When I sit in the pews or, in our online world, when I plug in my headphones and electronically join a congregation elsewhere, I don’t mind disagreeing with the preacher. I am not among those who see critiquing sermons as a form of impiety. To the contrary, I am fully on board with my philosopher friend, John, who says that when you disagree with him, that is a sign of respect and engagement. Some of the most important sermons that I have heard over the years were ones in which I listened and said to myself, Wow, the preacher has really gotten this wrong. I appreciated those sermons because they made me think, they obligated me to challenge and to clarify my own theology.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to a sermon that she’d heard preached at her parish. I listened to it online. And it was very much in the, Wow, this guy is getting things wrong category. I had a frequently furrowed brow as I listened.
But it took me a while to figure out what was bugging me so much.
The sermon was an effort to be prophetic. (Prophetic not in the popular sense of predicting the future, but in the Biblical sense of speaking truthfully and forcefully and faithfully to the ways in which the world has become distorted, in which it has strayed from the path to the Kingdom.) It spoke to three of the great moral issues of our day, that of climate change; of income and wealth inequality; and of the dehumanisation of immigrants, people of colour, GLBTQ folks, and so on.
And on its face, I didn’t disagree with the preacher’s thesis. Climate change really is an emergency that calls for immediate action: we will deny that or ignore that at our peril. Income and wealth inequality really is a major justice issue: I have no dispute with those who argue that an individual holding a billion dollars when there are children in this country regularly missing meals in an obscenity. The violence that we do to folks who aren’t white and male and straight is appalling: I went to a workshop earlier this week in which one of my fellow participants talked about how, as a black woman in America, she felt simply exhausted.
All of the preacher’s critiques, in other words, were real and urgent. What troubled me in the sermon was the language that the preacher reached for when he spoke of those whom he reckoned were responsible for these moral crises.
He referred to the folks as the Priests of Moloch.
Moloch, as you perhaps know, is an ancient Canaanite God associated with child sacrifice. Whether or not Moloch’s followers actually engaged in child sacrifice is an open question. Some scholars reckon the accusation that the Canaanites were feeding their children to their God was an ancient exercise in propaganda or character assassination, that it was a story made up by people who didn’t like them, including the folks who wrote the books of Leviticus and Jeremiah. Regardless, Moloch and his priests are, in our popular imagination, Capital “E” evil. In Paradise Lost and in lots of books, movies, and TV shows before and since, Moloch has stood in for worst and most selfish and most terrifyingly destructive side of humanity.
And this is the language that the preacher was using to describe his fellow human beings.
Do you know the concept of the scapegoat? Today, we have the expression “scapegoating” – that’s when something goes wrong and we identify an individual or a group of people to whom we can assign all the blame. When I was first out of theatre school, I worked for a couple of productions at a semi-professional company. And the show went off the rails – it was a disaster.
The director of the company made it pretty clear that the show’s problems were my fault. I was the reason that it had gone so wrong.
I was pretty devastated about this. I was an earnest young man, I wanted to do a good job. And I was gutted to think that I had broken things so badly.
Seeing how much I was hurting, an actor who had been with that company for a while took me aside and let me in on a secret: The shows at the company always went off the rails. And someone was always blamed for that happening. “There should be a plaque on the wall,” he said, “that commemorates who was blamed for each show going wrong.” For that particular production, I was the scapegoat.
We engage in scapegoating in our families. (You’re the reason that we never have fun on vacations! You’re the reason that Dad left! You ruin everything!) We engage in it in church. We engage in it our country.
Scapegoating gets its name because, way back when, a village would take a literal goat – maybe sometimes another animal – and they would ritually assign their sins to it. They would gather around and, with the help of the priest, and they would say: This thing I did or left undone? That belongs to this goat now.
That time you manipulated your spouse to get what you wanted? Give it to the goat.
That place where you hide the booze so nobody notices just how fast the bottle is emptying? Give it to the goat.
The shared reality that we live in a city in which people sleep on the streets, human beings whom we walk around on our way to get a latte? Give it to the goat.
And then the sins transferred to this poor animal, the people would drive it out into the wilderness or stone it. Our sins have become the goat’s problem, we’ve gotten rid of the goat, and so our sins are gone. We’re absolved.
The problem is that people have never been all that hot at limiting our scapegoating to goats. We scapegoat our fellow human beings early and often.
Rene Girard, the great historian, literary critic, and philosopher, writes extensively about scapegoating. And he argues that we see the scapegoating mechanism in the cross. When we gather in the crowd and we shout crucify him, we are blaming Jesus for everything that is going wrong in our lives as individuals and as a community.
And what Girard says is that, by going to his death utterly innocent, Jesus reveals how screwed up scapegoating is. As we stand at the foot of the cross, we see our own violence reflected back at us.
