Who asked this from your hand?
Updated: Oct 29, 2022
It feels really important to me to name that this sentiment we sometimes hold that "old testament God is mean and different from nice God in the new testament" is not doing our Jewish friends and neighbors any favors. And additionally it's not doing them or us any favors by referring to the Hebrew scriptures as the monolithic and unflattering old testament rather than The Law and The Prophets and The Wisdom Writings, lest we think that that which is old has nothing to teach us in light of that which is new. So my challenge -- my charge -- for us at the outset of this sermon is two-fold: to try to scrub "old testament" and "new testament" from our vocabularies and refer to our scriptures as what they are -- law and prophet and wisdom and gospel and epistle, and to try to see that what God is saying this morning in Isaiah is the same as what God is saying in Luke.
With that said, I imagine it feels hard to hear the words of the prophet Isaiah:
I do not delight in the blood of bulls or lambs or goats,
trample my courts no more,
bringing offerings is futile,
incense is an abomination to me,
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates,
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them,
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
Well dang God, have you got any other feedback for us? It is a gentle and tender thing to make offering, to make sacrifice, offer tribute, and for it to be poorly received can be a blow to the ole ego, you know what I mean? It was God's praise of Abel's offering and God's apathy towards Cain's that provoked Cain to do violence to his brother, but what God is not saying here is that offering and sacrifice is bad. What God is saying here -- and some of this come in the verses cut out by the lectionary -- is that the people of God are paying attention to the wrong things,,, they are making the wrong sacrifices, the wrong offerings. What is a new moon festival when there are poor in the streets? What is a bull sacrifice when there are hungry outside our doors? What is incense when there is corruption and evil? "Stop doing all that other stuff," God forewarns, instead "learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow."
But again, it can be hard to hear this from God, especially when we thought that we were doing the right things, sacrificing the right things, offering the right things. I certainly know that it's so common among my peers and the people with whom I minister, that to hear feedback of any kind about the work you're doing can activate fight or flight -- getting an text that says, "hey we need to talk", or getting a meeting invitation from your supervisor that just says "one-on-one." We want our own consciences to be thorough enough and self-critical enough that we can keep ourselves in the clear without ever having to hear feedback from someone else. So knowing how hard it is to hear it from a boss or a partner or a friend, how much worse even to hear it from God. "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed!" Brutal.
We want so badly to be good, and I guess I wonder where that comes from. Like,,, it's not just that we want to be people that do good things, but we want to be perceived as capital-g capital-p Good People. It only makes me think that it is some innate thing, because it is right there too in the Gospel of Luke some 2000-odd years ago. Of all the people in the crowd, Jesus hones in on the least likeable one, Zaccheus, the guy who collects everybody's taxes, and says "him, I need to go to his house, I need to spend time with him." And it drives people mad! "Of ALL the people,,, we are better than him! We are the good people and he's the awful one! Pick us, Jesus! Pick us!"
This sentiment is so deeply ingrained-- we want to be good, we want to be perceived as good, but what I see in these passages this morning is that it is not the currency of God to be perfect already, to be well-regarded already, to have no need of correction, and it can even be a stumbling block if for our discipleship if our performance of Good-ness prevents us from listening for God's call for us. The goal is not to be Good, but to have our lives changed, and to always always be open to what that change is. These passages challenge us this morning because if we think we are doing the right thing, and God asks us to adjust course-- that we've got to be open to hearing that. That if somebody that we have written of as bad does something good and faithful, then we are open to receiving it.
Whether it's in incarnate Word in the Gospels or the God spoken through the prophets, we hear from scripture the same message over and over and over: don't fret about being good, just commit always to doing good, and trying to do better. Don't fall into the trap of trying to get rich or get powerful or being well-regarded,,, just,,, take care of each other, take care of the poor and the sick,,, seek justice, be transformed, be open to changing and being changed, be open to challenging and being challenged and corrected and repenting of your mistakes,, and give yourself over fully to that work. Invest in it, fully, and sacrifice the rest. Offer your life to that work, not just incense or prayer or blood sacrifice,,, but your whole life, like Zaccheus.
There are several occasions throughout the church year and throughout your life where we invite you to recommit yourselves to this project -- in baptism, in confirmation; it happens when you are commissioned for a ministry like the vestry or altar guild or teaching Sunday School, or when you are present and witnessing of someone else's baptism.
And one occasion in the church year where we invite you to recommit yourself to this work, to this life, is through a church's annual pledge campaign. It is of course important financially to be able to meet our budget goals and to ensure staffing and programming and that our bills get paid. But we hope that your discernment about your pledge goes beyond a dollar amount you are willing to offer to support the life of this church; we hope that your pledge is also one of self, of heart and body and mind, of time, and that you would think hard about what you are willing to offer, and what you are willing to sacrifice toward this work of being the Church, of being God's hands and feet and heart in Fredericksburg. It is bracing and vulnerable work to learn to do good, to seek justice, to rescue the oppressed, but it gets just a little bit easier when we do it together, and when we do it in community.
It is a vulnerable and tender thing to make an offering, and I hope you know that what of yourself you pledge to this place and to God will be received with gladness and gratitude,,,,,,,,,