Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Better Word

Hebrews 12:18-29

God, through this letter to the Hebrews, wants to share a little insight with you about Religion. About religiousness. About two contrasting ways of living your religion. Two opposing religions. Two religions which superficially seem very similar, but couldn’t be more different.

Both of these religions have a mountain. The one has a mountain of fear. The second a mountain of joy.

The mountain of fear is a place where the people of God gather at the base in terror. Lightning flashes and a cloud roils at the peak of the mountain. Anything which touches this mountain – even an animal, must be stoned to death. The mountain is a place of blood and sacrifice. Only one person, a select person specially prepared can go up this mountain and come back safely to bring the word of God. And when that word comes back it is a heavy word. A crushing word of law. An impossible burden demanding obedience and when failure occurs, as it always must, atonement must be sought on this mountain with sacrifice. The mountain must be continually appeased with blood offerings.

The mountain of joy is a place of assembly as well, but here the people of God come to find thousands of angels singing songs of praise and triumph. They find everyone together climbing the mountain in safety to the top where there is no cloud at all, but bright clear sunshine and God in our midst. The word which is spoken from this mountain is a better word, heard by all and not by one representative. This word is that sacrifice is ended. There will be no more atonement, and all who come here will be welcomed and fed.

These mountains are not a Jewish and a Christian mountain. People of all faiths, and of no faith at all can come to the mountain of joy. And people of every faith, including Christians, often choose to worship at the mountain of fear. These are not exclusive clubs. The mountain of fear will accept sacrifices from anyone, and the mountain of joy will host the feast for anyone.

If anyone dared to show up at the mountain of joy, that is. Because through human history we have preferred the mountain of fear. Perhaps because we feared it so, we often told ourselves and others that it was the only mountain. Or groveling and hiding our sorrow, we even convinced ourselves that these mountains were one and the same. That gaining access to joy meant paying obeisance to fear.

It is evident in our history as a species. Anthropologists, archaeologists and historians have been making it plain for the past two centuries that the roots of human religiousness are in sacrifice. On every continent, in every climate, every place that humans went our religious rituals followed us. We sacrificed to spirits, and gods, and forces of nature. We sacrificed to idols, and to secure good fortune in war, or at harvest, or fertility for our wives and daughters. We cut the lives out of animals, goats, chickens, cows, horses, pigs… yes. But we also cut the lives out of human beings. The Aztecs were not uniquely barbarous in taking beating hearts out of human chests. Human sacrifice has played a part in human religion all over the world for tens of thousands of years. It is even recorded in our own scriptures. Fathers killing their daughters to give thanks to a monster God. People going to war and raping, pillaging, and razing, at the behest of this God. Our own Christian history is splattered with the gore of crusades, and inquisitions, of burnings, hangings and tortures… of people sacrificed on the mountain of fear.

Nor have we done away with these darker aspects of our religious selves. These are not mere relics of the past. Simply because we do not have a pyramid to toss the bodies off of, does not mean that we are not sacrificing people to the mountain of fear, perpetually atoning for weakness and failure to an unforgiving cosmos. Wherever the mountain of fear is worshipped, sacrifice follows.

The mountain of fear is where the cowards who flew planes into buildings nine years ago worshipped. They believed that their sacrifice, their holy death, and the deaths of the passengers on those planes, and the deaths of the thousands in those buildings would please God. They believed that the blood would soak into the mountainside and make it sacred. They believed that they would earn approval for themselves and their loved ones with such a sacrifice.

How tragic, then, that we have too often legitimated their depraved beliefs by worshipping at the self-same mountain. By declaring the ground of those attacks sacred because of the blood spilt there as if spilling blood were what made something sacred. By which logic Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Dachau and Auschwitz are some of the holiest sites on earth. Or the nearby sand-creek massacre – who believes that is sacred ground? We spilled enough innocent blood there! We have worshipped at the mountain of fear whenever we treated those deaths as a religious act, as anything other than senseless waste. When we worship and pray and argue and fight as a culture over the proper treatment of “sacred” Ground Zero – we are paying homage to the mountain of fear.

We have always done this. We commemorate our massacres. We venerate those who we have piled on the altar – and we justify new sacrifices because we can’t allow those who have already been killed to have died in vain. Our cemeteries at Gettysburg, and Arlington are holy sites where we go on pilgrimage to remind ourselves why we have to continue every day to put new bodies on the altar. Our soldiers who die because we sent them to war are robbed of their humanity. When they are brought back they are not allowed to just be people who died to senseless violence like millions before them. They are heros, and mini-saviors. We use the same words to describe them that we normally reserve for Christ – they gave their life for others.

These sacrifices are wrapped in ritual and symbolism. There are flags, and songs, and prayers… and then more sacrifices. Perpetually. Because the mountain of fear can never be appeased. Our sins are too deep to ever be sufficiently atoned for.

Perceive then how radical a departure it is for us to claim that Jesus Christ has called us into a new form of worship. To worship at a mountain of Joy – where the symbols of division and exclusion (nationality, race, gender, sexuality, class, age) have all been completely wiped away. Here everyone assembles openly in the presence of God and a multitude of angels, saints, martyrs, sinners, victims, workers, lovers, and children. Here the worship is not about appeasement or atonement. Here there are no sacrifices.

What we place at the heart of our sanctuary is not an altar, but a table. Here we come not to make a sacrifice, but to celebrate a feast. If this were an altar there would be blood gutters at the sides and a place for a fire in the center. The gas grill we have on our porch is closer to an altar than this table is. At this table nothing dies – but everything receives new life.

We never believe nor claim on this mountain that God demands, desires, or accepts one drop of blood spilled in his name or in any other name. There is here only one kind of blood that is spilled – the blood of the grape. Christ’s blood and Christ’s body which we share at this table, which are the constant proof of our unity and absolute end of any division.

Here where we worship there should be only one thing which reminds us of that other mountain and its consequences – the cross. That in seeking forgiveness and safety, and freedom and every other good thing that we have prayed for from God while laying another sacrificial goat on the altar we ended up killing our very hope. The very sign of God’s love. The very proof of God’s forgiveness. The very guarantee of God’s protection. And the very essence of freedom.

So forever let us swear off all idols, and symbols, and prayers and rituals which tell us that blood makes things holy, that sacred things are about sacrifices. That salvation requires violence.

Here is our hope. Here is our salvation. Here is our joy. This is the mountain we have been called to worship upon.


Jodie said...

"We have always done this. We commemorate our massacres. We venerate those who we have piled on the altar – and we justify new sacrifices because we can’t allow those who have already been killed to have died in vain."

So, was the death a Jesus part of a master plan based on blood sacrifice, or a colossal mistake? Are we reading back into his violent death a meaning, and would Jesus have brought salvation to the human race even if he had died at a ripe old age?

If, as Paul says, it is all about the resurrection, then how and when Jesus died would be irrelevant, right?

Aric Clark said...

The death of Jesus was a colossal mistake that he foresaw, understood, and purposefully used to make a point. It was not necessary in some cosmic sense for atonement, but it was almost unavoidable in a political sense because of who he was in relation to the world. The how and when he died became relevant because they speak to his manner of life - his conflict with the powers that be and call for his disciples to live in a revolutionary way. It is emphatically not a blood sacrifice though, or if we wish to employ that metaphor for the sake of continuity it was the ultimate (meaning last/final) of its kind, and undid all the previous ones and ones to follow by its upside down paradoxical nature.