Date: June 30, 2019
Scripture Lesson: Leviticus 16:1-34
Sermon: Declaring Independence
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
This week we will celebrate Independence Day. It is a time to mark the desire for independence experienced by the colonists who did not feel they were being treated fairly by the British Empire and wanted more say-so in their affairs. So, they declared independence and fought a war to secure that independence.
Just telling that bit of the story we are reminded of how the United States has imposed its will on other countries without their having much of a say-so and taken advantage of land, natural resources, and people/labor. Rather ironic. Hopefully the spirit of the original independence day will become stronger once again on these shores.
As a country, at this point, we are not really that great at taking responsibility for our behavior. We ARE very good at making justifications. And obfuscations. That means hiding things. I have been amazed as an adult at all the things I have learned about American history that were never taught to me in school. In school we were given a very different impression of many things. And we weren’t given the impression that there can be various interpretations of history depending on who is telling the story. Maybe history is being taught differently today. I hope so. In my history classes, I also found that we are good at blaming others – it’s their fault. . . They gave us no choice. . . We had to because they. . .
And this often also applies to how individual people conduct their personal affairs. They have reasons, excuses, and justifications for why something happened, or what was done, and it doesn’t include taking responsibility and admitting a mistake or poor judgment and trying to correct a valid wrong. You know what this is like. We deal with it all the time – in family life, with co-workers, with people in clubs and organizations. In the community. Certainly in politics. And, yes, even in the church.
Many years ago I was on a response team for a sexual misconduct case involving a clergy person. Our team was to individually interview the people involved, including the pastor. I remember at one point he said something like, Well, when you go to visit a parishioner and she greets you at the door with a see through negligee on, what are you supposed to do? It’s not my fault. I didn’t do anything wrong. She is responsible. Boy, do we know that story!
Or how about when a drunk driver kills someone and blames the bartender for serving the drinks, or the boss who fired him that afternoon which led to his going to the bar. . .
In the political debates this past week, one of the candidates assured people tho have lost their jobs that it is not because of the immigrants coming into this country. This is debunking the scapegoating of immigrants as the cause of so much unemployment and underemployment.
It happens in school. A kid does something bad. When the teacher confronts the class, the person who did it blames someone else. Then it’s one persons word against another. And likely the kid who was blamed gets punished, not the kid who actually did the misbehaving.
This happens in many situations. And we call the person who gets blamed the scapegoat. Instead of taking responsibility and putting it where it is due, someone becomes the scapegoat. They are blamed. The problem is laid at their feet. And they pay the price and someone else’s reputation and position is saved and protected. A coworker, a spouse, someone else is blamed. And that’s who takes the rap. This happens all the time in politics. Someone gets blamed and looses their job when they were just carrying out the will of someone else who stays above it all and does not get blamed or suffer any negative consequences.
But this really is not true to the original concept of the scapegoat. As we heard this morning, the scapegoat was a part of the system of atonement, of making things right. It was part of the system of repentance and appeasing God for the wrongs that people and the society had done.
This was to be done each year, in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month. So in the scene from Leviticus, the priest washes and wears clean linen clothing – tunic, undergarments, a sash, and turban. Then the priest places his hands upon the head of the goat and confesses all the wrongs of the people of Israel, personal and communal: For the household, the congregation, and the country. Then the goat is taken away into the wilderness to a barren region and set free. In this way, the wrongs are named. The people take responsibility. They don’t blame someone else and make excuses and cause suffering for someone else to avoid it themselves. This is an honest cleansing.
The people were directed to have this ritual each year where the priests not only made sacrifices but laid all the sins and wrongs of the people upon a goat and then released the goat into the wilds taking away the bad, the regrettable, and leaving the people to start anew with the new year. The use of the scapegoat was not to avoid responsibility or ignore the wrongs that had been done or give the blame to someone else. It was about naming the wrongs, taking responsibility, and the conviction to start anew and try again. And since humans are imperfect, there will be wrongs in the next year, so the process will have to be repeated. This shows an awareness of human imperfection and our imperfectability as a human species.
In this way, the people started afresh. Anew. It was a way taking responsibility for their past wrongs so that those wrongs no longer controlled them. They were freed from guilt and shame. It was like declaring independence from wrong doing and its control and impact and creating a clean slate. Free and clear. Independent.
Today this ritual atonement is commemorated by Jews around the world as Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The directive from Leviticus is continued to this day, though I don’t think a live goat is still involved.
In the Christian tradition this kind of confession and repentance is seen as an ongoing process. We aren’t limited to doing this once a year. In fact, each and every day, we can take responsibility for who we are and what we do. And in the Protestant tradition, no priest is necessary. Every person can be responsible for seeking right relationship when there are problems. We can admit our wrongdoing. We can seek to make things right. We can tell the truth. We do not need to get tangled up in lies, in blaming, in seeing heads roll, other than our own, to protect ourselves. We are most independent and secure when we are honest and vulnerable instead of defensive and hostile.
So, I am wondering about the idea of offering our regrets, wrongs, sins, to a goat and releasing ourselves from guilt and shame. Telling the truth. Taking responsibility as a step toward seeking reconciliation with God, with ourselves, with family, with others, and with other peoples – of the past and present – as well as with other countries. How would you like to see the truth told? How would you like our society to repent of sins of the past? How would you like to be unburdened? In this honest repentance, there is freedom and release. It’s a way of declaring independence. It is also a way of declaring independence from the illusion that we must always be right, that we can do no wrong, that we don’t make mistakes. To name our sins and release them is to embrace our full humanity with all of its imperfections, which is what make us truly human.
So, we have a goat here. [A stuffed toy goat.] Those who would like to are invited to come up, hold the goat, and make your confession – outloud, with the congregation as witness, or privately, with the assurance that your intention is sincere. In this way, we may make our honest testimony, freeing us from the control of fear and blame.
Here, several people from the congregation came forward, held the goat, and spoke their truth.
Let us pray –
Today we declare our independence from the wrongs that have held us captive. We declare independence from the cultural practice of scapegoating which involves blaming others and doing harm to others to protect ourselves. We declare independence from hiding behind lies and half truths. We lay claim to our responsibility for our behavior and choices. We embrace our full humanity and will seek to live in right relationship with ourselves, with our neighbors, with strangers, near and far, with Creation, and with God, however we may understand or define God. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.