Saturday, June 7, 2008
Mercy not sacrifice
In two places in our readings today we hear God speaking to the people about sacrifice. We have to remember that Judaism up until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD was a religion of sacrifice. By taking animals or grains (first fruits) to the temple and offering them to the priests who would offer the sacrifice to God by burning them or laying them in the temple, people’s sins were then cleansed. It was through these sacrifices that those who were ill were healed, wrongs were righted, and the harmony or peace, shalom that I spoke about last week was restored. The Mosaic Law was built on these sacrifices.
The word sacrifice means to make holy—or to set apart for the sacred. What happened to the meat or grain that was not burned in its entirety (a holocaust) was sold to support the temple and its priests. There were special ways that the animals could be slaughtered, there were certain ways that the grains were to be offered and those rules have come down to us as Kosher. To follow Kosher in a Jewish household—and not all Jews do requires a life- style change. My conservative rabbi friend and his family observe the rules of kosher. We meet occasionally at a vegetarian restaurant where he knows that he can eat and keep the laws of kosher. He does not feel constrained; he feels privileged to be able to observe the laws of his ancient faith. Mercy is a part of his life –the observance of the rules is not sacrifice but the embracing of a life of mercy and generosity.
But like many people who see religion as a series of laws to obey, or a group of ideas to give assent to, or some sequence of actions that one must complete so that salvation can be attained, sacrifice becomes the be all and end all of religion. In our own Christianity with much of our understanding of Jesus’ life seen in his death and sacrifice on the cross, it is easy to see how we see the efficacy of sacrifice rather than seeing what sacrifice is supposed to do—bring us to an understanding of gratitude and mercy. Jesus’ sacrifice of his life was an act of mercy—he could have brought down war—a cosmic war that would have removed Herod Antipas from the throne of Judah and removed Pontius Pilate as governor of Palestine. But that was not his purpose—his purpose was to teach the people about the reign of God. It was a life of balance and shalom. It was a life of generosity and hospitality.
In the reading from Hosea, the prophet is telling the people that their sacrifices will do nothing if they don’t change their hearts about God. The government and the populace of Israel have and their minor tribes of Ephraim and Judah have been setting up alliances with other nations. They have placated those nations by allowing the worship of the gods of those nations to be worshipped in Israel. It has cause widespread confusion about their devotion to Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But because they have been faithful about the sacrifices, the people of Israel think that they are safe from God’s wrath.
The Jews by the time of Jesus knew that Hosea had been right. And eventually the people of Judah were taken off to Babylon in slavery because they had failed to do justice, to be people of God, to be merciful with one another.
By Jesus’ day, religion had devolved into keeping the law. Religious leaders, as religious leaders are often tempted to be, were leading the people away from the matters of the heart and into observance of rules rather than developing a right relationship with God. All too often faith ends up being a shallow following of rules rather than the call to transformation of lives. It is for this reason that Jesus says “Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
In the rest of the passage we have from Matthew we have instances in which the actions of Jesus are ones that are not in keeping with the rules of religion but they do demand the mercy that God’s love teaches.
Jesus calls the tax collector—a detested profession in Jesus’ day. A tax collector was considered a quisling, a betrayer of his race, and agent of the imperial overlords. He had dinner with those who were not followers of the Law. He was called to the bedside of the daughter of an important Pharisee—an important follower of the law and on his way there he was made unrighteous by the touch of an unclean woman. Yet he brought about miraculous cures. Mercy is what God wants. Caring is at the center of who we are as people of faith.
What does it mean for us to be people of mercy today? What do these passages evoke for us? They call us to look hard at how we observe our faith. If we say we are Christians but do not have mercy—what do people think of our faith?
The younger generations—those who are in their twenties and thirties—are not attending church the way even their baby boomer parents did. They call themselves “spiritual, but not religious”. They claim to have faith but find organized religion hypocritical and rigid. And instead of finding mercy—they find legalism rather than faith in Church.
Now, those of us in the church know that faith is in the heart and we take exception with the critique of the young. But in truth, we know that we have not been good about teaching that faith is a heart matter. We have fallen back on regulations rather than sharing what it means to be humbled by God. We tell people what the Church says rather than speak of our own conversion and testifying to the change that God has called us. We find it easier to say what the pastor says, rather than own up to the doubts and fears we have had in the face of God’s grace. And we get angry when we have our short-comings of faith are revealed to us in the eyes of those who are young.
But that is what the younger folks are calling us to is to get honest about. They are saying “If faith is so important, why don’t you live it?” “If Church is so important, put your money where your mouth is?” If the community of the faithful is the Body of Christ, where is joy in our lives?
Brothers and Sisters, we need to be sharing our faith. Now, many of us grew up at a time when it wasn’t polite to share faith—that was something that you did in your closet. We were not taught to pray out loud-- “the pastor will do all the out loud praying we need to do.” But that time is gone.
We need to be able to speak to our family and friends how God has changed out lives. We need to be able to continue to allow God to change our lives—allowing the transformation of God’s love to be seen by others.
It is not sacrifice that God wants; it is a manifestation of what God’s love means. Mercy is that gift that God gives that allows us to go beyond the law; that allows us to enter into the lives of other so that we know that we are connected at a level other than the superficiality of acquaintance.
Good works are mere sacrifices if they do not connect us one to another. Our casseroles mean nothing if the heart is not broken by the loss of a family member of the recipient. Taking another to cancer treatments is a mere cab ride if it does not include the concern for the well-being of patient. We are not a faith of sacrifice—even Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is a desire to be with us so that we can know the Father. Mercy breaks down the coldness of our hearts. It forces us to understand the incredible connectedness that God would have us know. It prepares us for the overwhelming hospitality that God holds out to us so that we know that peace, that shalom, that wholeness and balanced life to which we are all called in Jesus.
I would invite you this week to look at the places in your lives where mercy is needed. Not only the mercy that you need—but the mercy you need to express. I would caution you that mercy is difficult. We often have to be merciful when we don’t want to be. And I would suggest you take that to God in prayer. I would ask you to be careful to dole out mercy if it costs you too much and to look at that in prayer. God gives us the ability to be merciful. We need to be willing to ask for that grace. We should not grant mercy if we have not made peace with it, however. If we are not at peace, or do not want to give it, we need to recognize that we are sinners at the same time as we are sinners. God has mercy for us in the meantime until we can offer that mercy in our hearts. Let yourselves make peace within yourselves no matter where you are in the process to be merciful. But when you can give mercy, you are ready to receive it yourselves.
May God be with you in you efforts and shalom be in your hearts. AMEN