February 13, 2008

Mercy and Sacrifice

Senior Sermon for the Friday after Ash Wednesday,
being Valentine’s Day

(Isaiah 58.1-9a; Psalm 51.1-10; Matthew 9.10-17)
Preached in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd
of The General Theological Seminary, February 14, 1997
by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Happy Valentine’s Day, and please be seated!

Life, as Forrest Gump repeatedly and annoyingly observed, is like a box of chocolates. By this he did not mean that life is fattening, or that life is heart-shaped and gift-wrapped and presented to loved ones on days like today. No, the perpetually optimistic Gump meant that like a box of chocolates, life holds an element of surprise. A box of chocolates, whether a Whitman’s Sampler or an elaborately beribboned and lacy Valentine’s Day heart, is a box of mystery. Each individual chocolate — unless you use the crib-sheet in the lid of the box, or have memorized the candy shapes and colors that by unalterable tradition match shape with filling — each individual chocolate promises a small bit of excitement for the easily entertained. And even people more jaded and blasé than Mr. Gump generally find the experience to be a happy one.

What would you say, however, if upon opening the beautifully wrapped and ribboned heart-shaped box, and biting down on the first carefully selected and promising morsel, you were to discover that you had been presented with an extra-large assortment of chocolate-covered garden slugs — each one a soft-center — with a few shards of broken glass, tin-foil, and sprinkles of white lead paint for contrast? What would you say to the person who gave you this monstrosity, standing there with a coy grin, eyebrows raised with an eager look of expectation, waiting for you to dissolve in gurgling gratitude?

If you can picture this you will have a fairly good idea of how Yahweh feels in the passage from Isaiah appointed for today. The people have offered God their multitudes of sacrifices, fat beasts with the smoke of rams, then followed up by depriving themselves of food and drink, putting ashes on their heads, dressing up in sacks and crawling around in the dust with their foreheads to the ground. And all the while they apparently think that this is exactly the sort of thing God finds most pleasing. It’s as if someone has told them, “You know, God can’t resist a really well-burnt goat, and if you want to get on God’s good side, make sure you put ashes on your head. Oh, and God just loves it when people don’t eat and dress up in bags. It just makes the Lord’s day.”

The problem, of course, is that someone has told them just about that. Herein lies the dilemma, the heart of the tension between mercy and sacrifice. For when God thunders through the prophet Amos, “Did you offer sacrifice in the wilderness those forty years?” it is not entirely out of order for the people meekly to respond, “Well, yes, actually!” Of course, as seminarians well know, much of the law of sacrifice and fasting comes to us from the priestly redactor; let’s call him “Father P.” However, from a canonical perspective this is quite beside the point. There, for the vast majority of pious Jews including Jesus himself, through the bulk of Jewish history, there in the heart of the law is the divine mandate to sacrifice and penitence.

Moreover, penitence and sacrifice were not Jewish inventions. Both flow from deep within the human heart — from mysterious pools of mythic power. The impulse to sacrifice and penitence transcends religions and cultures, races, clans, and times. Human beings have found innumerable ways to offer up what they could have used for their own benefit, or to mortify themselves for the sake of many “gods.” And this is not just the stuff of primeval forest or windblown desert. Even today many willingly offer sacrifice to the god of their ideology, some cause or crusade; others pour out their wealth into building a monument to a heroic figure or a national ideal. Not only individuals, but whole cultures arise around such worship, which takes many forms. The human heart is not only, as has been said, a perpetual manufacturer of idols, but also a perpetual Standing Liturgical Commission churning out new supplemental rites with which to worship them.

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It is, of course, the ultimate insult to treat the God who made heaven and earth like an idol, to treat God not as the ultimate subject and source, but as the object of our attentive worship, as if God needed our worship more than we need to worship God. And when such worship leads to neglect of other duties, so much the worse.

So it is that countering both the deep need welling up from the depths of the heart, and the demands of the priestly code handed down from on high, there rings out the prophet’s voice, and in the Gospel Jesus echoes it: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” This call and challenge, in Jesus and the prophets, is not an abrogation of human need or of divine mandate, but an effort to restore a balance of both mercy and sacrifice. This is a challenge framed in the characteristic rhetoric of prophetic hyperbole, which, in order to drive its point home to hardened hearts, often says more than it means. After all, a number of the prophets were also priests of the cult, and Jesus ate the Passover with his disciples and observed the Jewish law of sacrifice. So the prophets and Jesus weren’t calling for an either/or, but for a return to the wholesome both/and in which mercy and sacrifice balance and strengthen each other.

The prophetic words are addressed to those who have come to see sacrifice or fasting or any of the external works of piety as a means to buy God’s favor, to remind them that God doesn’t need sacrifice. God is generous, but God will not be coerced. God will take, as one unfortunate translation has it, no bull from us. God intends sacrifice for the people’s good. How? In addition to supporting a priestly clan ministering amongst a priestly people, the sacrificial system reminds all of them — priests, Levites, and Israelites — that their blessings come from God and are owed to God. The sacrifice does not purchase God’s blessing; rather it reminds the people that they have been blessed, and invites them to share that blessing.

Unfortunately, as we heard in the reading from Isaiah, sacrifice and fasting became for many a transaction in which God was reduced to a kind of heavenly appliance, producing blessings-to-order in exchange for services rendered. And the people of Israel were not the only folk to drift into this mind set: the medieval church slid along the same groove as it shifted from penitence to penance — and the eucharist itself became a commodity, so many masses at a penny apiece to trim one’s term in purgatory.

