Archives for posts with tag: Scapegoat

Sermon for 4th October 2020 – St Michael and All Angels (transferred from 29th September); St Francis of Assisi: Animal Welfare Sunday: on Zoom

Revelation 12:7-12; Luke 15:3-7 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=468720899)

St Francis of Assisi (unknown artist), from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Francis-of-Assisi/images-videos, accessed 8th October 2020

Today we commemorate St Michael and All Angels, and St Francis and his love for animals. 

Blessings of the animals and pet services are usually great fun, especially for the children – although perhaps a bit less so for their parents, who have to catch the hamsters, cats and other exotic creatures which escape from their baskets during the service. We don’t have that problem, because all our pets are with us at home and they are only appearing and being blessed, like us, on Zoom. But I still think that it is important that our beloved animals, our furry friends, should have the benefit of a blessing at least once a year. In saying Saint Francis’ prayer and in blessing the animals, as we’re going to do, we are giving thanks for all God’s work in creation. 

But what about those angels? I am what is called a liberal theologian, which means (among other things) that I am not wedded to taking everything in the Bible absolutely literally. I think this passage about war breaking out in heaven and the battle between Michael and his angels and the Dragon, known as Satan and the Devil on other occasions, is a good case in point. I dare say if we were in the south of Italy, where they are more used to miracles, we would hear this lesson from the book of Revelation without batting an eyelid. We wouldn’t be too troubled about exactly where heaven was or what the Dragon really represented – or indeed possibly who the Devil was. But we do understand the contrast between good and evil and the way in which frequently, in order to uphold the right and the good, there has to be a battle. 

‘Guido Reni’s resplendently theatrical depiction of St Michael, part Roman soldier, part ballet dancer, was painted in 1635 and can be seen in the church of Santa Maria della Consolazione in Rome.’ (Andrew Graham-Dixon at https://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/itp-238-st-michael-archangel-by-guido-reni.html, accessed 8th October 2020)

We will notice in passing that it is not George who slays the Dragon but Michael, although the stories are a bit similar. Also there is seemingly a second fight. It’s not just Michael. The good angels have conquered the serpent as well, the Dragon, ‘by the blood of the Lamb, by the word of their testimony and by their willingness to die’ for the cause.

So there are perhaps two stories here. One is the story of the war in heaven between Archangel Michael and the great dragon, a.k.a. Lucifer, the devil; and the other, where salvation is achieved and victory over evil by the blood of the lamb. 

In Jewish tradition there is this idea of a scapegoat, which could also be a ‘scape-lamb’; you read in Leviticus chapter 16 how this is supposed to work sacramentally, where all the sins of the people are symbolically loaded on the back of a lamb or a goat which is then cast off into the desert. In a sacramental sense, the scapegoat ‘takes the burden’ of the people’s sins, and dies for those sins. You can say that the lamb died for the sake of the people’s sin. It is very similar to the idea of what Jesus has done, ‘dying for our sins’ on the cross.

The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt (1854-1856) in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

Liberal theologians like me have difficulty with the idea that a loving God would have demanded a human sacrifice, but certainly we can follow the development of the idea of the ‘atonement’, as it is called, by Jesus on the cross, by looking at the Jewish tradition of the scapegoat. 

You might think, from this story of the scapegoat, that people at the time of Jesus might not have been very nice to animals. But I don’t think we can necessarily draw that conclusion. There are many instances in the Bible where Jesus appears to love and care for animals. In the sermon on the Mount: ‘Behold the fowls of the air: they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them’ [Matt.6:26]; and as we can see in the parable of the lost sheep and indeed the other parable of the good Shepherd, Jesus certainly didn’t just think of lambs in the context of sacrifice, but rather as animals to love and care for. 

And this is one of the things which produced Saint Francis of Assisi’s distinctive theology, his famous preaching to the animals and his love for all creation. ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Brother Moon’, for instance. So on this feast of Saint Francis of Assisi it’s entirely right that we should bless the animals and bring them before the Lord in prayer. In a minute I will ask you to find your pets or pet pictures and put them up for a blessing.

