Mercy not Sacrifice

He sat in the garden, an epistle of St. Paul on his lap. He didn’t even know why he had lugged the book out here. It wasn’t as if he felt a desire to read it. His felt as if a fire burned within him, his very skin tingling with pain. He looked at the figs, hanging low over his head, their sweetness a testimony to the bitterness of his soul. He thought for a moment of the story that his mother used to read to him, of Adam and Eve, confronted by their sinfulness, clothed in fig leaves.

He felt naked. His hair hurt. His heart ached. It was a bright and sunny day, but for all he knew or cared it could have been the darkest midnight. His life was a mess. His lover gone, along with their young son. His friends, off enjoying their wine, their music, their philosophical musings on the good life. Years before, he had abandoned the faith of his youth, wandering through a whole series of weird, counter-cultural religions and ending up here, outwardly in a Milanese garden, but inwardly in a desert.

Staring at the figs, he heard the voice of a little girl singing a rhyming chant across the garden wall. At first he ignored her, but the lilt and joy and sunshine of her song yanked him back from his despair. “Pick up and sort,” she sang. No that wasn’t quite right. He strained his African ears to hear the Italian . Tolle, lege. Pick up and read.

Read. He glanced down at the book spread before him and read: “Be clothed in Jesus Christ.”

He would later write in his Confessions: “The very instant I finished that sentence, light was flooding my heart with assurance and every doubt evanesced.” And so he became St. Augustine, the theologian who, along with Paul, defined the very essence of sin and salvation, of loss and grace.

Augustine’s conversion is one of those great stories that we all love: the prodigal come home. But the truth is, even his life as a Christian was one of contradiction and failure, of doubt and dark, of sin. For he was just like us: searching for love and meaning in God amidst the wreckage of our own foolish striving.

The lives of the great prophets and teachers are always full of such contradictions. Abraham lying about being married to Sarah, to save his own skin. Jepthah sacrificing his daughter to keep an impetuous vow. Elisha loosing a hungry she-bear on a group of children who had called him “baldy.” David, lusting, murdering, covering up. But seldom is there as tragic a tale of loss and grace as that of Hosea.

Hosea is in love with a woman named Gomer; a woman who, to put it kindly, is not exactly the type you want to bring home to mother. She’s got a, shall we say, reputation. She may be beautiful, but she’s a bit loose in the morals department. In fact, she’s a whore. But Hosea marries her anyway, and for a few short years, things seem to be going all right. They have three children in pretty quick succession, two boys and a girl. Each one is given a name every bit as odd as their mother’s: Jezreel, Loruhamah and Lo-ammi. Then before you can say Montessori preschool, Gomer’s back, literally, to her old tricks. Only this time, she’s in real trouble: she’s crossed some rich guy, and the next time Hosea sees her, she’s standing on the slave auction block, as the crowd bids for her flesh.

Now Hosea may have been in love with one of the Bible’s most notorious bad girls, but what he does next stretches our every notion of decency and good sense: he buys her back. Then, he stands before his friends and neighbors, takes her hand and pledges his eternal, faithful love for her. And that seems just nuts to us. Because even though the story doesn’t say so, you just know that she’s going to break his heart again. But that’s how love goes.

At least that’s how God’s love goes, for the story of Hosea and Gomer is the story of God and us. And what a story it is: Hosea’s poetry reveals Yahweh as scorned lover, railing and crying and cursing and threatening to wipe the chosen people off the surface of the earth. God is sick to death of their fake piety, their injustice towards the poor, their trust in their own power and military might. Yahweh cries that they are going to pay dearly for breaking his almighty heart. But then he remembers how much he loves them and the early years of their love affair. “My heart recoils within me,” he wails, “my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, for I am God and no mere mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

We really like it when God sheds his grace on us. What gets our goat, though, is when God sheds his grace on those other people, those sinners. When people come into our holy place, dragging all their refuse of their tragic broken lives, and kneel next us, and confess with us that they too have sinned in what they have done and left undone. Because that’s just not right. They are, after all, not like us. They are like Gomer, reprobates, deserving of everything that has happened to them. What’s God doing bidding up their price and then bringing them home?

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves sinners, which is a really good thing, if you are, like me, one of them. It certainly was good news for Matthew the tax collector. When Jesus saw him, counting out his ill gotten gold, he didn’t cluck his tongue in that way that religious people do when they see a sinner sinning. He smiled and said, “Matt, why don’t you come with me?” And Matthew did, much to the consternation of the religious people whose tongues set immediately to clucking like barnyard hens.

They leaned over to Jesus’ followers and whispered, “Why does your Rabbi insist on eating with people like that?” Jesus, savvy to their complaints, muses, “It’s like this: people who are well don’t need a doctor. People who are righteous don’t need a savior. I’m not here for righteous people, I’m here for sinners. Why don’t you read your Bible where it says, ‘I want mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Mercy, not sacrifice. I know that we, redeemed sinners all, really don’t want to be reminded of our reprobate status. We want mercy for us, but sacrifice for others. We want saints who are saintly, not like Augustine, who wouldn’t even speak to the mother of his child when she called to him on the street; and who at the end of his life, created the doctrine of Christian war against people of other faiths. We want Bishops who are holy, not like Gene Robinson, a divorced homosexual. We want priests and deacons who are righteous, not like me, another divorced man, a former cultist, whose very religious pedigree is suspect to Anglican purity. But God wants Gomer. God wants whores and tax collectors and addicts. God wants you and me. Mercy, not sacrifice.

For only that which is broken can be fixed, that which is lost found, that which is sinful redeemed. God redeemed us. Doesn’t it make you want to dance? Doesn’t it make you want to clap your hands? Does it make it want to shout “Hallelujah!” with the boldest, most uninhibited Pentecostal in all of Christendom?

Think about it: the God of all the universe, the one who spoke the galaxies into existence; the one who created the frogs and geese and elephants and goldfish; who carved the seas and mountains, who molds the clouds and breathes the wind—that God puts his arm around us and says, “Why don’t you come with me?”

You could create a righteous church, I suppose. You could put in pretty stained glass. You could have a great carved altar and a bellowing organ and a pulpit with a grand, leather bound Bible. You could top that church with a golden steeple that reaches to the heavens. The only thing you couldn’t have in a church like that is you and me. We wouldn’t be welcome there. For we are only welcome in this hospital for sinners, this great river of grace that baptizes us in the love of God.

Sitting in every church is every type of human sinner: adulterer and addict, idolater and gossip, liar, fraud and coward. People whose marriages have ended badly or who still don’t speak to their children. People who have stolen things. People who put their careers ahead of their children. People who said unkind things to each other in the car on the way here. But God doesn’t see any of that. God sees us as redeemed. As loved. As righteous. As holy. As saints. Hallelujah! Oh, hallelujah! For we have mercy, not sacrifice. Praise God Almighty! Hallelujah! Amen.

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