Recently I had a very interesting experience – something that had never happened before in my ministry. I had preached a sermon on the topic of the Day of Atonement in Ancient Israel which is described in Leviticus 16. If you want a reminder of the basic outline of the day, you can watch this St. Andrew’s Stars version of the story:
In my sermon I put particular emphasis on the Escapegoat portion of the ritual.
(I chose to use the word “Escapegoat” because the word “scapegoat” has taken on a very particular meaning in English. The word was invented by William Tyndale when he made the first translation of the Old Testament into English from the original Hebrew. He meant it to mean “the goat that escaped” but he simply dropped the initial “e” due to the very fluid spelling of the time.)
My suggestion was that the escapegoat ritual provided a means for the people to release some of the negative energy that builds up when people live alongside one another in community. When we live, work and dream side by side, there are always going to be things that happen that hurt or wound or divide. People say things that hurt someone’s feelings, people disagree in non-constructive ways, people are unthinking or unfeeling in their dealings with each other.
I think that the escapegoat ritual provided a way to take all of that negative energy that builds up over time and release it – let it go so that people could just start all over again. I think that we all need things like that from time to time.
I liked my sermon. I certainly felt that it helped me to see the passage in a new light and I hoped that it helped some others too.
Shortly afterwards I was leading a group meeting. And I knew that there had been over time some negative energy built up in the group. I won’t give any details about it, of course, but it wasn’t really anything unusual. It was just the ordinary kinds of feelings that can develop at times when people disagree or sometimes make mistakes in relating to others.
As I prepared for the meeting, I decided to do something that I had never done before. I decided to apply what I had preached directly to a situation.
(Yes, I know that doesn’t sound too good. Surely, if I am expecting other people to apply what I preach to their lives, I ought to be doing that regularly too. Why don’t I do it all the time! Well, at least I think I’m starting to learn.)
Anyways, I brought out the sheep that we had used to film our Star’s video and we passed it around the group and gave everyone the chance to speak what was on their hearts. It was a very good and very meaningful exercise and it did open the door to some healing. The redemptive power of the escapegoat ritual was demonstrated for me and I felt truly blessed to be part of the group. Clearly I need to listen to what I preach more often!
And, yes, I did offer people to dropkick the sheep afterwards but nobody took me up on it!