Sermon delivered by the Rev’d Jean-Daniel Williams on March 20, 2015 as a guest speaker at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Westmount, Québec.
Good evening. I would like to begin, by reflecting on how we got here: together, in this temple, tonight.
For me, it began on a Sunday afternoon this past August at the Montréal Pride parade. I was walking west on Réné-Lévesque wearing a black shirt with a white notched collar, as I often do, and holding a sign that said “Câlins gratuits/Free Hugs,” as I often do…
When a voice grasped my attention and in my peripheral vision, I saw an enthusiastic young rabbi in a rainbow Star of David t-shirt. And she said to me, “I don’t know you,” which is odd but intriguing greeting, and she just as quickly said, “Facebook friend me. Lisa Grushcow.”
And I did. I pulled out my iPhone and requested her friendship immediately. And more or less, so here we are.
In telling this simple story, I am probably not revealing anything about Rabbi Lisa that those of you here at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom do not already know, but my experience that day reveals two essential truths about your community and your leader. First, that you are engaged in our the life of our city, making a faithful statement of who you are and what you understand God to asking of you, neither secular nor closed-minded. Not many religious groups were there that day. I was there with the young adults of St. James United Church and Christ Church Anglican Cathedral. Rabbi Lisa and many of you from Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom were there. And it mattered. Immensely. It mattered to so many who have seen people of faith close their hearts and their doors to them.
Secondly, that you are a community of faith open to others. Open and even enthusiastic about relationships with others. Relationships that simultaneously honour everyone involved for who they are, while finding ways to be together. I am honoured to be working with you for a few minutes tonight, and honoured to call Rabbi Lisa not only a colleague, but a friend, and it’s Facebook official, we are friends. (That’s binding.)
I am grateful for the hospitality you are showing me right now, and have through supper through this moment been showing to young adults with whom I work.
These two truths—that your Temple is an active, engaged and positive force in our wider community and that your people are welcoming and relationship-building—probably do not shock you.
But I share these observations, first to let you know that others throughout Montréal see you and see this about you, and to underline that those things, which perhaps ought to be true of religious community, all too seldom are, and to be in place that manifests them is a sacred part of what I mean when I would call this holy ground.
So as people gathered, from across this city tonight, gathered in this city from around the world, we come from different traditions, but I believe we perhaps all spiritually united already in a Psalmist-level of desperation and angst, crying out, in holy interfaith unity, “O Lord, where is spring?”
I prayerfully ask, One God, mothering, fathering Parent of us all, be present with us, or perhaps more help us be attentive to your already being present, as we look together at this portion of the Torah, the Bible, hoping to find wisdom for today and tomorrow in the wisdom of those who came before, Amen.
The opening chapters of Leviticus are hard for me. As a child, I grew up in the sort of conservative church where “Have you read the Bible yet?” was a routine question lobbed towards even the preteens. And they did not mean, “Have you skimmed a page or two?” It was a holistic, “Have you read every word from Genesis to,” this being an Evangelical Christian context, “Revelation.”
And the opening chapters of Leviticus are often where young Evangelical dreams of reading through the entire Bible go to die.
Genesis and Exodus, so fuelled by compelling, inspiring, occasionally disturbing narrative suddenly give way to this.
Sure, chapter 1, verse 1 is promising.
“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.”
The Lord is calling (deep voiced) “MOSES! MOSES!” (because the patriarchal view of divinity still is so often the voice of God in our heads).
This is the stuff of amazing narrative in Exodus. This is the foreshadowing of plagues, of a parted sea, of commanding tablets on Sinai.
But then, then, oh then, we get chapters of policy manual. Sacred policy, absolutely. But it may soon feel as interesting and relevant (and I admit it is a modern and inappropriate bias to assume scripture owes us being interesting or relevant) as a three-hour meeting on the structural reorganisation of the United Church of Canada. Actually, I attended one of those week, and thought to myself, “I wish were studying Leviticus 1-5 instead.”
So what does God expect us to do with this? Nod off and doze through it, only to be awoken only by the occasionally jarring imagery of the priest “pinching off the head” of turtledove? (Chapter 1, verse 15, it’s in there.)
On a practical level, though both Jewish and Christian tradition hold this passage to be sacred, it isn’t about us. At least, it is not instructions for us. Both traditions have found ways to live in a post-animal-sacrifice faith.
But these words, these instructions are still here. And I am convicted that there is truth in them. And to find some truth in them, I turn to a hermeneutical approach I learned from Rabbi Lisa’s entry about this passage on the Temple website. What stands out?
Overall, it all stands out. I am a vegetarian and a theist. And my love of my of animals and my love God is troubled by all of this. It is uncomfortable to my modern ears. But I want to quickly look at four facets that stood out to me. This is subjective. This is abridging. This is not a final or comprehensive commentary on the passage.
First, the overall message is clear: God expects us to sacrifice. God wants something from us. Often our very best. The first born. The one without blemish.
Does God need our smoke, our sacrifices? God, infinite almighty creator of the universe, the creator of all that is and was and ever shall be? No. God doesn’t need our sacrifices. But we may need to offer them.
