This weekend, the Cathedral has been filled with people, many of them young people, graduating from Cathedral schools. Today we recognize the girls and boys who serve the Cathedral as acolytes and choristers. It’s that time of year! That time of year means a great many words are spoken: words of appreciation and thanks, words of congratulations, words of counsel and advice. I can think of no other words more significant than those in the first reading:
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings,” says God.
Through the prophet Hosea, God makes known that it is steadfast love and the knowledge of God that matters the most, that gives life its deepest meaning.
Hearing these words, we might wonder, what is “steadfast love”? And what about “sacrifice”? Isn’t it noble to offer one’s self sacrificially, in a self-giving way for a greater good? “Self-preservation is the first law of nature,” goes an anonymous saying, “self-sacrifice the highest rule of grace.”
When I think about sacrifice, an image of ancient Hawaiians propitiating the gods by tossing someone into an active volcano comes to mind or of Mayans or Aztecs making their human sacrifices in pyramid shaped temples. To people of the past, giving the best part of any thing to the deity was an act of reverence as well as an act to secure the favor of the god. We read a lot about this kind of sacrifice in the Old Testament and in other writings of the ancient world. We also learn that, over time, people came to understand that God does not desire the sacrifice of things, especially when that results in the death of a person, but rather that God desires a different kind of sacrifice, the sacrifice of a thankful heart.
God acknowledges the offerings, gifts and sacrifices people make. The psalmist expresses God’s acknowledgment and desire in these words:
“I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices;
your offerings are always before me.
Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving
and make good your vows to the most high.” (Psalm 50:8,13,14)
After serving his country in a time of war, a man came home with an empty coat sleeve. A tactless neighbor remarked, “I see you’ve lost your arm.” The veteran replied sharply, “I didn’t lose it. I gave it.”
Let us not get confused about the message here. God’s intention is not that participation in the religious life of the community should come to an end but, rather, that cultic sacrifices be accompanied by obedience and true devotion. And that gets to what is so much more difficult! It is not too hard to offer the first fruits of the harvest or, for us today, to offer some of the money we have for a cause we deem good. We Americans are incredibly generous in that way. And, as we have learned from accounts coming from Albania and Macedonia, many people and families in those countries have been incredibly generous in taking refugees driven from Kosovo into their homes, providing for them out of what we would judge to be very meager means.
But what is it to offer to God obedience and true devotion?
This question takes us right back to the beginnings, described in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions as “in the garden.” In the garden, God gave the first human beings everything they needed to live completely and abundantly. Only one tiny thing was “off limits” to them. Its image is the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, “Of this fruit,” said God, “you are not to eat.” Moreover, God continued, “If you eat of the fruit or touch it, you shall die.” It is, of course, right at the human being’s most vulnerable place that our ancient enemy, Satan, gets Adam and Eve. We might paraphrase the invitation of the serpent like this: “Oh, come on. You’re smarter than that. Look at that beautiful fruit, which is a delight to the eye and will make you wise. Just take a bite and see how good it is!” Who could refuse an offer like that? Adam and Eve didn’t. Would you?
About this, Thomas Aquinas, the great thirteenth-century theologian of the western church, wrote, “The eating of the fruit was not prohibited as being in itself evil but in order that in this small matter men should do something for the sole reason that it was commanded of God.” Obedience and true devotion to God is very difficult. Might we not even say that it is virtually impossible? Could we go that far? Have we wandered that far from God’s intentions for us? Have we wandered that far from God?
If we do acknowledge that it is impossible for us to offer to God what God most desires from us, then we are in very sad shape, some might say, we are even “lost.” When we are lost, when we are afraid, when we are in grave danger, we cry out, “Help, save me!” I imagine a whole cosmic cry coming from our planet, “Save us for we cannot save ourselves.” I believe that the great spiritual hunger in people today comes from the awareness that we humans cannot save ourselves. As we move into a new millennium, as we continue to ravage the resources of our planet, as we continue to see people forced from their homes, taken into bondage of one kind or another and murdered by the thousands and millions, we know we cannot save ourselves. That is evident beyond all doubt!
But if we can’t do it, who can?
One Sunday during his parish visitation, a bishop was quizzing a Sunday school class. Focusing on the importance of the environment, the bishop described a gray, furry creature with a long fuzzy tail and then asked a child to identify the creature. “Well,” said the child, “I know the answer has to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”
“I know the answer has to be Jesus!” exclaimed the child. Unable to get through to us by other means, God becomes one of us, a human being, born of a human mother, and therefore fully human, but at the same time fully God. This Jesus, whose name means “God is salvation” is described by the Evangelist Matthew as the one who “will save God’s people from their sins.”
Matthew goes on to describe the actions of Jesus and how people respond to him. Jesus does not come to “abolish God’s law, but to fulfill it.” Jesus is the one who eliminates the separation between God and humankind. This is Jesus’ sacrifice, made willingly for us all, and it is a sacrifice of obedience and true devotion. Jesus’ invitation to Matthew, the tax collector, exemplifies the overcoming of all that separates a person from God and from other people. The boundaries and divisions humans establish disappear in the steadfast love and mercy of God. Matthew represents a person being transformed by God in Christ. Like Matthew, you and I are also being transformed by God. That transformation, that salvation is God’s great gift to humankind, an outpouring of God’s steadfast love and mercy for all God’s creation.
In our worship today, God’s transforming power is everywhere. May we be aware of that divine power, and, like Matthew, offer ourselves as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, making good our vows to God. With such sacrifice, God is well pleased!