I realised, after some reflection, that this is what was bugging me about the sermon from my friend’s parish. When the preacher spoke of blaming the marginalised, even though he didn’t use the language, he was talking about scapegoating. The notion that immigrants are, somehow, responsible for our country’s problems is a classic scapegoat mechanism, it is absurd and offensive.
But then, having done so, he advocated for creating a new set of scapegoats. If we stop blaming our problems on immigrants or people of colour or gay folks or whoever and, instead, start blaming our problems on the 1% or conservatives or Donald Trump, if we make these folks into the Priests of Moloch, the very embodiment of evil, have we improved things? Or have we just moved the violence around? Are we still stuck in the same busted system that got us where we are?
As long as we keep participating in scapegoating, no matter who the scapegoat may be, no matter how much it may sound like they deserve it, we are the abused child who becomes an abuser themselves, we are the exploited people who become oppressors ourselves, we are simply transmitting the violence that we have received.
Jesus on the cross says stop it. He says: Look at me. Look at my broken, dying body. Look at what the violence of scapegoating does to another human being, look at what it does to God. He doesn’t say, You need a better scapegoat, someone who is really responsible for your problems. He says: You need to burn this entire rotten system of shame and blame down.
Today, we hear the Sermon on the Plain, the shorter and less famous answer to the Sermon on the Mount. Depending on your understanding of the Bible, this is Luke taking the same oral tradition and telling it in a different way than Matthew or, alternatively, it is evidence that Jesus, like touring lecturers everywhere, reused his material, editing or altering it to meet the needs of a particular audience.
There is a danger, a temptation, to hear the Sermon the Plain and to understand it through the lens of the scapegoat. Unlike the Beatitudes in Matthew, where we hear eight blessings, in Luke there is a quartet of blesseds followed by a quartet of woes. And the temptation is to hear the blesseds as addressed to us and the woes as addressed to those other people, as evidence of what God is going to do to the wicked.
But notice a few things.
First, notice that 100% of the blesseds and 100% of the woes are addressed to the disciples. Luke’s Beatitudes begin:
Then he looked up at his disciples and said.
100% of what Jesus says next is about you. Jesus doesn’t say, Blessed are you who are poor but woe to those people who are rich. He says Blessed are you who are poor but woe to you who are rich.
All of this is about us, not about a scapegoat somewhere else.
Second – and this comes and goes so fast that it is easy to miss it – zoom in on the first blessed, and notice that it is in the present tense. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Is not will be. At least in part, Jesus is talking about reality in this very moment. This is not about putting up with the crushing weight of poverty in the hopes of being rewarded in heaven later – that would be the theology of the occupier or the slaveholder. Somehow this is about the Kingdom right here, right now.
And, confusing as that may be, I think part of us knows that Jesus gets this right. If you have lived any length of life, you have had the extraordinary experience of encountering loss or grief or unfairness and meeting God in that moment, of surprising yourself by saying, That experience was a blessing. And if you have lived any length of life, you have also had the experience of what we might call a real-time woe, a moment when you stray from your values and you realise that you have been diminished immediately by doing so.
And that is part and parcel of the last thing I would like us to notice, and that us that the woes are not something that God is doing. The woes just are. Jesus doesn’t say, Woe to you who are full now, for God will make you hungry. He says, Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
I mentioned a minute ago walking past the man lying on the street to get our lattes. Why do we tend to avert our eyes, to walk fast to get past that person. Are we afraid of them? Possibly. But what if we are also afraid of the woe that we encounter in that moment?
My late friend Douglas Williams – and I’ve shared this with you before, but it made a big impression on me and I’m going to share it again – said that the problem with being a murderer isn’t just that it makes someone dead. It’s that it makes you into a murderer. And in a similar vein – and let’s acknowledge, of course, that this is not a moral scenario as extreme as murder – what if part of the problem of walking past a homeless person while averting our eyes on our way to get a latte is that it makes is into the kind of people who walk past homeless people while averting our eyes on the way to getting a latte?
Listening to the sermon that my friend sent me, I realised that what I was longing for that preacher to say was this:
After he talked about the moral necessity, the Christian duty, of building a newer world for the sake of the least of these, for the sake of immigrants and LGBTQ folks and People of Colour, after we said amen to that, I wanted him to talk about the moral necessity, of the Christian duty, of building a newer world because the 1% need it, because the conservatives need it, because Donald Trump needs it. Because you and I need it.
No more scapegoats. As seductive as it is to get on Facebook or head out to the parking lot and assign our problems to those people, Jesus says no. Stop doing that. Working for justice means naming our own part in injustice. Building the Kingdom means naming the ways that we sabotage the Kingdom’s foundation. Let’s accept that the woes are part of our lives, part of our doing, part of our responsibility. Not instead of offering moral commentary or critique or prophecy, but as part of it. Let us have the courage to stand before and with Jesus and to name our woes. Having done so, we may find that we are freed to receive our blessings.