Monday, October 29, 2012

No Worship Without Justice

The fifth sacrifice described in the opening chapters of Leviticus is the guilt offering or restitution offering. Leviticus 5:14 - 6:7 gives three reasons why this sacrifice might be offered. 5:15 states the first reason: "If anyone commits a breach of faith and sins unintentionally in any of the holy things of the Lord...". Its not exactly clear what "a breach of faith" or "the holy things of the Lord" might mean. Many scholars guess that this has to do with the sacred items set apart for worship in the tabernacle. The second reason given in 5:17 is nearly as vague with the very general statement "If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the Lord's commandments ought not to be done...". In contrast to this pattern, the third reason given in 6:1-5 is quite detailed.
"If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, of if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely - in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby - if he has sinned and has realized his guilt and will restore what he took by robbery or what he got by oppression or the deposit that was committed to him or the lost thing that he found or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt." 
We have here the first indication in Leviticus that right worship of God is bound up with our relationships with other human beings. The first four offerings have all been directed toward God and even some of the reasons for this offering has to do with "the holy things of the Lord." But now we also see that an offering is to be made to God even when another person has been wronged, the unspoken reasoning being that taking advantage of our neighbor is an offense to God. In fact, God takes this mistreatment of our fellow human beings so seriously that merely making an offering to God is not enough.  The offending party must make full restitution and add a fifth to what was taken. Additionally, this is the only sacrifice described in these first six chapters which does not offer a sliding scale where wealthier individuals brought larger, more costly animals while less prosperous individuals could bring smaller ones. The only proscription for the guilt offering is a ram; an animal which was probably second in cost only to a bull. Given the demand for a ram and the command to make a 120% restitution, this was one costly sacrifice which was needed to atone for the sin involved in taking advantage of one's neighbor.

Although this may be the first indication in Leviticus of the connection between worship of God and care for others, it comes as no surprise following closely on the heels of Exodus. We have already seen in the destruction of Pharaoh and the liberation of the people of Israel from their slavery how seriously God takes the oppression and injustice that human beings inflict upon one another. Likewise, we see in the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai that more than half the ten commandments regard our treatment of each other. Of course, the Hebrew prophets are well known for their calls to practice justice and mercy and to remind Israel that offering sacrifices is no substitute for respecting basic human dignity and caring for the vulnerable.

Standing in this same prophetic tradition, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for taking so much care in following their religious obligations that they tithe even a tenth of their spices but simultaneously neglect the weightier matters of the law, namely, justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Similarly, Jesus says that if someone is offering a sacrifice and they remember that they have wronged a brother they should leave the sacrifice and go set things right before completing that act of worship.

I know this is sort of basic Christianity. Anyone who has spent much time in church is probably familiar with the passages I mentioned in the previous paragraph not to mention the fact that Jesus says the two greatest commandments are to love God and your neighbor. 1 John tells us that anyone who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar. James says we must show our faith by caring for others. Acts portrays the early Church as a community in which everyone's needs were met. This is a theme that is all over the Bible.

But, often... we need to be reminded of the basics.

Worship of God is not a substitute for loving our neighbor. Piety is not a substitute for justice and mercy. 

One of the stories I find most revealing in this regard is that of Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple. At first glance, this story is often read as a condemnation of business transactions taking place in this religious space but those who were selling and exchanging money in the temple-courts weren't just selling any old product. They were selling the animals necessary for sacrifice and they were exchanging Romans coins with images of the emperor on them for coins without an image so that faithful Jews could make an offering without bringing an idolatrous image into the temple. In other words, they were enabling Jews to carry out proper worship. But Jesus' words in this story tell us why this was a problem. He says:
Is it not written, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers."
That first line is a quotation from Isaiah 56:7, a chapter in Isaiah which describes the temple as a place of prayer not only for Jews but for the people of every nation on the earth who turn to God. In fact, there was a specific place in the Temple called the Court of the Gentiles which was to be a place of prayer for non-Jews. As you might have guessed, this is where the sellers and money-changers set up shop and by doing so they effectively eliminated the one space where non-Jews, foreigners, that is, religious outsiders could worship the God of Israel. The piety of the religious was preventing the prayers of those seen as less religious. 

The second line of Jesus' words are a quotation from Jeremiah 7:11, a chapter which describes the people of Israel as practicing every kind of injustice and oppression only to run back to the temple for protection. The thinking was that as along as the temple stood in Jerusalem it meant that the presence of God was still with Israel and they would be safe. In other words, they were literally treating the temple like a robber's den, a hideout, a lair to which they could return and offer a prayer for protection after committing their evil acts. By quoting Jeremiah, Jesus declares that the kind of worship which went on in the temple, a worship that paid attention to every pious detail while turning a blind eye to the oppression and injustice of the world, made the temple less a place a worship and more a place for thieves to hide from their obligation to their fellow human being behind a veneer of religion and piety. 