But first, a final thought. This is the last of these Zoom Eucharists and we have become, I think, a proper little congregation. A proper little flock. Soon we will return to the various churches that we came from, as they are able to reopen for worship.

It seems to me that it would be nice to do something, to give some tangible expression to our gathering in the name of the Lord, every Sunday for the last few months. We could, of course, pass the plate round, and we would have to do it virtually using PayPal or something similar. But I think I’ve got a better idea. 

It occurred to me that on the day when we are blessing the animals, we should try to help our various zoos – Regent’s Park,  Whipsnade, Chester and Bristol (where I still hear Johnny Morris in my head) and all the others. They are all having a very hard time. Feeding all the animals at Regent’s Park, at London Zoo, for example, costs £1 million per month. So my suggestion is that, as we give thanks for creation and all the wonderful animals that the Lord has created, we should all consider taking a trip to the nearest zoo to where we are in the next week or two. I think that zoos are eminently safe places to visit even in the Covid epidemic, and the price of admission, if enough people turn up, will help to restore their finances. [Donations – https://tinyurl.com/y2m75jd4, https://www.chesterzoo.org/support-us/, https://bristolzoo.org.uk/save-wildlife/bristol-zoological-society-appeal, or to help a wonderful zoo in Hamburg, https://www.hagenbeck.de/de/_news/tierpark/Unterstuetzung_FAQ.php ]

We shouldn’t forget that the animals themselves will be very pleased to see us, because, as we ourselves have found, being locked down in quarantine with nobody to see is very lonely and no fun. I think that Jesus the Good Shepherd would want you to find out where your nearest zoo is and go and see all the lovely animals in it, very soon. 

Blessing of the Animals

Now we are going to bless all animals. If you have any with you, or any pictures of animals whom you used to have, please do bring them into the picture.

Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. 

You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. 

You inspired Saint Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. 

We ask you to bless all animals, and those which are or were our pets. 

By the power of your love, enable them to live in peace and harmony. 

May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. 

Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures!

Sermon for Evensong on the 3rd Sunday after Easter, 12th May 2019

Psalm 114, In exitu Israel, Isaiah 63:7-14, Luke 24:36-49 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=424470667

The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

Today is a very sheepy day in the church. Lots of sheep. The Roman Catholics call it Good Shepherd Sunday – and we have followed their nice idea this morning here at St Mary’s.This morning in the Gospel of John, Jesus ticked off the Jews who were clamouring to know if he was the Messiah they were expecting; he ticked them off by saying that, even if he was, they wouldn’t realise: because they weren’t from his flock. He said, ‘But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, ..…

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish’. [John 10]

The other readings prescribed in the Lectionary this morning included the story of Noah’s Ark; ‘The animals went in two by two; the elephant and the kangaroo’. And the sheep, of course. And there is a piece from Revelation which is a vision of a great multitude standing before the throne of God and ‘before the Lamb’. Behold the Lamb of God.

And in other parts of the Bible there is the parable of the lost sheep, and Jesus’ rather enigmatic saying to Peter, when, in response to Peter’s three denials of Jesus earlier, he had asked Peter three times how much he loved him, and, after Peter had assured him he did, Jesus answered each time, ‘Feed my lambs’, or, ‘Tend my sheep’ [John 21:15-18]. And there is the vision of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25, with Jesus separating people into two groups, ‘as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’.

Sheep are good and goats are bad, according to this. It reflects the Jewish idea of the scapegoat, sacramentally loading the sins of some people on to the back of some poor goat, which is then cut loose to roam in the desert till it dies of hunger and thirst.

I’m sure you can think of other sheep references. The idea of a sacrificial animal, a scapegoat, is a very old one in Judaism. Actually, of course, they seem to have mixed up sheep and goats quite a lot. The ‘lamb of God’, the sacrificial lamb, is effectively a scapegoat, a goat: the idea is that Jesus is that scapegoat, that, as we say, in the Prayer of Consecration in the Communion service (page 255 in your Prayer Books), he ‘made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’.

