The Scapegoat

The glass shattered with a nauseating pop.

And somewhere on the other side of a broken garage window, my cousin’s carelessly tossed rock landed with a sickening thump.

My cousin and I sprinted like mad down an alleyway hoping to find some cover. And over our shoulders, an angry voice cried out after us: “Hey, HEY! You kids get back here!”

Jimmy and I juked around some garbage cans then ducked behind a shed, where my cousin begged me to take the blame when we got back to grandma’s house. To his way of thinking, grandma would be far less harsh with me than with him, which probably was true. So would I please confess to breaking the old man’s garage window? “Please, pretty please! I’ll give you a dollar!”

But I flat-out refused.

For no amount of money would I risk punishment for the high crimes and misdemeanors of another. The closeness of friendship didn’t matter, and the ties of family relationship made no difference. You did the crime, you do the time. I had no intention of being someone’s fall guy. I’ll never be the scapegoat who lets those guilty beyond reasonable doubts walk away scot-free.

Nevertheless, across the generations, scapegoating has been alive and well for several millennia. And one of the central-but-silent characters in this morning’s Scripture lesson from the Old Testament book of Leviticus is the scapegoat.

As part of a complex, bloody ritual intended to purify God’s people, the Lord through Moses instructs his brother Aaron to gather two goats on the Day of Atonement. Sacrifice the first goat, God instructs, then place both hands on the surviving goat, heap all the people’s sins, debts, and trespasses upon that hapless animal, and send it packing – far out into the desert, on a one-way voyage that carries away everyone’s brokenness in one grand gesture of removal, decontamination, and purification. Out of sight, out of mind! We’re good here!

Would that it could be that simple and easy in the long, fractured story of God and us, which as we’ve heard over the past month or so of Sundays is a story of an always-faithful God and somewhat-less-than-faithful people.

But there are some precious take-aways to be gleaned from this rather strange and somewhat bizarre scene, and I’ll get to those in a moment. But for now, listen with the help of the Holy Spirit for the Word of the Lord to you in these selected verses of Leviticus 16.

The LORD said to Moses:

Tell your brother Aaron [to] come into the holy place with a young bull for a sin offering. And he shall take from the congregation of God’s people two male goats for a sin offering.

Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house.

He shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting. Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat.

Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell for scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness.

Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region, and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.

This shall be a statute to you forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day, atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins, you shall be clean before the LORD. This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the people of Israel once in the year for all their sins.

And Moses did as the LORD had commanded him. (Selected verses of Leviticus 16)

A friend enduring a significantly painful time of loss and change called me recently to seek my thoughts about something a colleague said to her in an honest, sincere gesture of support and sympathy.

In response to my friend’s suffering, her well-intentioned co-worker said glibly, “Well, God must really be trying to teach you something though everything that is happening to you.” The comment didn’t sit well in my friend’s ears or rest easily upon her heart.

My friend’s response to her co-worker was brutally honest: “You know what? I’m not going there,” she said. “I’m sick and tired of people saying things like that. God doesn’t need to put me and my family through this hell to drive home the point of some life lesson. God surely can find another way.”

She’s right! The Lord surely can and does reveal himself through more helpful, life-affirming means in the midst of life’s struggles. God doesn’t cause our pain and suffering. The best we can say with any degree of certainty is that God allows heartache to happen for reasons known only to heaven.

Thus, the co-worker’s comment to my friend was a lazy platitude, a silly attempt to spiritualize pain and thus avoid it. The co-worker witnessed my friend’s suffering and tried to hide it.

But others don’t go down the road of avoiding pain and suffering by glossing over it with feeble piety, watery platitudes, and feel-good faith. They avoid heartache and brokenness by going straight to scapegoating: the dangerous and unhealthy act of piling all the blame upon another. We experience suffering, and fear sets in because suffering has come near. So, we find a scapegoat. Or we see others suffering, fear it will draw near to us, and so we protect ourselves by blaming another. And sometimes, tragically, even God becomes our scapegoat.

We lean toward scapegoating, I believe, because it is a concrete act that makes everything seem all cut and dried.

