Monday, June 9, 2008

June 8 Sermon Part 1: Prophets vs. Priests

Sermon preached by the Rev. Matthew Lawrence

Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa

June 8, 2008

Part 1

Text: Hosea 5: 15-6:6; Psalm 50: 7-15; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving

And make good your vows to the Most High. Ps. 50:15

I’m hoping that many of you recognize these words, which we recited during the Psalm reading this morning. This of course is one of the Offertory Sentences that the priest can use when it is time to turn the congregation’s focus from the passing of the peace to the Eucharist. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

We find a description of the "sacrifice of thanksgiving" in the book of Leviticus, which was distinguished from a sacrifice of sin, otherwise known as a “guilt offering,” or a “sin offering.” In the old days a casual observer might not have been able to tell the difference between a sacrifice of thanksgiving and a sin offering; from the outside it pretty much looked the same: it involved the sacrifice of an animal on the altar, along with the offering of grain in the form of cakes made with leavened flour and oil.

No, the difference was not so much how the sacrifice was performed, but the intention behind it, and that makes all the difference, doesn’t it? In one case, one is asking God to overlook a failing or a sin. It’s not unlike paying a bribe – you’ve failed in some way, and you ask God to receive the sacrifice in order to win him over and spare you from judgment. But in the other case, you are offering the same animal and grains, not as a bribe, but as a gesture of thanksgiving – for the birth of a child, for a good harvest, for just the simple joy of being alive.

Two very similar rituals – almost indistinguishable – but for the intention.

The author of the Psalm offers us a glimpse into one of the classic tensions we find within the Bible – between the priestly class and the prophetic class. Many of the books of the Bible were written by priests, who had an interest in purity and ritual. Leviticus often times reads like a priest’s handbook – really, it functioned in that way, filled with detailed instructions on how to perform various rituals. At various times in Israel’s history, the priestly class was the dominant class – they not only performed the sacrifices, they controlled the sacred connection between God and the people – and they also were the dominant political power in the kingdom. In alliance with a king, for example, seeking to consolidate his power, they would institute religious reforms that concentrated power in Jerusalem and the temple cult. They issued purity laws that forbade marriages with foreigners, for example; they expelled or killed anyone who worshiped a foreign god; they saw to it that everyone was practicing the same religion and marching to the same drummer. And to them, it was a matter of national security. This, they believed, was critical to winning over God’s favor – and it just happened to coincide with winning political power for themselves. Their influence in the Bible, especially in the Pentateuch, is very strong.

But there is also another voice that we hear from in the Bible – a voice living in tension with the priestly voice. That’s the prophetic voice – it’s a subversive voice; a voice that challenges the priestly class, and in the process challenges the political power structures of the day. We find that voice this morning -- and it almost sounds like Jon Stewart from the Daily Show, it has this delightful teasing quality, which directly goes after the priestly class:

I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; your offerings are always before me. .. All the beasts of the forest are mine, the herds in their thousands upon the hills; I know every bird in the sky, and the creatures of the fields are in my sight. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the whole world is mine and all that is in it. Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?

In this Psalm, the challenge is playful, even humorous. But it is also, like a lot of political humor, extremely dangerous – because the author is directly challenging the very source of the priest’s power: the idea that we can cover up our sin, and avoid the consequences of our sin, with a bribe to God.

This challenging voice, this voice of direct confrontation against those in power, is found again in the words of the prophet Hosea, also read this morning, who stood outside the gates of power and railed against the people in charge. And again, this challenge is to the idea that we can hide our guilt by bribing God, as if God could be bought with sin offerings: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

It was in that ancient tradition of prophetic and challenging speech that Jesus came -- and in our Gospel this morning directly quoting Hosea -- inspired by the Holy Spirit, to confront once again the people in charge, including the priests who were collaborating with the Roman Empire and imposing strict purity codes and Temple taxes on the people to keep them under control, while they skimmed gold off the top. And if you want to learn more about this, and you have not already read Marcus Borg’s wonderful book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, I highly recommend it.

And so Jesus came and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple – collaborators in a money-changing racket to increase the wealth and power of the priests by means of a purity code. And so Jesus broke the Sabbath laws, and told stories about priests who were so consumed with their ideas of purity that they passed by a dying man on the road rather than risk contamination. And so Jesus sat down with the impure in society – the tax collectors and prostitutes and the sinners – not necessarily because he enjoyed their company, though I believe he probably did --but because by doing so he was once again openly defying the powers that were in charge. By challenging the purity codes of his time, Jesus was going after the very foundation of power and political control, and he was openly calling to task the political corruption that went with it and reminding us all, in Hosea’s words: “Mercy, not sacrifice, is what I require.”

And then finally we have Paul, who begins to interpret Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as the final and ultimate sin offering. As Paul sees it, there is no more need for guilt offerings. Jesus has become the final sacrifice; if there was a bribe that needed payment, it has now been paid in full. We live now redeemed, and free from the law. Because we are free, now, from this extortion system, this bribery system with God. If ever it was true, and the prophetic voices had been questioning it all along, at least now we can all agree that finally, once and for all, the only sacrifice we are called to make is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We are called to open our hearts to God, fully assured of God’s mercy. This is our calling. As he suggests in our reading from Romans, we are freed from the law and the wrath that it brings; we are freed from an overbearing priestly class daring to impose themselves between God and us; we are freed from the manipulations of power-crazed clergy determined to keep us feeling guilty, so that they can take our bribes and stay in power.

I’m saying all this so that when you hear me, now and again, engaging in prophetic speech, you know where it’s coming from. It is not coming from a knee jerk liberal simply spouting the propaganda of the Democratic Party. It is coming from a priest who is willing to engage the subversive traditions of our Bible; and who asks us all to engage Scripture in its own sense and meaning.

---end of Part 1---

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