I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Scripture: Matthew 12:1-14

Given on 07/27/13 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY (8th in the Life, Abundant series)


Do you ever have those times when you are stopped in your tracks by the sheer beauty of the world? Those times when the might of the ocean, or the brilliance of a sunrise cresting over the trees, or the perfection of a movement of a concerto by Bach, makes you stop and let go of all the stuff that we often cling to in our everyday lives. I’m not saying a permanent feeling of the awareness of the beauty of the world, that seems impossible to me, but rather those times when you encounter the mystical, the mighty, the sublime, those fleeting moments in which the artistry of God is on full display and nothing can, for that moment, challenge it. I once remember a time when I was on a hike with my family. For years, we have vacationed at my grandmother’s mountain house in the Appalachian Mountain range in Tennessee. The house, built on the side of the mountain, with a deck that looks out over the valley and the mountains of North Carolina, became the primary vacation location for my family when I was in High School. We would spend virtually every Easter there, most Thanksgivings, and an occasional Christmas. As I grew older, the house became a place for me to get away from college for the occasional weekend alone. A place to collect my thoughts while sitting on the porch looking at the night sky.

Behind the house about 500 feet from the backdoor and just on the other side of the peak of the mountain, runs an older stretch of the Appalachian Trail. While it has not been used by Trail hikers for awhile, it still remains in good shape and can easily be found and used by anyone who knows that it is there. One Spring weekend when we were up there vacationing as a family, my father had the idea that we should take the trail from behind the house to the village of Shady Valley, some 15 miles away. The walk there would be virtually entirely down hill and we left cars down at the bottom to drive back to the house and so that morning, pretty early in the day, we set off with a few bottles of water and some trail mix. Most of the hike looked like what you would expect it to look like. The shade of 100 year old coniferous trees covering the path and only a limited vision to either side of us and for awhile, I confess that I had become lulled into seeing only the path ahead of me, no longer able to see the beauty of the natural world as it passed by on my sides. Everything running together, everything looking the same. And I was hot and sweaty and tired and beginning to wonder when we were going to get to our final destination. That is where I was in my head when we turned the corner into an explosion of every color imaginable. On both sides as far as we could see was a field of wild flowers of all kinds, all in full bloom and all breathtaking. In truth, we all had to fight the urge to run around in the flowers like we were Von Trapp family filled with the Sound of Music. The beauty of it all was overwhelming and for a brief moment, I was sure I felt a mystical connection with God. Soon, we had walked across the expanse of the field and before long we had become surrounded by forests on each side and soon thereafter we had reached our destination, tired but happy to have made it the whole way. And it is possible that this experience, this moment of transcendent beauty that happened in the field could have been just that, a brief moment, but since that day, I have dreamed of that moment no less that 20 times over the years. Each time, my spirit and my soul become filled to the brim with a happiness that transcends understanding or explanation. It was one of those moments in which my own outlook on the world was forever changed.

We have spent a lot of time the last few weeks talking about the faithful life, about the call of Christians to be about the work of God in all aspects of our lives, of knowing and believing that both each person matters but also that what each person does matters. Such a commitment requires that we both see the beauty in ourselves but also in all that is outside of ourselves. That we see beauty and grace and love everywhere we look. That we see the world and all its inhabitants as breath-taking, awe-inspiring, little explosions of God’s grace appearing all around us. To see people not just as people but as givers and receivers of love, both from ourselves but also, more importantly, from God. When we do this, our religion, our faith, our lives become alive and abundant all at the same thing. How can we not smile? How can we not spend every waking moment filled to the brim with wondrous excitement? How can we not spend our lives worshipping the creator of all this? And How can we not then go out and tell that message to everyone we see? This is how Jesus explained it.

