Sermon June 26. 2022 Mercy not Sacrifice (Gen 22) Rev. Betsy Hogan
I desire mercy, not sacrifice. It’s been ringing in my ears this past number of days. So much so that it’s not even the lectionary reading for this week, the passage from Matthew’s gospel in which it appears – but I knew it’d wind up being what I was preaching anyway, so I figured we might as well have it.
Jesus, at a meal, sitting and eating with tax collectors and sinners, and Pharisees behaving badly and Jesus has had enough.
He’s had enough of their self-righteousness, he’s had enough of their rules and their walls and their rigidity of right-versus-wrong and in-versus-out and us-versus-them – he’s had enough.
So “go,” he says to them. “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
And we can tell it’s a mic drop. None of them utters a word in response, and presumably they all just back out and leave, thoroughly rebuked and probably secretly ashamed. Even if they try not to show it.
But for us still standing there, we’re just left confused. Because isn’t sacrifice exactly the sort of thing we’re forever being urged by Jesus to embrace? With its generosity and its selflessness, putting others’ needs first, and the extra mile, and above and beyond, and greater love hath no one but this?
It totally is. But “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” isn’t Jesus speaking. It’s Jesus quoting.
When he sends the Pharisees off – “go and learn what this means” – he’s quoting from the Hebrew scriptures, from the older Testament. He’s quoting from the book of Hosea, quoting God speaking through the prophet Hosea at a time eight centuries earlier when the notion of sacrifice wasn’t something understood metaphorically or morally or spiritually –
It was just literal sacrifice. Like, ‘slaughter a goat on an altar’ ancient tradition sacrifice. Where the way you please your god, or ask for favours, or ensure your safety or just keep that relationship strong, is by periodically tossing your god a bone, as it were. Literally.
“And ... enough!” is what God said to the people through the prophet Hosea. “Enough! That is NOT what I want. Those are NOT the rules of this relationship. I am NOT that sort of god, you slaughter me a goat now and then and I'll treat you great. It's not that derivative but it's also not that EASY.
“Because I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” God says to them. “There’s no list of burnt offerings you can just check off, and you're all good.”
It's a massive change of religious paradigm. A huge step away from the kind of contractual “here's what the gods require: you do the things, you follow the rules, you’re good.” A huge step away from that kind of quid pro quo that makes righteousness not only easy and achievable, but also – and crucially -- starkly identifiable.
Because when rightness with God depends on ticking these boxes and following these rules and fitting these standards, it is really really easy for lines to get drawn and walls to get built and right-versus-wrong and in-versus-out and us-versus-them.
God was done with it eight centuries before Jesus, when Hosea the prophet cried out to the people that God desires mercy, not sacrifice –
And Jesus is done with it eight centuries later, when the Pharisees start sneering at the “sinners” he’s sitting down and eating with, like they’ve never heard the words of Hosea at all.
Go and learn what this means, he says to them: a faithfulness, a following, a wanting to live rightly with God that’s just always – God being your helper – about trying to be merciful. Filled with mercy.
It's such an old-fashioned word, and we often think of it in such a limited way, in terms of mitigating punishment or exercising forebearance despite someone’s wrongdoing. We often think of it in such a limited way, as though it’s a gift we bestow out of the goodness of our hearts: like “observe, o perfidious ones, how by God’s grace I shall show you mercy.”
But in fact it’s not meant to be like that at all. It’s essentially an orientation, to be filled with mercy.
It’s a stance in relation to everyone around us that rejects the stark and strict binaries of in-versus-out and right-versus-wrong and us-versus-them – with the lines and the boxes and the walls of righteousness achieved via quid pro quo –
And instead is always only and ever about making space. Not just giving the benefit of the doubt or trying to see the best in others, but in fact making the real space of “we’re quite different, and I don’t know if I understand, and it’d be easier and tidier to disapprove or set you apart or wish you were more like me -- but you are my brother, my sister, my neighbour, my friend. Just as you are.”
It's a way of being, being filled with mercy. It’s always only and ever about making space.
And it's what God desires. As Jesus reminds the disciples and us. What I want from you is mercy, God says to us in the prophet Hosea. Not the kind of righteousness that’s about ticking boxes to meet a list of standards, like ducks in a row for the proper sacrifices at the proper time, and now you know who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’. That paradigm is past. It’s SO eight centuries before Jesus even turned up.
So please, says God, go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
And please, says Jesus, go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
Because enough, Jesus is saying, that day with the Pharisees. Enough with the rigidity and the lines and the walls of in-versus-out. Enough with the theocratic lawmaking that rejects any nuance in its obsession with purity and righteousness and exercising the power of punishment. Enough with the smug appraisal of “this” as godly and “that” as unacceptable.
Enough. I desire mercy, God says. It’s about a way of being. It’s not about assessment and evaluation and the measure of righteousness according to a pre-existing set of categories -- it’s about making space for each other as you are. And sharing that space with gratitude that God is there too. Even more filled with mercy than we can ever be, and making space for US.
It’s the gospel according to Hosea. God desires mercy, not sacrifice, eight centuries before Jesus. It’s the gospel according to Matthew, remembering that time Jesus quoted it – as a mic drop with the Pharisees.
And I’ve heard even more versions here: when I observed to Karla Bruce of our congregation a few years ago that I didn’t really understand the notion of gender identity and she said to me “You don’t need to understand it – you just need to make space for it.”
And of course! I desire mercy, not sacrifice. Or even a little further back, when Nova Scotia was on the verge of legislating equal access to marriage, and our elders were discussing what our policy would be – and one of them said, “It seems to me… that an open door means an open door.”
And indeed “yes it does,” the rest of them said. And the discussion was over.
You know who that elder was? It was Carol Smillie. Who’s watching this morning on the livestream, as she keeps all of her strength for the cancer treatments she’s undergoing. And if for me she’ll always be a superstar because of the clarity of that moment of “an open door means an open door,” for all of us we owe her tremendous gratitude not only for the many decades of volunteer service to our Sunday Breakfast Program, indeed from its very first inception when it grew out of hungry visitors to Fellowship Time –
But also for the past more than a decade when she was the Convener and Liaison for the Breakfast Teams, welcoming new volunteers, keeping us up to date on Public Health requirements, acting as the connection between the Breakfast Teams and the congregation, and the Sunday Breakfast and other feeding programs in the city –
And just faithfully helping everyone involved in Sunday Breakfast to be involved in Sunday Breakfast – building a community of friendship and warmth and good food and mercy.
It’s my great privilege to invite Janet and Michelle forward to thank Carol on behalf of all of us, and to present a gift of our gratitude to her daughter Nadine…..
I desire mercy, God says, not sacrifice. Be merciful to one another. Amen.