrificial lamb (that we see painted on our altar) whose voluntary and total commitment to non-violent confrontation has given to God not appeasement, but traction to launch the new creation and its higher righteousness under grace. This truly is progress.

But wait: two thousand years have passed from then to now. Our sights are raised, but the more they are, the more we see:

Honor killings of free-thinking young women and men in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the name of God.

Displacement, famine and epidemics obliterate whole generations of children in Africa, implementing strategies of ethnic cleansing.

Reprisal killings in Iraq, neighbors killing neighbors for differing interpretations and practices of their one religion—just as in Ireland, in the time of the Troubles—though surely such bloodbaths are also about money and jobs and influence and personal grudges.

American youths paying the ultimate price for freedom in nations that don’t know; what to do with freedom.

While here at home, the knife is replaced by the dollar as the greed of the elders is visited upon our children, whose future may be marked by more and more sacrifice.

Globally, the long view of what we are doing with the resources of the earth, and what we are not doing to change our life here on earth, will see the sacrifice of children’s children.

Can you stand any more of this? Where is the good news? We need to hear it. Where is progress? We need to see it. St. Matthew, in his Gospel, helps us recognize it. The reward of the righteous comes not to the person who thinks rightly, or believes rightly, or belongs to the right community, but to the one who acts rightly. Each one of us is empowered by the Spirit of God to walk in this world as an agent of grace, mercy, generosity, and free commitment to non-violence. These are the powers of the new creation, the bands of light that show the path to take.

And when we do, Jesus promises that whoever welcomes us welcomes him, and whoever welcomes him welcomes the one who sent him. There is the promise and the power that undergird progress. And it us up to us to affirm common purpose with all who raise their sights from old sacrificial systems the world must outgrow.