University Chaplaincy sermon on Redemption

Leviticus 25:47-50; Hebrews 9:1-14
Did any of you hear or see the news this morning, about the 33 Chilean miners being rescued, after more than two months stuck underground? It's been an amazing operation, ever since they were discovered to be alive. A communication shaft was laboriously dug, allowing them to receive food and letters from outside. And now they're being winched up a rescue shaft, encased in biosuits designed for astronauts. They've even been given media training to enable them to face the huge interest in their story. Those miners would never have been able to afford such resources to escape themselves, yet Chile has footed the huge bill to save their lives and bring them up to the surface.
That story felt to me like an excellent way into the idea of redemption. Because redemption is a matter of life and death, it's using resources far beyond the command of the person being redeemed, and it results in freedom. We heard about the origin of the word in our first reading this morning, from the book of Leviticus. If Israelites got into really bad financial trouble, though no Israelite could enslave another, they could sell themselves to people of other nations. But there had always to be the right for someone to be bought back out of slavery. Maybe you could save hard and redeem yourself, but usually you had to hope for someone in your family, the goel, to dig into their reserves and redeem you. Today that usage survives in someone redeeming a mortgage on a house in a lump sum, before it's due to be paid off. But back when Job says he knows that his redeemer lives, he's not - sorry, Handel - having a vision of Christian salvation. No, he's talking about a goel - someone using their resources to help him out of his multiple tragedies.
For most of us, the idea of people being bought and sold is strange - though there are people in England today living in debt slavery, working as farm labourers, as domestic servants or as prostitutes, who have little hope of ever getting free of their exploiters' clutches. Yet it's no surprise that out of generations of Afro-Caribbean slavery, Bob Marley could write, ‘All I ever have - redemption songs.' And while slavery will, please God, be outside our own experience - though students working to get through college and pay back their loan may not agree - yet our addictions to food or drink, to work or even to anger (I can give it up any time I want to; I just don't want to right now) may bring a yearning for redemption, for liberation from compulsions that damage or destroy.
But we may have another difficulty with the idea of redemption: its close connection to sacrificial blood. When God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, the last plague visited on the Egyptians was the death of every firstborn son. Each Israelite household was marked with the blood of a sacrificed lamb, so that the angel of death would pass over it - hence the name Passover, still given to the festival. And just as those lambs were ‘payment' to God, redeeming the life of the Israelite first-born sons, so animal sacrifice - a hefty expenditure for those supplying the sacrifices - became a regular mechanism for forgiveness within Temple Judaism. So when we come to our second reading, from the book of Hebrews, where Christianity is explained in Jewish terms, the author explains Jesus' death in similar sacrificial images. He is not only the perfect high priest, who can enter God's holiest place without needing to have his own faults forgiven through animal sacrifice. He is also the perfect lamb, whose death has redeemed us from our slavery to sin by buying God's forgiveness for us all.
For me, there's something ethically murky about God sacrificing Jesus to pay for our sins. But we don't need to read it that way. In Hebrew thought, the blood of an animal signifies not its death but its life; that's why kosher or halal meat has to be drained of blood before it's eaten. And from the moment of his birth Jesus offered us his life, by his very choice to come into this world as a fragile human being: someone who came to reconnect those who had lost sight of God and of others, but someone whose life for that very reason was hard, ending in pain and disgrace. This is the heavy price he has paid for redeeming us.
How does it happen? Here's where different traditions have different opinions. I remember when I was a high-church Anglican being halfway through singing our opening hymn today and suddenly discovering that while I was expecting to sing ‘And every offender who truly believes / that moment from Jesus a pardon receives', the printed words before me were: ‘through grace and the sacraments pardon receives'. For some, it's through a personal relationship with God that forgiveness and transformation are possible; for others, it's through the authority of the church. In fact, that's a false dichotomy. Just as a private proposal of marriage is part of the process that culminates in a very public wedding day with family and friends, Jesus' redemption reconnects us individuals as a community, with others and with God. And, just like building a good marriage - or so I understand, I have no experience of this myself -redemption, liberation from all that distorts and binds us into relationship with God and others, is a project that will demand our ongoing attention for the whole of our lives; until with Martin Luther King we can say: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

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