And scapegoating definitely feels good – at least for a minute or two, like checking Facebook when you’re avoiding a deadline, or sneaking a bite-sized Milky Way candy bar at bedtime. Scapegoating is a short-term fix, but it’s not a life-giving solution. As it turns out, people who see or experience suffering and immediately find ways to avoid, blame, or protect just turn around and hurt other people.

When faced with suffering in whatever form, the hardest thing to do, actually, is to suffer – to feel the burden of grief, bear the weight of uncertainty and sadness, and be nearly paralyzed by fear and anxiety. We avoid — and perhaps these are mainly what our glib platitudes in conversation and ubiquitous memes on social media are really declaring: The inconvenient truth that we are afraid and adrift. The persistent reality that we are alone and bereft. The nagging certainty that we are confused and aghast. The bloody inevitability that illness and death lurk around every corner, all day, every day.

So, we turn away, find a work-around, a scapegoat. We spiritualize our fear, or we flex our muscles at it. And when we do these things, we hurt ourselves, and we hurt others. We do violence to our faith and to the faith community – with our mouths, with our behaviors, with high-caliber munitions of every sort. And along that dark and shadowy way, we end up harming the very people we’re trying to protect.

And we’re not living the Gospel.

The crosses that so many of us wear around our necks as reminders of grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace, and love mirror a quite-real Cross that actually was a weapon of scapegoating with no earthly purpose other than to kill. In the midst of his fear, Jesus doesn’t spiritualize that weapon nor does he take up that weapon. Christ, instead, redeems that weapon. Jesus widens the lens, reveals another way – a different path forward.

We are all, I think, aiming to watch our fears run off into the wilderness. We chase them away, with platitudes and piety. With guns and bombs. With border walls and extreme vetting. With fake news and outright lies. But the truth is we cannot avoid it. We suffer, we grieve, we die. But because we are the Church – God’s gathering of the saints in light, we are the people who have seen another way.

So, let us be people of that way, in spite of our fear. Jesus took the punishment for every rock thrown, every evil plan conceived, every rancid word spoken, every temptation ever acted upon. Jesus once and for all died for all. For you and for me. And Jesus also rose, for you and for me.

And through our baptisms, by mysterious means that surpass all understanding, you and I were right there with Jesus – on the Cross, in the tomb, and finally, in the sweetness of Easter morning’s garden of new life. We were raised with Jesus to new life in this world and the next. No one knows exactly what new life in heaven’s next world will be like. We’ll all find out soon enough.

But for now, perhaps, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we do well to cease our scapegoating and finger-pointing.

Perhaps, with the courage of the Holy Spirit, we do quite well in taking responsibility for the roles that each of us is playing in making such big messes of our lives and our world. Perhaps, by the authority of the Holy Spirit, by the sacrifice of Christ, and by the desires of God, the powerful love of heaven will cast off into the wilderness our selfish DNA and transform us into selfless people, resurrect us from egoists to altruists, and redeem our self-interest into empathy, sympathy, and compassion for friend, neighbor, and stranger.

Bottom line, we need to see each life as valuable and regard each other as worthy of love. We must see each other as God sees us: Beloved creations willing to understand each other’s grievances, hopes, and dreams. For that to happen, we need to stop looking for scapegoats and deal with our problems. Which, to my way of thinking, aren’t immigrants, people of other religions, ethnicities or cultures, or even people of other political persuasions. Our problem is disconnection – from each other and from God. And in our disconnection, we’ve lost heaven’s vision of the Kingdom of God.

But we are a creative lot. Guided by the wisdom of the ages, claimed by Christ in baptism, and given the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can and will figure this out. And in the meantime, let us rise above our fear, halt our scapegoating, let go of judgment, and be more and ever-willing to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in a broken and fearful world.

Let us not get wrapped up in hollow rituals of atonement but rather rest easy in the at-one-ment that the Lord envisions and offers for all his people.

Ancient words, ever true. Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, February 20, 2022. The seventh sermon in his series “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God and Us,” it is adapted from scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Kate Kooyman, Jennifer Dukes Lee, Jonathan Sacks, and Rebekah Simon-Peter.

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