I. As we take this journey together, let’s hold onto what we’re singing throughout the service: “Where charity and love about, there God is found.”
Don’t forget that as we pass through some dark territory. Because we’ll be talking about the violence of scapegoating.
“A scapegoat” – this term comes from the Bible. It’s actually from a religious practice – now long gone – among the ancient Hebrews, recorded in the Bible. The priest would purify the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a goat to YHWH (along with other rituals), and then the people themselves could be purified of their sins through a second goat, a scapegoat. The priest imputes, puts onto that goat all the people’s wrongdoings and then they send the goat out into the wilderness, and that does it. This is the scapegoat.
Alright, the theme we’re following this season of Lent is “wilderness.” So I’m wondering about that scapegoat getting sent out into the wilderness.
What can we learn from journeying through the wilderness, in one form or another? That’s what we’re asking this Lent. What can we learn about ourselves and about God? Wilderness can be life-giving, we’ve found, wilderness can transforming, wilderness can be destructive. It’s a destructive wilderness I’m lifting up this week, but we’ll see how it can blossom with life … this wilderness we make for scapegoats.
Now, many many cultures have their ways of doing this.
For the Ancient Greeks, when there were times of crisis – famine, natural disaster, threat of war – they would try to satisfying the gods by taking disabled people, and people convicted of crimes, and other misfits, and driving them out into the wilderness.
We all know the dramatic example of the Aztecs with their human sacrifice. But before we put this off as something strange and distant, know that at the same time as the Aztecs were busy in their temples, the English were busy in their ways, executing more people per capita than the Aztecs. And don’t forget about the Spanish Inquisition.
There is this abiding tendency in humans to think we can purify ourselves of our sins by expelling or extinguishing certain kinds of people who somehow embody sin.
If we’re honest we can see how we personally do this, and how it’s happening all around us, this feeling of “the bad things we’ve gotta deal with will go away if only we can get rid of this kind of person or that kind of person.” So before I get carried away, let’s hear from Leviticus about the scapegoat. And then we’ll hear from the Prophet Isaiah, part of a passage that’s known as the Song of the Suffering Servant. A godly and innocent person who gets heaped on him everyone else’s mucky shadow stuff, the stuff they hate about themselves but don’t want to admit. Somehow, by the grace of God, in his bearing all this and staying innocent and godly, there is a healing power. Christians look at this Suffering Servant and see a prophecy about Jesus. Jews look at him and often see an embodiment of the people of Israel.
Leviticus 16:20-22 When Aaron has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
Isaiah 53:3-5 He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
II. Now let’s turn to readings from the Christian scriptures. These are about the mystery of the cross. Lent is a journey through the wilderness that prepares us for Easter. The theme of scapegoat can help us prepare to encounter the mystery of the cross that’s at the heart of Easter. You’ll notice that one of these readings is from the Gospel of Truth. I could have used the Gospel of John or something else from Paul, but in the Gospel of Truth here you’ll see this striking image for the cross. The Gospel of Truth is one of these early Christian accounts of Jesus that didn’t make it into the New Testament. It was probably written after the Gospel of John and you can see could be from a similar school of Jesus followers, but it uses its own striking images about the meaning of Christ.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:5-11 Let the same spirit be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Gospel of Truth 4:1-5, 7-8 This is the good news of the one whom they seek, revealed to those filled through the mercies of the Father. Through the hidden mystery, Jesus Christ shone to the ones in the darkness of forgetfulness. He enlightened them and showed them a way. The way he taught them is that of truth. For this reason error was angry with him, so it persecuted him. It was distressed by him, so it made him powerless. He was nailed to a tree and became the fruit of the knowledge of the Father. … And he discovered them in himself, and they discovered him in themselves – the uncontainable, the unknowable Father, the one who is full and made all things. All things are in Him and all things have need of Him.
III. “Where charity and love abound, there God is found, there God is found.” That’s what we’ve been singing. “Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi es.” This is the heart of the Christian spirit – love, compassion.
So the question is, why is the cross also at the heart of Christianity? It’s a symbol of violence, after all, not charity and love.
And often Christians understand the cross in a way that reinforces violence, rather than liberates us from violence. It goes like this: Jesus bore the brunt of God’s wrath against us, in order to satisfy God of our blood debt to Him because of original sin.
Jesus here is being charitable and loving, but God sure doesn’t seem to be.
The mystery of who killed Jesus doesn’t need to be much of a mystery. People did, people who were driven by forces of violence, this desire for a scapegoat.
It’s the mystery of who people killed when they killed Jesus that’s the holy mystery.
Because it was God. God died on that cross. We strike at God when we strike at each other.
“When tragedy strikes, God’s heart is the first to break” – Rev. William Sloane Coffin said that after his son’s tragic death. This is the heart of the Christian message: a God of love who for that reason is a God who bears our pain, the pain we suffer and the pain that we inflict, and brings us through it all, a God of soul survival, a God of liberation from the forces that drive us to scapegoat and crucify, a God of mercy, a God a safe return home.
God dies on the cross, and it is God who brings new life – resurrected life – flowering and fruiting from that tree. That’s the beautiful image from the Gospel of Truth: the cross transformed into a flowering, fruiting tree.
Now this view of the cross goes way back into early Christianity. It’s called “Christus Victor”: the victory of Christ.
The old image is of fishing: Christ is the bait on the hook of the cross to lure the forces of evil, who then snap at their prize only to find themselves hauled up into the fresh air and the sunlight, exposed for what they are All the ways people violate each other All the ways people cast each other out into the wilderness All our scapegoating ways All the ways we point our fingers and bare our teeth and bust up families and rain down bombs And blame someone else for it all Think that violence makes us pure somehow That somehow we’re doing the will of God.
Christ draws all this out from the shadows and into the Light of God’s Love, where it can burn off. The forces of evil that keep us tied to cycles of violence, God’s Love, through Christ, burns them away, leaving us free.
That is victory of Christ – Christus Victor.
God loves us, no matter what we can do to each other or to God.
God’s love is there, and it can set us free.
So we can be honest about who we are. In all our beauty, all our strength, all our vulnerability, all our bitterness, viciousness, all the pain we inflict and we suffer … through all that we are beloved by God. That’s some truth that can set us free.
Thanks be to God
(Delivered March 26, 2017 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)