“All that you tell me I will do.”
Today, of all days, is a day to talk of sacrifice and our response to it. But instead of the Battlefields of Vimy or Normandy or Kandahar, I want to begin with contemporary Istanbul where I spent five years. In Islam they still celebrate the almost sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. Only a few years back, in every little neighbourhood, a calf would be purchased and then slaughtered on the street by, essentially, a bunch of yahoos. With some 15 million people living in the city back then, you can imagine how bloody and gruesome this was. And unsanitary. Recently the government said, you have to do the slaughtering in do-it-yourself car washes where there is adequate drainage. Isn’t that a day’s work? A great sacrifice????
For Turkish, Sunni Islam, the experience of participating in a sacrifice for God – every year – has a profound impact on the day to day life of both secular and religious Turks. It surely is a tactile, visceral, reminder of God’s promises, that’s for sure. A reminder of the reality of God, perhaps. But there is another side to this: I discerned a palpable anxiety and fear and distrust within and among them. Politically, you’re just never sure your neighbour is going to turn you in to the government for something. But the origins of this go back to this sacrifice, and how temporary, how conditional its effects were.
For Muslims, after the sacrifice, you have assuaged, for now, God’s wrath. For now. There is a lingering suspicion that… God will change his mind. We have to do it all over again next year, after all. And so even some secular, non-religious Turks when they buy a house or car, they’ll have a goat or something slaughtered and the licence plate or lintel of the home will be wiped with the blood. Just to make sure. Because… maybe God might…
So while they get the reality and fear of a god and that reality of what a bloody sacrifice might look like, …. in a sense, it only accentuates that fear, that haunting and ever present anxiety that things are not, at its root, alright. You can feel it.
I could feel, for the first time, a religious society that did not know Jesus and his death on the cross and the joy that that can bring. It is because of living in that fundamentally unforgiven and unforgiving country – they know that God is one and they are familiar with the Old Testament characters, but they do not know the peace of absolute forgiveness and unconditional love – that’s why I am standing here now, as a postulant to priestly ministry. That deep, interior, unconditional, irrevocable love of Jesus on the cross means something: it should change how we live. And it points to praise and thanksgiving and joy.
The point of the Epistle to the Hebrews contrasts, between a human operator and a divine one: instead of a high priest – who is still an imperfect human – going year after year into the inner sanctuary (made by hands), to assuage God’s wrath, sacrificing a pure heifer (but who is still a part of creation), Jesus is the perfect and eternal high-priest, who as God and sinless man offers himself as a perfect sacrifice, and enters not into a temple made with hands, but into the bosom and sanctuary of the Father and eternally offers himself and eternally intercedes to the Father for us.
There is no doubt whatsoever that God loves us and loves us so much that he gave his only begotten Son to die on a cross for us. You are forgiven and nothing can separate us from that love. Phew! But – but! – our forgiveness should lead to a transformation of our lives.
That’s the problem of the magnificent fact of our forgiveness, what I called the unconditional love: it can lead to comfortable pews and perhaps acting like the scribes by going through the motions. I mean, if Canon Beth and Murray were to slaughter a life animal today, you might pay attention a bit more…
I would say going through the motions today would be like going to church because it’s a family tradition. If you know the love is there no matter what, then we can abuse it. We know this happens with our loved ones; we also do it with God.
What would a transformation of life look like? I want to highlight three things. First, it’s a deep down, interior burning love. Second, it demands us all, our whole life. Three, it’s hard long slog, that often doesn’t work.
Today we are offered Ruth as an example, as an archetype of Christ’s love for us and an archetype of our life. What does she give? She gives herself, all of herself: “All that you tell me I will do”, she says. Ruth and her mother in law have been widowed and yet she is so dedicated to her mother in law, she won’t leave her:
Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you. (1:16-17)
Ruth gives her whole life: her love for her mother in law is quite moving. By giving her whole life – and really, hitching herself to the unknown: she bears a son who becomes the grandfather of King David, and is thus the great-great-great grandmother of Jesus. When we give our whole life, really really give it, God will transform us and those around us, even when things are at their darkest.
The scribes get a pretty bad wrap in Mark’s gospel. They don’t, as it were, give their whole life, they don’t do that tough self-examination, that excavation of souls that we need to do as mature Christians. By not doing that spiritual excavation, the scribes live on appearances. The scribes “love to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogue…” (12:38-39). (Do we live on appearances?)
As a contrast, just before our gospel passage, we meet a holy scribe who asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment: Jesus’ answer picks out, from the various presentations of the Law, commandments that focus on love. You gotta love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. It’s all in. It’s about your whole life. It’s not about eating kosher, it’s not about showing up to church: external observations. It’s about really giving that deepest and most intimate part of yourself to God and beginning from that most precious interior, real, part of yourself, loving him, truly loving him. To do this, it’s tough – sometimes we need dynamite.
We meet another widow today: someone who, though having basically nothing, gives what she had. Our English translation says that, “she gave all she had to live on” (44). The Greek actually says, “she gave her whole life”. She left nothing back, she trusted wholly and entirely in God.
Each of the lessons today are about giving your whole life and that my message to you today. But of course today we remember, we must remember those who gave their whole life.
In the twentieth century, that great century of progress – “being on the right side of history”, blood couldn’t even run through the streets: blood was captured in the massive rain-filled craters on the fields of Passchendaele. Blood remained inside the bodies of soldiers who had inhaled chlorine and mustard gas; who had been near an exploding shell and their shock waves alone ruptured critical organs; and perhaps, most importantly, there remained the wounds of the hearts and minds of the soldiers, through what we used to call shell-shock. The deep inward wounds.
We lament the recent decline of Christianity. And yet the greatest decrease of the numbers of baptism in England occurred in the period after World War One. Precipitous. Not in the sixties or seventies, as we sat on our laurels. My question to you today is: are we at St Mary & St Martha, a social club – in which case? Or are we a community of new life, redemption, and of joy ending?
Maybe there’s a vet here today, who’s never stepped into a church: maybe he’s got PTSD, maybe his wife has left him and he’s an alcoholic. “We respect vets”: well! What would you say to him, as a follower of Jesus? What piece of joy and meaning could you possibly offer that man? Coffee and cake?
I want to ask each and everyone of you: what would you say of true hope to a broken, broken male or female vet? Do you have an answer? And if you don’t have an answer for them, do you have an answer for an average guy or gal who wanders into here? Do you even notice them and go out of your way introduce yourself to them? Do you have… an answer for yourself?
As followers of Jesus, we need to speak into every kind of woundedness and proclaim resurrection and healing. Each and everyone of us. The coolest and hardest greatest gift we can offer to someone is our own weakness. Be open about that, man.
The church failed to respond to the hell of war, to those who bore the physical and spiritual wounds of war. But we all are the walking wounded. This place is a hospital and we are all doctors and nurses. Can we act like it?
But here’s one more important point: we can’t do it, or, at least, we can’t do it on our own. Christ came, Christ comes to find us, not because he has nothing better to do, but because St. John said, It’s not that we love God but that God loved us first. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We can’t will salvation, we can’t will being good, and if we’re honest, some days, we’re lucky if we leave the house with pants on.
That gratuitous love of Jesus coming to save us requires transformation of our lives, but we can’t do it on our own… that’s why he came down, right? And so we need to respond, we need to throw our hands up in the air and say, I can’t anymore, Jesus please help me. Take it all; take all of me. And cultivate that utter dependence. It won’t be easy but it will be full of joy and joy unending. Here and here only, remembrance meets redemption. Come, the great IV awaits you.