He and his disciples were out walking one day and it was getting near the middle of the day and they hadn’t really had much to eat that day and so when they saw a wheat field ahead in their path, the disciples’ mouths began to water a bit. As they pass by, they let their hands pass over the healthy stalks of wheat catching on a handful of the heads of the grain and began to eat. As if out of nowhere, the pharisees who seemed to have little else to do with their time except follow Jesus and his companions  around immediately jumped up to confront Jesus. “Aha,” you can almost hear them saying, “now we have this Jesus guy.” And they begin to confront him. “Look,” they said, “your disciples are doing something that is forbidden on the Sabbath.” Now, if this strikes you as funny or odd, that’s ok. It is absolutely intended to be. The pharisees, never ones to be without an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of Judaism, have their talons set into the disciples for plucking grain and eating it on the Sabbath. And they are right, if taken by the letter of the law, the Jewish traditions holds that during the Sabbath Jews are not supposed to tend their farms. But one doesn’t have to lessen her myopia to realize that what they are saying is that hungry folks on the road in the midst of a journey are not allowed to feed themselves with the food that is readily available. It is plainly foolish for the pharisees to expect the disciples to not feed themselves simply because it is the Sabbath, and Jesus says as much. Connecting with them by using the Jewish tradition to his own ends, he talks about David, the hallowed man of God, the founder of the royal line that the Jews want so desperately to return to the throne of Israel and Judah, David and his men, hungry from their travels going into the temple of God and eating the bread that dwells in the presence of God breaking about 15 different rules set forth by God. Jesus’s point being that if David, coming into the temple is hungry, the priest can understand that it is more important to give a hungry man some bread than it is to maintain the rules that govern life in the temple. To put a much finer point on the foolishness of the pharisees, Jesus then suggests that the actions undertaken by priests is the same in which his disciples have just engaged. Priests also routinely break the Sabbath and are never found guilty in the eyes of God for doing so. Then Jesus takes it a step further in indicting the religion of the pharisees by suggesting that their whole purpose in undertaking religion is to find God and yet when the child of God is standing in their midst, they become so blinded by allegiance to the rules of the faith that they cannot see him standing before them. Quoting the prophet Hosea, Jesus offers one final rebuke of a faith that is based solely on rules and not on seeing and doing the will of God. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

As is often the case in the gospels, Matthew uses this first section to set up the second one. In the first, Matthew shows the absurdity of the pharisees by having them call out the disciples for picking heads of grain and feeding themselves. In the second section, the true cost of this absurdity is put on display as Jesus immediately enters the synagogue and encounters a man with a withered hand. Again, the pharisees with little to do with their time query Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” The pharisees, both not learning their lesson from a few minutes ago and seeking to display an attentiveness to the rules that demands allegiance not to the movement of the spirit but rather to the God of how things have always been done, once again think they can best Jesus with their knowledge. But again, Jesus is ready with a response that silences all further conversation. If you have a sheep who falls into a pit and it is the Sabbath, aren’t you going to take it out rather than wait until the next day? Of course, doing good is always allowed. And Jesus uses the man to tell the story of God’s love and power once again. “Stretch out your hand,” he said to the man and the man’s hand was made as good as new. And in the background you can almost see the pharisees slink out the back as they begin to plot against Jesus.

The pharisees are often the foil within the stories of the gospels. Portrayed as hard-hearted and inflexible they display a callousness inspired by what they perceive as the demands of the Jewish law and it is easy to write them off as group of folks that just didn’t understand the message of Jesus and you can do that. But the story of the pharisees is much more complex than that. The pharisees were honored and respected within the Jewish culture. In that time in history, to have your child be selected to do his education with the pharisees would be akin to having your child accepted into Harvard or Yale. It was a highly sought after honor and they as a group held tremendous power within the Jewish hierarchy. By all accounts they practiced sound religion but their’s was not an abundant religion. So what does abundant religion look like?

My mountain top experience was almost missed because I had been walking on the ridge of the mountain for so long that I had lost sight of the beauty that was surrounding me. I had allowed God’s beautiful world to become mundane with one step following the next. Abundant religion calls us to be more vigilant, more aware of the beauty of the world. To celebrate that beauty through prayer and meditation. To be thankful for the beauty of the world through singing and worship. To participate in that beauty through communion and baptism. To share in that beauty through the giving of our time, our talents, and our resources that all people might one day be in a position to see the beauty of God’s beautiful world. But abundant religion also calls on us to always have eyes that see those in our midst who need help. To have a sense of abundance not just for ourselves but for the whole of the world. To see each person as the beloved child of God that they are and to have a place for each within our hearts and within our faith.

We when talk about adherents to different religious traditions we talk about individuals practicing their faith. That is that faith is a matter of growing, deepening, finding better and more peaceful ways to be in the world. Discovering the inner beauty of your soul and the outer beauty of the world. Discovering the well of love and grace from which we have all arisen and to which we will all one day return. To practice a faith that opens hands instead of clinching fists. To practice a faith that shares in smiles. To practice a faith that sees each person in the world as my brother or my sister and believing that no one child is better than any other. Abundant religion is exhausting and exhilarating. It is chaotic and always in motion, it is spinning and spinning and spinning until all that you can grab ahold of, all that you can trust is the calm hand of God resting on your shoulders and saying, yes, you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased. It is boldly stepping out in faith though you don’t know where you are going or how you will get there. It is believing that deep inside God’s very being is the desire for all God’s children to experience the loving embrace of another. To experience safety and security, sustenance and salvation. until that when all time and space collapse into one with God and we all enter into the joyous celebration of God’s love, a table set before the foundation of time was laid down. Until we know and believe that God has called all her beloved children home and we rest. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples, amen.


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