And to think that this was the one thing in all the gospels which really got Jesus' blood boiling. This is the one episode of outright anger that we ever see from Jesus. Think of all the sin Jesus encountered in the gospels, the demon possessions, the often clueless disciples, the complete misunderstanding of who he was, even the threats of death and ultimately his crucifixion! But in the midst of all those things Jesus is calm, steady, patient, gracious, and forgiving. But this temple turned den of robbers, this worship without justice, is the one thing that turns that calm and patient Jesus into a raving mad man. 

If ever there was a word of warning to the Church today, I believe this is it. There is no bigger danger for "good, religious folk" like myself and the people who attend our church than that we will become a people so caught up in the details of our worship that we will neglect the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness, that we will become so enamored with points of piety that we will take what should be a house of prayer for all the nations and turn it into nothing more than a place where religious people can hide from the neighbor we are called to love. May the Spirit of Jesus come and overturn our tables as well if that is what it takes for us to be rescued from becoming such a place and such a people.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sin Excluding Love

Last week I introduced Leviticus and described the practice of sacrifice in general terms. Having made that introduction, I think it is now important to point out that not all sacrifice in Leviticus is the same. There are actually five kinds of sacrifice described in the first 6 chapters of Leviticus. The first three are the whole burnt offering (1:1-17), the grain offering (2:1-16), and the peace offering (3:1-17). Each of these had different purposes and different procedures but one thing they all had in common is that they were all free-will offerings. There is no stipulation in Leviticus for when these sacrifices were to be made. Instead, they could be brought freely and willingly at almost any time by anyone in Israel.  Presumably this was done merely out of joy or thankfulness. These sacrifices were intended solely as acts of worship, as a response to the grace and salvation that God had provided for Israel. This is significant because I'm pretty sure that when most Christians think of sacrifice we almost always think of it in terms of something being offered because of sin.  At most, however, only half the sacrifices described in Leviticus are about sin (the sin offering and guilt offering in ch. 4-5 and the Day of Atonement offering in 16). Sacrifices could also be offered as a sign of deliverance (the Passover meal signifying the Exodus from Egypt) and provision (sacrifice at the Feast of Firstfruits and Feast of Weeks in relation to harvest). Sacrifice does not always signify sin.

Of course, there are times when it does. Leviticus 4:2-3 reads "If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord's commandments about things not to be done, and does anyone of them... then he shall offer a bull from the heard without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering." Leviticus 4:1-5:13 goes on to describe the proper procedure for the sin offering to be brought by various people (for the sins of priests, leaders, the whole of Israel, etc.) whenever they have failed to keep God's law. However, even when a sacrifice does signify sin, I wonder if we still often miss much of what is going on here.

In a good portion of evangelicalism the reasoning for sacrifice often goes something like this:
God is a perfectly just God whose righteousness can not be impugned. Therefore, when God's perfect law is broken the offending party must be punished in order to keep God's justice and honor intact. God graciously provided the sacrificial system so that God's justice might be satisfied and his wrath averted by the blood of an animal. This, in turn, explains Christ's sacrifice on the cross. The Son absorbed the wrath of the Father so that we would not have to bear punishment for our sin.
 Aside from all the theological problems one might have with such a characterization of God (Why is this God so vengeful and blood-thirsty? Is Christ's death an instance of divine child abuse?), there is also the fact that this reasoning for sacrifice is never given in Scripture itself. It is a reading imposed upon the text by a certain idea of God and God's justice which is not necessarily in line with the character of God as it is revealed in much of the rest of Scripture. In fact, there is very little, if any, explanation or reasoning given for the sacrifices proscribed in Leviticus. They are simply proscribed. This means, of course, that any attempt to explain the "theology of sacrifice" in Leviticus will have to go beyond what Scripture says since it gives no explanation. However, in attempting such an explanation we can pay careful attention to the details of the rituals themselves and how they fit into the larger story of God revealed in Scripture.

First, we must take note of the only statements in this chapter which come close to an explicitly stated theology. After the ritual of the sin offering is described the text says "So the priest shall make atonement for his sin and he shall be forgiven." (4:26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10. 13) There is no mention here of God's wrath being appeased or justice being satisfied. Instead, the Hebrew word for atonement indicates the idea of covering over the sin that has been committed. The Greek equivalent of this same word in the Septuagint carries the idea of purging obstacles that might stand between the person and God. Even our English word itself, at-one-ment, speaks to the idea of being at one with God. The emphasis here is on maintaining the relationship between God and the people.