The vision of the New Jerusalem which our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah shows, is in line with this.

‘Surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was their Saviour.

In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old’ (Isaiah 63.8-9).

Then the prophet recalls the story of the Exodus from Egypt. God must have been infinitely powerful, in order to part the waters of the Red Sea and let the Israelites pass through on dry land. It is the same thing that our Psalm, Psalm 114, celebrates. ‘When Israel came out of Egypt’. All these miraculous things happened. The sea ‘saw that, and fled’; ‘The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

All this is meant to prepare us for the greatest miracle of all, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. So when he appears to the disciples in Luke’s account, he stresses that what has happened to him is just as it was foretold by the Jewish prophets. The author of the Gospel, Luke, is usually taken to be a doctor – St Paul described him as (Col. 4:14), ‘the beloved physician’. He is a scientist; his Gospel tends to look for objective facts as well as metaphysical theology. So here, in this resurrection appearance, Jesus does a re-run of the Doubting Thomas story. See me, touch me, feel me. I am not a ‘spirit’, not a ghost.

And there’s this rather curious eating ‘broiled’ fish and, if you can believe it, ‘honeycomb’. You remember, the Gospel says, ‘And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.’ Now the ‘broil’ isn’t some American style of cooking, but just another word for being cooked. American English sometimes preserves much older English words than are now current in English English. The ‘honeycomb’, by the way, isn’t evidence of Jesus liking combinations of flavours which even Heston Blumenthal might find challenging – fish and honey sounds a disgusting combination – but rather it’s a rare example where the Authorised Version of the Bible has been led astray by what was presumably a corrupted manuscript. They translated as if it was μελου – ‘of honey’, as if it had had an ‘L’, instead of the better reading, μερου,’R’, ‘of a piece’, ‘of a piece of fish’. There’s just fish, no honey.

But still, he ate it. So let’s assume we can say that, astonishing as it was to see, it happened. But is it too contrary to ask, ‘So what?’ If we had been there, what would we have made of seeing Jesus brought back to life? Would we have picked up on the idea that he had offered himself as some kind of human sacrifice? And if he had, what was the purpose of the sacrifice?

If we follow the theology of Isaiah, the mechanism, how it works, is what is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Greater love hath no man – and here Jesus is showing his love for us by accepting, or even bringing on himself, punishment which we, not he, deserved. He was offering himself to make up for our sins, to atone for them, to propitiate – those two last words you will recognise from services and hymns. Atoning for our sins; for ‘he is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1; in the ‘Comfortable Words’, p.252 in your Prayer Books). The idea is one of ransom. God’s wrath has been bought off.

Does that square with how you think of God? Do you – do we – seriously think, these days, that God is so threatening? It seems to me that one would have to impute some characteristics to God that I doubt whether we could justify. Granted there are people who claim to have conversations with God, perhaps in the way the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah said they did. God ‘spoke through’ the prophets. But in Jesus, the prophecies were fulfilled: there were no more prophets.

What about the ‘sin’ that we are said to need to ‘propitiate’? What is it? Obviously, some sins are bad actions, breaches of the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal. But we say now that sin is wider than just doing bad things – which could be dealt with as crimes, without bringing God into it, after all.

Sin, we say, is whatever separates us from God. So if God is love, the ultimate positive, hatred is sin. If God commands us to love our neighbour, and we wage war upon him instead, that is sin. But what is God’s reaction? Is there an actual judgement? Do the sheep go up and goats down? And if so, what was Jesus doing?

In the great last judgment at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, when the sheep and the goats are being separated out, Jesus the Judge Eternal was bringing another angle on God. ‘Inasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these, ye did it unto to me’. You didn’t just turn your back on a starving man; you turned your back on Jesus, on God. Perhaps that’s how he takes our place, in some sense.