Even among the ancient Israelites the risk of missing the point was noted and warned against. Amos, famously, provocatively said:
“I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Amos’ call did not end the sort of ritual sacrifices we read about in Leviticus. But he gave a clear emphasis. Even if we invest tangible, in Christian language sacramental, value in the ritual acts, God wants us to see them as symbols pointing to justice rolling down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
And so we, today, are still called to make sacrifices with that end in mind. But what shall we sacrifice? We are in the midst of the Christian liturgical season of Lent. Many of us, having given up something for Lent. Chocolates. Dairy. Netflix. These are sacrifices, and to whatever extent they actually focus us on God, I believe they can be good sacrifices.
For many self-described progressives our piety is in consumerist sacrifices. We give up non-fair trade coffee or chocolate. We give up meat. We give up non-organic foods. We give up sweat-shop produced clothes. These are sacrifices, and to whatever extent they actually bring about justice and righteousness, I believe they can be good sacrifices.
The Psalmist suggests a despise-proof sacrifice in Psalm 51:
“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”
What we learn in Leviticus is that sacrifice as a principle is central to a faithful relationship with God. And I don’t know what is easier, to give up a goat or my pride. A goat to an ancient nomad was no small price. But I for one could give up a goat more easily than my pride. I would give up a blameless lamb before I would give up being right. But a broken spirit, a contrite hurt, the willingness to say, “I was wrong. I will try to do better,” that, I believe, God will not despise.
We are invited to sacrifice.
Second item that stood out: the passage in Leviticus acknowledges that we do things, that we did not mean to do, or that we meant to do, but did not know were “wrong.” In chapter four, “If any person … unwittingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt or the sin of which he is guilty is brought to his knowledge…” he must sacrifice.
I do not believe in a God who is spitefully noting our unwitting shortcomings. I believe there is a distinction between sins and mistakes, active abuses and accidental harms. But both are addressed here. The unintended, or even well-intentioned, “mess up” still requires correction and setting right.
The correction can be in the form of our own realisation or it being brought to our knowledge. We hurt one another. We say things we should not. We say things which we think are funny, but are hurtful. That we think are true, but are misguided. This can be cause for defensiveness. Here we need to recognise, whether we are the one who messed up or the one trying to bring another’s mess up to their attention: it may not have been intentional. It needs to be corrected, sure, but appropriately.
I recently was reading a New York Times article entitled, “How one stupid Tweet blew up Justine’s … Life” about a young woman who said something genuinely stupid, genuinely hurtful on Twitter. And lost her job. And friends. And was online shamed by countless strangers. And has to go to therapy. The article addressed numerous people in similar situations. It is not that what these people said online was okay. It usually wasn’t. But I wonder if a recognition that not all hurt is done intentionally, and that even when it is, a chance should be given to repent, to say sorry, to make amends, is sorely lacking in some corners of well-intentioned policing every one else’s social justice sensitivities in all that they do and say. Could a private conversation between friends, “Hey, that may not have been the wisest way to put that?” be a better approach than driving people to shame, unemployment, to depression?
We are invited to sacrifice our insistence that we don’t mess up.
Which leads me to the third stand out item: “If it is the whole community … that has erred…” We mess up collectively. We are all parts of systems and inheritors of advantages that oppressed someone else to help us. It is endlessly complicated, exhausting to think about, and true. I am an American. I am a Canadian. I am white. I am male. I am cisgendered. I am not only a Christian, but an institutional representative of Christianity. I belong to lots of communities that have erred and do err.
This is not about feeling guilty and dwelling on it. Leviticus calls us simply to note that communities do err. And when they do, we as individuals have a choice: to become defensive and say it is not my fault, which most of the time, sure, it won’t have been, or we could be voices and hands to work within our communities to set right what has been done wrong.
We are invited to sacrifice our insistence that we are alone. That we are individuals who do not affect and are not affected by those around us.
Finally, I want to note what, credit due, stood out to Rabbi Lisa in her online reflection on this passage.
“One detail jumps out: the priest is to remove the ashes of the burnt offerings every day. Rabbi Menachem ha-Bavli writes: ‘This is symbolic, and teaches us that after a person who sinned brings his sacrifice to God and confesses on it, one may not mention his sin to him anymore. Instead, we are commanded to erase all traces of the sin and to forget it.’
“This is one of the hardest things to do when someone has wronged us. Even after they make amends, it can be tempting to dredge up the wrongdoing again and again. In contrast, if I may be permitted to conflate Rabbi Menachem ha-Bavli and Elsa from the movie Frozen, sometimes we have to ‘let it go.’
“Questions of forgiveness and sin are some of the most difficult; there are no easy answers. This Torah portion, though, gives us an image and an insight that we can take with us: that when someone has done everything they can do to repent, we are commanded to do everything we can do to move forward.”
We are invited to sacrifice our grudges.
To conclude, God is inviting us to sacrifice. Not because God needs it, but because we need it. We need it for our own peace of mind and happiness. We need it to build a world of justice rolling down like waters. We need sacrifice because the things God is calling us to sacrifice ultimately, our pride, our being right, our being alone and unaccountable, our anger and grudges towards others, are often things we would be better off without anyway.
May we draw closer to God, and to one another, through the sacrifices we offer.