We find this same idea highlighted in the practice of the ritual itself, especially in the use of blood, which acts as a kind of cleansing agent in the sanctuary. In contrast to the whole burnt offering where the blood of the animal is merely splattered against the sides of the altar and then poured out at the base of the alter, here the blood is placed on the horns of the altar and, in the case of the priests and the congregation of Israel, sprinkled seven times in front of the curtain leading into the most holy place. Much as the Hebrew and Greek words communicate, the animal's blood is used to cover over and purge the effects of one's sin from the tabernacle. (So much so that many scholars believe this should be referred to as the purification offering rather than the sin offering.) To be sure, the individual receives forgiveness in accordance with the sacrifice but forgiveness is really only part of the problem. The bigger problem is that the stench of sin threatens to drive God out of the Israelite camp. When someone sins, it threatens to pollute God's house. In the case of priests and communal sins of the whole people, it seems the stink is so pungent that it reaches right up to the inner curtain, threatening to enter into God's very dwelling. The concern of Leviticus is less for God's justice and more for God's holiness; that God's wholly otherness, God's sacredness will be profaned by the common and impure. The biggest problem with sin isn't that it might invite God's punishment but that it might drive God away entirely.

This understanding of sacrifice and sin is also in keeping with the picture of God we are given in the rest of Scripture. There are certainly times when God sends wrath and punishment but often it serves the purpose of rehabilitation more so than retribution. God exhibits his wrath to get Israel's attention and to call the people of Israel back to God. Likewise, we've just seen in the book of Exodus that it is God's presence with the people which is the number one concern of Israel. Indeed, Moses says it is the one thing which distinguishes them from all the other people on the earth.

Sin is a troublesome word these days. To speak it is to almost guarantee that you will be misunderstood. But before we go blaming our "relativistic, amoral culture," we as the Church need to realize that sin is our word. It is uniquely a part of our faith vocabulary. If others misunderstand the meaning of a word that is uniquely ours to define, perhaps the problem is that our speech and our lives have not served as trustworthy dictionaries.

I believe that the sin offering described in Leviticus shows us that sin is a deadly serious thing and as such it is a word worth reclaiming. Perhaps Leviticus can also help us take the first step in knowing how to reclaim it - by reminding us that the real tragedy of sin is not the failure to keep what can sometimes seem an arbitrary moral code. The real tragedy of sin is that it threatens to drive the presence of God out of our lives. And conversely, if we can't say that something really threatens to distance us from God then maybe we should think twice about calling it sin. Sometimes Christians can become so absorbed with fleeing sin that we forget we should be running toward God.

It is not the narrative of an angry God which under-girds the notion of sin but the story of a God who is holy love; who will go to any length - even taking on our own flesh - in order to dwell among us. Sin is the name given to the things which keep this loving God out of our lives. On a blog to which I subscribed just earlier today, I happened across these words.

The man who keenly longs to escape his sin
Has first to forget about escaping sin.
What he requires instead
Is a role in a Larger, Better Story.
A Good Story.
A God Story.
And when he finds it, he will realize,
There is no escaping sin.
There is only learning Love.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Embodied Worship

This Sunday I begin a series from the book of Leviticus. If your first inclination after reading that sentence is to stop reading the rest of this post, you probably aren't alone. In fact, I thought a story from one of the commentaries on Leviticus I've been reading in preparation for preaching from Leviticus summed it up well. The writer said that he discovered that his children were working on reading through the entire Bible on their own. When he found out that his son was about to begin Leviticus he encouraged him to merely skim it rather than actually try to read it for fear that he would get bogged down and never make it past Leviticus. It is a pretty strong statement as to our general aversion to this book of the Bible when even someone who has himself written a commentary on Leviticus discourages his own child from spending too much time in the book. Surely Leviticus has to make the (very) short list for the most neglected books in all of the Christian canon.

I think it is helpful to begin by considering what it is we actually have in front of us in a book like Leviticus. It is essentially an instruction book. I know Christians sometimes characterize the whole Bible as God's instruction book on the Christian life but that's really not quite right, at least not in the way Leviticus is; not in terms of categories of literature. Much of Scripture is story (and a number of other genres too, of course) and while we may indeed gather instruction from those stories, the stories themselves do not come in the form of instructions. They, in fact, serve a much larger and more complete purpose than that.