The great French philosopher and founder of the network of communities where people with learning difficulties and ‘normal’ people live together, called L’Arche, (in English, the Ark), Jean Vanier,  has just died at the age of 90. On the radio this morning someone quoted him as saying, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God: just believe in love’. I think that Jean Vanier meant that God is love. God showed that love for mankind by sending Jesus to live as a man here with us. In that he brought us closer to God, in showing us true love, Jesus conquered the power of sin. Perhaps this, rather than the idea of ransom, of human sacrifice, is what it means that Jesus offers ‘propitiation’ for sin.

Which is it? I don’t think that I can give you a neat resolution, a pat explanation, of this. Theologians from the early fathers through Thomas Aquinas and the Reformation scholars to the moderns like Richard Swinburne [Richard Swinburne 1989, Responsibility and Atonement, Oxford, OUP] have all wrestled with the meaning of what Jesus did – or what happened to Jesus, and why. It is, if nothing else, a demonstration of power, infinite power. No wonder that the ‘mountains skipped like rams’. But can we still feel it? We need to keep our eyes open.

Sermon for Mattins on the 10th Sunday after Trinity, 20th August 2017
Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Great Fish

 

There are a surprising amount of really contemporary references in the story of Jonah and the whale: although having said that, the first thing to say is that we now know that a whale, if that is what swallowed Jonah, isn’t a ‘great fish’, of course – a whale is a mammal.

 

The Lord told Jonah to prophesy against Nineveh, ‘that great city’, to make it clear to the people that the Lord was not pleased with them, ‘for their wickedness is come up before me.’ Nineveh is still in the news. It is now called Mosul, and it’s in modern Iraq.

 

Jonah ran away; he disobeyed God. As usual in the Old Testament, the Jews are up against the Gentiles. Nineveh was the great city of the Assyrians, Gentiles. Being told that he should go and criticise their way of life as ‘wicked’ wasn’t likely to end well for Jonah. So he disobeyed, and ran away to sea.

 

The first clue, that this is not just a nice story, is the name of the place where Jonah was heading, Tarshish. No-one really knows where it was. Traditionally it has been identified with Tunis or Carthage; but there are no archaeological remains in either place to bear this out. It seems to be a kind of symbolic place, symbolic as being a great centre of commerce and trade. The little Book of Jonah – only four chapters long – is really a piece of religious teaching, allegorical rather than a factual historical account. So one has to weigh up all the bits of the story in that way. What does each thing really mean, or what does it illustrate?

 

An exception, however, is when the ship gets caught in a storm and is being overwhelmed, and the ship’s crew, the ‘mariners’, jettison cargo in order to lighten the ship. In maritime law there is a concept called ‘general average’, defined as an unforeseen, extraordinary sacrifice made in order to preserve the safety of the ‘maritime adventure’ as a whole, that is, the ship, its crew, passengers and cargo, and the cost of the sacrifice is shared among all of them. It’s a very old concept, first mentioned as part of the Lex Rhodia, the law of the island of Rhodes, in about 800BC. The Book of Jonah was written about 400 years later – although it makes out that its context is the rise of Assyria and the defeat of Babylon, also about 800BC. The law of general average is still practised today in London.

 

But even here the straightforward ‘story’ aspect is modified by some philosophical, ethical, material. The ship’s captain and crew had picked up the fact that Jonah has disobeyed ‘his’ God, and the mariners rather oddly drew lots as a way of seeing whom among them to blame for the storm.

 

The logic seems to have been that they – and it seems from the context that they were a mixture of faiths and nationalities – thought that one person on board must somehow have caused the danger that they were in: so if they got rid of that person, they would be saved. Casting lots to find the person was a way of leaving the blame to God to assign, not just luck. Jonah drew the short straw, and the others felt confident that he must be the one who caused it, because not only had the lot fallen on him, but he was known to have done something wrong – he had disobeyed God.

 

And yet the crewmen were very reluctant to throw Jonah overboard, which was what the purpose of drawing lots was – it was like one of those ‘balloon debates’, where at the end of each round, someone has to jump out of the balloon, to keep the balloon in the air. Jonah however accepted his fate, and said the storm would subside if he were tossed over the side. They had asked Jonah what his religious affiliations were – they weren’t Jewish like him.

