(Meditation for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 15, 2019, Proper 19)
The Problem with Ritual
Many a resolution to read the Bible from front to cover has foundered on the rocky, ritualistic banks of Leviticus.
Leviticus is full of ritual. Whether it’s talking about sacrifice, diet, childbirth, or death, Leviticus consistently prescribes particular, precise, repeated actions. Today’s scripture in particular reads a little bit like a cookbook. Addressing the cereal offering, it specifies the ingredients: the finest of your flour, along with some oil and frankincense. The text describes the different methods of preparation and the equipment. You can prepare it uncooked, bake it in an oven, cook it on a griddle, or fry it in a pan. And the text repeats itself. When you do this, the priest will do this, and all of this will be “an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord” (vv. 2, 9; cf. v. 12). Again and again in the opening chapters of Leviticus, we hear that the sacrifice is a “pleasing odor to the Lord.”
Throughout history, Christians have had a tendency to dismiss all this ritual as what is mistaken or misguided in Judaism. Doesn’t this obsession with detail and repetition just drain life of its spirit? Isn’t that what Paul’s talking about when he says that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:6)?
In fact, the problem for Paul is not law or ritual. The problem is when people forget its meaning—the Spirit behind it. The problem is empty law and empty ritual. When Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, he likely meant that he came to show us the Spirit behind the law, what the law was all about in the first place.
The Spirit of Ritual;
Or, Constitutive Law
So what is the spirit behind the sacrifices we have read about so far?
To begin to answer that question, it is helpful to make a distinction between two kinds of law. First, there is regulatory law, which regulates the world as it already is. Laws about trade, theft, and murder are regulatory laws, because trade, theft, and murder are things that already happen in our world. They need to be regulated. But there is also constitutive law. Constitutive law does not address the world as it is. Instead, it creates—it constitutes—a new reality.
The laws of any sport or game are constitutive law. They create a new reality. Before people created law about goals and sidelines and fouls and free kicks, there was no such thing as soccer. But because of these rules, soccer now exists.
Of course, reading the rulebook to a game would be boring, which explains why reading Leviticus can be quite boring. We’re basically reading a rulebook. But to play the game is an altogether different proposition. When you really get into a game, you’re not thinking about a bunch of rules. A good game will almost possess you, filling you with its spirit. A good game draws you into the world it has created. When I play soccer, I often forget this world—for the simple fact that I’m living in a new one.
Sports and games are not the only constitutive laws of our lives. You might also consider certain rituals that make up a beloved holiday. Cooking a turkey and gathering around a table with family and watching football and taking a walk in the park. These are all rituals that are meant to fill us with a spirit of gratitude and fellowship and rest. Perhaps just as I forget the world on the soccer field, you find yourself forgetting the world while you cook in the kitchen or play a game with your grandchildren. Rituals are constitutive laws. They create a new world.
Ritual as Recovery
If you’ll remember from last week, the ritual of sacrifice has at its foundation a very simple meaning: everyone can draw near to God. For a people who had lived their whole lives trapped in a world of hopelessness and helplessness and humiliation, the ritual of sacrifice created a new world, one where the God who liberated them wanted to be near them and to dwell with them. The ritual of sacrifice created a new world where they were precious and beloved, not debased and demeaned, a world open to new possibility, not closed in a circle of misery.
In more than one sense, ritual was the road of recovery. It gave new meaning and order to a life that had previously been ordered in a very hurtful way. Imagine if a friend of yours were recovering from a bad relationship or a toxic workplace environment or a debilitating addiction. You might indulge them for a little while in their “woe is me” wallowing. You might down a tub of ice cream with them and rewatch a few old favorites on television. But you wouldn’t stop there. The last thing a friend in recovery needs is empty space or unstructured time. What your friend needs is a plan. They need boundaries and rules and tasks and projects. They need to relearn how to live, starting with waking up on time and brushing their teeth and making their meals and planning to meet people and do new activities that they enjoy. In a word, they need good rituals, rituals that tell them a different story than their past disorder. Seemingly insignificant things like washing your face or preparing a wholesome meal or committing to a daily practice—these things actually create a new world, one where you care about your health, where you enjoy the gifts of life, where you are growing and have a purpose.
The Grain Offering:
What Matters Is Not What It Does, But That It’s Done
The ritual of grain offering that we read about today, was a small but significant part of Israel’s recovery. What was the purpose of this ritual? There’s no mention of sin or forgiveness or atonement. There’s no prescribed reason to do this. While other sacrifices have a very specific purpose, this one has none. I wonder if this sacrifice is not unlike the new hobby that a person undertakes who is recovering from addiction or a bad relationship or a toxic workplace. What matters for that person is not the precise hobby. She chooses ceramics or gardening or hiking not because ceramics is an essential part of recovery, or gardening has innate qualities of restoring your soul. She chooses one simply because she needs a hobby; she needs something to do. What matters is not so much what she’s doing as that she’s doing something.
