Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
“God is raging in the prophet’s words,” says Abraham Heschel. In the vision of Isaiah, the word of the Lord scorches every act of the people’s worship and prayer.
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Trample my courts no more. Bringing offerings is futile. I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your appointed festivals my soul hates. Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
This is the message to faithful temple-goers! How could things go so wrong?
Heschel explains, “Instead of showing us the way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums. The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum” (The Prophets). From that angle of vision, any religious ceremony used to avoid the places the prophets take us, any act of spiritual entertainment that keeps us distracted from injustice, is sickening to God.
Yes, Heschel admits, the prophet’s rebuke is harsh and relentless. “But if such deep sensitivity to evil is to be called hysterical, what name should be given to the abysmal indifference to evil which the prophet bewails?”
The integrity and faithfulness of our worship and prayer require us to hear the prophets’ vision and follow where it leads us. For decades, John Perkins has taught the 3 R’s: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. He has patiently told white congregations that the way beyond patronizing the poor is to follow Jesus’ relocation. He “did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped” but took on “the very nature of a servant.” Only this way guards us from self-deception and rescues us from the sin of religion.
The sacrifice that Isaiah and the Psalmist condemn, however, is more than just another example of generic religious hypocrisy. The practice of sacrifice plays a major role in the biblical story, at the center of worship in the Temple, seen as the means for the forgiveness of sins. Was there something about the practice of sacrifice that held a special danger for self-deception? Lest we dismiss the question as irrelevant, let us remember that the saving significance of Jesus’ death is expressed primarily in sacrificial language.
Mark Heim says that because “something of surpassing value with only a subtle twist [can] become a twin of almost opposite character and effects,” the truth of sacrifice “balances on a razor’s edge.” He writes,
Without the language of sacrifice, innocence, guilt, punishment, substitution, and blood, we can’t tell the truth about our situation and what God does to liberate us, a truth that the cross makes available to us in a new way. With it, we always run the risk of taking the diagnosis for a prescription. (Saved from Sacrifice, xii)
More graphically, he says,
We have gone astray if we think that God endorses the mechanism of scapegoating sacrifice and that the crucifixion is just the largest and most powerful example. Such a view leaves the mechanism unquestioned and focuses instead on the special quality of the victim: God feeds a bigger and better victim into the machinery to get a bigger payoff. But that is not the truth. Jesus’s accusers intend his death to be sacrificial business as usual. But God means it to be the opposite. (Christian Century, 09/05/2006)
Of course, the meaning of “sacrifice” is not confined to a long-abandoned, morally primitive practice of the ancient world. It also has to do with a society’s order-restoring violence, the accepted means to make things right and keep them that way. “The sacrificial mechanism is alive and well among us,” Heim insists, and, I would add, has bearings on matters all the way from the hymnbook selection at PCUSA headquarters to the agonizing circumstances surrounding this week’s lethal injection on Florida’s death row.
This week is the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Consider two understandings of sacrifice. I grew up being told that the only alternative to dropping the two atomic bombs was a direct military invasion of Japan, an invasion that would most likely result in as many as a million American casualties. Those who would dare question this tragic necessity were, at best, unpatriotic revisionists. These are still the defining narrative and sentiment for many of us.
Along the way I read reports, some quoting military leaders such as Gen. Eisenhower and Adm. Leahy, which cast severe doubt on the claim that a direct invasion was imminent or necessary to end the war, and revealed other factors at work in the decision. I also came to question the moral logic of deeming over 225,000 Japanese men, women and children – almost the total population of Asheville and Buncombe County – the necessary sacrifices for the world to be at peace. What if our long and deeply believed explanation was, is, only the thinnest of membranes stretched over a bottomless abyss? What might that say about our ongoing prayers and offerings and festivals and multitude of sacrifices?
The other story is about the life and witness of Dr. Takashi Nagai. At the time of the Nagasaki bombing, he was the dean of the University of Nagasaki medical school. Dr. Nagai survived the bombing and one year later published The Bells of Nagasaki, an extraordinary account of both the grotesque destruction caused by the bomb and the amazing response of doctors, nurses and others as they selflessly attended to other victims.
His account also tells how he, a Christian, was asked to address the A-bomb mourners during the Nagasaki funeral mass. In that address, Nagai used the word hansai, “sacrifice,” telling the mourners to offer their dead, which included his own beloved wife, to God as a whole burnt sacrifice. His words shocked and angered many people. But, as one of his biographers wrote, “His word hansai was at first like a slap in the face to the hysterical survivors. A slap in the face can do wonders to hysterical people because it is an experience of rock-hard reality (Fr. Paul Glynn, A Song for Nagasaki: The Story of Takashi Nagai).
Nagai later said that the hansai insight was authentic because it had brought him and many others the peace and acceptance that are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Out of the ruins of his home, he built a hut he called “Love-Your-Neighbor-As-Yourself House” where he lay on his sickbed, prayed and wrote until his death in 1951. Today his hut is a place of pilgrimage.
Dr. Nagai not only followed to where the prophets lead, he lived there. He spoke of hansai from the perspective of victim, penetrated with the violence by which the world lives. His testimony bears the mysterious paradox that characterizes the death of Jesus – a profoundly evil act while, at the same time, a profoundly good one. Profoundly good, because of the breaking of a vicious cycle, a great reversal in history, a defeat of the powers of death, a redemption through suffering love. This short-statured saint had set out in faith for another city, a better country. In the apocalyptic rubble he set up an outpost, where prayers and offerings and sacrifices are genuine, and where the Master comes and has them sit down and eat.