 

So when Jonah finally got chucked over the side, at his own request, it was another symbolic act. He, the Jew, the member of God’s chosen people, was being sacrificed rather than any of the less-favoured Gentiles, the motley assortment of other races and beliefs among the crew.

 

This week we finally managed to show the new film ‘The Shack’ in our Spiritual Cinema at Church Gate House. There will be another showing on 5th September if you’d like to see it. As we can’t show it on our big screen, we’re doing it in the lounge, to no more than 20 people at a time. It is a very spiritual and moving film.

 

I won’t spoil it for you by telling you much about the plot. I just wanted to mention that, early in the film, one of the characters tells the story of an ‘Indian princess’, (meaning a Native American), who, when when her tribe had fallen ill with some plague, threw herself to her death down a waterfall, on the understanding that her sacrificing her life would give life to others. It sounds very like ‘God so loved the world ..’ [John 3:16f]. And here, Jonah is being sacrificed in order to – in order to do what? Placate an angry God?

 

The idea is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Taking someone else’s punishment for them, or the Jewish idea of a scapegoat, an animal – poor thing – on whose back all the community’s sins and iniquities was metaphorically loaded, before it was driven out, most likely to starve, in the desert.

 

But where is God in such a process? Granted that He wouldn’t set out to inflict unjust and undeserved punishment on anyone, does He nevertheless accept those sort of sacrifices, and respond to them? I won’t try to give you a ready-made answer: I want you to think about it yourselves. What sort of God would demand, or at least accept, a human sacrifice?

 

Think about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, whom he loved, as a burnt offering on an altar. Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, tied him up and put him on top of a pile of wood, and then he reached out to pick up a knife, which he had placed where it was easily to hand, to kill Isaac.

 

And all of a sudden God called out from heaven to Abraham, telling him not to harm the boy. The idea was that God was testing Abraham, seeing how obedient to him he was. And the most important thing is that God didn’t want the sacrifice. God isn’t a cruel or hurtful god.

 

So when we say that Jesus ‘died for our sins’, I would suggest that it’s rather more complicated than a substitutionary atonement. I don’t think that God demands human sacrifices.

 

So, spoiler alert! I’m just going to fill in what happens next in the Book of Jonah. He is swallowed up by the great fish, or whale: he is spat out unharmed after three days; he praises God for saving him: this time he obeys his instructions, and willingly goes to Mosul, to Nineveh, and denounces the city. In 40 days it would be sacked, overthrown, he told them. And the inhabitants of Nineveh, far from turning on him as he’d feared, suddenly show signs of remorse, regret and repentance. Jonah had made a prophecy enjoining on them a strict diet and turning away from their wicked ways. (They don’t say what the wicked ways were.) And God spared them the destruction He had threatened.

 

What happened next is surprising. Far from being pleased about the way that Nineveh had been spared, Jonah was angry. Why? It doesn’t seem to make sense.

 

What was behind Jonah’s anger? Perhaps it reflected a current debate in Judaism about punishment: should it be aimed at rehabilitation or retribution? Jonah thought punishment should be final and merciless. God had condemned the city. Why was He now hanging back from punishing it? But God isn’t vengeful: He is merciful.

 

God had laid on the whale to swallow Jonah – not to eat him, but as a kind of submarine rescue. After three days it puked him up again, unharmed. Clearly it was not actually a whale, or Leviathan, or a great fish, or there would have been bits of him missing. Similarly importantly, God had recognised that the inhabitants of Nineveh had repented, and changed their ways, in response to Jonah’s prophecy.

 

The conclusion seems to be that, whatever things may look like, God does love us – and if we do something wrong, he is willing to forgive us. Hallelujah! But even so, in Jonah’s story there’s quite a lot to think about over lunch. What should our attitude to crime and punishment be? What sort of sacrifices does God ask us to make?

 

Bon appetit!