Feb 05 | “Sacrifice,” (Sermon, Feast of the Presentation 2023)

I’m on a lot of email lists; I imagine you are too. One of mine is a Substack, kind of like an online journal or magazine, belonging to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Rabbi Danya is a very cool lady, quite active on social media and a prolific writer on Judaism and how it interacts with sexuality, politics, and justice. Her recent book On Repentance and Repair is on my list and based on the buzz I’ve seen so far is a must-read.

The article she wrote for her Substack on February 9th of 2017 was about sacrifice, and it was in my mind as I prepared for today’s sermon.

In the article, she details her experience marching with 18 of her rabbinic colleagues in protest of the Trump administration’s travel bans and policies targeting refugees and immigrants. It was, they believed, the largest mass-arrest of rabbis in modern history.

She writes,

“It was a profoundly holy experience for me, marching down Broadway and over to the Trump Hotel singing with hundreds of my colleagues and community members, sitting in the street with my teachers and colleagues, and the arrest itself – offering myself up to the State, fully vulnerable. 

But it was always abundantly clear to me what this arrest was, and what it wasn’t.

In the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, my ancestors offered animal sacrifices to God. It was both a way of asserting that life is the most profound thing that we can give over, and a statement that we could not, should not, offer our own lives. Other ancient cultures engaged in human sacrifice, but it was brutal, immoral; the move to animal sacrifice was an attempt to recognize the sanctity of human life.

And yet, animal sacrifice was still deeply embodied – visceral, bloody. Sacrificing an animal was not the same as giving up our own lives, but it was a powerful symbolic substitute.”

Rabbi Danya Ruttenburg

After the forty days of purification required by the Law of Leviticus, Mary, with Joseph and baby Jesus, comes to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer two pigeons in sacrifice.The background to this ritual as recounted in this story is somewhat uncertain, for Amy-Jill Levine writes that there was no recognized custom of bringing babies to the Temple for this dedication rite.She tentatively links it to Exodus chapter 13 verse 2: “Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.” Verse 13b reiterates that all firstborn children specifically should be redeemed.

And then it says:

“When in the future your child asks you, “What does this mean?” you shall answer, “By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord every male that first opens the womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.” It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem on your forehead that by strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.’”

As modern peoples, this might sound unspeakably alien, but there is a powerful message cradled within, one which points us to the story of the Exodus, Israel’s great liberation at the hands of a God who heard their cries of pain under slavery.

We remember that historically, children born to enslaved people belonged to the slavemaster, and their freedom had to be purchased. What a powerful act of worship and liberation to proclaim, “The only person to whom I owe redemption for this child is God, the Liberator and the Giver of Gifts.”

So again, with the great and holy desire to embody this truth, particularly as they marked the mystical nature of the pregnancy, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple to perform the rite. They are greeted by Simeon and Anna, a perfect balance of prophecy as embodied in male and female bodies and lives, come to testify to the specialness of this child.

Simeon sees a sign of completion and salvation, and says as much. While we don’t receive Anna’s words, the author uses the word “redemption,” or in Greek λύτρωσις (lee-tro-sees), again linking us back to the Exodus story and placing the rite of sacrifice in context.

And here is where the Christian journey begins to take its own detour – for we are now invited to contemplate the paradox of the Redeemer of the world being literally redeemed.

This is where the beauty lies.

We get caught up so often in God’s towering, masterful presence, and as our Lord said, we are right, for that is what God is. But in this season of Incarnation we are invited to imagine God as small and vulnerable. Power and might is only one strand woven together with weakness and suffering. They’re woven together in the Christian story and if we forget, there is no good news.

The Liberator was born into the world in flesh, in skin, in diapers. Like all great orators, he needed to be taught to speak. Like all great societal movers, he needed to be taught to walk. Like all great liberators, he needed to be redeemed.

But the profound and disturbing work of the Cross is not transactional. It’s a gift.

Sacrifice looks like a transaction. But really, it was the only way for the human creature in the ancient world to mark how un-transactional the gift of life is.

Nothing can be given for life, except life.

And so we ourselves have been woven into a grand tapestry dancing in the whirling wind of the Holy Spirit, dancing between giver and gift, back and forth, forever.

Now for some – for me – this is incredibly good news. It means I don’t have to do anything. That transactional relationship has been completely overturned. This is anti-capitalism at its finest! God and I are not provider and client. We are not slave and master.

We are in love.

But for some, it’s deeply unsettling. We’ve been taught so fervently to see things in this transactional way. And if there’s nothing to be done, in the echo of that incredible gift, to earn our blessedness, then what even is the purpose of Church? Heck, what is the purpose of life?

I would argue that life has no purpose, because the greatest gifts have no purpose.

Life is not a crock pot or a new pair of shoes. Life is an experience. Experiences can have purpose…and surely we can all agree that they’re so much more than that.

Life is a love story. Love stories can have a purpose, and they’re also so much more than that.

But Jesus wasn’t betrayed, imprisoned, and lynched for a simple love story. Jesus, raised a Jew, knew and demonstrated that once you truly understand that God and love are not transactional, you start to question the norms and rules demanded to create an orderly system within Empire.

Like all good prophets, he figured the message was more important than its vessel.

Like all good prophets, he decided to go all in.

He could, because of the strange moment of redemption and prophecy we remember today.

Liberation is an invasive species.

Prophets like Simeon and Anna know that, but you better believe Empire knows that too.

That’s why it tried to cut that love story off early, before the best part.

Good thing it didn’t!

Good thing it never will.

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