But Leviticus is not like that. There are a handful of stories in it but the vast majority of this book is very detailed and specific instruction regarding things like sacrifice, purity, festivals, and harvest. In short, most of the book is an instruction manual for worship. A parallel today might be the Revised Common Lectionary which outlines passages of Scripture for each Sunday's worship or the Book of Common Prayer which provides prayers and orders of worship for certain occasions like weddings or funerals. In our denomination, we have the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene. It is a small book that outlines our church government, certain moral expectations, and even some rituals for certain parts of worship like communion, baptism, or the reception of new church members. Although the Manual is not exactly the same kind of literature as Leviticus, it is probably the closest modern parallel we have in our tradition.

Notice that none of the examples I mentioned above are books that you would read from cover to cover. This isn't out of laziness or the irrelevancy of the books themselves. Its just not what those books are designed for. Likewise, there is a certain sense in which Leviticus probably wasn't meant to be read like other parts of Scripture. The point of reading an instruction manual is not to become an expert on the instructions but to have successfully carried out what the manual describes. When we read Leviticus, we are reading something that ultimately was not meant to be read but practiced. In some ways, reading Leviticus is somewhat akin to reading a really detailed order of worship that might be written out for a worship leader or praise team. Obviously, reading the order of worship is not nearly as meaningful as having actually participated in the worship service it describes. I think this is part of the reason even faithful readers of Scripture often flounder on the shores of Leviticus.

Of course, saying that Leviticus is a book concerned with practices doesn't entirely let us off the hook from reading it because there is another sense in which it is a book that is meant to be read. By saying that Leviticus is Scripture, we are claiming that God speaks through the reading of this book. In fact, it has ceased to be an instruction manual, a book of practice for us as Christians since we carry out virtually none of its admonitions. How does a book written as an instruction manual, the instructions of which we don't follow, become Scripture for us? Does this book have anything to say to us or does it fully deserve the neglect it often receives?

Perhaps we can return to our earlier examples for help here. Let's say that one did sit down and read the Revised Common Lectionary from cover to cover. Although this is not the purpose for which the book is designed, one could still learn an enormous amount about the worship of a church which used it. For example, it would become obvious that a church which utilized the RCL thought that hearing Scripture was an important part of worship and also that it was important to hear from all parts of Scripture, not just favorite passages. It would probably also be a church that thought the seasons of the church year were a good way to keep the life of Christ at the center of its worship. Similarly, one could learn a lot about our beliefs concerning marriage, baptism, and church membership in the Church of the Nazarene simply by reading those written rituals in the Manual.

Likewise, we can learn something meaningful about ancient Israel's worship of Yahweh simply by reading Leviticus. One of the very first things you notice about the worship described in the book of Leviticus is that it is active, its demanding, its overwhelmingly physical, even costly. Worship in Leviticus is not passive listening, it is not merely attendance, and it is not primarily a mental or emotional thing. The vision of worship in Leviticus says there is work to be done here. The act of worship we hear described in most of Leviticus 1 involves bringing a farm animal (read: stinky, dirty, and I am going to assume not always cooperative), laying your hands on its head, shedding its blood, the priest splattering that blood on the altar, dissecting the animal so as to throw out the inappropriate body parts, putting the other parts on the altar, washing them to make sure they are free of excrement or undigested food, and finally offering what is on the altar by fire. 

Sounds exhausting, doesn't it? At the very least, it sounds like a lot more than is usually demanded of us in most of our worship services. So much so that for many of us our first reaction is probably something along the lines of "Thank God Jesus died for me so that I don't have to do all that." But I want to suggest that such a statement is at best only half right. 

To be sure, we believe that Jesus' death means that the kind of animal sacrifice described above is not the kind of response that Jesus demands of us. But let's be clear that Jesus still demands a response. And that response is not merely "belief." There is work to be done in the Christian faith, in Christian worship, as well. 

Often when we in the protestant tradition hear that word "work" in relation to our faith we automatically assume that someone is talking about earning their salvation. In fact, we often accuse the Jewish people of this; that their failure was that they thought they had to earn their salvation by following the Law. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people of Israel knew they were not earning their salvation by offering the sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus. God had already provided salvation for them in their exodus from Egypt before any law was ever given. The laws of sacrifice were an opportunity to respond to what God had already done and to continue to participate in the covenant which God had so graciously provided for the people of Israel. 

