Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.
Today’s sermon comes in three parts.
Part 1: Burnt offerings and sacrifices
Part 2: Betrayal
Part 3: Leaving behind
Suppose for a minute that you looked out your window and you saw your neighbor in his backyard. From what you can tell he’s constructed some sort of altar, and he’s collected various sorts of animals. He’s got a few pigeons or doves it’s hard to tell which, a goat, maybe a sheep or two, and a bull…
How many of you have already called 911?
Burnt offerings and sacrifices are so far out of our realm of acceptable and familiar behavior that so much of the conversation about it that we find in scripture just seems weird and creepy. But for the first century Jew, actually for almost all first century religious folks, sacrifice was a critical part of their engagement with the divine, the transcendent. As modern folks we don’t get it, we don’t understand, and as a result I think we miss some of the incredible significance of the role sacrifice plays in the lives of the faithful.
These sacrificial rituals helped those who participated in them to make sense of the world around them. Many of the laws that we encounter in the Old Testament are given by God to help keep people safe, to help protect the vulnerable, to ensure that there’s a certain order to things. And sacrifice, the ritual shedding of blood, helped to restore order to the brokenness and sin that people encountered in the world.
Kathryn Shifferdecker, who teaches Old Testament at Luther Seminary, writes,
“God made the world with certain boundaries between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean (Genesis 1; Leviticus 10:10); that this ordered world is good, and ritual helps maintain that good order so that the world does not descend into chaos..”
So for the scribe that Jesus encounters in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel to say, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” it is a big deal. It’s as though he’s saying that loving God and loving my neighbor are more important than all the ways – the structures – the rituals – the very things that have helped me come to know God. Maybe it seems like an obvious thing to say from where we sit. But I wonder how many of us would say the same thing about the things that function as our sacrifices, our rituals of faith. The very things that God has given us.
Part 2: Betrayal.
I want to share with you a parable today entitled the Caretaker’s Trial. It’s from one of my favorite theologians/philosophers Peter Rollins. I like him not because I agree with him all the time, but because he makes me uncomfortable. He challenges me and as a result my picture of God is ever expanding. This parable comes from the prologue to his second book, the Fidelity of Betrayal.
There was once a small town filled with believers who sought to act always in obedience to the voice of God. When faced with difficult situations the leaders of the community would often be found deep in prayer, or searching the Scriptures for guidance and wisdom.
Late one evening, in the middle of winter, a young man from the neighboring city arrived at the gates of the town’s little church seeking refuge. The caretaker immediately let him in and, seeing that he was hungry and cold, provided a meal and some warm clothes. After he had eaten, the young man explained how he had fled the city because the authorities had labeled him a political dissident.
It turned out that the man had been critical of both the government and the church in his work as a journalist. The caretaker brought the young man back to his home and allowed him to stay until a plan had been worked out concerning what to do next.
When the priest was informed about what had happened, he called the leaders of the town together in order to work out what ought to be done. After an intense discussion it was agreed that the man should be handed over to the authorities in order to face up to the charges that had been made against him. But the caretaker protested, saying, “This man has committed no crimes, he has merely criticized what he believes to be the injustices perpetrated by authorities in the name of God.”
“What you say may be true,” replied the priest, “but his presence puts the whole of this town in danger. What if the authorities find out where he is and learn that we protected him.”
But the caretaker refused to hand him over to the priest, saying, “He is my guest, and while he is under my roof I will ensure that no harm comes to him. If you take him from me by force then I will publicly attest to having helped him and suffer the same injustice as my guest.”
The caretaker was well loved by the people, and the priest had no intention of letting something happen to him. So the leaders went away again and this time searched the Scriptures for an answer, for they knew that the caretaker was a man of deep faith. After a whole night of poring over the Scriptures the leaders came back to the caretaker, saying, “We have read the sacred book all through the night seeking guidance and found that it tells us that we must respect the authorities of this land and witness to the truth of faith through submission to them.”
But the caretaker also knew the sacred words of Scripture, and he told them that the Bible also asked that we care for those who suffer and are persecuted. There and then the leaders began to pray fervently. They beseeched God to speak to them, not as a still small voice in their conscience, but rather in the way that he had spoken to Abraham and moses. They begged that God would communicate directly to them and to the caretaker so that the issue could finally be resolved.
Sure enough, the sky began to darken, and God descended from heaven, saying, “The priest and elders speak the truth, my friend. In order to protect the town this man must be handed over to the authorities.”
The caretaker, a man of deep faith, looked up to heaven and replied, “If you want me to remain faithful to you, my God, then I can do nothing but refuse your advice. For you have already demanded that I look after this man. You have written that I must protect him at all costs. Your words of love have been spelled out by the lines of this man’s face, your text is found in the texture of his flesh. And so, my God, I defy you precisely so as to remain faithful to you.”
With this God smiled and quietly withdrew, content that the matter had finally been settled.
Part Three – Leaving Behind.
“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Love God, love your neighbor. It is so simple.
And it’s so incredibly difficult.
How far are we willing to follow these two commandments. To what ends will we go, to love God and love our neighbor? Will we leave behind those things that have become our burnt offerings and sacrifices in order to more fully follow the call of Jesus?
Will we be willing to leave things behind so that we can more fully and completely love God and love our neighbor?
In the coming weeks, here at Bethlehem, we will be inviting people to consider being a part of team that will commit to going to Minnetonka for somewhere around a year, to be active participants in the relaunch of that campus. We’re going to be asking you to leave behind this wonderful, life-giving community for a period of time so that together God can use us to reach out to new people in Minnetonka. Love God, love your neighbor.
It’s not an easy ask. In fact it’s incredibly difficult to imagine. It’s a big deal to consider leaving this place, even for a short time. If you’re at all like me, you have experienced first hand the goodness, the joy and the beauty that comes by being a part of this community that gathers here week and week, and then it sent into the world to love as God loves. It’s an incredible thing, an important place, a live giving expression of God’s church.
But Jesus’ call invites us into some challenging places, to places we wouldn’t choose ourselves, but he does so in order that all people might know and experience the love of God.
Two weeks ago Pastor Chris invited you to begin praying two scary prayers, “God, what is it you want me to do for the ministry of this new church?” and “Use me, Lord, in your service, as your servant…”
Through these prayers may God be at work within you, creating an openness to follow his commandments to love your neighbor and in so doing, loving your God. Amen.