Jesus and the prophets reminded the people of their slide into this commercial formalism, of sacrifice unseasoned with the salt of mercy; and so did the reformers of the church — catholic and protestant — through the turmoil of the mid-millennium, and the church has tottered between extremes and walked the tightrope even unto this day, even to this hour, even to this church, this chapel.

You have heard it said — I know I have heard it preached — that Christians shouldn’t be so involved in liturgy; that the “real work” of the church lies out in the world — and today’s texts are held up in support of that argument. However, this approach, if carried to its logical conclusion, would do away with all external worship whatsoever — which is impossible. It is impossible because the tendency to liturgical obsession is just as —if not more — insidious when a church imagines itself to be “non-liturgical” — the little inner Standing Liturgical Commission simply turns its attention to such matters as where the flag should go, or how the preacher holds his floppy bible. Press the envelope further with me — even the works of mercy themselves can become as formalized as the works of worship: the flip side of the coin with which I am tempted to buy or earn God’s favor rather than enjoying — and sharing — God’s freely given grace. Just as self-centered sacrifice can become its opposite, idolatry, so too mercy, if it is not seasoned with true self-sacrifice and the overflow of a compassionate heart, can become its shadow-self, patronizing benevolence, against which Jesus warned his disciples at the Passover meal he shared with them before he suffered.

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So how do we keep the delicate balance between mercy and sacrifice? As with many dilemmas, the solution lies at the heart of the problem. The liturgy itself, capable as it is of being misused, is a God-given means to help restore this balance. The record shows that the church is most effective in its social action when it takes its liturgy seriously but not obsessively: and this is true whether that liturgy be conducted in chasuble or Geneva gown, as a High Mass or a Quaker Meeting. For the liturgy is the school of love; the heart of sociability from which effective social action flows; the rehearsal for the wedding of the Lamb. In this school, at this rehearsal, we can be serious, without ever being somber — serious with the deep and joyful seriousness of children at play, children who alone know the way to heaven. We can enjoy our worship as loving service we perform for each other, in which our service mirrors the divine love.

After all, God is not, as someone once said, “a nice old man who likes to be read to.” I am told that God is completely indifferent as to whether we use Rite One or Rite Two, so long as we speak in the accents of love. The God who set the Pleiades in their place, who shows the Great Bear its way, and orders the planets in their march is not terrifically impressed by our processions or our liturgical choreography — but these acts can order and join our hearts and focus our attention on Jesus, the one who did the greatest balancing act of all, up there on the cross, perfect mercy and perfect sacrifice all in one.

Thus is the habit of mercy learned at the heart of sacrifice. And if we cannot learn it here in the shadow of the cross, we will not be able to learn it or practice it anywhere else.

We gather here in this place to hear the word, to break the bread and share the cup. The Holy Spirit descends upon us and upon the gifts we offer in a sacrifice of thanksgiving in and for and through the mercy of Christ, in which we partake of that holiness, and are made holy and one, even as God is holy and one — and then we are equipped to go forth for service to the wounded world.

This is what we do when we gather at this table to share our daily rations, our fast-like feast, the pilgrim food we feed to one another until the bridegroom comes. Do you know what will happen then? Let me tell you a mystery. Our present fast is over and the Bridegroom returns. We have nothing with which to welcome him, nothing but ourselves, our souls and bodies; even our oil lamps are almost burned out. He’s been a long time coming.

But the Bridegroom comes and brings a wedding gift in his own hands. And — wonder of wonders — the gift is for us. For by a turnabout compared with which all the happy endings of all the Cinderella stories ever told are but dim shadows, we bridesmaids and waiters and caterers and stewards — and wedding guests called here from the highways and byways and dark corners of terrible cities — we gathered here and throughout the world have been transformed into the Bride.

And the Bridegroom holds out his gift to us. It is not a heart-shaped box, all satin and lace. It is his heart, a human heart, pierced by a human spear. And from that heart there flow two streams — of water and of blood. And the stream of water is deeper and broader than the Red Sea, and colder and purer than the River Jordan. And the stream of blood is more eloquent than the blood of all the sacrifices spilled from the day of Abel on; and it speaks more clearly and more powerfully than the blood of the prophets shed by those who would not let their hearts of stone be turned to hearts of flesh.

For the water from the wounded heart of Christ is the water of mercy in which the Bride has washed herself, and the blood is the blood of the sacrifice with which he bought her, the one sacrifice of himself once offered for the sins of the whole world.

When the Bridegroom comes the wedding feast will begin. Our fast will then be ended. I cannot begin to describe the heavenly banquet that this our present fast on word and water, bread and wine, sharpens our hunger for. All I can say is this: Christ in perfect mercy is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast.

The image at the head of this sermon is from a series of visual mediations on Genesis 3:1-7 by members of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. This was my contribution to the exercise.


Anonymous said...

O, Tobias, how I love to wallow in your words!

(I'd say "like a pig in mud" but that would rather mess up the commendation -- perhaps more "like Jesus in the Jordan".)

Thank you.

June Butler said...

Tobias, what a finale there! You had me caught up in the suspense.

Greg Jones said...

Tobias -- I was there when you preached it the first time -- I'm so glad to have the text -- I've often thought back to it -- can you believe -- over the past 11 years.