In the same way, the work we are called to is not to earn our salvation but to respond to the salvation Jesus has already provided and to continue to participate in the new covenant which Jesus has inaugurated. But just because it is a new covenant without animal sacrifice does not mean there is not costly, sacrificial, very physical work to be done. In fact, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the very book which so carefully articulates why animal sacrifice is not a part of the new covenant Jesus has made for us, is also the book which so painstakingly defines "faith" as a work that must be lived. Hebrews 10:23-25 reads 

"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
Our faith is something we must work to hold fast to. It involves stirring up one another to love and good works. It means choosing to meet together and encouraging each other. And this is only the beginning for from here the author will go on in Hebrews 11 to describe those who lived "by faith" as those who did the work of faithful living: enduring persecution, actively trusting God, pursuing justice, righteousness, and peace.

Christian faith and Christian worship may not be as grotesquely physical as animal sacrifice but it is no less of an embodied faith. We are a people called into a covenant which requires the response of our whole selves. What if we showed up to our worship services with the expectation that the pastor wasn't the only one doing work that day? Or if instead of focusing on "being fed" we were focused on how we can actively contribute to the worship of the Church, our own spiritual growth, and the growth of those around us? Or if we left our church building knowing that our spiritual work week had only just begun?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Where God's Patience and Presence Have Prevailed

The book of Exodus ends with the completion of the tabernacle's construction. I've often thought that this was a really anti-climatic ending to such a marvelous book. How is it that this book that begins with the mighty work of God in Egypt, the very salvation of Israel, ends with the assembly of a tent? It has taken me preaching through the book in its entirety to realize how fitting an end the construction of the tabernacle actually is for this grand narrative. Some very important themes which have run the length of Exodus find their culmination in its final verses. 

God's Patience: The grace and patience of God have been on display from the beginning. We might have thought that after God exercised tremendous power and might in delivering the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt that they would have been eternally grateful for all God had done for them. Instead, what we have seen over the last several weeks is a story filled with grumbling, complaining, a repeated lack of trust, and ultimately idolatry. However, in each instance we also heard of a God who repeatedly responded with patience and provided deliverance time after time. To be sure, the golden calf was nearly the end of that patience but even in that instance God was patient enough to hear Moses and ultimately be persuaded by him. Now God's patience is on display once again as God has renewed the covenant with the people even after their act of idolatry and continues to journey with them. 

God's Presence: God's patience at this point in the narrative is primarily manifested in God's continued presence. The whole of Exodus has been a story of God's increasingly intimate presence with God's people. In the beginning of the story, God seems distant and un-involved, allowing the descendants of Abraham to be oppressed and mistreated.  But God is not so removed that the cries of the people go unheard. God manifests his power in Egypt in marvelous fashion and brings the people out of their slavery.  However, this deliverance is really more means than end for God has not only delivered them from their slavery but for life lived in the presence of God. So God not only delivers but also brings the people into covenant and gives them the Law to teach them how to live and ultimately makes the remarkable promise that God will dwell right in their midst. That promise of God's presence with the people is now fulfilled in the final verses of Exodus as the construction of the tabernacle is completed and the glory of the Lord fills the tabernacle. 

Israel's Transformation: Both themes above intertwine with another. Throughout this story, we've been waiting to see whether or not God's patience will ultimately pay off. Will Israel become the kind of people among whom God could dwell or not? For much of the story it seemed hopeless. It seemed that the scars of Israel's oppression and slavery ran too deep. They were too abused, too beaten by Pharaoh to ever really be a people capable of trust in an all-powerful God. It seemed their collective imagination was so hopelessly crippled by the propaganda of the empire that it would never be anything other than a factory for golden calves. 

But in these final chapters of Exodus we are given the first hope that perhaps Israel's future will be shaped by something other than the chains of its past. In the construction of the tabernacle there are hints that perhaps Yahweh's patience and presence have finally began to turn the tide against the lingering effects of Pharaoh's abusive power. For in these final chapters we see the community of Israel come together to construct not an idol but the tabernacle precisely as the Lord has commanded it down to the very last detail. We hear of a people once disobedient now freely working together to fulfill a common purpose. We hear that rather than making ungodly demands of their leader, Aaron, the people now acknowledge that Bezalel has been especially gifted by the Spirit for the tabernacle's design. We see a people once enslaved now working together to make a place where the very presence of God can dwell among them. 

Its not a bad picture of the Church when you think about it. We are a people among whom God's dogged patience has finally began to prevail; a community where the constant inundation of God's grace is starting to overwhelm the abuses and pain of our past. And as a result, we are beginning to see a differently reality, we are beginning to trust, we are beginning to respond to that grace and participate in the work that God wants to do among us. Although we were once slaves ourselves, now we are a people working together by the power of God's Spirit, each of us with our distinctive contribution, to become a place where the very presence of God can dwell.