The grain offering in today’s scripture has a distinctly daily, run-of-the-mill character. For one thing, these grain cakes resemble the people’s common meal. (It is not coincidence that one Israelite named Jesus would pray for his “daily bread.”) The grain offering also was part of the tabernacle’s daily regimen, apart from whatever else individual worshipers would bring. Every sunrise and every twilight, a grain offering would be made by the tabernacle priests.
It’s almost as though what matters most about the grain offering is not what it does but rather that it’s done regularly. What the grain offering accomplishes is not an instantaneous result but rather a sustained growth. Its effect is cumulative. Day after day, week after week, the people draw near to God and offer what looks like a common meal—as though to say, as often as I eat this bread, I do it in remembrance of the God who delivered us. Indeed, in our translation there is mention of the “token portion” which is burned on the altar, but in the Hebrew the root from which this word comes is zkr, “to remember.” The salt that is an essential ingredient builds on this idea of remembrance, reminding the worshiper that what God did, God does still. In the ancient world, salt was thought to be nearly indestructible. It could withstand fire and time and the elements. Thus it was a symbol of covenant and continuity. The salt declares that God will never forsake the worshiper, even as it calls the worshiper never to forsake God.
The specific ingredients of the grain offering suggest one thing more about its character. As the writer of Proverbs would say, “Oil and perfume make the heart glad” (Prov 27:9). The oil and the frankincense that regularly accompany the grain offering suggest, then, that this is a happy, hopeful sacrifice. Remembering God’s goodness in the past, gives the worshiper hope for the future.
Our Rituals Today
Every day grain offerings went up in smoke at the tent of meeting. Regularly people like you and me prepared what looked like lunch, and then took it to the altar. What did this sacrifice do? In the moment, perhaps nothing at all. But over time, it was a ritual that created a new and good world, a world where people daily drew near to God, a new world where the past had a meaning and the future held new possibilities, a new world full of gifts and growth and life.
Last week in Sunday School, the question was raised: what rituals have replaced the sacrifices of old in 2019? Traditionally Christians have answered this question with the ritual-averse response that Jesus is our sacrifice and we need no more rituals. While this answer contains within it a kernel of truth—Jesus has indeed shown us that sacrifices themselves do not accomplish what a living sacrifice of love does—I fear that it throws the baby out with the bathwater. Ritual is not a bad thing. Performed in the right spirit, it is a creative, constructive thing. It is how God recreates our world.
So what rituals do we perform today? In our gospel text, Jesus gives us a hint. The kingdom of God, he says, is not found in the spectacular or in grand gestures. It’s not the kind of thing that people point to and say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For in fact, it’s already here among us (Luke 17:20-21). It’s already here in the daily and the run-of-the-mill. The rituals of the kingdom are the little way. They’re the little things we do repeatedly, regularly, the little things that remind us and others of what we tend to forget—that, in fact, Christ is with us in all things, that the past has been redeemed, that the future holds great promise, that this world is full of God’s grace and glory and growth and life.
I’d like to propose that Gayton Road already practices three such rituals, three little things that constitute or create a new world. The first ritual is the simple celebration of tables. Not just the table here in the sanctuary, but tables everywhere—at diners and Mexican restaurants and cafes. Tables serve as a reminder that Christ is always with us where we gather in his spirit of sharing and selflessness. The second ritual is the gathering in small groups and the appreciation that Christ needs no special ceremony to be present, only honest and sharing hearts. The third ritual is the outreach to the needful and the comprehension that Christ is with us in a special way when our eyes meet theirs and our hands touch theirs.
Perhaps the kingdom of God is not so much a new world out there that will one day overtake this world here but is rather a new way of living in and seeing this world here. Perhaps the kingdom of God is the same new world that God began to create with the Israelites in the wilderness. Perhaps it is created or constituted by little deeds that tell a new, different story—that God draws near to us, that Christ is always with us, that love no matter how weak or foolish it seems is stronger than any force in the world.
Oil and frankincense and salt. Tables and small groups and the needful. Both are rituals that, when done in the right spirit, draw us into the goodness and life of God’s new and well-ordered world.
And encounters with the least and last
Be for us
Rituals of recovery.
Like the grain offering
Regularly offered at the tabernacle,
May these little things we daily do
Where we encounter you
Constitute a new and good world.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done.